In Which I Recount Ten (Well, Fourteen [...Fifteen]) Texts Of Some Importance To My Life

There are a number of my friends posting their versions of this list to Facebook these days. Lists such as these always fail in some way. Of course, I also fail at writing them. It’s so easy to come off either pretentious or flippant (or both). I prefer to share my true, deeply-held likes and dislikes in direct conversation. Preferably along with good bourbon or a nice beer.

But I decided to go ahead and try this one. I think that I’m in a stage of my life where my motivations and interests are shifting (yet again), and in times such as these it’s good to take stock and see what remains influential. And so I’ll add my own ten-plus to the never-ending generator that is human activity on the internet. I will present a main list – with commentary – in no particular order.

The criterion I used to gather this collection was simple: did the book initiate some transformation in me, either immediately or upon reflection? I read quite a lot, but I wanted to be careful to choose only the works that have really stuck with me. That’s why there are all sorts of different types of book here (I have intentionally left out the expressly Art and Art Theory books that have been important to me, as there are so many). There are comics, theology, grand adventure, memoir, philosophy, and most of those arenas all mixed together. I’m surprised (and pleased) how many of them I actually experienced in very early childhood. I know there are some big names and obvious choices… that’s just how it is. This selection is not meant to be exhaustive or exceptional in any universal sense; I know there are better and, perhaps, more notable pieces of writing. For each I’ve included there are many more that could have been present. These are just pieces of writing that I know have shaped my life. I felt like sharing them. Enjoy.

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SPACE, TIME, and INCARNATION by Thomas F Torrance

Thomas F Torrance took on an enormous task in this slim text. Published in 1969, Torrance wrote the book in an attempt to explain Divine interaction in space and time in the light of contemporary scientific developments in theoretical physics and cosmology. Rather than allowing theology a trump card to get out of any exchange with science, Torrance drives deep into the epistemological questions that arise when one seriously examines spatial and temporal ideas involved in theological conceptions. I discovered the book in an old, disused inn library in 2001, and went on to fill my copy with outbursts of marginalia. It remains dear to me.

THE ANNOTATED LOLITA by Vladimir Nabokov (Annotations by Alfred Appel Jr.)

From its tip-of-the-tongue beginning to its devastating denouement, Lolita is one of those books lauded as a masterwork generation after generation that actually lives up to the hype. Alfred Appel’s annotations of the history and meaning behind Nabokov’s astounding and astute prose helped provide access to me as a Nabokov neophyte. The next Nabokov novels I read – Invitation to a Beheading, King, Queen, Knave, and Glory – were all immensely enhanced by the background The Annotated Lolita provided. “I shall be dumped where the weed decays, and the rest is rust and stardust.” (Page 257)

text-mobydickThe Leg and The Whale – Illustration for Moby Dick. Created in Paper with Pencil. 2014.

MOBY DICK by Herman Melville

In Summer 2013 I completed my third journey through this book. Each time it has become more subtle and significant to me. I know that Moby Dick is popular, and that it is popularly unread. This is unfortunate. Its dense passages offer much to submissive, receptive readers. The pugnaciousness, humor, and visual presence of this book make it one I know I’ll keep returning to over and over throughout my life. I even love the endless chapters on Cetology.

EPISTLE to the ROMANS by Saint Paul

Romans is, perhaps, the ultimate biblical text… maybe even more than the gospels themselves. It integrates the disparately organized theological concepts of the early Christian writers into an organized legalese. Though it contains many key chapters (One, Five, and Eight in particular) it is Chapter Five that has, for me, held an intensely disruptive power. Hundreds of readings and years of study have done nothing to dissipate its existential shock.

text-romansDirt and Blood – Illustration for Romans. Created in Paper with Pencil. 2014.

THE LIFE HISTORY of the UNITED STATES (Volumes 1, 2, and 3 of 12) by Henry Graff and Time/LIFE

As a young boy I loved to dive into these books. They were among my first exposure to “fine” art, not to mention the wild and wooly early history of America. I especially enjoyed the first three volumes of this set and, after a while, never really looked beyond them. They were extremely key to my life-long interests. The reproductions they contained of colonial era political cartoons have never left my mind’s eye.

ADA, or ARDOR: A FAMILY CHRONICLE by Vladimir Nabokov

Passionate, sweeping, and strange, Ada is a killer of a novel. Deeper and more powerful than its more famous sister (Lolita), Ada is one of the few books that have stopped me in my tracks. I mean this quite literally. On several occasions – my mind obsessed with the story – I pulled my car over (during my commute to and from school) to continue reading. It is a crushing emotional journey, one that forces consideration of not only the motivations of protagonists Van and Ada but also those that rumble within the reader. This book happened to be the first book my wife (then my girlfriend) and I read in tandem, sharing our thoughts and insights as we read.

GHOST in the SHELL by Masamune Shirow

The best of Masamune Shirow is on display in this, his magnum opus effort. In it he leaps beyond the dregs of manga cyberpunk and erotica to grasp higher ground. He asks huge questions: what is life, consciousness, and person-hood? Sociopolitical wrangling, heavy weaponry, and seamy underground characters collide in a richly imagined post-apocalyptic world on the rebound. His central character, Major Motoko Kusanagi, transcends her sex appeal to deliver existential queries that rock attentive readers. Unfortunately, Ghost in the Shell, along with earlier projects Appleseed and Orion, were Shirow’s only truly deep works. It’s too bad that he has never again turned his considerable artistic skill toward more redeeming themes.

THE ALPHABET VERSUS the GODDESS: THE CONFLICT BETWEEN WORD and IMAGE by Leonard Shlain

Though only a very cursory survey of the historical struggles contained within its pages, this book served as a major jumping off point for me to explore a variety of issues that have altered the course of my life as an artist and educator. Some of my greatest joys in teaching have come from discussions born of this text.

DIRK GENTLY’S HOLISTIC DETECTIVE AGENCY by Douglas Adams

Over the years, Douglas Adams‘ two Dirk Gently novels (the one above and The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul) have become my favorites among his various writings. In Holistic Detective Agency, Douglas weaves a tale of trans-historical curiosity, tying together his trademark humor, dual love of Bach and computers, the politics of vanity publishing, and just where exactly Coleridge came up with his vision of Kubla Khan‘s pleasure dome. The book is an epic, joyful trip. It finds ways to explain the strange, ridiculous nature of history so that the reader can laugh and weep with the realization. Adams was a genius.

PILGRIM at TINKER CREEK by Annie Dillard

No dilettante to Thoreau, Dillard finds a way to make her words – written as a 27 year old – take on majestic and epoch-encompassing power. Perhaps I was prepared to love it by my readings of theology and some of the American Transcendentalists, but Pilgrim at Tinker Creek does feel like a singular expression. I love her 20th century version of perception and awareness. A huge influence.

text-jabberwockyThe Jub-Jub Bird – Illustration for The Annotated Alice. Created in Paper with Pencil. 2014.

THE ANNOTATED ALICE: ALICE’S ADVENTURES in WONDERLAND and THROUGH the LOOKING GLASS by Lewis Carroll

This book has stayed with me since early childhood. It was my first inkling that something else may be going on under the surface subject matter of a story. The layering of concepts beyond the directly obvious – logic, mathematics, socio-political and theological suggestions – created a backbone to this text making it live far beyond its Victorian and children’s genre roots. If you visit my classroom you may hear me break into a dramatic recitation of The Jabberwocky for my undergraduates from time to time…

SCIENTIFIC PROGRESS GOES ‘BOINK’ by Bill Watterson

Calvin and Hobbes. Childhood and Imagination. Dreams and Awareness. Play and Learning. What else do I need to say?

INTERPRETATION and OVERINTERPRETATION by Umberto Eco and Richard Rorty

A roiling debate between Eco and Rorty forms the basis of this text and underpins so much of my own thoughts on how meaning is shaped. I routinely share it with my own graduate students in the spirit it was shared with me – with excitement and engagement. I was originally exposed to both Eco and Rorty by my fellow MFA grads at Indiana University. Fellow grad Matthew Choberka stimulated many of us in the program, and pushed our dialogue beyond the common complaints. Kudos to him.

SKETCHES IN CRUDE OIL: SOME ACCIDENTS and INCIDENTS of the PETROLEUM DEVELOPMENT in ALL PARTS of the GLOBE, CHAPTER XVII: SOME NITRO-GLYCERINE in THIS (Pages 383-406) by John J McLaurin

This chapter of a book published in 1898 loomed large in my imagination as an 8 year old in Grove City, PA. My then step-father George was studying at Grove City College under Austrian School economist Hans Sennholz. The college served as my initial exposure to academia and was a central catalyst in my intellectual imagination. I was allowed to roam the grounds and halls of Grove City; I’m certain that it provided the push that eventually led me to my current vocation as an educator. Sketches in Crude Oil was a book that George had been looking at and he read from the nitroglycerine chapter many times. The stories of wagons exploded into nothingness, men blown to atoms, flesh and bones thrown hundreds of yards, and single drops of the explosive hit with hammers have stuck with me for 30 years. That library, those books, and the pages of this volume permeated my conception of history, education, and life for the better.

text-bigbangThe Big Bang – Illustration for The Elegant Universe. Created in Paper with Pencil. 2014.

THE ELEGANT UNIVERSE by Brian Greene

Another popular science survey, but a good one. Reading Brian Greene‘s book, though certainly secular, was one of the most spiritual experiences I’ve had. His description of the various phase transitions taking place in the first millionths of a second after the Big Bang became nothing short of a transcendent sight to my inner eye. Making enormously complex ideas understandable is Greene’s business, and this book addresses many of those issues in direct, accessible language. Good stuff.

~

TEXTS (I have recently read) WHICH MAY EVENTUALLY WORM THEIR WAY ONTO THIS LIST…

CLOUD ATLAS by David Mitchell

BRIEF INTERVIEWS WITH HIDEOUS MEN by David Foster Wallace

BLOOD MERIDIAN: OR the EVENING REDNESS in the WEST by Cormac McCarthy

THE DUNWICH HORROR by H.P. Lovecraft

ABSENCE OF MIND: THE DISPELLING of INWARDNESS FROM the MODERN MYTH of the SELF by Marilynne Robinson

AN ETHICS FOR TODAY: FINDING COMMON GROUND BETWEEN PHILOSOPHY and RELIGION by Richard Rorty

PARADOX IN CHRISTIAN THEOLOGY: AN ANALYSIS of its PRESENCE, CHARACTER, and EPISTEMIC STATUS by James Anderson

THE POETICS OF SPACE and THE POETICS OF REVERIE by Gaston Bachelard

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BOOKS WHICH HAVE BEEN INFLUENTIAL BY DEFAULT (And thus require no comment)

THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA by C.S. Lewis

THE LORD OF THE RINGS by J.R.R. Tolkien

THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS by Kenneth Grahame

THE PSALMS

PROVERBS

The Books of THORNTON BURGESS

The Books of LAURA INGALLS WILDER

TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD by Harper Lee

~

Thanks to Jill for tagging me in this one:)

Becoming The Student, #18: The PhD (Dr. Aja Holmes at Wakonse)

I was blessed to be able to attend the Wakonse Conference on College Teaching earlier this year (thanks, Deborah!) and while there I got to meet so many amazing people. One of them was Aja Holmes. As part of the cohort I was in, she set a tone of inclusion, concern, and thoughtfulness. She was welcoming, passionate, always engaging, and always ready with an encouraging word. It makes perfect sense that she’s found her niche as a Residence Life director working with Undergraduates. While at Wakonse, we got to share in the joy of her being appointed to a position at California State University-Sacramento. I’ve held onto this portrait of her since May, but since today is her birthday, it’s time to post it! Read below to find out more about this awesome individual!

photoThe PhD (Aja Holmes at Wakonse), gouache on paper, 10 by 16 inches. 2014.

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You just earned your PhD. What drew you do your field and what was your educational trajectory?

“As a kid I always loved school. I would play school with my little brother – my first student. He would complain and ask our mom, ‘Why does Aja always want to play school? Didn’t she just come home from school?’ But he would go along with it if I promised to let him try wrestling moves on me (learning to compromise – HAHA!).

I also knew that I wanted to be a doctor, but when I saw blood for the first time it did not agree with me. I knew that I would have to take another route to becoming a doctor. While being involved as an undergraduate student leader someone told me about the work of Student Affairs and that I could live out the rest of my life on a college campus; I said SIGN ME UP! I loved everything about being on a college campus. So after undergrad I stayed on at Illinois State University for my Master’s Degree in College Student Personnel.

Back then I did not know for sure if I was going to get my PhD, but I knew that after my Master’s Degree I should get some significant work experience before going back for a doctorate. I did just that: worked at two universities in the area of ResLife. In 2009, I applied to doctoral programs in Higher Education Leadership and was accepted into Iowa State University. I had heard of Iowa State and I knew that if I wanted to finish I needed to be close to my family. Luckily Dad was a six-hour drive to Chicago and Mom was a three-hour drive to St. Paul, Minnesota. To be in the middle of my family really strengthened my support system.

People often ask ‘what is your ultimate goal in life?’ They ask even more since I earned my PhD. Ultimately, I would like to become a university president. I also want to teach in a higher education program that prepares student affairs professionals.”

You have such a warm and engaging personality. How you do maintain your passionate, hopeful, and excited outlook? 

“I am often asked why am I so happy all the time. I have had to really think about it and truly understand what makes me happy. I decided a while back to take control of my happiness. To rely on others to make you happy relinquishes control on your outlook in life. So I make sure that I have a say in what makes me happy, and things that do not – I rid my life of them. My passion stems from experiences that have occurred in my life that had some effect on my life. Being a multiracial woman oftentimes lends me to have different experiences than most. Whether it’s issues such as the Voting Rights Act being challenged, unarmed African Americans being killed by the police, the DREAM Act, or other situations that involve people of underrepresented groups, I have a passion to act. I take to heart quotes and sayings such as, ‘to whom much is given, much is required’ and, ‘service is what we pay for living’.”

When we spoke at Wakonse, you told me about the important impact your Dad made on your life. Can you name a couple key lessons he provided?

“I was raised in a single parent household. Unlike the norm, it was my father who raised me. He has been one of my biggest supporters and cheerleaders. Since I was in the 3rd grade, my father cared for for my brother and I. He has taught me so much in life, from how to mingle and get to know people you just met, to how to be a woman of Color in a white-male-dominated society, to how to use humor to break the ice. He told me to keep pushing and don’t let what other people think get in the way of my hopes and dreams. I saw his struggles of being a parent while trying to own a business, and of being a parent to a teenage daughter coming of age. He sought out advice from his sisters and other lady friends in his life. But my father had to step up when needed. I will forever be in awe of what he did.”

 10287004_10152438914589534_3993202260772184824_oMe working on Aja’s portrait while we chatted together.

You’re now at California State University-Sacramento working as the Senior Director for Housing and Residential Life. What inspired you to focus your career toward working with students in ResLife situations?

“I love everything about living in the residence halls! I lived in the halls all four of my undergraduate years. Working in ResLife has allowed me to get to know that part of the university from the inside and out. I get to interact with the students in a way that no other Student Affairs person does: while they are in their PJs at home. I get to see them grow into young citizens. Since my research is on supervision, and a large part of Residence Life is supervision, I am able to see how my research can evolve and help prepare student affairs professionals to be the best they can be in this area.”

What do you think is one of the most important issues university students are tackling in 2014?

“One of the most important issues facing students today is the appreciation of differences. I use the word difference in the total meaning of the word: everything that is different. Students are too desensitized to even recognize when something is racist, homophobic, or sexist, etc. Students on our campuses have a unique makeup. They have been using computers their whole life and technology is their way of life; that is all that they know. Interacting with people who are different from them is hindered because of the technology. Technology made the world smaller but actually talking to another human being is a hurdle for them… hence their lack of the appreciation of differences.”

I think you’re into tabletop gaming – at least you were running the show at Wakonse! What’s your favorite board game?

“My favorite board game is really any one that my nieces and nephew are playing. Every holiday season we play board games and I am able to see them learn the process of waiting their turn, reading directions, compromising among each other, and displaying good sportpersonship. It is much more interactive than video games. They are such a joy to be around and I love everything there is to being an Aunt. I will play board games with them for hours and hours!”

~

Thanks for sitting for me, Aja! Your portrait will be on the way soon!

Happy 92nd Birthday, Mr. Diebenkorn!

It’s Richard Diebenkorn’s birthday today. It’s a good time to remember:

* First seeing his work at the beginning of my undergraduate education.

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* My daughter’s first viewing in the Cincinnati Art Museum.

* Getting to write about Diebenkorn a few times… and being recognized for it.

pentimenti* A great trip with Marcus to visit the Ocean Park retrospective in Texas:

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* And checking out great new books that seem to be coming out every year!

 

Becoming the Student #8: Joel T Dugan

Joel T Dugan is an amazing painter and educator who works as a professor at Fort Hays State University in Kansas. A few weeks ago my family had the honor of hosting him for a few days and the time we spent together in the studio were some of the best drawing hours I can remember. Our conversation ranged wide. We spoke of everything from “ignorant faithfulness” to the “chase” aspect of painting. Especially beneficial to me was sharing our experiences in teaching. It was an epic evening.

IMG_0023Portrait of Joel T Dugan, Digital drawing, Dimensions variable. 2014. Created with an Adonit Jot Touch 4 in Sketchbook Pro on an iPad Air.

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On Reality and the Ignorantly Faithful

“In terms of reality… I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the notion of individuality and that how we perceive worth can be so saturated with our own assertions we might experience certain things as so much more impactful than anyone else could.

What do we know? What do we expect? What do we allow to resonate? In my life, so many things have happened – circumstances have aligned themselves, so many nuances have taken place – that you almost wonder if there’s a Suspect at work, something that we might call fate.

But the very notion of fate is so saturated with the hoax-y, with… the ignorantly faithful, those who… allow themselves to… view things in terms of a Divine Plan or Divine Timing while not… taking responsibility for their own choices and motivations. That’s also about not being willing to accept any of the obvious cues that something might not be what we think it is. It’s often a cover up for really not wanting to engage with deep concerns. “

On Perception and Ignorance

“I wonder about perception. I wonder a lot about what truly is valuable. But then you just completely get lost in the kids and it’s always a great release to see that pure innocence and awe. I fear for my kids, that they’ll lose that wonder.”

We’re all subjected to selective ignorance. We utilize that state by default without even knowing it. We’re creatures of comfort in the sense that we love to feel like we’re right. It makes us feel like our efforts are fulfilling, that our existence is poignant.”

On Painting as Existential Chase

“I question myself about the impact of the things that I do, questioning what is the true exchange that takes place when creating art. Being able to share, or even just include, the viewer in the mystique of the work, of that chase… that very much is a kind of lustful relationship. And I just keep thinking to myself that if I could get closer to that same feeling of epiphany, of surprise and recollection that takes place when you struggle with doubts and failures – even after absolute trust and immense security – and you think to yourself ‘I’m a fool. Today is not the day’ so you turn away, put on your coat to leave…. But then you glance back. And you think, ‘That’s not too bad. You know what, with ten more minutes that could really be something.’ And after all the rest of that time it’s almost like you stole it. Almost like you took something that was just a failure and you ripped it from the hands of mediocrity and re-purposed it. If that moment could be shared with everyone you would never have doubt that it was worth it. But how the hell do you do that without just saturating it with your own judgment?”

 On Teaching

“One of the hardest things about teaching is asking people to be both more accepting of judgment and more confrontational with opinion. I just love seeing the light bulb turn on in their heads. You lay the cheese in front of them and they think they found it themselves; that’s when learning how to learn takes place.”

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If you ever get a chance to spend time with Joel, do it. He’s a man of faith, family, and joy. My daughters really fell in love with him and he gave them such positive attention and care. Our youngest, CaiQun, asked, “Can Mr Joel could be a part of our family forever??”

IMG_0521Mr Joel and CaiQun working with the Sensu Brush in ArtRage on Joel’s iPad.

  IMG_0560Joel breaking down one of Eric Norby’s paintings.

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On the Drawing I Made of Him:

“I’m glad you love my head.”

I was blessed to get to hang out with Joel for a few days – everyone is better for a few hours with the guy. Thank you, sir!

New Collaboration For 2014

Joel T. Dugan is Assistant Professor at Fort Hays State University in Hays, Kansas, and we have begun a series of collaborative paintings. It was great to meet and hit it off with Joel during my recent exhibition at FHSU, and I’m excited at the prospect of working with him. I’ve decided that, much like my new series of portraits (Becoming the Student), I’m going to keep a record here to show how our work progresses.

The first six pieces have begun, three started by Joel and three started by me. These are the first states of the works. We’ll alternate working over what each other has developed and, hopefully, come to a mutual conclusion about the work.

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In other news, I’ve had two pieces of writing made available on the neotericART website recently:

Below the Blue Line: The Recent Work of Allison Jaqueline Reinhart

Trying to Get a Sense of Scale – Tim Lowly’s Precious Labor

~

Tenth Anniversary

 

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Above: One of my favorite pictures of Alison from our wedding day, ten years ago today.

I wanted to do something special for my wife for our tenth wedding anniversary. Last year I wrote a short remembrance piece about some music that was with me on the day Alison and I were married (read it here). After that, as a gift to my wife, I made a commitment to write nine more stories and present them to her today. I wanted them to be personal, funny, quirky, and timely. More than that, I just wanted to be able to follow through and actually complete the project. I’m happy to report that I did it – 10,980 words, 8 pen and ink illustrations (converted to vector graphics in Illustrator) – 40 pages total. Just for her. Just for us.

I’m deeply thankful that I’ve always been a person who writes and, beyond this, a person who remembers through writing. Human beings – across all seeming barriers of creed, race, and historical context, desire narrative. We want a story that makes sense of our experiences. It’s crucial that we have a place in setting that narrative structure in place. I write, and have always written, to – as the old Christian hymn says – “raise my Ebenezer.” I write to sight the lay of the land, to set the landmarks, and to cite past precedent. The stories I’ve written for Alison are by no means exhaustive of our life together, but they are “Ebenezer” landmarks for us. They are our story. I’m glad I’ve written them down, and I think the importance of taking the time will reveal itself more and more as the decades pass.

~

As of right now she has not seen the book. That will come a bit later tonight. But I’ve already given her Cosmicomics by Italo Calvino for us to read aloud (I love his story “The Distance of the Moon” and can’t wait to read it together). Here it is in it’s wrapping earlier today :)

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For dinner I handmade Chinese style pan-fried dumplings. I found a recipe last month, researched the ingredients, and then went out today while the girls napped and Alison worked to get all that I’d need. Once home I began the process. Here are a few shots taken along the way (!!WARNING, #foodporn AHEAD!!):

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Prepping the ingredients…

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Mixing…

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Pinching the dumplings…

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Laying them out, ready for cooking…

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Post pan-searing, a bit of simmering in the broth…

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GLORY

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The presentation…

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Ah, success!

Today was such a good day… time in the back yard with the family. Then good food, good books, a nice walk in the evening, a chance to chat with my mom (her birthday is today, too!), and now sleeping kids and time to kick back. I’m planning to reveal the Anniversary Stories ~ 2003-2013 book to Alison soon, and then maybe we’ll look back over some of our pictures from the honeymoon. And tomorrow we have good friends in town, so it’s Indian food for lunch after the standard Saturday morning Daddy-Daughters-Date!

So good. I’m so thankful. Ten more years, please. And ten more after that…

~

The Range Book

My new book, Range: Paintings, Drawings, and Prints ~ 2000-2012, is now available for purchase!

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Back at the end of 2012 I had a solo exhibition at William Woods University. You can read about it and see some images from the reception here. It was a fantastic experience, and I am grateful to Jane Mudd and Jennifer George-Sain for inviting me to present my work there. It really was a resounding success.

I coordinated with William Woods to create a catalog of the exhibition that would present all of the work that was on display, as well as numerous additional artworks that couldn’t be included in the show but which have bearing on the overarching themes and formal ideas with which I was working.  On top of the dozens of images it contains, the book features a series of short texts by me, as well as an introductory piece by the William Woods Gallery Coordinator Jennifer George-Sain. My mini-essays are designed to introduce the different shifts in my production and explain how the different series of work can be understood together. The title of the show, Range, really says it all; there has always been a broad range in my approach to artmaking. In spite of this, all of the pieces contain important threads that tie them together, and this book allows me to briefly introduce those connections and celebrate well over a decade of vibrant, productive time.

This full color book is 192 pages long and features many detail images that highlight special passages in certain artworks. It’s a pretty nice book.

Now here’s the special deal: I know the book is expensive. When you click over to the bookstore from the link below you’ll see just how expensive. But I am going to offer a hand-made, original mandala to everyone who provides proof of purchase. Let me say that again: for the price you pay you don’t just get the book, you get an original work of art as well.

You may be asking just what sort of artwork are we talking about? The pieces will be unframed works on paper featuring a mandala. When you send me your proof of purchase (the receipt that comes with the order or a picture of you holding your copy of the book, etc), I’ll provide you with some examples of what pieces are available and you can choose your own work. Each piece will be made on a piece of high quality fine art paper that is approximately 9 by 9 inches square (give or take a bit). Obviously since these are mandalas the works will be circular but the paper itself will be square. Each piece will be made in one or more of the following media: acrylic, oil, chalk pastel, oil pastel, colored pencil, graphite, and gouache. If you’d like to see a few examples of the type of works I’m describing, click here, here, and here.

If you’re interested, click the image below to see the book purchase page:

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If you make a purchase, feel free to email me at balloum (at) missouri (dot) edu to find out how to get your artwork.

The Medium Is The Message?

I watched a video of Marshall McLuhan talking about his famous “The Medium is the Message” concept yesterday. It set me off on a short collection of thoughts/reflections on Facebook and I’ve decided to transfer them over here.

“It doesn’t much matter what you say on the telephone (i.e. in any particular drawing/painting/sculpture/etc). The telephone as a service (form) is a huge environment (i.e. an historical/physical/epistemological context). And that is the medium. And the environment (the historical/physical/epistemological context) affects everybody; what you say on the telephone (in any particular drawing/painting/sculpture/etc) affects very few. The same with radio or with any other medium. What you print (write, draw, paint, sculpt, perform, etc) is nothing compared to the effect of the printed word (historical/physical/epistemological context of the form). The printed word (historical/physical/epistemological context) sets up a paradigm, a structure of awareness which affects everybody in very, very drastic ways, and it doesn’t matter very much what you print (write, draw, paint, sculpt, perform, etc) as long as you go on in that form of activity.”

- Marshall McLuhan (with parenthetical clarification for artists by me), from a 1977 appearance on Australian TV.

That is, saying “the medium is the message” is too simple. It’s more than that. It’s not only the fact that I, for instance, create a painting using oil paint. It’s also my biology, the fact of the intellectual traditions I’m a part of, and the context within which I’m moving that form a “medium” every bit as real as the paint. If I make a drawing the medium is not merely graphite or pastel – it’s also my neurology, my physicality, my perceptual structure (i.e. my eye and how it’s been trained to see), and the intersubjective array that interpenetrates my experience.

As artists we have to be aware of all of that to the best of our ability, not merely the choices of drawing/painting/sculpture media or the facts of their history. Those aspects are extremely important but they are not the whole story. The work as an event participates in the history of those media environments but it is not necessarily collapsed into them. This is because my painting is not only “painting” or “acrylic” or “figurative” or “symbolic” or “perceptual” it is also riding on the medium of the white, Anglo-Saxon, English-speaking, Judeo-Christian, western-intellectual-tradition-saturated, 6-foot-tall, meat-eating, heterosexual, mystic that I am. Sometimes taking all of THAT into account in the work means that the mere fact that the work is made with acrylic paint isn’t all that front-loaded as a structure of meaning. Maybe the fact of observational perception is front-loaded. Maybe the fact of archetypal symbology is front-loaded. Maybe the fact of biologically-induced geometry is front-loaded. Maybe any other element will be front-loaded.

I’m not super convinced by all that McLuhan said because he seemed to collapse the histories of all media into his interpretation of modern communications media (or rather that’s what we’ve done with his ideas). That in itself shows the limitations of his view. Yes, what he said was – and still is – important, particularly to people who are studying art. But we must realize that the realm of “medium” is actually much larger than what McLuhan was thinking of when he made his iconic declaration. Let’s not be too quick to disqualify work that is predicated upon “media” other than whatever might be considered a standard form in which a work may be made. Ultimately, all work is connected to deeper and more innate structures of being, awareness, and manifestation that, in themselves, form a contextual core for human expression. My eye, my motor cortex, my accumulating worldview; each of these and many other factors are every bit media through which a work is conveyed on its way to material presentation. Yes, the medium is the message, but the medium is broader and more various than we might think at first glance.

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Above: Angular Momentum (Asymmetrical Mandala 03), 9 by 9 inches, colored pencil, oil stick, and oil pastel on paper, 2013.

A Question of Balance

Dedicated to George, who introduced me to A Question of Balance in the mid-80s.

~

It is interesting what stays with us from the early years of life. Seemingly banal or incidental elements can mysteriously transmogrify into certain means of grace. And grace is always strange.

It follows then that these grace-laden elements might be loaded with weirdness or saturated with some slow-acting agent of unforeseen change. Of course, that’s part of why the grace that has touched my life is different from the grace that’s touched yours. So often what is tremendously meaningful to one heart seems trivial, shallow, or just plain boring to others. Sometimes what changes me forever would do nothing to the person right next to me.

Nowhere is that fact more apparent than in the music with which we fill our lives. The bands we become attached to, what songs move us, or which albums are soundtracks to our personal transformations are usually radically different for everyone. Everyone seems to have a different constellation of sounds, a different set of aural landmarks. When we do find someone who shares our deep connection to a piece of music there’s instant rapport. When we encounter those who seem unable to grasp the importance of our historical tracklist we can find ourselves incensed.

With that preface let me say that A Question of Balance is one of the major musical touchstones of my life. Released in 1970 by The Moody Blues, Question is, for me, one of the most significant works of art to which I’ve been exposed. It is strange. It is bombastic. It is epic. It is philosophical. It risks existential engagement. It tries to take on everything. It is critical of our default positions. It asks us if this world we’ve made is really what we want. Before I knew much of anything about the wider world, I was connecting with the introspective spiritual and societal quandaries the band was dealing with in this classic concept album.

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If you are aren’t familiar with the record and want to experience it you can listen to the whole thing here.

Hearing Question as a child was one of the things that would, by the time I was 13 or 14 years old, initiate in me a long-term investigation into the nature of meaning and experience. The sorts of questions the record poses set me off on what has been a lifetime of learning and intellectual exploration. It was a means of grace to me simply because it stimulated me to contemplate those bigger existential concerns that so often get drowned in the machinations of everyday life. Question, along with a number of other factors, created an ongoing state of contemplation in me that helped me avoid many of the pitfalls of adolescence.

There are a thousand things I could say about this record. Like how those jangling guitars at the opening of the album can instantly return me to George’s old golden/mustard/brown Dodge and the smell of propane. Like how the album’s assertions went with Chris and me on our adventures northward so many times. Like how its words were a reminder of the feeling of home as I ventured out across the country in my twenties. The sounds and questions and arguments of A Question of Balance accompanied me on many late nights in the studio, on the road, in contemplation, in worry, in joy.

I could spend time exploring any of those avenues, but there’s one aspect of Question that has really reverberated within me over the years. A major theme of the record amounts to acknowledging the relational consciousness that transcends obsessive, hyper-individualism. This one thread, running throughout the entire record but focused in one particular track, was definitely a seed that found good soil in me.

Below you can read the major content of that single track. Called The Balance (click here to listen to it), it is the last song on the album and is comprised mostly of Mike Pinder’s spoken word recitation of a poem co-written by Graeme Edge and Ray Thomas.

After he had journeyed,

And his feet were sore,

And he was tired…

He came upon an orange grove.

 

And he rested.

 

And he lay in the cool.

And while he rested

He took to himself an orange, and tasted it.

 

And it was good.

 

And he felt the earth to his spine

And he asked…

 

And he saw the tree above him…

And the stars… and the veins in the leaf… and the light… and the balance

 

And he saw

Magnificent Perfection.

Whereon, he thought of himself in balance -

And he knew he was.

~

And he thought of those he angered, for he was not a violent man.

And he thought of those he hurt, for he was not a cruel man.

And he thought of those he frightened, for he was not an evil man.

 

And he understood…

He understood himself.

 

Upon this, he saw

That when he was of anger

Or knew hurt

Or felt fear

It was because he was not understanding

 

And he learned Compassion.

And with his eye of Compassion,

He saw his enemies like unto himself.

And he learned Love.

Then, he was answered.

The tired wayfarer of the poem gains perspective from the Common Grace embedded in the world around him. He relishes the coolness of the orange grove, the simple pleasure of tasting the orange, and – suddenly – the glorious awareness of the Great Order that is before him and beyond him, yet is also permeating him. As he pays attention to the tree, the stars, the leaf, and the light his growing perspective and awareness coalesce into a unifying understanding. The traveler experiences what could be seen as the state of consciousness called Savikalpa Samadhi (something which has more recently been termed The Overview Effect) and he is fundamentally changed in his relationship to other human beings.

Suddenly he’s not obsessing about his rugged individualism any more; he’s thinking of others:

And he thought of those he angered…

And he thought of those he hurt…

And he thought of those he frightened…

Thinking of others – believing that they actually exist and are valuable. Considering others – imagining how your words, actions, or attitudes impact them. Revolutionary ideas, right? But it doesn’t stop there. The journeyman turns his new-found perspective on himself and starts to see that being enslaved to anger and hurt and fear displayed his lack of understanding. In fact, it showed his inability to understand at all apart from a revelation from beyond himself. Realizing this, and sensing his necessary reciprocity with the rest of humanity, our traveler learns compassion. That is, in giving up his self-determined privileged position he can no longer feel superior to or more valuable than those around him. He can, in acknowledging and respecting their value, live out a higher value in himself.

All of this can be passed off as trite, sure. It can be dismissed as sentimental, unrealistic, or melodramatic. It can be ignored as the cheesy platitudes of a bunch of hippies. Sure. But it can also be seen as aligned with the heritage of the great faith and wisdom traditions that have been passed down to us, traditions that certainly inspired the band while creating this album.

I know it’s all more complex than this. I can see how The Balance can come off simplistic and hokey. I know that real change and real meaning require more than a singular experience, more than surge of feeling… but there is something important here, something worth declaring, worth believing. Rejecting sentiments such as those contained in Question seems like such a shallowly postmodern thing to do.  What have cynicism and petty ideological divides gotten us? I guess I’d rather stand in awe with the kitschy hippies than smirk in conceit with those who would disdain words – however sentimental – supporting basic human dignity and value.

~

Post Script:

My experience of A Question of Balance is a demonstration of Joseph Kupfer’s ideas about the inherent moral component of experiencing art. You can read more about this concept here.

The album is certainly worth buying and grappling with. Purchase it at iTunes or Amazon.

 

Propaganda and Crafting the Self Image of a Nation

The title of this post might seem a little heavy handed… and I guess it is. But after my little adventure today the idea that propaganda has always been a means to shape how people (who are the objects of propaganda’s political and social aims) see themselves stands out to me. It makes sense that propaganda would provide a positive view for people to buy into; it needs to use that angle in order to work at all. I guess I knew all this years ago in the first years of my undergraduate education, but seeing it up close in a major museum in China was interesting.

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I began the day attempting to see two significant art museums in Guangzhou, one of which is close to our hotel and one that’s a 20 minute drive away. I was given advice by a local that I could walk to the first one, but my efforts proved futile. It was an interesting hour and 15 minutes getting myself more and more disoriented and more and more lost in a strange city.

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Eventually I found myself in a large train station with thousands of Chinese people and got into a line at the taxi stand. Once in my cab I gave the driver a slip of paper that a well-meaning woman at the hotel had written out for me in Chinese. After one failed attempt to get to the closer of the two locations, I gave him another line about the more distant museum and we made it there after 35 or 40 minutes.

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The Guangdong Museum of Art on Er-Sha Island is a part of a large museum campus system on a beautiful island in the Pearl River right in downtown Guangzhou. The collection is primarily traditional-based semi-contemporary work. Most of what I saw was painting, printmaking, and large figurative sculpture from the 30s through today. They have significant holdings on display from the 50s, 60s, and 70s.

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Just one aspect that I focused on during my 3.5 hour tour of the museum’s three floors was the way women were depicted in the propaganda era works on display. As you’ve noticed, I’m posting a number of details here to illustrate my point.

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I am by no means an expert in Chinese art during Mao’s time, but I am aware of a variety of aspects of it. Getting to see these works in their country of origin and within their own context was a great experience. There was, to a piece, excellent craftsmanship in the work itself. The woodblock prints and oil paintings in particular were fantastic examples of the genre and time. I am sad to say that they were not all presented well, however. The framing was inconsistent – sometimes downright baffling (dozens of prints were matted with foamcore) – and many of the walls were scuffed and marked. In some rooms the arrangement of works seemed somewhat scattershot. But none of that can make one mistake the energy and physical presence of the best of the works on display.

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These works were designed to present a powerful, healthy, vigorous and virtuous people. Look at the faces of these women I’ve posted: In one a young mother runs out to work in the early morning before dawn, implement in hand, her baby strapped to her back. In another, two women – stern-faced and sharp-eyed, look determined to defend their way of life… machine guns rest against their bodies. In perhaps the most recent example, three young women rest in dappled sunlight beneath the massive tires of some piece of heavy machinery; their labors afford them peaceful – and aesthetic – rest.

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These propagandistic images succeed on a number of levels – they are expertly crafted illustrations, and so it makes sense that they utilize the visual language of illustration so well. They are illustrations of the regime’s aims and means. They functioned as didactic projections; they were the stained-glass window training centers of a new era. Yet they did more, as all propaganda does.

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Artworks such as these offered viewers both a prescribed view they were conditioned to believe and a perspective that plays into what every human being wants for themselves. We want signifigance. We want inclusion. We want meaning. We want to be noble. In spite of the pernicious and sometimes evil ends to which propaganda of all kinds has been used I think we can agree that part of the reason that it works is that it gives an image of self-virtue that the human animal craves. In light of these things, can we blame any people of any time for  buying in? I see the faces of these women and I have to wonder what their lives were – or are, if some of them are still living – really like. I can, at the very least, absolutely affirm that they were valuable, they were meaningful simply as human beings. The lives they lived, their loves, their sorrows, were all knit together into a weaving of the human consciousness in time and space. They were beautiful and strange, and they tried to believe in something beyond themselves that was, in fact, unified with all that they were. We all seek this, and we all want to know that it’s real.

The horror of propaganda is that it uses our own innate desire to be embedded in a broader truth against us.