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.

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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

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Thanks to Jill for tagging me in this one:)

Becoming the Student, #4: Billy Glosson

In continuing the Becoming the Student project, I’m aiming to use different methods and mediums in building the portraits. In this piece, I focused on something tied directly to Billy’s identity and his presence in the world: his tattoos. I wanted to depict the color, the saturation, and the overtness of these artworks that have been put on his body. They’re really important to him as a way to tell a story and represent his deeply held beliefs.

IMG_8353Portrait of Billy (Fruit of the Vine), Pastel on Stonehenge, 19 by 22 inches, 2014.

Billy on his portrait:

“That’s really cool. I was wondering why you were staring at my midsection the whole time…”

Billy on maintaining awe:

“There’s not a method. I think our hearts are prone to becoming numb. Derek Webb has a song with a line that says ‘we love lovers less wild’ and I think that’s the truth. For me it’s about constantly coming back to the place where I’m asking God to reveal Himself. I want to create good longing in my heart. Difficult moments and hardships and conflict and frustrating things in my life point me back to grace. Another practical way is having people around me who can speak into my life; that’s been huge.”

Billy is on a quest to complete an entire sleeve of tattoos. To help him out, I suggested the classic image from The Cloud of Unknowing. I definitely think it’s skin-worthy:1979654_10103885160284509_1941637934_n

Prometheus

I’m rating Prometheus a 6.5 out of 10. It was enjoyable but misses in a few main ways:

1) Asking the “big questions” is good. Reducing them to patricide and “hulk-smash!” moments is vapid.
2) Ensemble casts are good. Cluttering up a pretty straightforward plot with idiotic asides and incidental scenes is lame. The ballet David goes on to lace Charlie’s drink with Alien-spawn is great. Charlie’s mood swing is instantaneous and weak. Just way too many off-the-point, less-than-meaningful scenes. The entire dialogue between Vickers and the Captain leading to their tryst “in ten minutes” was groan-inducing. Sometimes too many people is too many people; they could have halved the cast and cut out weak scenes.
3) If you’re going to have an old guy, have an old guy, don’t use horrible face make up. Would have been a PERFECT chance to get super-meta with Peter O’Toole playing the old guy while David watches Lawrence of Arabia to get grooming/speaking tips and be “the good son” to his ailing, deathly maker.
4) Let’s stop hiring Lost writers, ok? We don’t need more “wow, there’s some cool tech” shots and attempts at hip jocularity (wink-wink, nudge-nudge, cue the laugh track, etc, etc); we need potent, meaningful images that resonate with us.
5) When you talk about Ridley Scott making a movie, you have a right to expect at least a 9 out of 10. So while I did enjoy this movie just as a fun sci-fi thing, it’s really hard to be happy with this when we’ve got the man behind Blade Runner and Alien making it. It really should have been so much more.
6) If you want a movie to stand on its own, make it stand on its own. This film requires our knowledge of the Alien franchise… and that makes it thin by itself.
7) It’s awesome how some psycho-sexual fetish paintings from the 1970′s basically made this entire series of movies possible. Go 2D!

All of that said, I enjoyed my time with the movie. The visuals and ships were great, and there were nice moments (almost all of them having to do with David). I did like the attempt to connect with deep yearnings that have motivated humankind for our entire history. It’s not a mistake that we seek to grapple with these issues culturally and personally. We want our art forms to deal with them, too. Those questions and concerns deserve our strongest, best efforts as artists.

And here’s a great review of the film… and another.

It was a record, that flaming consumer…

“And the fire was always there with us as well; its cast of gray ash strewn about as a memory of the night past. Here and there on the ground lay also the print of a known foot, the circumference of a bottle, the twisted remains of a cigarette butt. It was a record, that flaming consumer: constantly fed and ever needing more, never totally gone out.”

“The bricks keep it contained, except on those special, pagan nights. Over the years they have become fragile, having seen the fierce flames that flash for three months and then fade for nine many times. The dune now cradles the fire pit in its sandy palm; nature allows us to knead that surface and turn it over with toes and rakes for another day. All the while smoke signals the call over the waters and the trees…” – from A Mnemonic of Longing, an unpublished essay, 2002-2009.

Images from digital photos taken between May and August 2001.

Coyolxauhqui and Me

Above is the awesome stone relief featuring Coyolxauhqui. Check out her story about embarrassment and dismemberment here.

Below is my mezzotint print illustrating Lamentations 3, Verses 10 and 11.

I was inspired by Coyolxauhqui’s stone disk and tried to give my piece some of the energy of that image of the ancient Aztec goddess of the Moon.

This piece and 15 others based on Lamentations 3, Verses 1 through 26 (as well as drawings and paintings of other subjects) will appear in my solo show at Gordon College in Massachusetts this February and March.

Orientation?

My most recent completed work is an oil painting, 48 inches in diameter, titled Certainty. Because of the nature of the ideas involved in this piece, it was constructed in a manner that did not allow for an “up” orientation. I actually never painted it from the same picture-plane position twice. I frequently moved my model and altered my position of observation with each session.

The work has any number of “correct” reading orientations, but I’d like to settle on one or find a way to spin the work slowly so that many possible positions are presented to different viewers. Click the image below to see a large GIF of the piece. The GIF shows 14 different “stations” of the painting (give it a few minutes to load fully). What’s the best way to view it?

Miranda Grace Ballou

Miranda

Your hands and feet… your eyes and brain… they are all more than fresh; they are still being knit together.

As I sit here, there you are across the room in your mother, your heart striking a tattoo of potential to future joys and woes. When I think about all that I am, all that your mom is, all that our people are, all that our world is, I am caught short of breath… not really overwhelmed, but overawed.

Overawed because I know that, in major ways (foreseen and unforeseen), I will be part of the way you access all that has been. This great world, this great universe of experience and time and sensation and being – each facet part of your inheritance as a human being – is going to be presented to you by my faltering, limited, frail hands and voice.

And I am moved by all of this, partly because I know that being alive is hard and I don’t want you to hurt. But I am more moved by it because I know how much the miracle of being conscious has inundated me, made me, transformed me. The glories and wonders of the things you’ll know and see and touch and hear and be flood me; I, too, know them, and know that you’ll know them so much differently than I have. But we’ll have that knowing to share.

Part of that knowing is a realization that the dignity of what you are is because of a Story that transcends space, time, personality, individuality, and being itself. That’s the place I want to start, even as we explore everything else, because everything else is embedded in that Story. You are in that Story.

You are the precious thoughts of the Author of that Story. You are the manifestation of the articulated structures of Story rippling through all things. You are fearfully and wonderfully made.

For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well.
My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them.
How precious to me are your thoughts, O God!
How vast is the sum of them!

Neko Case Favorites

Neko Case‘s voice is something beyond description. You need to experience it. Go to NPR right now and listen to her concert recorded in April 2009.

Mark one up for sharing music: a few years ago a friend burned mix of Neko’s music for me. I now own most of her stuff – and I paid cold hard cash for it – because it’s all good work and worth every penny.

My favorites are a few from Blacklisted, Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, and Middle Cyclone – her latest. Here they are (with a few linked to YouTube videos of live versions):

From “Blacklisted” – Ghost Writing

From “Fox Confessor Brings the Flood” – Star Witness and Fox Confessor Brings the Flood

From “Middle Cyclone” – Prison Girls and The Pharaohs

My wife and I got to see Neko in Kansas City this past July; it was awesome. You should see her, too.

neko case uptown