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:)

Atticus Garrett Ballou

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The boy cometh.

I have to admit that I have fears about raising a boy. Sure, I have worries about my girls, too… but I am a male. I know something about being a boy. Perhaps in some sense the otherness of girls is a comfort, or a kind of blessed distance. And I just don’t think of females as the ones creating epic problems – starting wars, hurting others, crafting systems of denial, demagoguing themselves into power… that is all stuff that men do naturally and perennially.

And so that scares me. Am I up to instilling something true and real and deep in this little guy? Can I give him the transcendent perspective that helped me? Can I encourage him to learn the lessons only his mom and big sisters can teach? God knows I needed the presence of my mom and sisters and wife and mother-in-law and daughters to temper me, transform me, change me from a yell-happy dolt to someone with a bit more self control and thoughtfulness. The process is forever ongoing, and it’s all a matter of grace that it has worked at all. It’s taken me 37 years to be halfway acceptable as a human and it terrifies me to think I’ll be responsible to make a man of someone else. If I can’t force it to happen in myself, I certainly can’t manufacture it in anyone else.

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Of course, it won’t be all my job, thank Jesus. But I’m wary of the process.

And so it’s important to name well. To cast a vision with that name. To use that name as a witness and a source of power. I’ll think about our son’s namesake right now to quell some of these fears. I’ll speak his name as a prayer of hope and a charge of confidence. Atticus:

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

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“The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.”

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“Courage is not a man with a gun in his hand. It’s knowing you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.”

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“There’s a lot of ugly things in this world, son. I wish I could keep ‘em all away from you. That’s never possible.”

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The quotes above were spoken by Atticus Finch. To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee

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To close, here are a couple momentous posts from when #1 and #2 were named: MGB and MCQB.

Becoming the Student, #5: Captain America

Daniel Glosson (brother to Billy) is another young, passionate guy that I know. I always enjoy sitting down with him. Recently married, working multiple jobs, serving in the community, and trying to work out his faith and beliefs in the world, Daniel is an energetic force of nature. IMG_8425

Glosson (Captain America), Colored Pencil and Gouache on Stonehenge, 15 by 12 inches, 2014.

On Art

“I think art is incredible. But I don’t value the idea over what’s right there in front of us. I definitely miss stuff all of the time and I hate that, but when someone shows it to me I’m blown away. If an artist is trying to make a statement but isn’t doing anything about it that makes me angry. I guess I’m practical to a fault. When I see a problem I’m driven to do something about it, not simply represent it or use it as inspiration.”

On Working at Schilb Antiquarian

“I’m so fortunate. I love the job. It’s awesome. I want to attain the same love for the store and the books that Scott has. I’m trying to learn all I can. I love the chance to just browse through these books, read them. It’s amazing, and now that I’m looking at all these old books and trying to wrap my mind around it, I can really see this expanse of human thought over the centuries. They way they thought, they way they progressed in terms of understanding and rationalization. We just have all this stuff, these records of peoples’ thinking and processing. The questions of what do we value most are all there, and you can see how people have approached it, be it fantasy or escapism or cold, hard truth in the scientific or mathematical works. We even have an exorcism text from 1683, Flagellum Daemonum – literally “beat the devil”! – and it looks like it’s got blood on the cover. Wild.”

On Eucatastrophe

“I think death is extremely beautiful. I love tragedies.”

On his Captain America shirt

“I’m not really a patriot.”

On Michael Bay and Thomas Kinkade

“Fortunately there are two things you and I both loathe – and I think it’s hilarious – that’s Michael Bay and Thomas Kinkade. I think that’s the greatest thing ever. I don’t know if it’s great to bond over hatred but I remember talking to someone about hating Michael Bay movies and they said ‘you need to meet Matt Ballou!’ I’m so happy about that, just knowing there’s another. Those Transformer movies make me throw up in my mouth.”

On Looking Like Billy Corgan

“I don’t see it.”

A Year Ago Today, Part Two

Well, it has been a year. A strange-yet-beautiful, tearful-yet-joyful, amazing-grace kind of year.

How do you mark that time? In stories that bear witness to the hard things as well as the sweet moments? With lines indicating growth? In snapshots of little girls becoming sisters or ecstatic family gatherings?

I think I’ve been more eloquent in the past. Today I’m just thankful and blessed. I’m not the best dad, but I’ve worked hard at it. And I think being a dad to two amazingly epic daughters has made me better – more – than I thought I could be. In all of this I’ve gotten to see my wife gloriously work divinely-appointed magic as a planner-of-life, kisser-of-wet-cheeks, and encourager-of-all.

How do I mark this time? I think I’ll go left-of-center:

chinamoneyClick on the image to see these up close.

These are four pieces of “Chinese money” that my daughters have payed with a LOT in the last year. They are, obviously, not real currency. Instead, they are three wet-wipes that came from various hotel rooms or restaurants we visited while in China. And that one covered in duct tape? That’s a strawberry Nutri-grain bar in there; it’s seen better days.

There’s something about their play money that’s joyous and fun. We’ve worked to keep the memory of our time in China alive,  as well as the anticipation that we’ll return again soon. Little indicators of that hope are all over our lives, even seemingly-insignificant ones like these playthings.

So here’s hoping for many, many more years to think back on what has been and look forward to what will be. What a good year to be a family of four.

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PS: We’re celebrating over at the Etsy shop with super-discounted artworks – maybe you’ll find something you like?

Bike-Desk, Desk-Bike

I decided to construct a bike desk (or desk bike?) a few weeks ago. I was in the midst of looking up conversion kits (so I could modify my normal bike into a stationary type) when I got lucky and found an old BH Vitoria España stationary bike. BH has quite a storied history and this model is really high end. It feels like a quality item even after being at least 20 years old and having been sitting outside for quite a while. I made some modifications to it, then set about working out the ‘desk’ part of the whole thing.

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I added four foot long leg extensions to a small child-size work table, then set things up in the basement. After a few sessions today I think it’s nearly complete. It feels fairly comfortable and is definitely portable. I also like that I can use the table on its own as a standing desk.

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BIKE DESK!! DESK BIKE!!

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I love how my birth announcement directly contradicts scripture:

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I also enjoy how mystified my dad appears in this picture with me from those early days of my life. I have many times felt the way he appears to feel in this picture… I guess I feel this way more and more now. When this picture was taken my dad was almost exactly the age I am now. Strange perspective.

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This year has probably been the most strange, hard, and upheaval-filled since I got married a decade ago. I’m not sure what to say. I have seen and done amazing things in just the last 6 months. But I’ve also been shown my limits and frailties in so many ways. Here’s hoping for a year of becoming a better husband, dad, teacher, artist, and friend. God knows I could use some remediation on all of these things.

My God, It’s Full Of Stars

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I’ve been trying to find the right words to talk about the opportunity and honor I had to be involved with the wedding of my friend Keith and his bride, Amanda, last week. I’ve been speechless about it, and maybe that’s for the best. Instead, for now, please click on the image above. This is a dodecahedron lamp that Keith and Amanda got for me. I finished putting it together today. Just now I put it in my pitch black studio and took this image. For a few minutes my studio was full of stars.

Thank you, Keith and Amanda.

The Best Way To Do A Q&A

I gave a couple of talks last week, one for the community at large and one for the teaching symposium held here a few days ago.

Perhaps my favorite part of giving talks/lectures is the Q&A time afterward. I get into it. Here’s an example:

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That’s me in 2008, answering a question at the Glen Arbor Art Association. There I am, totally sun-burned, wine in hand, and in my element.

But I think the best way to answer questions is after my daughters run up to the front of the room and want to be with their dad while he talks:

MCTalk-DadGirls1smallThanks to Shalonda for capturing this image.

Wow. That’s a lot of life lived between the first image and the second.

For the record, Miranda asked a question herself while there in my arms. After looking at the image of one of my paintings up on the screen at the time, she asked, “Dad, don’t you think we should draw more back into that painting?”

No, babe, I think it’s done :)

Life, The Universe, and Everything

It’s Towel Day.

Get your Douglas Adams on. Read his books if you haven’t. I’ll be listening to him read his audiobooks in the studio.

I always do something for Towel Day. Here’s a post from 2010, and one from 2012.

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For this year, here are a few of my favorite Douglas Adams quotes (presented in order of their appearance in the Hitchhiker’s “trilogy”):

“For instance, on the planet Earth, man had always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much—the wheel, New York, wars and so on—whilst all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man—for precisely the same reasons.”

― Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

“The story so far:
In the beginning the Universe was created.
This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move.”

― Douglas Adams, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe

“The technology involved in making something properly invisible is so mind-bogglingly complex that 999,999,999 times out of a billion it’s simpler just to take the thing away and do without it…. The ‘Somebody Else’s Problem Field’ is much simpler and more effective, and what’s more can be run for over a hundred years on a single torch battery. This is because it relies on people’s natural disposition not to see anything they don’t want to, weren’t expecting, or can’t explain.”

― Douglas Adams, Life, the Universe and Everything

“God’s Final Message to His Creation:
‘We apologize for the inconvenience.’”

― Douglas Adams, So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish

“Protect me from knowing what I don’t need to know. Protect me from even knowing that there are things to know that I don’t know. Protect me from knowing that I decided not to know about the things that I decided not to know about. Amen.
Lord, Lord, Lord… Protect me from the consequences of the above prayer.”

― Douglas Adams, Mostly Harmless

       “Imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, ‘This is an interesting world I find myself in — an interesting hole I find myself in — fits me rather neatly, doesn’t it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!’ This is such a powerful idea that as the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up and as, gradually, the puddle gets smaller and smaller, frantically hanging on to the notion that everything’s going to be alright, because this world was meant to have him in it, was built to have him in it; so the moment he disappears catches him rather by surprise. I think this may be something we need to be on the watch out for.”

― Douglas Adams, The Salmon of Doubt

I’m thankful for your life, Mr Adams.

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Me, back in 2007 (in Evanston, IL), celebrating Towel Day.

This Week in 2005

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This week in 2005 Alison and I arrived in Florence, Italy. Above is the path we took almost every day during our stay – from our apartment on Via Ricorboli (right hand of the picture) to the Church of Santa Felicita. (On the left – click the image above to explore the area).

Why did we make the nearly 2 kilometer trek so many times, even if our final destination was in some other part of the city?

Because Pontormo’s epic Deposition resides in that church. Here I am gazing up at the piece:

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I must have spent 6 or 8 hours in front of that painting. I have thought about it, written about it, and taught about it many times over the last 8 years. This painting is ingrained in my life.

I can’t wait to walk once again along the Arno, sidestep the Ponte Vecchio, slip into the cool silence of Santa Felicita, and see it again.