Becoming the Student, #20: Graham Higgs

imageProfessor Graham Higgs Gloriously Lit. Digital painting, dimensions variable, 2014. Click to view LARGE.

In this post, I want Professor Higgs to speak for himself. If you have a few minutes, please read the story below. If you give the narrative time to work, I’m certain that you will sense both the great truths and the gentle spirit that animate Graham’s life.

~

The Cry of the Spirit Leaving

By Graham Higgs. Posted here by permission of the author.

It was one of those blazing hot, dry days at noon in a small village in Southern Africa, where I lived as a child. Not a soul was stirring. The sky shimmered with heat, and the only sound was the empty shush of a dry breeze against the screen on the porch, where I lay on my back, shirtless against the cool concrete floor.

I watched a fly circling in slow motion and finally settling on the floor a few feet from my head. My cheek felt cool against the floor as I watched the fly brushing its wing with one of its six legs.

Suddenly, from a distance in the back yard, I heard a man’s cry, “Nyoka! Nyoka!”

This was truly startling. “Nyoka! Nyoka!” the cry rang out.

In the Swahili language, the word “Nyoka” means snake, but not just any snake. It means dangerous snake. The odd thing about this was that snakes were very rarely seen in the heat of mid-day. I heard the cry again, and I heard the back screen door slam as my father left the house. I jumped up and left the porch at the front of the house and ran around back to see what was going on. When I reached the back yard I could see my dad crossing the field behind the house toward the garden. In the middle of the field, a tall, barefooted man wearing only khaki shorts and carrying a long stick was standing and pointing in the direction of the garden.

My father reached him and stopped. They slowly advanced, and then I saw the big old king cobra that they were watching. It was slowly moving toward the garden. They followed it, and it became aware of them, suddenly rising up high off the ground and displaying its broad, golden neck with two hypnotic dark eye-shaped spots.

My father and the garden man froze. The snake dropped back to the ground and began to move more quickly toward a large pile of brush near the end of the field. Several other men arrived and all began to pursue the snake, which continued toward the brush pile and then disappeared inside. The men surrounded the huge pile of brush. With long sticks they poked into the pile, jumping back, afraid the reptile would attack. King cobras are known to be aggressive when provoked.

While all this commotion was going on, many of the villagers began to come to see what was going on and stood in the shade of the tall eucalyptus trees that lined the field. Women and girls stood and watched while curious boys ran with sticks and threw stones at the pile. Mothers called out at them and tried to get them to be careful. The men stood and watched and pondered what to do next. The day was very hot and dry, and some of the men receded to the shade of the trees. A sentry of 4 or 5 men stood guard around the brush pile watching for any sign of the snake. The crowd of onlookers swelled to include just about everyone in the village. Some of the boys kicked a soccer ball around in the dust, and a dry breeze lifted the fine dust into swirls around their ankles. Sweat ran down the cheeks of the men watching the huge pile of brush.

One of the men walked over to my father, who was standing with me in the shade. I heard him say, “Baba, we could set the brush on fire. That would surely drive the Nyoka out so we can kill it.” No sooner had he suggested this than a man came running from the village fire with a burning stick, and the brush pile was soon a blaze of heat and crackling light. Visible waves of heat radiated away from and above the fire in visible auroras. The intensity drove almost everyone away and back toward the trees and the shade. Even in the shade you could feel the heat of the fire across the field. The fire cracked and popped, but no snake appeared. An hour went by, and no snake had come from the now smoldering fire. People began to mumble, and some began to return to their huts in the village. Women took their children and said they had food to prepare.

About this time, a quiet whistling sound began to be heard coming from the pile of ash. The whistling became louder, and everyone in the near vicinity could hear it. It became louder still and began to sound like a woman crying in a high-pitched tone. Now the sound could be heard throughout the village, and it became an ear-splitting scream. People looked at each other, terrified. The Nyoka was crying! What could this mean?

One wise, elderly woman said that she believed that the men had tried to kill an ancestor spirit. “What Nyoka ever comes out into the heat of the day?” she asked. “It is a sign” she said, “a sign that we did not heed. In our rush to kill this Nyoka, we may have tried to kill an ancestor who was trying to talk with us. See, she does not come from the fire. She waits, and she will certainly take her anger out on us. Just you wait and see.”

This prediction filled the hearts of the villagers with foreboding and fear, and those who had returned to the fire to see what the commotion was fled from the scene, taking their children and mumbling in low, fearful tones. After a few minutes the crying became quieter and slowly died away. A few men stayed with my father and watched the last of the smoldering coals. Then, as the day became long and the sun began to reach the horizon, my father and the other two men began to poke into the ashes with a long stick. At one point near the center of the ash pile, the stick hit a metal object.

With a shovel and a large stick, they found that a sheet of corrugated metal roofing was at the base of the fire. When they turned it over, the Then, as the day became long and the sun began to reach the horizon, my father and the other two men began to poke into the ashes with a long stick. At one point near the center of the ash pile, the stick hit a metal object.

With a shovel and a large stick, they found that a sheet of corrugated metal roofing was at the base of the fire. When they turned it over, they found the king cobra coiled in a circle. Its mouth was open and the fangs exposed. It had been cooked by the fire, roasted under the corrugated roofing. I recall my father thinking for a few minutes after this discovery and then saying to the two men, “It is now clear to me what has happened here. As the snake cooked, it began to boil, and the moisture in the snake steamed out of its mouth and past the fangs, which created a whistling and crying sound, much like a penny whistle does.” The men looked puzzled.

One of the men was horrified. “Oh, no, Baba, this is not the case. This sound was the cry of the ancestor spirit leaving the snake. We have certainly offended one of our ancestors, and this is a very grave thing to have happened.”

He quickly left the field and returned to his family. That night as the village gathered to eat together and drink beer and tell stories around the communal fire, the talk was about whether to consult the Nganga (witch doctor) to see how they could make reparations to the ancestor. They believed that they had ignored a natural sign. They believed they had violated an ancestor, and they would be punished. My father tried to explain that this might not be the case, but the villagers would have nothing of it. They had their animistic beliefs that kept them in balance with nature. It was an evening of low talking and fearful discussion. Many retired to their huts earlier than usual. Only a few of the older men, including my father, sat and talked late into the night.

Early the next morning a 3-week-old infant died mysteriously while she slept. It was then the people knew that they had indeed angered an ancestor. The Nganga and a spirit medium and herbalist would need to be called to perform a ceremony to placate the ancestor. Women were asked to prepare extra beer, and the herbalist retreated to his hut on the outskirts of the village and pulled out his stock of hallucinogenic herbs and tinctures. Men sat around the village fire and talked while the women served beer and food and in their own groups ate and sang and danced. A couple of drummers and mbira (thumb-piano) players worked themselves into a chanting rhythm and flow that began to persuade those who participated to sway and bob with the beat. The Nganga mixed a tincture and filled a pipe that he lit and passed around the group of men, and the tincture was swallowed by the spirit medium, a man who normally was a very odd fellow, said to possess special powers of vision and the ability to talk with the ancestors.

The spirit medium fell into a trance and passed out on the ground under the watchful eye of the Nganga, who bathed his face with cool water. The chanting and singing became more communal, and some men began to get up and dance. The women, including my mother, joined in the chanting and clapping of hands, and pretty soon, everyone was singing mournful and yet energetic songs of placation. Late into the night, the spirit medium began to speak, and the Nganga called for silence.

The spirit medium spoke in a language that no one but the Nganga understood. After listening to the strange sounds coming from the spirit medium, the Nganga conferred with the village chief, who called for a moment of reflection. Then he spoke about what the ancestor had advised. He said that tomorrow we must kill a goat and 7 chickens and prepare a feast in honor of the ancestor. In addition, we must begin to respect each other and to watch out for the children of others as well as we watch out for our own children.

We must work more regularly in the peanut fields, as the crops are almost ready, and we must always treat strangers with caution but respect. After a list of these sorts of things, some directed specifically at a few members of the community, the ancestor related that life would return to normal. Within a few days, the community had come together with a new commitment to work productively and live in peace as the ancestors intended.

~

I broke some of my rules while working on Graham’s portrait. I really wanted it to live up to the power of his story and the quality of his deep, quiet mind… so I spent a lot more than 2 or 4 or 6 hours on it. While drawing him in his office at Columbia College, I had the advantage of seeing him silhouetted against a bright spring scene, the intense near-white greens illuminating his head as if with a halo. I worked this portrait back and fourth in Sketchbook Pro and Art Rage v3, with some editing and shifting in Afterlight, for several months. I used both the Adonit Jot Touch 4 and the fiftythree Pencil to do the work. I’m thankful for the conversations I’ve had with Graham and I hope to have more in the future.

Becoming The Student, #16: Gina TECHNICOLOR Ceylan

Gina Ceylan is an incredible person. Every time I’m with her, I’m amazed at her intelligence, engagement, and desire for true connection and meaning. I knew I had to include her in my Becoming The Student project.

TechnicolorGirlGina TECHNICOLOR Ceylan, Gouache and Colored Pencil on Paper mounted on Panel. 20 inches in diameter. 2014.

Click the image to see this piece larger.

~

Gina has a genetic condition which has caused her eyesight to degrade over time, and she is – essentially – blind. In spite of this she has developed an extremely acute vision of where education, science, and societal conditions are and where they could be. She’s a passionate student and teacher (she holds a PhD in Science Education). She’s a lover of music and public conversation. She loves to foment deep thought in herself and others.

Part of her experience of losing her sight has meant that her brain is rewiring, taking into account the lack of external visual stimulus and creating manifestations of color and form in Gina’s mind’s eye. Because of these inner experiences, she has taken to talking about her Technicolor experience in grand terms. In some of our past discussions, the story of the blind men and the elephant has taken center stage in the Technicolor arena. I even created a psychedelic elephant for her Facebook page, as seen below:

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There is so much I could write about Gina, but I’ll let a few of her own thoughts speak for themselves (with a few key parts emphasized by me).

“I don’t like this phrase “time management” though; it doesn’t sit well. We don’t manage time; we strive for dynamic thought-task coherence through time. Let’s go with thought-task conduction. That’s better, closer to what’s really happening when we work towards our little purposes. Got to love it when the little Technicolor light bulb goes off. Understanding AND potential improved use of the scatter-mind. Score.”

“Some of us dance a little closer to chaos.”

-from Thought Patterns & Thought-task Conduction – December 17, 2013

“Ignorance isn’t something so much as it is really the lack of something [relative awareness maybe], the way darkness is the absence of light. But it behaves like a something, a disgusting kind of living evil something, because we bring it to life. Here’s the worst part: it’s not intentional. Ignorance doesn’t mean to destroy anything anymore than a wisteria vine or kudzu intends to cover the landscape and choke out all other life. The vines are often planted with good intention, and with no knowledge of how they will take root and thrive at the expense of everything.

Life is a collection of countless choices. Our reality emerges through these choices, but there’s too many of them, so our relative subconscious takes care of most of it, and we let society decide so many others. And ignorance emerges, without intention, and without anyone noticing, spreading over everything, choking the life out. Hell is real, you know; it’s a place in our minds and we bring it to life and make it real in our world. The road to hell is paved with ignorance. I think we’re getting there.

I know only myself [pretty big accomplishment]; I’m a fool’s fool. I know nothing else. Which is to say I have a great many well-founded, poorly articulated suspicions that shed just enough light for me to see my ignorance. At least I’m a happy fool, and not in the false bliss of ignorance but in my knowledge of it, and in my pleasure in tearing it up by its roots, possibly burning it just for good measure. It’s a ridiculous effort, the task is too big, but it’s fun.”

-from Ignorance, Intentionality & The Road to Hell – December 8, 2013

Girl at gym: “I want to go to med school and be a pediatrician, but…”
Me: “Well, why not go for it?”
Girl: “I’m scared… scared I’m not smart enough”
Me: “That’s crap! Someone lied to you about the nature of intelligence!”

“What kind of education system teaches people to be afraid of learning to be what they want!? [To hell with] a system that instills this kind of fear in people! We ought to be smarter than that.”

-from a Facebook Rant, April 15, 2014

“Think of The Future possible pathways, sprawled out in front of us in all their dendritic splendor… Yes, for all the same reasons. One choice at a time, travelers.”

-a Facebook Status, December 31, 2013

~

Keep dancing close to that chaos, Gina. Thank you for grabbing some of us off the sidelines and getting us to dance, too.

To learn more about her, read this article about her life and work. It’s a fantastic read.

Solo Exhibition in Kansas

I’ve got a solo exhibition coming up October 5 – October 25, 2013, in Hays, Kansas. The exhibition, titled ASEVENANDAWONADOE* will take place at the Moss-Thorn Gallery of Art on the campus of Fort Hays State University. Featuring thirty new works, the exhibition will unite the representational tondos and abstract mandalas that I have been creating simultaneously over the last few years.

WORKINGSEVENANDAWONADOE copyHere is a brief statement about the show. A longer version will be presented during the closing reception:

ASEVENANDAWONADOE* – Paintings and Prints by Matthew Ballou

This exhibition explores the reality that a vernacular of meaning is constructed through our physical, emotional, and intellectual experiences. These experiences take place in the spaces that surround us, via the ideas that fill our minds, and through the objects that engage us. Meaning is imputed to these spaces, ideas, and objects rather than being necessarily inherent in them. This notion follows from the work of 20th Century Pragmatist philosopher John Dewey, who described how we “fund” our lives with significance through investments of time, emotion, and effort. These, in turn, come together to manifest the wealth of meaning we sense in our world.

By concentrating my artistic contemplation on objects that I have funded over the course of my life, I draw attention to not only their significance but also the modes, methods, and extents to which others have done the same. Conversely, by exploring issues that previous generations have investigated, such as the mandala form and geometric abstraction, I participate in the legacy of their contemplations. In a sense, I have borrowed from the storehouse they built while adding an investment of my own. The works on display here play on the distance between representation and abstraction, between the iconic and symbolic, between the organic and geometric, and between the received and the constructed.

*ASEVENANDAWONADOE is a word my young daughter Miranda invented during the time she was learning “real” words. It combined the structures of the new words she was encountering but was also, to her, connected to abstract concepts such as mathematics, pain, comfort, and security. An entirely made up word – yet one that relied on the received information and influences my daughter experienced – ASEVENANDAWONADOE is an example of something seemingly “meaningless” taking on meaning through experience, context, and subjectivity. In adding to the history and lineage of this word by including it in this exhibition, I further shape the contours of its potential meaning and more deeply connect it to the story of our family.

What Is A Great Image?

On May 22, 2013, I gave a public talk at the Boone County Chambers Room in Columbia, Missouri that addressed the question, “What is a great image?”

Below is audio from that talk synced up with the slide show that I used. If you’ve got an hour and are interested in how art, history, and human experience interconnect, you might appreciate this talk. Obviously it’s by no means exhaustive and has to skim over many issues, but I think it’s got some quality observations. I would greatly appreciate any questions, comments, or observations you might have after watching through.

And here’s a picture of me and my girls during the Q&A session after the talk :)

My Favorite Sketchbook Page, and a Surprise 14 Years in the Making

zecchisphoto

Above is a double page spread from one of my most cherished sketchbooks. My main professor from graduate school (Barry Gealt) bought it for me during our trip together to Italy in the summer of 2005. The sketchbook is from Zecchi’s, the famous art store in Florence. I really cherish this handmade book. Every 6 months to a year I do a sketch of my wife, Alison, in the sketchbook. These two pages are amazing – the left page is from August 13, 2009, the right from August 7, 2010. They were drawn almost exactly a year apart, and yet what a difference! In the left hand image, Alison was pregnant… but we didn’t even know it yet. And there on the right side is little Miranda Grace Ballou, sleeping as we watch The West Wing. Such a juxtaposition. So much life.

And what a life I experienced today. After a full slate of teaching, I came home to fine china, wine, and risotto – certainly an event. And, of course, today is momentous. It was on this day in 1999 that Alison and I first shared our feelings, intentions, and hopes with each other. We began a dating relationship that would culminate in so much joy and growth for us. When I look into the eyes of our daughters, when I catch a glimpse of my wife across the room, when we come together to make firm determinations about what we plan to do with God’s grace… it’s in those times that I know how important this day was all those years ago. So we celebrate our wedding anniversary, but also find this day special. Here’s the spread Alison laid for us tonight – a simple, rich meal of Aline’s Risotto, fresh grapes, white wine, some flowers, and places set for four.

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I am blessed – above and beyond, more than I could ask for or think of; it’s pure grace.

Thankful tonight.

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.

 

Remembering the Shapes and Textures of China

In just a few hours we’ll be leaving the People’s Republic of China. We are ready; home and friends and family call to us.

Right now, though, CaiQun sleeps nearby. She has no way of realizing how much her life will change. We don’t either. As I looked into her eyes tonight, giving her a final bed-time bottle in her native land, I thought about how rich and beautiful and strange and amazing her country of  birth is. We leave it, and hope to return. She is beginning an amazing journey. I’m priveledged to go on it with her, for at least this part.

As we depart China, I again make a post that features some (for me) lasting images of this Land. Two and a half weeks is certainly not enough time to really know much of anything about a country, but we will be forever changed by what we’ve seen, heard, felt, and known here. These images are just part of the rememberance I’ll take with me.

Enjoy. Click to enlarge. Visit China. Hear her sounds and see her sights. Love her people and acknowledge her history.

We’re a part of this world.

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New Homes

2012 was a good year for selling my work. Many pieces that we’ve lived with for many years are now gone. They live new lives with others. They will, in tandem with these fresh viewers, take on different resonances, build more meanings. Three recent sales in particular are significant to me. What’s interesting to me as an artist is that these works don’t necessarily represent the height of my prowess as a painter or draftsperson (Though I do count Four Pale Bricks as among the most significant paintings I’ve ever made). Nor are these works the end of a particular line of thought or closed, singular achievement. Each was, in some sense, a reaction to different pressures and concerns. They were attempts to understand influences, necessities, desires. They were stepping stones.

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Untitled Landscape (#1), Acrylic on canvas, 36 x 46 inches, 2000. Private collection, MO. Click to view larger.

They are all about different times in my life. The colorful Untitled Landscape (#1) above was made when I was a junior at SAIC. It wasn’t meant to be my own personal expression. I was trying to understand Diebenkorn and integrate his approach to composition and structure. In spite of the derivative quality (something that’s unavoidable for any artist and something that, when embraced, can spark true development) the work displays my growing sense of color and use of mark and mass.

As I packed it up for delivery to its new owners, I was so pleased with the craftsmanship: the bars are still square; the canvas stretched and primed beautifully; the corners wrapped flat and tight. It was that follow-through with the love for the materials at all levels that, I think, made me develop as an artist. I wasn’t just winging it. I was being thoughtfully engaged all the way through. I’m not saying this just to toot my own horn… I’m just proud of the fact that, in spite of myself, I got something about materials, process, and focus that still rings true and gives the work quality.

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Four Pale Bricks, Oil on canvas on panel, 14 by 22 inches, 2006. Private collection, MO. Click to view larger.

The second piece, above, really shows (to me) how my grasp of composition and visual dynamics was affected by combining my early love for Diebenkorn with my research, via Frank Stella’s Working Space, into the formal concerns of the Renaissance. Four Pale Bricks was painted very soon after my return from Italy, a trip that greatly supplemented what I thought I’d learned from Working Space. My encounters there with alchemical pictorial formulas, various numerological/metaphysical theories a la sacred geometry, and the intense formal constructions of everyone from Giotto to Pontormo were extremely influential. In many ways this work was the beginning of my current explorations into two-dimensional shape and angle dynamics as they manifest in illusions of space, air, and light.

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Still Life With Tinfoil, Coal, and Plywood, Graphite on paper, 18 by 24 inches, 2007. Private collection, MO. Click to view larger.

This last work – something I shipped out to its new owner just this morning – is all about my having become a teacher. One of the things I believe in most strongly as an educator is that I must model the skills, ideas, and values that I teach. I will never make any impression at all if I merely vomit out vague data; I’ve got to believe it and practice it. This work came about as a challenge from my students, who did not believe the processes I was teaching them would yield positive results. As I drew this work, I took photos and from them produced a short video to demonstrate how it all worked. I have used this example every semester since. The piece is very sentimental to me because of how it embodies my own practice of teaching. I was willing to live out the things I talked about, and that made my students trust me.

Having these three works – and all of the others recently sold – go into the hands of people who appreciate them is wonderful for me. It’s also a reminder that gratification (and appreciation) is often very much delayed. I do work today that may only become appreciated decades from now. That is something that is hard for all artists – we are a notoriously insecure and touchy lot, aren’t we? – but having these works go out into the world is special.

It’s all the more special for me because every dollar from every sale I’ve made over the last year has gone directly into bringing Madeleine Cai Qun home. Now when I think of these artworks, I won’t only consider what they were for me or how they have gone to new homes, but I’ll be able to see in them how they gave my daughter a new home.

That’s a value that is transcendent. I’m thankful that my work as an artist can be a part of that even greater work of manifesting love and peace into the world.

There’s still a few more weeks before we head to China. If you’d like to help out in the final stretch by bringing one of my works into your home, check out my etsy site here.

 

 

Dream of Light

I attended the opening of Antonio Lopez Garcia‘s retrospective at the Museum of Fine Arts – Boston back in April of 2008. It was a wonderful trip. I was thinking about it today. How momentous it felt to be there. Seeing so many friends from all over the US who were there for it – even Rackstraw Downes was there that day! Tim Lowly was there. Tim Kennedy and Eve Mansdorf were there. David Gracie was there. Sangram Majundar was there. A few low-quality photo pictures are below.

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The best part for me was at an early point in the day before the crowds arrived. I found myself standing next to the master, looking together at one of his paintings. It was nice to see him looking closely, finding a contemplative moment in a masterwork he’d painted many years before. There was a leveling there, an equanimity – the master must look, just as the audience must. We both see and take in what is before us. In that space and time of perception we try to understand. In those wavelengths of light we dream of a unity and order and meaning beyond ourselves. We dream of light.