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.

dateanniphoto

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

Thankful tonight.

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.

url

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.

 

Silence Before China

It has been a while since I last posted. A lot has happened. Very soon we’ll actually be in the midst of a global journey that we’ve been imagining, thinking about, planning, and scheduling for over a year. In just hours we’ll slip out over the Midwestern landscape, drop in for a short stop in Michigan (yet another reason for me to love that state), and leap over the North Pole to China.

And then, just days from now, a daughter of China will also be a daughter of mine.

That’s the thought that has given me pause for weeks. That’s why I’ve had nothing to say. I’ve got nothing to add, nothing with which to editorialize this experience. It’s beyond me. It’s far beyond what I ever imagined for my life.

And yet, it’s very similar to the feeling I had in the days and hours before Miranda was born. You sense great change coming. You feel the air charging with energy. You feel the presence of massive forces converging. But you, yourself, are too limited to gain true perspective on it all. With deer-in-the-headlights-eyes you move forward, doing what you’ve made plans to do, pivoting as well as you can, and adapting in whatever ways you have to.

That’s where I am. I’m scheduling substitute teachers for my classes. I’m putting a hold on the mail. I’m in a freaking airplane cruising 30,000 feet over the arctic. I’m a pale foreigner from a young country standing in an ancient, hallowed land. I’m a fat, long-haired guy trying to help my little dark-eyed daughters understand love. I’m an experienced seer observing things – real things, true things, transcendent things – for the first time. I’m a man born in the year of the dragon standing on the Great Wall. I’m a husband in awe of his wife’s ability to actually make this stuff a reality. I’m a recipient of an Epic Grace that I can’t even begin to understand or appreciate properly.

Just days from now, a daughter of China will also be a daughter of mine. She’ll be a sister to Miranda, a child to Alison, and a grand-kid to Nancy and Kathy.

She’ll be one of us. She is already one of us. She has always been one of us.

I can’t wait to see you, Madeleine CaiQun.

Sea of Red

Sterling W. Wyatt, a native of Columbia, Missouri, died in Afgahnistan on July 11th. The Westboro “Baptist” “Church” people decided that they would continue their crusade of hate and idiocy by picketing his funeral. They sent out a press release to that effect on the 17th. Within hours, people all over Columbia were mobilizing against the horrific, destructive weirdness that the Phelps clan stands for. Today, July 21st, Columbia showed up en masse in red clothing to stand with Wyatt’s family. This is some of what it looked like.

Click the panorama for a wide view of just part of the crowd.

The mass of people in front of the church. The crowd lined the streets for miles between the church and cemetary.

I was proud to attend this event, stand in the heat for four hours with my brother-in-law, and witness the unity and care of this town that is now my home. What was amazing and truly special is that this show of solidarity crossed all ideological boundaries. There were Christians and agnostics and atheists there. There were Republicans and Democrats and Libertarians there. There were blacks and whites and asians there. There were artists and teachers and politicians there. There were babies and teenagers and old people there. There were gay and straight and questioning people there. There were rich and poor and homeless people there. There were veterans and conscientious objectors and peaceniks there.

All standing together.

All standing together in 100+ degree heat. All calm and quiet and respectful. All recognizing the complexities of the situation. All willing to stop their day for 2 or 4 or 6 or 8 hours to honor a man who died along some dirty road in Kandahar. All willing to step out and deny twisted fools any chance to spread pain and misinformation. I was pretty proud to be there to see it.

There was a moment when Sterling’s mother was making her way toward the church, and the crowd parted for her. As she moved through a wave of clapping began to take shape. Wave after wave built into an ovation that lasted for minutes on end. It was a whole community of support – not making it any easier, not pretending it was all ok – but recognizing her sacrifice. We’ve been in these damn wars for so long now and most of us don’t have to count the cost so we needed to see her face. We needed to be near her and respect her. She’s paying. Her son paid. They paid in real blood and real tears and real years gone. If the only thing Columbia could give this woman was an ovation of encouragement, if all we could do was let her memory of this day be filtered through our good wishes and red shirts, if our best job was to keep her from seeing the blasphemy that the Westboro picketers brought… then we did well. We couldn’t make it better, but we kept them from making it worse.

I’m a Christian. I’ve spent the last two decades intensely studying the bible and Christian thought. I’ve heard it. I’ve read it. I’ve preached it. I’ve encountered it in history and in individual lives. I’ve seen it in Pontormo and Dostoevesky, in U2 and NASA. I’ve witnessed it through the chance and paradox and uncertainty of real life. It’s a part of who I am. And it offends me at a level that I can’t even begin to describe to see it distorted by the Westboro “Baptist” “Church” (or pedofile priests or opportunitistic politicians). Their actions are so pestilential, so putrifyingly wrong… yet they have become a picture of what Christianity is, who Jesus is, to so many in this country.

In the face of this absolute distortion all I can do is try to be a good man, a good husband, a good dad, a good teacher, a good artist. The only real way for me to show people that Westboro Hate Mongers (or abusive clergy or rightwing pseudo-Christian politicians) don’t represent MY Jesus is by acting out what I believe He’s all about in my own life. I know I can’t do it in my own strength, but that’s part of what I was trying to do today. It’s what I try to do as a teacher. It’s what I try to do as a dad and a husband. I can’t make any big difference. I can’t change anyone’s heart. None of that is my job. But I can try to be a peacemaker and promote justice, try to express reconcilliation, and work to function in a humble, gentle way with everyone.

“He has shown you what is good and what is required of you: do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.” – Micah 6:8

While thinking about all of the distortion and hate and foolishness is frustrating, it was tremendously encouraging to see my community rise up in a positive way today. I’ll say it again: I’m really proud to live here. I hope our efforts today had some impact – at least on ourselves.

RIP Specialist Sterling W. Wyatt

All These Remainders

“The creation of legend is never known at the time of its genesis. Only displacement can imbue the past with the aura of sentimentality. Oh, to yearn, to stretch back with every fiber! To feel again that desire; the shrouded figures that play still on those lost, faded shores. Seeing ever so faintly the afternoon sunlight through old windows and recalling the impression of newfound knowledge in those dusty old books. Oh, to squeeze the eyes tightly, if only to glimpse for one moment that gone-ness – to feel it in the pit, to be in that pit, to stay: impossible. Knowing that it all exists only because I can’t stay there. Oh, to regress into my own idealization, to see myself again as I did then…”

“All these remainders have a keening tonality, a tinnitus of sounds, which we are unable to hear outwardly but which our hearts intuit. They are the silent sirens of what has gone before, and they call to us with accolades and accusations.” – from A Mnemonic of Longing, an unpublished essay, 2002-2009.

So ends my remembrance of Ox-Bow, ten years after. So much more could be said, be shown. I’ll leave it at this for now. The text I have shared in these posts is, perhaps (if only to me), my best artwork. It evokes for me the feeling of remembering and the instances that remembrance serves equally well. The words I’ve shared are as present to me as the times they transform and recreate. In turning them over, reading and re-reading them again and again, I sense anew so many true things. In them I know again the many secrets I held all those years ago. The creaking of the Inn, the internal affects of grasses and trees, and the whispers of the wind – which even now (this VERY second!) are stealing across the Lagoon and through the meadow, past the Mary K and over the dunes – are all as true now in these mnemonic words as they were when I wrote those words down. And they rest in me, speaking in me as to one who has glimpsed a deep but unnameable majesty. Darkness sits near (deathly close to) light.

- Matt Ballou, September 1, 2011.

Images from digital photos taken between May and August 2001.

Half-light – the time of soul-sense

“Later on, again I saw the stars rushing in that great sky-arc, their pathways subtly changing over time, subtly changing tonight even as I gaze upward. I think of my place along those paths, and as I think I understand that it is no wonder that the ancients thought the earth was the center of all things. Even when one’s thoughts consider those things farthest from the self, those things impose themselves upon the self in a very physical way – an implication, an assertion. No other beings but us can know these things… To lie on the dock at 1am, the water lapping (piles softly swaying) at languid fingers, touching them with such immediacy even as light a billion years old breaks the plane of these wet eyes. A prayer offered to God. No, it is no wonder to me that the ancients thought themselves the center of all things.”

“Half-light – the time of soul-sense. It is muted sense, muted movement, and muted knowledge. When the world falls away to an edge; we are on it and in it, but at a moment of unknowing. How can we yet remain? Oh, to strain, to stretch! To allow that great letting occur, where our selves, our identities of self, are removed from our references, from our knowing. This is the pure spirit. What has happened?” – from A Mnemonic of Longing, an unpublished essay, 2002-2009.

Images from digital photos taken between May and August 2001.

Inspiration – Oscar Wilde

“The public make use of the classics of a country as a means of checking the progress of Art. They degrade the classics into authorities. They use them as bludgeons for preventing the free expression of Beauty in new forms. They are always asking a writer why he does not write like somebody else, or a painter why he does not paint like somebody else, quite oblivious of the fact that if either of them did anything of the kind he would cease to be an artist. A fresh mode of Beauty is absolutely distasteful to them, and whenever it appears they get so angry and bewildered that they always use two stupid expressions—one is that the work of art is grossly unintelligible; the other, that the work of art is grossly immoral. What they mean by these words seems to me to be this. When they say a work is grossly unintelligible, they mean that the artist has said or made a beautiful thing that is new; when they describe a work as grossly immoral, they mean that the artist has said or made a beautiful thing that is true.” – Oscar Wilde, (from this New Yorker article)

Though I don’t believe in “newness” or “originality” I resonate with what Wilde is saying here. What we consider new or original is really just a recombination of the elements and assumptions that underlie our experience and expression of being into a form that is somewhat removed from our well-worn paths of knowing. We are uncomfortable with this reconfiguration, this reconstitution, and so we react by calling it unintelligible or immoral, as Wilde observed. I think Wilde’s greatest contribution is in his knowing and deft agitation of our assumptions about what we know, his precise jostling of our convictions of certainty. He is one of the few artists whose work I seamlessly love.

One of my fondest memories of experiencing Wilde is related to seeing the Tom Stoppard play “The Invention of Love” at the Court Theater of the University of Chicago with my wife and father in law several years ago. In it Wilde makes a striking appearance with the main character of the play A.E. Housman, on the shore of the river Styx. His teeth blackened, condemned by law and society, Wilde is an exuberant yet melancholic figure in death. Still dapper and spouting axioms, dressed in lilac and reading from his own work as Housman comes upon him in the afterlife, Stoppard’s Wilde is a revelation. The scene catalyzed my appreciation for Wilde, so I guess I have Stoppard to thank for that. Here’s a review of the play if you’re interested.

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?