Inspiration – Eric Sweet

Photo Apr 16, 3 09 28 PMEric blurred in front of the work of a fellow grad, Charlie Thompson.

Eric Sweet – a friend, colleague, and former student (in a few graduate classes) – died Monday, April 6th. It was sudden and strange in ways I can’t really describe. Yet his passing drew out much love and care from the people in his sphere of influence; so much of what remains is truly the definition of bitter-sweet.

Others have spoken much more eloquently than I can about all of this. But I wanted to take a moment here to memorialize Eric as so many of his friends and family have over the recent days. In the hours after he passed I made a few statements, but for the most part have been filled with silence. So here are a few more thoughts.

Photo Apr 16, 3 18 36 PMEric’s visage, pasted above the urinals in the Art Building bathroom…

I keep thinking of his graduate thesis title: Come to Nothing. The fact is that his life was the diametric opposite of that sentiment. He really did make something. He made real impressions (printmaking pun there). Real truths. Real observations. Real impacts. He was the opposite of a taker. He was not an emotional leech. While creating the work for Come to Nothing, Eric gave constantly of himself to encourage other grads and shape the graduate program. He could be forceful in advocating for excellence and understanding, but he did it out of a sense that we all really could be better. He knew that we could all be more thoughtful, more aware. And he helped us do that.

ES_3_print_res

Ideal City (Piazza Della Civilita Italiana), Hand pressed low relief blind embossment, 27” x  32”

Eric and his wife Catherine were the first graduate students I interacted with who really felt like colleagues and authorities from the very first time I met them. I often left meetings with them feeling that they were the ones doing the instruction, not me. This was – and is – a very good thing to experience. I have always felt edified by my time with them, and have loved the way Eric cast such a huge positive shadow over the graduate program at Mizzou. Grace and insightful clarity permeated their discussions. You knew you were getting straight talk from Eric.

Photo Apr 16, 3 18 27 PMA typical note from Eric to his students.

That straight talk continued after his death. In going over graduate review notes (faculty who attend a graduate’s review give feedback and vote on the student’s potential to continue on in the program), we noticed some from Eric. He’d been invited to attend review as one of our current Adjunct Professors, and he had taken the time to interact with the ideas of our current grads. Sharp and precise, Eric pulled no punches. He was a teacher right up to the end.

1935079_966535378259_7573425_nHanging out at Klik’s.

On the day of his Memorial Potluck, I was able to place a tribute to Eric on a large drawing at a local restaurant. If you’d like to see a time lapse of the drawing as I made it, watch below (or click here):

Time Lapse of Chalk Pastel Drawing at Gunter Hans, April 11, 2015

from matthewballou on Vimeo.

1907519_10105539051084089_281031879456274633_nEric at the first Thomas Kinkade’s Christmas Cottage movie viewing.

One of the most lasting things Eric gave us was his love for Catherine, which is one of the best love stories I’ve gotten to see up close. Their marriage was a testament to a couple being able to get over themselves in order to become more like their true selves. Their marriage made them more human and more transcendent. What a tremendous gift they pictured together.

~

I’m grateful to have known you, Eric. RIP.

~

The Places I Keep

For as long as I’ve had an iPhone I’ve kept a number of locations in the Weather app. One might think it strange to find the city of Luoyang in Henan Province, China or Essex Township, NY in my phone when I’ve lived in the American Midwest for many years. For me, however, this little gesture of keeping my eye on these locations is important. I use that Weather app as a way to remember and connect to the spaces and times that have shaped me.

imageLuoyang, China. Where my second daughter was born. Where we witnessed so much. One of the places where we learned to love China.

imageEvanston, IL. Where my wife and I learned how to love kids before we were parents. Where we learned so many great lessons.  Where we worked and played as newly-weds. Where we received counsel. Where we were changed and made ready for a life together.

imageGrove City, PA. Where I – as a little kiddo – got my first taste of academia. Where I watched the Challenger explode. Where I dropped my Skeletor figure in polluted water. Where I learned to love reading. Where I gained many levels of imagination and learned about the evocative power of objects and spaces.

imageEssex Township in the central Adirondacks of New York state. This is the closest Weather app location to Keene, NY, which is the town nearest Mt Marcy. It was on the side of Mt Marcy, the highest peak in NY, where my cousin Chris and I found ourselves almost trapped by flooding one camping trip; it was an epic and transformative series of events.

imageGlen Arbor, MI. In some ways this little town represents much of MI for me (I’ve had so many amazing experiences in that state). Located at the base of Leelanau Peninsula, it sits in the midst of really beautiful country. This is a place where I had a wonderful artist residency and found space for contemplation after struggling to get my mind around full time teaching.

imageBloomington, IN. Where I went to grad school. Where I found my voice as a painter. Where I learned that I would love teaching. Where my wife and I had our first struggles and triumphs in marriage. I love this place, and going back to visit is like going home.

Photo Mar 01, 9 22 43 AM (1)Florence, Italy. Where the lessons of graduate school were catalyzed – in the coolness of cathedrals and musty halls of museums. Where Pontormo presided over a leap in my visual IQ. Where we learned that international travel was doable for us.

imageColumbia, MO. Where two of my children were born. Where I’ve found a place as an educator and mentor. Where we’ve found community.

What ways do you use to celebrate the places that have made you who you are?

 

Norleen On The Cusp

IMG_0268-1Norleen (On the Cusp). Graphite on paper, 16 by 16 inches. 2014.

~

Norleen Nosri is an incredible person: Daughter, Artist, Mom, Malaysian, Muslim, Wife, Teacher, Lover of the World, Speaker of Truths, Embracer of Difference, Celebrant of Joy, Preparer of Meals, Peacemaker, Calmer of Hearts, Tea Drinker, and so much more. While each graduate student I have worked with has unique aspects which make them special and necessary to my experience as an educator, Norleen shares a special spot with Natalie Shelly; being with them is like spending time with God. Norleen’s gentleness, care for people, and passion for work are just humbling to witness.

In my portrait of her I got something we almost never see: a completely still and silent Norleen. Usually she’s a flurry of activity, all smiles and happy exclamations. Here I saw her in a moment of pensive awareness. She’s not unhappy, just leaning into life with resolve; she’s receiving some of that grace she so easily gives to others. That open face and intense look in her eyes speak volumes.

When I drew her she was on the cusp of a huge life change – moving into a new space and new opportunities in St Louis, MO. And now she’s about to undertake her greatest challenge yet: a tea ceremony installation work serving thousands of people (read more about her current work as Artist-in-Residence at the Craft Alliance in STL here). I’ve written a bit about Norleen before, so I’ll let her have the last word. Below are just a few of her thoughts from the conversation we had last year.

On graduate programs:

“I gotta do this. That’s the only mentality. My mind at first was like, what is the MFA? But I never took it lightly. It’s supposed to be intense. It’s gotta be intense. It’s going to squeeze all the crappy parts out and just leave the pure… so it’s going to be painful. I knew from many of my ceramics friends – with Bede (Clarke, head of Ceramics at Mizzou), just be prepared to cry a lot. But the best of what happens is reciprocal, between you and (your faculty). It’s not so much about discipline. The discipline is what got you in. The relationships get you through.”

On art:

“How I see the world – in terms if what part of life I’m imitating in my work – seems like a moral obligation to me. The way I interact with people, the way I hope for people; I have that embedded within my material and whatever I’m working on. It’s so specific. But the dialogue around art is often different. Critique in art can be such obsession with intense reason and cost/effect, blah-blah, blah-blah, blah-blah, concept, aesthetic… I hate that kind of conversation. I use art as my arena of letting go.”

~

If you can spend some time with Norleen, do it. See her work. You’ll see there’s a bit of divinity hanging in the air.

 

Whale of a Tattoo!

2015-01-05 10.44.31Whale of a Tattoo (Jesse’s Arm), Pastel on paper, 13 by 22 inches. 2014.

I made this drawing of my friend Jesse Slade just a couple weeks before he got married last year. Jesse is a gentle man, always ready with a quick laugh and bright smile. That bushy beard he’s got is iconic. He’s got a talent for making seemingly simple statements that have – when you think back on them – striking depth. Such a good dude.

~

On being a big fish in a small pond:

“That idea is totally wrong; you’re always a small fish in a big pond.”

On hard experiences:

“It’s all growth, man. Every day, every second of every day. Just growth. And it’s growth that may look like it’s decay for a while… it’ll definitely rekindle.”

On the whale tattoo:

“Did I ever tell you the reason I got the whale? Jonah. The whale in this story is a beautiful sort of temporary savior, obviously speaking of Christ. Jonah only had the whale for that time, and then it was gone. Christ stays. I got the whale as a reminder of that love. I’m excited to get a moon next.”

On single-digit temperatures:

“It is days like this I am especially grateful I have a beard. #AllDayScarf”

On his favorite band:

Trampled by Turtles.” Here’s one of their songs: “Are you behind the shining star?

~

Thanks for letting me draw your tattoo, Jesse!

First of 15

2015 is already shaping up to be a year full of potential for Art Stuff!

~ I was part of the jury for the True/False Film Fest exhibition that will take place this month at Imago. Titled The Long Now this exhibition follows the theme of True/False this year. Click the image for more info.

Postcard

~ After the The Long Now exhibition comes down, I’ll be in a show at Imago with Jennifer Ann Wiggs and Chris Fletcher, two local artists I admire and respect. It should be fun – I’ll be exhibiting some of my digitally-based work for the first time!

harris-f_gdetailAnne Harris – figure/ground (detail)

~ A show I’m organizing and curating at Anne Arnudel’s John A. Cade Center for the Arts Gallery in Maryland opens on the 26th. I’ll be giving a talk there on the 28th concerning the topic of “Subject and Subjectivity” in regards to contemporary representational painting. I am pleased to note that two of my artistic heroines – Anne Harris and Catherine Kehoe – have agreed to be in the exhibition. It’s blowing me away to think I’ll be sharing space with these two great painters, not to mention the likes of David Campbell, Erin Raedeke, and the others I’ve invited to this exhibition.

Campbell-Death_TransmissionDavid Campbell – Death Transmission

Exhibition Information:

Title: Subject and subjectivity: a selection of perceptual paintings
Curated by Matt Ballou (University of Missouri). Organized by Matt Ballou and Matt Klos (Anne Arnudel)

Dates:

January 26-February 26, 2015
John A. Cade Gallery at Anne Arundel Community College

January 16-February 27, 2016
WIU Gallery – Western Illinois University

Other venues are also considering this exhibition.

1-img_0774Kat Arft – Mourning the Death

~ In May Kat Arft and I have a show together at the Craft Studio Gallery at the University of Missouri. Entitled Four Large Drawings, the exhibition will feature some pretty massive drawings; heights and widths 6 or 7 or 8 feet. Should be awesome.

~ Finally, my first foray into online teaching took place this past semester, and now work is being done to quantify what really happened. There was some mixed success – and my class has been approved to run again next fall – but I have been collaborating with a PhD candidate, Catherine Friel, who is an Academic Technology Liaison at ET@Mizzou to get some hard data about how the online course worked in comparison to my standard face-to-face classes. Some have wondered – myself included – whether students can learn drawing in an online environment. At some point soon I’ll go over some of what we’ve learned and I’ll share my perspective on delivering fundamental drawing concepts over ye olde interwebz.

videoclassMe, “delivering fundamental drawing concepts over ye olde interwebz” in 2014.

Anyway, here’s to 2015!

David and Patch

David-and-Patch2014David and Patch (Professor David Oliver’s Mandala). Acrylic and gold on panel, 30 by 30 inches, 2014. Click the image for enlargement.

Professor David Oliver is an amazing person. He is a husband, father, and grandfather. He is a professor and mentor. He is passionate about life and justice and hope. He is dying.

Diagnosed with Stage IV nasopharyngeal carcinoma in 2011, he knew his days were limited. An expert on aging who had built a long career in Gerontology and understanding end-of-life issues, David knew that he could apply all he’d studied, learned, and implemented to his cancer. In the years since the diagnosis he has produced a series of videos that detail his cancer journey on his blog, written a book on demystifying death, and won awards (along with this wife) for work on improving end-of-life care.

David’s story is certainly inspirational (you can read more at The Huffington Post here), but it also has a personal angle for me. David was my mother-in-law’s mentor nearly 40 years ago when she was a student at the College of the Ozarks and he was a professor there. Over the years they have continued to have a warm relationship, and mom was dramatically influenced by David’s character and understanding. As providence would have it, his career journey led him to the University of Missouri. When I arrived to teach here in 2007 he was an early advocate for me, meeting with me and encouraging me. The mentor came full circle in impacting our family.

I knew I wanted to make a portrait of him for my Becoming the Student series, but I didn’t want to impose, figuring he had better things to do with his remaining days than pose for me. But when he emailed me one day last month to talk to me about a lecture I’d recently given, I ventured to ask about making his portrait. He said that he probably only had a matter of weeks left, and that we’d have to act fast, but that he’d be happy to be a part of it. The next morning I was sitting in his living room making the painting you see above.

Photo Dec 20, 2 01 44 PMDavid and I pose with the portrait in progress, November 2014.

While I worked on the portrait we had a great conversation about education, travel, teaching, and family. After, while I worked to add in the mandala structure, we exchanged emails which added to our dialogue. Here are just a few nuggets from our time together:

On travel:

“Travel is the greatest education.” David has been to hundreds of major cities around the world over the decades, but has spent time in Istanbul, Barcelona, Copenhagen, among others, in the last few years. His eyes twinkle and voice grows excited while recounting past travels through Europe and Asia with family.

On experiencing cancer:

“I can’t tell you what cancer feels like, but I can tell you about how the treatments feel. I chose the non-aggressive path.” David had to make big choices about the sort of care he would undertake to fight his cancer. Though he has had rounds of chemotherapy and surgery, he chose to limit them both. Ultimately he went with palliative and hospice care over more forceful options. “My voice is my life” he told me, so he decided not to have surgeries that would have resulted in a loss of his ability to speak.

Photo Dec 20, 3 41 55 PMAbove: the piece installed above the mantel at David’s home.

On the goals for palliative care and hospice:

“I want to be at Home, surrounded by Others, be Pain-free, and Engaged as long as I can be. That acronym spells HOPE. It’s pretty simple, and that’s the exit strategy. I want to be a role model for another way.” By entering hospice early and focusing on his HOPE model, David has been able to spend a lot of quality time with family and even go to events like basketball games for his beloved Mizzou Tigers.

On Patch:

“I’m a spectator in my own body – I call him Patch. But I’m thinking, feeling, acting, and taking advantage of every moment I’ve got left. I have millions of moments to experience, so I’ll let others worry about Patch. Patch is off doing his thing; the hospice team is taking care of him. I was able to let him go. I think people who continue to treat their body view themselves as one holistic entity… they’re not able to separate to understand what’s inward. There are many things in the body that are happening and you can’t stop them. But I am not my shortness of breath or anything else that may be happening to Patch. I’ll just let hospice patch him up.” Calling his physical body by the name Patch is a way for David to both embrace the care that body needs and reinforce the distinction between his identity and his body. That body is passing away, but David sees his inner life as separate from the vicissitudes forced upon his “shell” by cancer, medications, pain, and general breakdown. David has found a way to grasp his embodiment without seeing it as absolutely necessary to his personhood.

David-and-Patch2014_angleAbove: The portrait shown at an angle to show the change of reflected light in the gold leaf.

~

My notes about this piece:

The most significant material I have used in this painting is gold leaf. Gold leaf is a traditional medium to suggest the divine and sacred. I also chose to build a complementary-colored mandala as the field upon which the portrait is embedded. Additionally, I centered the transition between David’s physical portrait and his inverse, transcendent manifestation around the Crown Chakra. The Crown Chakra is is associated with meaning and identity in the context of divine consciousness and enlightenment; the part of us that passes beyond this mortal coil. Surrounding that arena of transition and transformation are laurel leaves, traditional symbols of victory and attainment. This piece is meant to connect David’s personal associations (his name, his body, his visage) with broader, more universal conceptions of moving from one state to another – higher, entirely other – state. I combine Eastern conceptions encapsulated in the mandala with Western notions included in the idea of the memorial portrait. In some sense this is an apotheosis artwork (as an example, see The Apotheosis of Homer by Ingres).

The painting is meant to suggest that a binary group is being presented: David and Patch, bright gold and dark black, transformation and deterioration, transcendence and impermanence, immaterial and material, contemplation and dissolution, enlightenment and illusion, and the circle and the square… there are many others that could be named. These all speak to ancient alchemical oppositions.

~

I am honored to be able to celebrate this humble and gentle man. Even in the last days and hours of his life he is encouraging, hopeful, loving, and inclusive. He has been given the great gift of applying his life-long study of aging and dying to his own direct experience, and he’s drawn others into it with joy. I’m so thankful I got to include David in my portrait series.

Thank you, David!

PS: And a thank you to Debbie, David’s wife! She crafted this beautiful handmade textile piece for my new son:

Photo Dec 20, 3 32 03 PM

“Making something is one way to say ‘I love you'” – Daniel Tiger

My kids love Daniel Tiger. One of his ditties has a line they love to sing to themselves (and anyone else who’ll listen) that says “Making something is one way to say ‘I love you’.”

It’s obvious, but also something that we all need to be reminded of. It’s been on my mind as little Mr. Atticus is set to arrive soon… and as Alison is so, SO, SO ready to have that kiddo out. My wife tends to feel loved much more by actions than by words. Living out love is way more believable and significant to her than merely saying some words or going through some trite motions. For her, making something really is one good say to say ‘I love you’ to her.

We have been planning to have some fairly significant home projects/repairs and upgrading done before Atticus arrives. At first it was as simple as taking off some 30 year old wallpaper and painting the dining room, making a bunch of freezer meals to have during the first couple months post-Atticus-birth, and a few other general upkeep items. Once we got into those projects I started getting a head of steam going… I felt like hitting one of our dream projects: Built-In Bookshelves.

Alison and I have wanted to DIY some built-in bookshelves for over a decade. I decided we should go for it. I wanted it to be my pre-Atticus ‘thanks for all the hard work’ gift to Alison.

So I made some plans and even a balsa wood model…

Photo Nov 06, 11 30 11 PM

Thus prepared, the work began…

IMG_5475 IMG_5477 copy

 

 

 

 

 

 

IMG_5490 copy

Alison contributed painting and oversight skills.

Photo Nov 11, 9 10 39 PM

Almost complete…

Photo Nov 19, 10 07 54 AM

BOOOM! Finished. Made of Birch Plywood (a bit of mounting substructure), Oak (main, weight bearing horizontals), Poplar (vertical attachments), and Aspen wood (main shelves) with pre-fab crown and  base molding. Eight feet high, thirteen feet wide, and one foot deep. Took us about 2.5 weeks from start to finish, but combined with our other projects we’ve put in about 6 weeks of effort. In some ways this was hard stuff to do, work that required serious thought and follow-through.

It’s good to do hard things for the ones you love.

But I don’t want to over-romanticize this. It’s just a bookshelf. We have access to so much more than most of the world. We have a place to live and love in. We live in a safe area. We have jobs that help us have an historically unprecedented quality of life. So much of the world can’t say this. But given what we’ve got we need to live honorably. Whether that’s through adoption or committing to the vocation of a teacher – or through taking 6 weeks out of my own work to do work for my wife (who has put in 39 weeks on building a son for us!) – then I want to do that with passion and thanksgiving.

Photo Nov 19, 10 10 17 AM

Doing this project reminded me of how concentrated effort can translate into love. When I took a week to paint the interior of my mother in law’s home, that work catalyzed my love for her. When I create a painting for a family who is starting out on the adventure of adoption, that’s a way to know my own love for them. When I look at my built-in bookshelves, I’ll always think about the work my wife does and how hugely important she is, how lovely she is, how worthy she is.

And I’ll be thankful.

Museum Show!

10727750_760661254004316_310602584_n

I’ll be giving a talk today at an event for the Mizzou Interdisciplinary Center on Aging at the Museum of Art and Archeology. This talk is on the subject of mediated attention and the ways I try to teach (and learn) through the various technologies that surround us (Click HERE if you’re interested in attending the event – it’s November 4, 2014 at 4PM).

The wonderful thing about this event today is that it’s the first public viewing of an exhibition I have guest-curated at the Museum. This show, called Touching the Past: Student Drawings From the Gallery of Greek and Roman Casts, will be up throughout the month of November and into December. It features 22 artworks by my former students. Student drawings from the likes of Jacob Maurice Crook, Kate Miers, and Allison Jacqueline Reinhart feature prominently. The Museum is open 10am until 4pm Monday through Friday, so come visit the show any time!

S2012_DRW1_CastGalleryStudents working in the Cast Gallery a few semesters ago.

Working in the Gallery of Greek and Roman Casts is one of the most important experiences I can give to my students. I hope you’ll stop by and see works like the ones shown below.

drw1-2013-02Hannah Wallace, Wide Angle Study of Figures in the Cast Collection. 18 by 24 inches, graphite on paper.

DSC07052Kate Miers, Study of Artemis. 24 by 18 inches, graphite on paper.

One special guest I invited to have work in this exhibition is fellow teacher and artist Chris Fletcher. His sensitive, searching drawings from the Mizzou Casts seem deceptively simple. But having spent the last 25+ years studying drawing and painting, I can tell you that they are masterworks of human subjectivity and focused engagement. I love the little marginalia notes he leaves for himself on the edges of the works, and the inquisitive-yet-firm nature of his working. Don’t pass by this small pieces when you visit the show. Really, really great stuff.

List of artists in the Touching the Past exhibition:

Olaia Chivite Amigo

Matthew Ballou

Maggie Berg

Amanda Bradley

Jacob Maurice Crook

Chris Fletcher

Emily Gogel

Terisia Hicks

Rachael Liberty

Kate Miers

Aubrey Miller

Delia Rainey

Allison Reinhart

Tianyuan Ren

David Spear

Andi Tockstein

Duy Tran

Hannah Wallace

 ~

DSC07075Detail of Andi Tockstein’s Study of Apollo… you need to see this drawing in person!

Every Brushstroke An Opportunity to Help Change a Life

il_570xN.276209062Situation and Circumstance Overcome, Oil on Panel, 16 by 20 inches. 2003.

Eleven years ago I created this painting. Over the years many people have asked me to create copies of it for them. There are more than 15 versions of this piece scattered across the US. Now you have an opportunity to get one of your own AND help support the adoption process for two of my good friends, Aarik and Brooke Danielsen.

il_570xN.276129237Detail of Situation and Circumstance Overcome.

The original piece is one of the most important artworks I’ve created. Its quality of construction, unique place in the story of my art making, and the personal significance it holds cause me to value it highly. For $400 you can have your very own version of this painting. I will donate every cent of the sale price to the Danielsens’ adoption fund.

I am taking up to 10 orders and I will deliver the finished works by July 2015. If you want to have a beautiful, evocative work of art for your home and help give a child a home they deserve, please consider ordering one here. I love the Danielsens and am excited to give anything I can to their adoption journey. If you follow my blog, you know how close adoption is to my heart. I hope you’ll give me a lot of work to do; every brushstroke will be done with love and joy, and in the knowledge that each one is making a real difference to a real person.

To find out more about the Danielsens’ adoption and learn more about how you can help, check out their blog here.

If you have questions let me know.

il_570xN.276209106Detail of Situation and Circumstance Overcome.

PLEASE NOTE THAT THE SAMPLE IMAGES ABOVE ARE EXAMPLES OF THE ORIGINAL PAINTING. Copies that I create will have variation, but will maintain the overall composition, color, and general surface structure of the original, and will be created exactly to the scale of the original.

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.