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.

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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!

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

MU’s Cast Gallery Provides Students With a Link to the Past

IMG_0935.JPGStudents at work in the Gallery of Greek and Roman Casts, Mizzou.

Recently I wrote a short piece for the Columbia Missourian to highlight the work the Museum (and my students!) are doing; click here to read the piece. Here are a couple fantastic works from two of my students this semester:

IMG_1327.JPGAbove: a drawing of a detail of a cast by Caroline Pins. Graphite on paper, 2014.

IMG_1328.JPGAbove: a cast drawing of Dancing Girl by Hye Jun Kim. Graphite on paper, 2014.

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I’ve asked my students to comment below regarding their experiences at the Gallery. Many of them wrote compelling reflections about drawing from the casts, so I’m pleased to offer them some space to share those thoughts.

 

 

Inspiration: Students

I started this blog five years and two days ago, and one of the things I’ve enjoyed most about it is sharing the work of my students. I never try to over-sell it. Most of my students are not Art majors. Many of them have had very little art-making experience before they take my classes. Yet they always make transformational movements, always end up showing themselves things they never imagined doing. I want to share a few of my Spring 2014 students’ works and words below. They were inspirational to me this semester. All images and words shared with permission.

photo 1Tayler Newcomer, Undeclared Major. Self Portrait Study, 14 by 11 inches, Graphite.

“Everything changed when I walked in this classroom at the beginning of this semester. This class has changed the way I thought of drawing, and even my perspective on life. I found myself more focused and calm when I drew instead of anxious and judged. It helped to bring back this hope and urge to draw that I used to have when I was a little kid and I’m not sure if I can even fully explain what that means to me. What I’ve taken from this class is honestly a little more uncertainty, but I know that’s not a bad thing… I just had thought to myself that I could never be an artist or a musician or a writer. Yet I still draw, still play music, and I still write on that novel I’m almost sure I’ll never finish. I want to go out and appreciate this wonderful gift of life that has been bestowed upon us.” – Tayler Newcomer.
imageTayler Newcomer, Undeclared Major. Self Portrait Study, 18 by 24 inches, Graphite.
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2014-05-03 16.00.51Emily Crane, Graphic Design Major, Softball. Master Copy after LeRoy Neiman, 24 by 18 inches, Pastel.
“I want to see things through others’ eyes and be open to change! In the rest of my life I want to keep trying to be slow to anger and quick to love, and care as Jesus would. I pray my life will be a light for people in one way or another!” – Emily Crane.
2014-05-03 15.55.14Emily Crane, Graphic Design Major, Softball. Self Portrait Off Third Base, from a M, 24 by 18 inches, Pastel.
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image[1]Blessing Ikoro, Psychology Major. Self Portrait Study, 14 by 11 inches, Colored Pencil.
“If it were not for a sense of the whole I would not be me when I draw my self portraits. I would not be such a pronounced image within the scene that I draw; it is the universe itself that helps pronounce my image. The drawing then has a sense of the whole as well.” – Blessing Ikoro.
image[2]Blessing Ikoro, Psychology Major. Study of Busts of Caesar and Apollo, 24 by 18 inches, Charcoal.
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2014-05-03 16.00.58Amanda Bradley, Art Major. Master Copy after Dutch Master, 24 by 18 inches, Colored Pencil.
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2014-05-03 16.00.38Shayna Painter, Business Administration Major. Master Copy after Kupka, 18 by 18 inches, Colored Pencil.
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“The way you see something and the way you experience it are so different. The visual aspect of anything isn’t more important than what you learned from it or now it made you feel.” – Hunter Whitt, Elementary Education Major.
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These young women were just a few of the outstanding students I had this semester. Here’s hoping they continue on with the art impulse.

Becoming The Student, #1: Shalonda Farrow

Starting this month I will be periodically posting a new series of portraits, beginning with the one below. The title of this series, Becoming the Student, is based on my desire to be quieter and learn from others rather than be entirely bound up in my identity as an educator. In Becoming the Student, I hope to present thoughtful, dignified portraits and use the time while creating the works as an opportunity to learn from the people who sit for me. With each post I will include some observation, quote, or other tidbit of glory that the subject shared with me.

The one below was created in 3 hours or so at a portrait workshop I conducted at The Columbia Art League yesterday. Pictured is my friend (and fellow CAL instructor) Shalonda Farrow. I was struck by how often she used the word “love” (as in: “Thank you, love” or “Do you need any of this, love?”) during the session. In speaking to her friends, she’s always intentional about communicating care and awareness. Shalonda seemed like a perfect initial entry into the Becoming the Student series. Here’s to many more. And thanks to Shalonda and the ladies at CAL!

20131208-155201.jpgShalonda, 13 by 11 inches, pastel on paper. 2013.

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 :)

New Mandalas

I’ve created nearly 30 new mandalas in the last few weeks. Each is primarly oil or oil pastel on paper with colored pencil, crayon, or other mixed media added. Most are about 9 inches in diameter. Below are two of the group. Click for more detail.

Discussions and Digressions

“In places like universities, where everyone talks too rationally, it is necessary for a kind of enchanter to appear.” – Beuys

“Theory can only describe; it can never justify.” – Ballou

Above: Me with some grads after one of our early sessions, Spring 2012

This semester I got to dig deep with a group of graduate students here at Mizzou. In the discussion-based course I presented a series of texts – grouped into several general themes – and used them to attempt to open up the grads’ approach to thinking about, making, and viewing art. In our reading, discussion, and reflective writing, we took on some of the alternative histories/literacies that function within the art world. I wanted to use this post to give a general overview of the topics and content we touched on this semester, as well as offer a selection of some of the provocative ideas we read. I do this as a huge thank you to the individuals whose work we sampled; their words were encouraging, challenging, enraging, and powerful. I also wanted to take this opportunity to thank the students who took the journey with me. So here’s to Aron, Bethanie, Charlie, Chris, Danielle, Eric, Greta, Jahner, Jane, Matt, and Ron; none of us could have had the experiences we had without each of us being a part of it. As David Abram (or Bachelard, or Emerson, or Dillard) might say – all things are in relation.

Above: A grad class?

1) We began by discussing some key dichotomies through the easy-to-access survey work of Leonard Shlain. Contrasting ideas such as Image/Word, Nonverbal/Verbal, and Truth/Fiction were explored in a number of texts and films, the latter being most importantly represented by Herzog’s Lessons of Darkness and Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi.

“Of all the sacred cows allowed to roam unimpeded in our culture, few are as revered as literacy.” – Shlain

Key Works:
Reggio, Godfrey. “Koyaanisqatsi.” Color Film, 1983.
Shlain, Leonard. “The Alphabet Versus the Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image.” 1998.
Herzog, Werner. “Lessons of Darkness.” Color Film, 1991.

2) Tightening our resolution from the expansive binary tensions in our initial overview, our second focus was to look at how the more central ideas and modes of art and aesthetics were defined/redefined and questioned in the first part of the twentieth century. Looking at early pragmatist philosopher/scholars of art and religion like George Santayana and Ananda Coomaraswamy we took the temperature of a certain corner of the institutional establishment in the throes of the Modernism moment.

“To be sensitive to difficulties and dangers goes with being sensitive to opportunities.” – Santayana
“The artist is not a special kind of man but every man is a special kind of artist.” – Coomaraswamy

Key Texts:
Santayana, George. “Reason in Art.” Originally published in 1905.
Coomaraswamy, Ananda. “Christian and Oriental Philosophy of Art.” From a 1956 Dover edition.

3) In our next group of readings we found ourselves looking away from socialized and received notions of making meaning and gazed into the huge vault of human biology itself. Using primarily Rudolf Arnheim and Ellen Dissanayake, we discovered that a very profound kind of knowledge precedes the cognitive ideas that may calibrate our understanding of art: the psychology of kinesthesis and developmental biology. We took Dissanayake as a jumping off point to engage with Evolutionary Psychology as it pertains to art, art-making, and meaning. Touching on the work of Denis Dutton (as well as his critics), we explored how biology has calibrated how human beings make meaning and put it to work in the world. Coming back to pragmatism, we saw how Dewey and Kupfer connected aesthetic experiences with moral growth.

“It is important to recognize that in large measure everything we know is ultimately based on our bodily senses: what we see, hear, and touch, in particular.” – Dissanayake

“The work of art symbolizes all the levels of reality that lie between the phenomenon and the idea.” – Arnheim

“We take pleasure in watching an athlete break a record, hearing a soprano in full flight, or reading a philosopher of depth and insight. Human accomplishment is the ultimate spectator sport. Apply as much historical analysis to it as we wish, and we’ll not unlock all its mysteries. The continuous capacity of genius to surpass understanding remains a human constant.” – Dutton

Key Texts:
Arnheim, Rudolf. “Toward a Psychology of Art.” 1966.
Dissanayake, Ellen. “Homo Aestheticus.” 1992.
Dutton, Denis. “Aesthetics and Evolutionary Psychology.” The Oxford Handbook for Aesthetics, 2003.
Dewey, John. “Art as Experience.” 1958.
Kupfer, Jospeh. “Aesthetic Experience and Moral Education.” Journal of Aesthetic Education, 1978.

4) Once fully ensconced in the notion that our biology (and the way that biology structured our thinking and making) is key to any real understanding of what art is and does, we looked at the intellectual analysis of artworks. This examination of interpretation – or, as it might be, overinterpretation – was overseen by Arthur C. Danto and Umberto Eco, with a significant dash of Richard Rorty thrown in for good measure.

“Interpretation is in effect the lever with which an object is lifted out of the real world and into the artworld, where it becomes vested in often unexpected raiment. Only in relationship to interpretation is a material object an artwork, which of course does not entail that what is an artwork is relative in any further interesting way.” – Danto

“From a certain point of view everything bears relationships of analogy, contiguity and similarity to everything else.” – Eco

“Reading [artworks] is a matter of reading them in the light of other [artworks], people, obsessions, bits of information, or what have you, and then seeing what happens.” – Rorty

Key Texts:
Danto, Arthur C. “The Philosophical Disenfranchisement of Art.” 2005.
Eco, Umberto. “Interpretation and Overinterpretation.” 1992.

Above: COME AT ME BRO!

5) In some sense our exploration of the hyper-intellectualized/philosophized interpretation of artworks took us from culture into a kind of ritualized, rarified space – albeit a secular one. From there we took a tack back toward culture-making and onward through it toward a more spiritual kind of ritual. We looked first at key texts from the famed philosopher of religion Mircea Eliade. Our perspective was updated to the mid-90s with Suzi Gablik’s The Reenchantment of Art.

“The numinous presents itself as something ‘wholly other’ (ganz andere), something basically and totally different.” – Eliade

“Ritual signifies that something more is going on than meets the eye – something sacred.” – Gablik

Key Texts:
Eliade, Mircea. “The Sacred and the Profane: the Nature of Religion.” 1959.
Gablik, Suzi. “The Reenchantment of Art.” 1991.

6) At this point we began to entertain the implications of the alternative histories/literacies we had explored over the semester. We aimed more directly at poetical understanding, beginning with Emerson as a representative of the American Transcendentalist Movement of the 19th century. From there we allowed Annie Dillard and David Abram to bring us up to the present day – and blow our minds along the way. In this section we spent a good amount of time attempting to understand an intuitive mode of aesthetics as opposed to a rationalist one.

“The life of [humanity] is a self-evolving circle, which, from a ring imperceptibly small, rushes on all sides outwards to new and larger circles, and that without end.” – Emerson

“The feelings that move us – the frights and yearnings that color our days, the flights of fancy that sometimes seize us, the creativity that surges through us – all are born of the encounter and interchange between our life and the wider Life that surrounds us. They are no more ours than they are Earth’s” – David Abram

“I’ve an eyeful of fish-scale and star!” – Dillard

Key Texts:
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Nature and Other Writings.” 2003 edition by Shambhala.
Abram, David. “The Air Aware.” 2009.
Dillard, Annie. “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.” 1974.
For your listening pleasure, click here to hear David Abram read The Air Aware.

Above: They (the grads) were in some frightening trees (grad school)! Click here for more information…

7) Our final readings of the semester centered on Gaston Bachelard. This master dreamer – a giant of 20th century philosophy who influenced Foucault and Derrida – helped us grasp the constellations that populate our own inner universes. Bachelard gave us – through his inflected intonations of the words of Rilke and Baudelaire (among others) – a sense of how our intuitive manifestations might transcend the “geometrical ontological determinations” that dominate the empiricist, rationalist approach to contemporary art-making.

“Everything takes form, even infinity. We seek to determine being and, in so doing, transcend all situations, to give a situation of all situations.Man’s being is confronted with the world’s being.” – Bachelard
“By means of poetic language, waves of newness flow over the surface of being.” – Bachelard

Key Texts:
Bachelard, Gaston. “The Poetics of Space.” 1994.

I want to thank all of the grads for going with me on the journey this semester. Spring 2012 FTW!