Maintaining Momentum For Change At Mizzou

One of the big issues that has come up in the days following the protests is what can be done to keep the momentum going. The protests and interventions that took place this semester are intertwined with a huge number of categories, among which are:

  • Race and gender.
  • The rights of all students and the proper remuneration for graduate students in particular.
  • The failures of a business mindset in a university setting.
  • The responsibilities of administrators to deal with racial and gender-based discrimination.
  • The necessity of recruiting, mentoring, and retaining students and faculty of color.
  • The proactive development of the University of Missouri as a place where students and faculty of every kind can feel safe, heard, and valued.

We’ve got a long way to go. The national media certainly pigeonholed the protests and reduced the reality of what is, and has been, happening at Mizzou down to overly simplified binaries. They wanted to pitch free speech against racial tension. They wanted to make it seem as if the grievances that were being aired amounted only to vapid temper tantrums of spoiled millennials. They cast the reality of racially-based aggression as fantasy. They collapsed over two years of issues into a couple scattered spats about imagined racism. All of that was wrong.

So in the wake of all of this, how are we to be clear about the problems we face, the progress we’ve already made, and stay the course on the work yet to be done? These were the sorts of questions Dr. Maya Gibson had in mind a couple days ago when she posted on her Facebook wall. I met Maya at the Wakonse Conference in May of 2015, and that was one of the most compelling aspects of the event. Getting to hear from her then, and having the pleasure of a few interactions with her since then, made me want to add my voice to the others who were posting their answers on Dr. Gibson’s Facebook wall. I decided to post the questions Maya asked and my answers here to get a chance to express these thoughts out beyond Facebook.

Maya Gibson: Dear white MU friends and allies: what do you think MU could do to make it a more welcoming place for black people (students, faculty, and the COMO community)?

Matt Ballou: One of the main things I have been doing is curating the canon of art history and art-making techniques. Rather than defaulting to 12 or 15 dead white males, I strive to show the work of artists in ways that empower my students. That means showing artists of color, artists of underrepresented genders and gender-expressions, and artists of different abilities and disabilities. That means talking about these examples as Artists and Thinkers, not as some label or hyphenation that could be used to disqualify their contribution. Students need to see themselves in the classroom, in the examples that are presented in the classroom. They need to know the possibilities for THEM.

I don’t view this as fulfilling some quota – I see it as part of the central aims of my work as an educator: to provide and advocate for ACCESS. Most of my students are female; they deserve to see the true breadth of approach to art-making that’s out there and know the significant contributions of women throughout time.

I could keep going… I think this is what I’m trying to do in the classroom to keep the movement going. When they see the institution respecting people they relate to and who look like them, they can believe that the institution – or at least ME – is on their side.

MG: Thanks, Matt. If you can keep your list going, I would encourage you to do so. I am learning and I hope others are too. What are specific things you do to make Mizzou a welcoming and safe place for black students, faculty, and the greater-MU community? I love that you are proactive in the ways in which you shape and recreate the canon for your students. You’re actively resisting the model of euro- and ethnocentrism that comprises so much (western) art pedagogy. We have that problem in music, too. I also have to say that I greatly appreciate the way in which you’ve advanced a notion of diversity writ large. Do you encounter resistance, and if so, how do you handle it?

MB: In terms of specific things, here is one big thing:

I always try to engage with others in such a way that they – and anyone observing the interaction – believe I think they are real. One of the biggest issues I have with most discussions in the public sphere and in the media is that they can so easily dilute the REAL lives, REAL experiences, and REAL perspectives of REAL people. So whether it’s informal – walking past an acquaintance on the sidewalk – or more formal – in a critique session in class – I want to concretely show that I believe in the truth of others’ existence. This means, for example, thoughtfully building on the comments of my colleagues of color during a graduate review. That may seem small, but it shows my white students that I affirm the things my colleague is saying and it demonstrates for my black/minority/female students that I listen when an African American woman speaks. They can see clearly that I hear that voice. It may seem little, but this sort of courtesy does, I think, make a difference.

Obviously it’s complex, but I think the idea I shared above about curating the canon and then following that up with visible positive engagement with my colleagues and students helps create an environment where welcoming other voices and actually hearing them can build a safe space and a more legitimate learning space.

In general I don’t personally get resistance. I think that’s a reflection of my privilege. I’m a pudgy white dude who looks semi-homeless half the time; no one questions the legitimacy of what I say or how I look. But I have heard about a number of situations where the appearance and ability to communicate of my female and minority colleagues have come under question. And that’s bullshit right there. When I talk about black artists, no one questions. But I have known of situations where black colleagues of mine have been accused of being shrill or having an ax to grind when they bring up the exact same artists in the exact same sort of situation. That’s bullshit. So my job is to recognize that difference between my experience and their experience and state my support for them. They didn’t do anything wrong, yet students felt it appropriate for them to give these educators a hard time. That’s bullshit. So, yes, there is resistance… We need to be vigilant.

Another thing I’ve tried to do is speak to my students – the majority of which are female and many of which are minorities of various sorts – as if they know what they are doing. They are used to professors talking down to them. I don’t do that. Some times they really don’t know what they are doing but they need someone to look at them with respect and ask them questions and make observations like they ARE already accomplished. And THAT will go a long way toward them actually becoming accomplished. This is exactly what happened to me. My main professors treated me like an artist and thinker long before I was actually there. And that’s why I have had some success. So I pay attention to my students in such a way that they hear the message that their lives are important and they can do this thing I’ve set before them.

MG: Thank you for seeing, acknowledging, and recognizing me, which is what I want more than anything. I have grown weary of being negated, silenced, and rejected by the majority, some of whom are so-called, supposed-to-be colleagues. Thank you for modeling for students how to treat people. Thank you for slapping the mess out of my hand when I raise it (at least it’s grounding). In short, thank you for being you.


I realize that this is just one conversation among all of the ones that have happened in and around Mizzou over the last semester. I hope that in some small way my clarification of my own attempts to be an educator who advocates for his students can help. God knows we don’t need more white dudes mansplaining, but I wanted to honor what I saw as Dr. Gibson’s serious and heartfelt request to her white colleagues. The primary thing I have learned throughout all of this is that LISTENING is one of the primary ways I can be an ally. Over and over I’ve seen Maya and other African American friends say “LISTEN” when the cacophony of viewpoints swirled up, when weird racist stuff crowded in and fostered disunity. Listen. Hear.

Listen. For me, part of listening well and preparing myself to hear well is having a strategy. What I wrote in response to Maya’s questions above amounts to my strategy as an educator to create a space for listening to my students and hearing their perspectives. LISTEN.

Let’s start now, and listen to Nina Simone…


A Grateful Visit

I began my undergraduate art career at Munson Williams Proctor Institute of Art, the Upstate New York extension campus of Pratt Institute. After working for a while after high school, I realized that I would not be happy if I didn’t at least try the art path. PrattMWP was the start of a long journey.

I don’t get back east often. Between family, teaching, and creative necessities I hadn’t visited my alma mater there in Utica, NY for a decade. This past summer, though, I decided a trip to the campus and museum was a must.

IMG_2013Courtyard outside the main buildings.

IMG_2014Big sign at the entrance to the main studio building.

I had massively important experiences in these buildings, on these grounds. I had professors – like Lisa Gregg-Wightman and Greg Lawler – who believed in me and inspired me. Lisa, in particular, was key to my growing sense that I really could make a life as an artist. I recall one midterm review with Lisa when I sort of stepped out of the present for a moment and realized that she was speaking to me as if I really were an artist. As if I had a valid place at the table. As if my thoughts and opinions were worth hearing. I’m really grateful to her for guiding me in that way, and I’ve tried to function that way myself as an educator.

IMG_2020A student drawing hung in the hallway at PrattMWP.

IMG_2017A student painting near a stairwell.

IMG_2023A fantastic student figure study.

IMG_2024I remember doing drawings just like this while at PrattMWP in the late ’90s.

Though I couldn’t access some of the most important rooms – Printmaking, Painting, Drawing – where my skills were developed and my imagination first fired, I was able to roam those halls again. To climb the steps, feel the air, and see again the views through those windows. Sure, I’m sentimental; we all are, if we’re honest.

I couldn’t have known the adventure I was starting there at MWPAI 18 years ago. Getting to walk around the place 18 years later is gratifying. I’m grateful.

EVOKE at Imago Gallery and Cultural Center

I’ve had the great pleasure to curate a little exhibition currently on view at Imago Gallery and Cultural Center, a space that I’ve been consulting for and have really enjoyed working with over the last year and a half or so. On Tuesday, September 1st, the gallery will host a reception for the show.


I hope you can join us for this event. The works I’ve selected were created by a few young artists that really highlight the diversity of perspective that is present in our community. All three of these individuals were or are students at the University of Missouri where I have taught since 2007.


Detail of a work by Sumire Taniai.


Detail of a painting by Kelsey Westhoff.


Detail of a drawing by Simon Tatum.

I chose these artists not only for the ways their work stirs up interesting moods and thoughts, but also because they represent the different places, directions, and sources that artists use. Taniai is Japanese-American, a strong woman who uses her paintings and drawing to delve into the complex relationships between fathers and daughters. Tatum uses his Cayman Island heritage to explore how colonialism and sublimated history may be brought to the surface in singular, distinctive ways. Westhoff’s paintings deploy the aesthetics of apps and filters familiar to anyone who uses a smartphone, and in them she treads the line between affectation and sincerity. All in all these young artists show the vigor of painting and drawing in the 21st century, providing viewers with avenues that illuminate history, identity, relationships, and meaning.


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!

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.


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.
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.
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.
2014-05-03 16.00.58Amanda Bradley, Art Major. Master Copy after Dutch Master, 24 by 18 inches, Colored Pencil.
2014-05-03 16.00.38Shayna Painter, Business Administration Major. Master Copy after Kupka, 18 by 18 inches, Colored Pencil.
“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.
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 :)