From Then Til Now

Twenty years ago today I met my future wife for the first time… she had just turned 16 the day before.

Hard to believe from looking at this image that we would end up becoming friends, dating, marrying, and traveling the world on weird adventures…

We had this amazing few years I like to think of as “The Cute Years” – when I was still a beautiful baby. She’s always been a beaut. Look at this:

Undergrad Date Nights…

The night was sultry… SULTRY, I SAY!

SO INNOCENT!

Being six years older than her, I was able to go to both her high school dances AND her college dances… I’m not sure what we were thinking with that garter thing… hmm…

Ah, Chi Omega, the cult sorority that Alison was in back at Northwestern…

We did fun things, like attend fish-eyed art openings…

…and read aloud – A LOT. How many books have we done this way, honey?

Through it all, it was you and me. Twenty years. There’s been a lot of hard stuff, but a whole lot of good. I’m so grateful for you.

xoxoxoxoxo

Inspiration – Miranda Grace Ballou

Miranda Grace helping me with my large mural project, 2018.

My first born child is a spitfire eight year old. She’s great at math. She’s dramatic and feels all the things SUPER intensely. She’s a very good swimmer (winning some heats locally) and is the unequivocal leader of her siblings. She loves horseback riding, Transformers, and Narnia. She has always been a passionate creator; she’s burned through reams of paper and thousands of pens, pencils, and markers. She LOVES joining me in the studio. Recently she helped me out with a large mural I’m working on. She’s a pretty amazing kid. Here’s some of her recent work:

Miranda Grace Ballou. Untitled Abstraction. Acrylic on cardboard, 24×18 inches, 2018.

Miranda has started to get very interested in symmetry and creating katywompus abstractions based on a kind of ‘across the surface’ balance. I really like these. Here are a few more.

Miranda Grace Ballou. Untitled Abstraction. Acrylic on MDF, 20×23 inches, 2018.

Miranda Grace Ballou. Untitled Abstraction. Acrylic on MDF, 6×13 inches, 2018.

Miranda Grace Ballou. Untitled Abstraction. Acrylic on panel, 16×20 inches, 2018.

My daughter is also very much into working with fabrics and paper. She creates books – stories of every day events – and illustrates them. She makes games, and cuts out all of the pieces and creates the rules. She has made costumes, crowns, and jewels – all out of paper. Cardboard boxes have become space ships and forts. Recently she created – totally unprompted and with (as far as I can tell) no context – a sort of paper and fabric piece that functions as both a wall hanging and a skirt. Check it out.

The front side is pictured here on the left. The verso is on the right. When I was taking these photos she was annoyed that I wanted to take a picture of the back, but it’s amazing. She’s using staples to hold layers of various fabrics, paper, adhesive stickers and sheets, as well as post-it notes and tissue paper together. When hanging, she says it’s titled The Straightened Skirt. In this form it’s about 50 by 10 inches in size. Here’s Miranda modeling it in skirt mode:

 

Anyway, I think she’s pretty awesome. Each of my kiddos has been inspirational, and I expect they will all eventually have their own spot on my blog. I’m so thankful for these kids and their creativity and powerful presence in my life. They have made my work and teaching so much more rich and strange.

An Update on my February 2016 Resolution

Of the last 685 days (since my heart attack), I’ve worked out on 627 days, beginning the second week of April – those early months were light. I worked out exclusively under supervision by the Cardiac team at the University of Missouri Hospital. After 12 weeks of observed/monitored exercise, I was cleared for doing it on my own.

By September 2016 I tried to do a heavier workout every other day. In January of 2017 I began to do those workouts daily. I am up to 359 days (including today) of “full” work outs – 45 to 60 minutes of elevated heart rate and an average of 4.6 miles of walking/running. Maybe that doesn’t seem like much. Even to me it doesn’t seem like a lot… but when you factor in my medications and how they change my energy and recovery, as well as the time it takes to get to and from the gym, shower, coordinate schedules with my wife and kids and teaching… yeah, it’s a major commitment.

In the past when I was more of an athlete and worked out consistently (before we started a family), my endurance and strength were much higher than they are now. But I’ve always been prone to overuse injuries – both rotator cuffs have problems from those years in my late 20s/early 30s when I lifted weights. Now I work on weight machines for only a small portion of my workout and try to keep impact to a minimum. I generally cycle through squats at 80% of my body weight (I press between 180 and 210 lbs), pectoral presses at 120, 100, and 80 lbs, curls at 100, 90, and 80 lbs, abdominal crunches at 150, and tricep presses at 150 and 130 lbs. The most important part of this work out is the squat portion, since my hips, knees, and ankles are pretty weak and painful. I’ve definitely grown in strength, endurance, and bodily comfort over the last year. I feel better than I have in 5 or 6 years.

Most of my workout time is spent walking, running, biking, or using an elliptical (I cycle through the different exercises over a few days). I also do some rowing and stair stepping from time to time.

So what’s the point of sharing this? I don’t have any big triumphs. I’m not reaching my ideal weight. I’m not prepping for a marathon. I’d be one of the first to be cut down in the Zombie Apocalypse. I still struggle with eating right (though we are mostly vegetarian in our daily diet as a family). I still love beer and carbs. I’m not sure that all of this effort is really helping me physically. But I do feel my awareness of my self and my experiences of living are more present in my mind these days. I do think it makes a difference for my heart health. Beyond all of this, though, the time spent working out is time for reflection and thinking about what interests me. It’s personal time. It’s mental health time.

Now if I could only manage to sleep more…

Of Peacocks and Bovine Interlocutors

About this time last year my wife informed me that I was going to be joining two of my friends for a couple days in the wilds of Missouri for an early new year refreshing session.

Bobby and Billy, two of my surest friends of the last decade, put together a little jaunt to a secluded farm AirBnB location. In spite of my trepidation at forgoing my social media habit, I jumped in the car with them.

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It was a few days of quiet time in the brisk air, solo contemplation, good food, good beer, and serious conversation about the deep issues of life.

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It was life-giving. I’m thankful for these guys, and so many of my other friends. Even though we have families and responsibilities and stresses, there is a core of intentional care there.

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In many ways I’m not a great friend. I’m barely hanging on sometimes. I need to be a halfway decent teacher and dad. I wish I was better at both. I wish I was a better husband. But times like this, when I can be honest and straight with people I trust… they make a huge difference.

I’ve been fortunate to have had times like this with a few solid friends throughout the years, and I’m grateful. I’m thankful.

I look forward to the next time, when the peacocks roost in the trees and the asparagus spits on a midnight grill.

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And when the bull makes a visit, in more ways than one.

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One Year After

It has been a year since my heart attack. Since my cardiac arrest. Since the trauma I don’t remember and that my family saw. Since members of my family kept me alive until the EMTs arrived. Since the radical changes of diet and lifestyle. Since the shift in horizon.

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Three days before that I lost my big sister; a life of incredible value and service, gone. Two months afterward my estranged step-father died; a life wasted in self-concern and alcohol.

How would people have summed up my life one year later, if it ended that night?

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Since I didn’t go, I have to assess it myself. I know my life has been valuable. I know I have taken deep draughts of experience and thought. I have been astonished. I have been disappointed. I have known love and sacrifice. I have seen things that made me cry in sorrow and weep in happiness. I have tried and failed, then barely hoped and succeeded. I have yearned and yearned, in spite of cheesiness or irony. I have worked so hard and received so much through no merit of my own doing. I have believed and doubted. All through I have attempted to be honorable and careful, passionate and present. Sometimes I have succeeded.

img_0200I am SIMUL IUSTUS ET PECCATOR.

I am AGATHOKAKOLOGICAL.

I have tried to understand what it all means. I still don’t. But I think I have some sense of how it feels.

~

It feels a little like these songs (click the titles to listen):

 

At Last

I can say that I’ve lived here in honor and danger

But I’m just an animal and cannot explain a life

Down this chain of days I wish to stay among my people

Relation now means nothing, having chosen so defined

And if death should smell my breathing

As it pass beneath my window

Let it lead me trembling, trembling

I own every bell that tolls me.

 

Fox Confessor Brings The Flood

Driving home I see those flooded fields

How can people not know what beauty this is?

I’ve taken it for granted my whole life

Since the day I was born.

Clouds hang on these curves like me

And I kneel to the wheel

Of the fox confessor (on splendid heels).

And he shames me from my seat

And on my guilty feet

I follow him in retreat…

What purpose in these deeds?

Oh fox confessor, please,

Who married me to these orphaned blues?

“It’s not for you to know, but for you to weep and wonder

When the death of your civilization precedes you.”

Will I ever see You again?

Will there be no one above me to put my faith in?

I flooded my sleeves as I drove home again.

 

A Widow’s Toast

Specters move like pilot flames

Their widows toast at St. Angel.

Better times collide with now

The tears are warm, I feel them still.

They’ll heat to vapor and disperse

And cloud our eyes with weary glaze.

You raise your glass and may exclaim,

“I’ll put my hands on the truth, by God!”

But it’s faster, love, than you and me –

Faster than the speed of gravity.

That’s how it catches you from falling

And how it always, always, always slips away.

Specters move like pilot flames

Their widows toast at St. Angel.

Better times collide with now

And better times

And better times

Are coming still.

Neko knows what to say.

~

I find attention, clarity, and rightness in teaching. I find wonderful confusion in my art-making. I find solace and laughter in my wife. I find a strange wine of joy and frustration in my children. I feel both lost and found. I feel both at home (warm, in bed), and far away in the dark (clouds, wind). I’m in orbit around a great truth and yet my tether is strung out miles from safety.

Believe it or not, all of this is so much better than the 3 or 4 years before the heart attack.

I know that some would want me to declare something, some truth, some more faithful words, some thoughts that sound more spiritually centered. I’m sorry.

Today, I want to take the lessons – the cumulative astonishments of being – as they come. I want to have joy and camaraderie in my students. I want to be gentle and full of wonder with my children. I want to continue to cherish my wife. I want to be a better husband, father, son, brother, artist, teacher, mentor, helper, and friend.

No regrets. I have not loved every moment, but I have been given such grace and love. I’m thankful.

~

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Becoming The Student: Jacob Luis Gonzales

“Right now I have a Left Ventricular Assistive Device (LVAD) helping my heart function. When the doctors at Barnes Jewish Hospital originally put this device in my body they said I had a 50% chance of living with it until July 2016, and I recently heard this a couple of weeks ago. This forced me to think about what I want people to remember about me if I do pass away. ” – Jacob Luis Gonzales, January 2016


Above: Conversations With Jake. Digital drawing, created in Procreate on an iPad Pro using an Apple Pencil. October 2016.

I’ve been wanting to work up a portrait of Jake for a while. The last year + of his life has been extremely hard. He went through 13 major (life-saving) surgeries over the summer of 2015, was resuscitated over 75 times, experienced fevers as high as 108 degrees, and has had to relearn how to do essentially everything. 

But I don’t want to just make some inspiration porn. Jake doesn’t need that. No one does.

I want to encourage you to hear his own voice, his own story in his own words. First, go read through some of that narrative at his blog. Second, consider donating to his on-going care. He needs help, from more complex stuff to just the basics. Go to his Go Fund Me page to directly donate. If you’d rather help out in a different way, I’m selling some artworks to help Jake and Ali: go here to see Situation and Circumstance Overcome – if you like it, order it, and I’ll give 100% of the sale to the Gonzaleses. Here’s what it looks like:


Lastly, if you are local and a friend, consider making time to go hang out with Jake and Ali. The time I spent drawing Jake was full of laughter, real talk, sharp wit, intense remembrances, and some solid sports and movie talk. They’re awesome people. 

Thanks for being a part of project, Jake (and Ali’s feet!).

WHENEVER/WHEN

I’ve got a new show up at Imago Gallery and Cultural Center in Columbia, MO right now. The show, titled WHENEVERWHEN, is a group of abstract pieces I’ve been working on over the last year, including after my heart attack.

I’m posting some details and a few full images below. Please come see the show at Imago; my talk will be at 6pm on June 10th. Imago is located on the corner of Broadway and Hitt in downtown Columbia, MO.

Sballou-illicitIllicit. Oil, oil stick, spray paint, oil pastel and colored pencil on panel, 26 by 26 inches, 2016.

Sballou-theunfolddetailThe Unfold (Detail). Oil, oil stick, and colored pencil on panel, 26 by 26  inches, 2015.

Sballou-osmoticOsmotic. Oil, oil stick, spray paint, oil pastel and colored pencil on panel, 26 by 26 inches, 2016.

Sballou-sigilSigil. Oil, oil stick, spray paint, oil pastel, colored pencil and bas relief on panel, 16 by 16 inches, 2015-2016.

Sballou-sigildetailSigil (Detail). Oil, oil stick, spray paint, oil pastel, colored pencil and bas relief on panel, 16 by 16 inches, 2015-2016.

Sballou-benticondetailBent Icon (Detail). Oil, oil stick, and colored pencil on panel, 26 by 26  inches, 2015.

Click here for more info about these pieces and a few other images of them in process.

Back To It

Last month, while I was in the hospital, my oldest daughter (Miranda Grace) wrote this note to me:

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Her Wording:

“DeAR DDAD’ I Hop you can mac it THRTHW UL UV TiHS DAy LOVe MiRANdA TO DAD”

Translation:

“Dear Dad, I hope you can make it through all of this day. Love, Miranda. To Dad.”

Man. A 5 year old shouldn’t have to think that, let alone write it. This note has been breaking my heart the last week or so. I don’t know where it was the previous weeks, but she pulled it out at a meal a few days ago and said she wrote it for me in the hospital (my wife confirmed this). I’m working on a painting of it now.

I’m pretty sad that Miranda and my other kiddos had to see me have a heart attack. I’m sad they had to see me in the hospital and very weak for the last 5 weeks. I’m thankful to have survived and thankful I’ve been able to grow stronger again. I’m slowly coming back. We’ve made huge changes in diet and everyday routine.

But tomorrow I’m going back to it. Back to teaching. Back to the Art Department. Back to grads and fellow faculty. Back to our awesome office staff. Back to demonstrating that making images, translating experiences, and providing points of access for others are important. These are activities that human beings have engaged in for many tens of thousands of years. No matter how much things change – shifting modes of communication, the weirdness of politics, the coming transhuman singularity, etc, et al – the need to create and speak across the gulfs between individuals will always be a key aspect of the human equation.

I’m glad to be getting back to all of that.

If you see me, make sure I’m taking it slow and easy, though.

Dying and Living

blood vessels within my heart
A visual inside my heart during a catheter procedure.

I am still in a danger zone, but resting with friends and family today, especially my Alison. 

Alison, my constant companion, reading to me.

 
Hospitals are certainly not perfect, but I would have died without one and without the actions of my wife and my cousin Mechell who acted so swiftly. So many important moments we never remember – but others do, because they acted when we could not. Our lives are not our own only. 

We live on to love and make art and ask great questions, even if only for a short time – and even the longest life is a mere half-half-breath of the universe. We perceive our realities through such feeble – yet remarkably robust – senses. That contradiction is what makes us know and dream of God, or find great joy in Keats, or learn to (start to) understand Nabokov, or sing in protest with Miss Nina Simone.

Living on means recognizing the value in every human life. It means rejecting the thinking that sees that sentiment as merely sentiment and not a life value. Living on means understanding privilege and working against it when it creates enclaves of inequality. Living on means looking for of gains for everyone – from the streets of Cidade de Deus to the house next door. And if you don’t believe that, maybe you’ve not lived and lived close enough to death. 

Untitled Work in progress, oil on panel, 24×24 inches.

Living on means paying attention. My students at all levels learn that my classes are about awareness and attention, far more than they are about specific skills.

Many thanks in these hours close to death goes to my wife, Alison, my cousins Chris and Sarah and Mechell, and my Aunt Beth, Aunt Cathy, Aunt Sue and Uncle Roger (who helped coordinate things and met Alison at the Hospital). 

Of course, my Mom and Pastor Dan have been there nonstop taking care of my three rambunctious kiddos. Couldn’t recuperate without that vital help.  

Also, the example of Jake and Ali Gonzalez of how to live honorably in proximity to death. And the dedication and passion of Deborah Huelsbergen, who has taught me to love me students more than grades or curricula.   

There are so many more I could shout out to, like my brothers Daniel (and fiancée  Sharon!) and David (that’s his knitting above) and my sisters Stacey and Denya… Denya knew how to live and love close to death most of her life. And when death took her last Sunday, it could not take the values she gave to her daughters, to me, or to my kids. 

We live close to death. Do we believe it? Do we seek to redeem the time? Let’s make the most of it. 

PS: it also helps to keep Mr C nearby with random hamburgers….

So a Spider and Alien Went to the Hospital

Photo Jul 14, 7 24 03 PMThe hospital. Why is it a massive cow? I don’t know.

Photo Jul 14, 7 25 29 PM“This is a sew-er. It’s not for sewing up shirts or anything like that. It’s for it’s for sewing up skin. I call it a Dragon’s Tooth.” – Miranda Grace

Photo Jul 14, 7 26 32 PMThe tools used to perform surgery on the Spider and Alien. “Alien’s nose needs to be sewed. Its nose is too big. Its nose holes are too big so the Tylenol drops into them. We don’t need Tylenol slurping in there…. This thing speeds the spider around and makes the animals very upset when the doctor takes it off.” – Real dialog from my kiddos.

Photo Jul 14, 7 23 53 PMThe two Doctors in action.