Current Influences

As I prepare for a few up-coming exhibitions I think it’s important to state plainly what has been stuck in my aesthetic craw for a while.

Certainly my experience of working with Joel T. Dugan the last 4 years has been huge. He has definitely been a catalyst for a number of important changes and new foci in my work. But for an even longer time, the following artists have been steadily putting pressure on me. One is dead. A number are around my own age. I’m going to list them in alphabetical order – I encourage you to research them. I’ll link to a decent page on their work, but poke around the web on your own. Really good stuff.

Marcelo Bonevardi – Bonevardi, along with Diebenkorn and Manuel Neri, has been a massive influence on my sense of plasticity, composition, haptic maneuvering, and surface. Do yourself a favor and get the major book on his work here.Sharon Butler – An important artist and writer, Butler has been a wonderful champion of abstraction during her career. She’s also a part of a traveling exhibition that I’ve curated (I’ll post separately about that, but here’s a link to the blurb about its first incarnation at the University of Missouri).

Sharon Butler – Good Morning Drawings. Digital work. Dimensions variable. 2016.

Nicholas Byrne – Byrne’s dynamic surfaces, use of a kind of template system, and expansion beyond the rectilinear format of painting have all been inspirational to me. I particularly love his works on copper. Wonderful stuff. This piece. WOW.

Gianna Commito – Commito’s dense surfaces – taped off, gritty, solid, vibrant – are like jewels. I have had the great privilege of handling her works as she is also in the traveling exhibition I’ve organized, set to open at The University of Missouri at the end of this month. These paintings, while mostly small, do not shrink from the viewer’s eye. They are sharp, palpable, and fierce. I love them.

Gianna Commito – Plas. Casein and marble dust on panel. 2015.

Vincent Fecteau – I have mentioned Fecteau to people for nearly a decade. His work is mysterious, shapely, and finely-fitted, yet organic. It is strange to behold. See it in person if you can.

Magalie Guerin – Guerin is a staple of the Chicago art landscape these days. Her modest-sized works defy their scale, becoming means to mine the distance between observational notation and suggestive shape. I love their interlocking, colliding parts.

Julian Hoeber – Julian Hoeber’s slathered-on paintings are, in all of their scummy, impasto glory, treatises to precision and formal rigor. They GLOW. They are illuminated with some kind of Cherenkov light. Epic and weird. See an example below:

Emil Robinson – A powerhouse operating in Ohio currently, Robinson has been working on a series of works that is at once confusing and inspirational. He is a huge influence on a number of artists, especially in terms of his pastel-based figure studies. See his latest work on his website; a few are below. Ecstatic Spaces 1, 2, and 3. Oil on panel, 41×29, 2017.

For each of these there are a half dozen contemporary artists who are important to me as well (like Brian Guidry, Catherine Kehoe, Sangram Majumdar, Hanneline Røgeberg, and Linnea Spransy. As I continue to live and make art, I find that so many people touch me, transform me, make me what I am.

Keep your eyes open for news of new publications, exhibitions, and work. All are coming SOON.

~

PS: I love being floored by seeing a fresh work by an artist new to me. Here’s something that really caught my eye this past week: Amy Sinbondit‘s Section Break. Red eartheneware, engobe, terra sigillata glaze. 14.5 x 18 x 11.5 inches, 2011.

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A Decade of Teaching at Mizzou

_MG_3410Me, teaching in 2011. Photo by M. Kannan.

Ten years ago this month, I arrived in Columbia, Missouri to start teaching painting and drawing at the University of Missouri. I remember the experience of arriving in town well. My wife was reading to me from the new Harry Potter book (Deathly Hallows was just released the week prior) and we, being Missouri newbies, inadvertently took a scenic route from Chicagoland to MidMo. Those first months were nerve-wracking. It was a one year Visiting appointment (Eventually it was extended, then extended again). I loved the challenge and pretty soon felt at home, especially once Alison joined me. By 2010 I was able to apply to a Teaching Track position.

DSC02231Triumphant with former grad Ian, 2012.

I really am one of the lucky ones. Unless you’re living the art/teaching life, I don’t know if you can comprehend just how lucky. Yes, I’m a competent teacher. I’m a vigorous and engaged artist. But my art-making is not revolutionary, it is investigatory. I don’t believe in originality, I believe in interrogating meaning and experience by acknowledging the vast array of cross-contextual elements that surround us (histories, cultures, systems of thought, traditions of creativity, etc).

Just as nothing that I make exists on its own, so too my teaching is based on the broad constellations of influences that have coalesced into my particular perspective. My frame of reference is not only my own, it’s a kind of index of everyone and everything that has inflected my understanding.

SONY DSCPosing for one of my former grads, Jake Johnson, way back in 2009. Photo by Jake Johnson.

Ultimately I’m not a huge standout from the other (VERY small number of) MFA graduates who are able to keep up the studio work, exhibitions, and become embedded as an educator. I learned early on that teaching scratched the same itch as painting did for me. I’ve used that. I’ve lived that. If I’m down, feeling blown out and sort of worthless – put me in front of a class of 20 twenty year old undergraduates. I’ll come out supercharged. That’s the power of working with human beings who are in the midst of a transfiguration of personality and purpose. I love teaching.

sloanekinkadeIan and Sloane at the first Thomas Kinkade’s Christmas Cottage viewing party…

Consider it: I get to think about art, creativity, and even BEING itself for a job. I get to push paint around, push ideas around, and push minds around (including my own). I get to mentor and be mentored by amazing people. I get to work with creative humans of all ages, backgrounds, worldviews, and experiences. I get to read and write and speak about things that move me. I get to show my work around the country (and sometimes around the world). I get to spend time exploring what it means to make things in the world (and what it means for things to make us who we are, too). I get to share those realms of exploration with others.

I’ve gotten to travel around the world to adopt two of my children.  I’ve been afforded the chance to elevate my standard of living well beyond what it was while growing up. I have the privilege of good insurance and great health care – two things that have made the quality of my post-heart attack life, and the life of my daughter suffering from osteogenesis imperfecta, much better. I’ve become a home owner. A mini van owner. A back yard mower.

enchanter-whatgradclassisWith former grad Jane Jun at the old Shakespeare’s, 2012.

12832461_10106823713056199_4957316273168848908_nWith former grad student Laura at a gallery opening, 2014 or so.

All of these things have come to me through the blessing of employment at Mizzou. It is “an honor and a privilege”* to go into my classroom, greet those faces, and set off on a task of vision and awareness.

So many have challenged me and moved me forward. Bill Hawk, now retired, calling me out in my first talk at Mizzou and asking me to point out what I meant by an abstract assertion I had made. Lampo Leong, telling me to “just teach them” in that first class. Dr. Adrienne Hoard, guiding me in the subtle art of holding a grad student’s feet to the fire. Professor Chris Daniggelis, feverishly baptizing me into the art of mezzotint. Catherine Armbrust and the latex, Jane Jun and identity ghosts, Eric Sweet and the teeth, Maurice and the parking mountain, Shannon and the tree outside the art building, Tina and Midwestern dreams, Norby and graying out, Marcus and awkward dad jokes, Emily and softball excellence, Simon and Caymanian memory… so many more.

So much love, and work, and determination. So many reasons to be grateful.

chrishallapproves-03Joke meme image I created for Chris Hall.

13432296_10107258458921999_331676234204831219_nQuality time with former student Marcus Miers, 2016.

The first round of grad students I worked with still loom large in my mind. Ian, Sloane, Nancy were the first… then Natalie, and then Chris, Jane, and Norby… eventually Colleen and Nikos… Each and every one brought a unique inflection to my experience of the world. I am so much better for having spent time with them.

11960094_10106163680641449_3315752712489631165_nWith Lishan, Simon, and Sumi at an art opening a few years ago. Photo by Bobby.

There are so many stories I could put down: grilling pizzas with Maurice, brewing beer with Norby, taking art trips with everyone, having wonderfully intense conversations in Graduate Theory classes, and hilariously irreverent conversations over beverages at any number of our local establishments. I’ve had many wonderful students from China, and I’ll never forget Peking Duck with Jackie or making won-tons with Tianyuan and our children in the kitchen. I’ll never forget when I got to officiate the wedding of two of my former students. I’ll never forget the response of my students and colleagues to my heart attack, and how they supported me and helped me through it.

Jake, visiting for an evening of food and drink, 2008 or so. Nancy isn’t impressed, 2010.

I know that I can’t really express what all of this has meant to me. If I had to bring it all down to the most important thing, I think I would say it’s time with the students. That’s what secure employment for teachers creates. I get the time to get better at teaching and the students get the value of an educator who is growing alongside them. Continuity – hours and days over the long haul – makes the difference. Those students see me living day to day and I see them living day to day. The ones who get it, who really believe they are real and that others are real, who believe in translating human experience into evocative forms… they are the people that get me out of bed. They’re the ones who inspire me.

20091219_WinterCommencement_0007Standing as a faculty mentor with Shannon at Honors Convocation, 2009.

14907629_10107947068902079_2162397385667730310_nWith grads Guigen, Zach, Amy, Simon, and Nikos at lunch during an art event, 2016. Photo by Waitress.

_MG_3368Working with Emily during a summer drawing session, 2011. Photo by M. Kannan.

I am incredibly thankful for the opportunities I’ve been afforded. My biggest motivation is to be effective as a person, educator, and artist. To make an impact and reveal the world to myself and others through the act of teaching and making artworks. As the years go by, it is the response of my students that gives me such deep encouragement.

The lives of my students are glorious confrontations in the best of ways. They are the world brought to my classroom. Black, white, South Korean, Chinese, Brazilian, Caymanian, Russian, Japanese, gay, straight, trans, Muslim, Christian, Wiccan, conservative, liberal, questioning, broken, certain, self-actualized, brilliant, wondrous, and strange. They come in skittish and green, and they leave full of the power they’ve always had. It’s beautiful to see their transitions, and it never gets old.

With former grad and then colleague David Spear. At Marcus Mier’s wedding.

img_6603A portrait of me with Darth Vader by Jane Jun, 2013. Acrylic on canvas, 7 by 5 inches.

img_6602Portrait of me as The Dude from The Big Lebowski by Jake Johnson, 2009. Acrylic on wood panel, 7 by 5 inches.

This post hasn’t even really scratched the surface of what that last ten years have meant to me and what I’ve experienced. I haven’t even mentioned my passion for the Cast Collection or Rocking The First Day with Deborah. I haven’t spoken about how much I love Wakonse. I haven’t talked about the strange projects we’ve had to do, the cobbling together of nominal spaces for our students. I haven’t mentioned the glory of Dr. Melvin Platt’s parliamentary prowess or Ferrie and Brenda holding down all the details like heroes. There have been dozens more faculty and students who have made these years amazing.

I’m so thankful, and every semester I try to be worthy of what I’ve received. Here’s to another decade!

11022556_10105427628949939_1438644933721545290_oA group of my Color Drawing students at work, 2015.

*I’m quoting Professor Corly Blahnik, Emeritus at ISU.
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Inspiration: Simon at The Caribbean Linked Residency

My friend and student Simon Tatum has had an amazing year as an artist. From representing Mizzou at the SEC Symposium on Entrepreneurship and Creativity in Atlanta to a lengthy study abroad trip in Europe (not to mention the many shows he has been in), Simon has really stepped into a professional artist’s world. And he’s still an undergraduate!

Recently Simon left the Midwest to head down to the Caribbean for a residency in Aruba. Simon is from The Cayman Islands, so he’s a part of the culture of the region and his work deals directly with situations unique to that part of the world. The Caribbean Linked Residency is an awesome opportunity for artists connected to the Caribbean to network, create art together, and foster a global awareness for the power of Caribbean-based work. Here’s more about the cohort Simon is a part of right now.

13950565_1239672856044109_1820369049_oOne of the locations Simon is working at on Aruba. (Photos courtesy Simon Tatum)

I’m really excited for the work Simon will do at this residency and so pleased with his thoughtfulness, professionalism, and dedication to his ideals and worth ethic. And he keeps up with the sighting and measuring!

13931472_1239672532710808_960033781_oSimon drawing on location in Aruba.

I hope you’ll take the time to check out Simon’s work here. As he sends me more photos of his time at the Residency, I’ll update this post.

Becoming the Student #27: STAY GOLD (Greta Myers)

More than two years ago, as Greta Myers (website, Instagram) was finishing her MFA at the University of Missouri, I decided to include her in my Becoming the Student series. I’ve included a number of my grads before, but always because I felt some strong kinship with what they were making. With Greta it was a little different.

Greta is a strange, compelling person, and she has a bearing of nonchalant opposition. She’s got a strong personality – exhibiting many unique facets and diverse motivations – that’s so different from mine. In spite of this I think we were able to have an understanding while she was in grad school. As a part of her graduate thesis committee, I was always evaluating the work she made and trying to engage with it critically and as an advocate for it. As an artist and teacher, I’m consistently interested by work that throws me off balance or forces me to think outside of my categories. Greta always did this. I was forever being turned off by some aspect of the work, yet invariably interested in her approach and attitude.

Anyway, I began work on a portrait of her in April of 2014. I worked on the piece infrequently, eventually thinking it was done in August of 2015. Around this time I began to be seriously involved in a non-representational body of work and so left off with all of my in-the-works Becoming the Student pieces. A month ago I decided to get back to Greta’s piece in earnest and, after painting the entire piece over again, it’s finally complete… though it no longer accurately represents Greta’s arms and hands; she’s added a few more tattoos in the interim. Click below to see it large – the file is 9.25 by 30 inches.

IMG_0353

STAY GOLD (Greta Myers), oil on canvas on panel, 13 by 42 inches, 2014-2016.

 And now, here are a few of the thoughts Greta had when I interviewed her:

On Grad School

“It’s been the hardest three years for me in a while – in terms of stress level it’s like getting divorced or having a parent die – but it was good. I feel like I made the program enough of my own and make it work for me. I did it the only way I knew how. I definitely don’t think it was a mistake. If I had quit after undergrad I would probably just be sitting in some stupid busy work job and have never learned the work that it takes the be an active, practicing artist.”

On Being an Artist

“If you’re really an artist, I think you have to be an artist. You don’t have the choice to not be one, and those people who don’t follow that path become miserable and they just don’t function to their full potential.”

On Leaving the Academic Setting

“I’m a little worried about getting along with others. Outside of academic art, life is very different; it’s a completely different world. And I’ve been in school for the last seven years. I’m a little worried about getting along with others, like, just communicating. I mean, you go into a group setting with people who are artists or aren’t in academia and it’s like, what do you talk about? So just getting back into real life is going to be an adjustment. Learning how to build a community – not family, not friends – who get what you’re doing and who share the same passion, that’s important. You have to build it. It doesn’t just happen.

(Interview Date: April 30, 2014)

Untitled-1 2

Detail of STAY GOLD (Greta Myers), oil on canvas on panel, 13 by 42 inches, 2014-2016.

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.

Obligatory Year End Lists

People make year end lists at the end of every year. They are the throw-away columns of many a blog, magazine, and newspaper. Rather than protesting, let’s just make a few of our own. For mine, I shall embrace my own sentimentality and opinions – which is really what’s going on in all of the other lists anyway.

Here we go.

TOP CNC ROUTERS OF 2015

  1. X-Carve by Inventables. Follow this blog for more projects coming in 2016.

Screen Shot 2015-12-29 at 11.06.46 AM

Above: a bit of debris from a recent routing job.

~

LIST OF STAR WARS FILMS AS OF 2015 IN RANK ORDER WITH LETTER SCORE

  1. Star Wars Episode 5: The Empire Strikes Back ~ A
  2. Star Wars Episode 6: The Return of the Jedi ~ A-
  3. Star Wars Episode 4: A New Hope ~ B+
  4. Star Wars Episode 7: The Force Awakens ~ B-
  5. Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace ~ C
  6. Star Wars Episode 3: Revenge of the Sith ~ D+
  7. Star Wars Episode 2: Attack of the Clones ~ F

~

MOST BULLSHIT EVENTS OF 2015 (IN NO PARTICULAR ORDER)

  1. Bombing of a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan (by illegal coalition [i.e. US] forces, continued after multiple calls for cease fire).
  2. Death of Sandra Bland (unarmed and in police custody – no indictments).
  3. Death of Walter Scott (unarmed and running away, evidence planted, caught on video).
  4. Death of Freddie Gray (unarmed and in police custody).
  5. Charleston, SC church massacre.
  6. Mass shootings ~Roseburg, OR; Chattanooga, TN; Planned Parenthood, CO; San Bernardino, CA; Paris, etc, etc, etc…
  7. Donald Trump.

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Image above by Brandon Loving. Click the image to see his website, or check out his stuff on Instagram here.

~

BEST MUSIC I DISCOVERED THIS YEAR (MEANING IT COULD BE FROM OTHER YEARS, YO)

  1. Hiatus Kaiyote. “Breathing Underwater” is the money track.

This band is worthy. Go Listen.

PILLAYO

2. Dubb Nubb. “It’s Weird in This World” is the album. “Sister’s House” is the song. Check it out here – then buy some tracks. Good stuff.

3. The Go Round. “Hard Tellin’ Not Knowin’” is the album. “Headless Horseman” is the key track. Get to them here.

4. Tie: Wolf Alice – “Blush” / St. Vincent – “Cheerleader” / Timber Timbre – “Magic Arrow

~

TOP PHYSICAL DISTRESSES OF 2015

  1. That time I had chest pain and went to the ER and they took an awesome ultrasound of my heart muscle and valves.
  2. That time I was forced to rest for 3 solid days because I threw my back out and, perhaps, finally herniated a disc (this item is ongoing).

~

BEST WIFI/BLUETOOTH CONTROLLED LIGHTING

  1. LIFX. I tried out a few competitors, but absolutely love these for teaching my classes and for use in my own work. See some examples below:

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Above and Below: Two different setups I made this year with my LIFX bulbs.

Screen Shot 2015-12-29 at 11.36.29 AMFile Dec 29, 11 33 33 AM Above: An in-class demo figure study I made using my iPad and Adonit Jot Touch in Sketchbook Pro. The scene was lit with my LIFX bulbs. Click for enlargement.

Below: Two drawings from an LIFX setup. The first is by Mitzi Salinas Dominguez and the second is by Bri Heese.

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IMG_3352

~

BEST WIFE

  1. Alison. Long-suffering. Helpful. Sees the grace and the good. Seeks to bless others. A fruitful teacher. A forgiving mother. None of these years would make sense without her.

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…

 

I’m Really Glad We’re Teachers

There are a lot of cohorts we are a part of simply because of birth. Others we choose. There are some we seek out with tenacity. Other associations creep up on us, and they’re trans-historical, multi-generational unions.

Teaching is like that; we choose it, but it comes with a great many intangible elements we might recognize only later.

I’m an educator. This fact sometimes surprises me. By reason of this vocation I am connected to so many people who try to bring a sense of what it means to know and to do to others. We teachers… we’re epistemologists. What do we know? How is it that we can know? Where’s the dark horizon line that signals our limited understanding? Let’s dive into a shared space and craft meaning with others. It’s a great calling.

The last few days I’ve been thinking so much about the connection I have to other teachers. As someone who has been in higher education for nearly a decade, it makes sense that I now know dozens of teachers. But there is joy in realizing that some people I have known for many years became teachers as well, each on their own pathway.

I want to mention a few of them.

David Schwei – University of Cincinnati, Classics

David is my brother in law. He is a PhD candidate specializing in Roman History at the University of Cincinnati. He will soon complete his work there, but over the past couple of years he has engaged in a serious study of teaching itself. Our conversations on the subject are always enlightening and encouraging. David is a thoughtful, generous man, and his blog contains a wealth of hard-won information about what it means to teach and how to think about teaching. I love following his thoughts and his growing expertise. Never one to do anything halfway, David’s observations on teaching go far beyond his chosen discipline and offer great advice to anyone thinking about education. Click here for more info:

Latin, Classics and Education in the 21st Century.

davecaiqunDavid and my daughter Cai Qun learning together. Photo by Alison Ballou.

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Natalie Shull – 5th Grade

Natalie is the oldest daughter of a special couple my wife and I relied on during our early married days in Chicagoland. It was illuminating to have a sidelong view of the Shull kids growing up, and especially to see Natalie take on increasing responsibility and maturity. During college she focused in on teaching, and eventually began to blog her way though a variety of experiences. Her thoughts are not technical, but neither are they purely Dionysian. They are about grace and hope. She has cut her educator’s teeth in the grass roots of teaching, and right now leads some 5th graders through their paces. It’s wonderful to see her excitement, joy, and desire for excellence on display in her posts. Check out her story here:

Lead Me Where.

Screen Shot 2013-12-21 at 8.44.54 PMMatt Ballou – Natalie Reading About the French Revolution. Oil on linen on panel, 26 by 24 inches, 2006. Private Collection, IL.

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Alison Ballou – Homeschooling Superintendent

I don’t know that I’ve ever met anyone who is more qualified for homeschooling than my wife. It’s easy for people not familiar with homeschooling to see it as a fringe phenomenon. Yet throughout much of history high quality education was possible at home. When parents have vision, time, and desire – not to mention the intellectual and educational background – homeschooling is a viable option. With multiple degrees from Northwestern, experience in child care, and proven ability to continue her education through books, online courses, and certificate programs in a variety of disciplines that dovetail with elementary education, Alison has crafted a fantastic learning experience for our two daughters. She’s got them above average in reading and math, and the three of them are beginning classes in Mandarin this week. Her attention to detail (everything is laid out day to day and recorded for reference and tracking) and passion for shepherding their emotional lives is amazing. You can see a good bit of what goes into her heart for teaching and learning on her blog:

Not Yet What We Shall Be.

041Cai Qun and Miranda working at the dining room table on a project. Photo by Alison Ballou.

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I could have put dozens on this list; teachers who changed my life like Roberta Dudley (high school), Lisa Gregg-Wightman (undergraduate), or Barry Gealt (graduate). I could have included colleagues I have taught side by side with for many years – Jessica Thornton, Deborah Huelsbergen, or Chris Daniggelis. I could have highlighted former students who are now teachers in their own right – Trudy Denham, Ian Shelly, Megan Schaffer, or Shalonda Farrow. I could have featured family and friends who have taught me so much – my Mom, especially. I respect them all. I’m glad to be one of them.

In some sense, however, David, Natalie, and Alison represent the surprising way that as I became a teacher, others also grew into that calling around me. Though our disciplines, day-to-day routines, and curricula are different, we are bound together as educators. I’m really glad we’re teachers.

_MG_3406Me, in the classroom teaching composition to a group of Drawing 2 students. Photo by M. Kanaan.

Inspiration: William A Berry

Last year the Boone County Historical Society held a retrospective exhibition for William A Berry, long time Professor of Art at the University of Missouri. I was struck by Professor Berry’s work from the moment I first saw it in person at Mizzou. Over the years I learned about the breadth and depth of his work and have returned to it again and again. The BCHS show, titled William A Berry: The Eye Behind The Eye, was a wonderful chance to see a wide variety of his work from the whole sweep of his career.

Photo Feb 22, 4 02 51 PMTwo large colored pencil works by William A Berry

One of the things I found most interesting about this exhibition was the inclusion of many of his preparatory sketches and hand-built geometric forms. There were a number of collections of these constructions, such as the groups below:

Photo Feb 22, 3 57 30 PMPhoto Feb 22, 3 58 47 PM

I found these compelling not only as the source materials from which he created many hundreds of works, but also as formally pleasing objects in themselves. So much of an artist’s work is based on the commitments he or she makes with the eye; commitments to specific shapes, colors, relationships, etc. The evidence of Berry’s lifelong love of these forms, and how they influenced his work, was clearly shown.

I also loved the various sketchbooks and individual sketchbook pages that were on display in the exhibition. Never meant to be presented as art, these works nevertheless represent the investigations and passions of the artist. The fine-tuning, the alterations, the second attempts; these are elements to which fellow artists can warmly relate.

Photo Feb 22, 4 01 32 PM

Above and below: samples of Berry’s sketchbook pages.

Photo Feb 22, 4 04 56 PM

The life of William A Berry was one of learning and seeing. His work as an educator was effective and inspiring. His work as an artist was clearly a product of his time and global interests. This retrospective exhibition really allowed viewers to get up close and see that life in art.

There is an excellent catalog for this exhibition, but a quick search doesn’t reveal if it is available online. The book is called William A Berry: The Eye Behind the Eye, and it’s by John Whelan (Valerie Wedel also contributed writing). Look for it if you can.

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.

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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.

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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:

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