I have been interested in using image-generation tools in a limited way. Basically, I’ve been incorporating them into the workflow. This means we start with ideas, images that we’ve made ourselves, or carvings that Geo has made. Then, uploading the images as a baseline source for the A.I. generator to use, we add text prompts to encourage various modifications. In this way we use our own images in the A.I. system and calibrate them using the wording we input. Obviously, since the models have been trained on images borrowed from the wider world, we’re viewing this as a limited experiment, but I think it’s worth it.
Here’s a sequence of explorations that we’ve done with imagery of the acanthus and my own artwork: first, I used some wording from Geo in the Dream by WOMBO A.I. app, then I loosely drew over the generated images. After making a various edits and selecting one of the versions that I’d drawn, I sent a copy to Geo, who used it as a basis for his carving.
The image above, Living Carve, was built by using words of Geo Weissler in Midjourney, then modified digitally in Procreate on my iPad. I took that result, printed it on a large format Epson printer using Epson Enhanced Matte paper. I then used colored pencils and gouache to develop the image and enhance the richness of color and depth of surface. Below you can see a shot of the piece framed. You can see some of the surface treatment, the sense of the material accumulating to present the image. I like the chiaroscuro and quality of light. There is a subtle feeling of trompe l’oeil to this piece, which is something I’ve only tried to do a few times before. I may try a composition like this once again. If you’d like to inquire about work like this, visit me on Instagram.
I’ve known Michelle for many years now. She’s been a central part of the local art community for all of that time, and a dedicated student of painting as well. Beyond this, Michelle is someone who always has a kind word, and her encouraging, affirming presence is something everyone in our town knows about.
She also used to be my friend Mike, who I drew for this series here. Obviously, I will not try to tell Michelle’s story. It’s not mine to communicate. But I did think it would be appropriate to place a new portrait here in the Becoming the Student group.
Since I’m an educator, I’m sure you can imagine that I come into contact with many LGTBQ+ folx. Particularly in the last decade I’ve worked with trans people in a few different contexts, but most often in the graduate program where I teach. Just like anyone else who is human, the trans people I’ve known have exhibited a wide range of personality and affect.
Everyone comes with their own traumas and triumphs, their own unique inflection on life. And the fact is that simply being human is hard. People have to come to an understanding of themselves for themselves, and my primary obligation to those around me is to be kind. While that strategy hasn’t always worked, I think it’s an important guideline. And it’s framed the way I teach and the way I interact with people. It’s not up to me to define anyone else; it’s up to me to be kind and helpful.
(That’s central to how I see education. My teaching philosophy includes the concepts of “facilitation, encouragement, and tact.” It’s important for my interactions with people – especially students – to function as opportunities to support and enliven them. I want to aid their ability to understand themselves and help them develop strategies for building creative points of contact. Art – or really any form of communication – is worthless if it doesn’t offer access points for others.)
So, I offer up this new portrait of Michelle in celebration of her humanity and her winsome, joyful presence in our community. I did interview her for this entry in the Becoming the Student series, but I have decided to let that conversation stay just between the two of us. There are as many ways of being human as there are humans experiencing being.
…all is transformed, all is sacred, every room is the center of the world, it’s still the first night, and the first day, the world is born when two people kiss, a drop of light from transparent juices, the room cracks half-open like a fruit or explodes in silence like a star, and the laws chewed away by the rats, the iron bars of the banks and jails, the paper bars, the barbed wire, the rubber stamps, the pricks and goads, the droning one-note sermon on war (…)
the invisible walls, the rotten masks that divide one man from another, one man from himself, they crumble for one enormous moment and we glimpse the unity that we lost, the desolation of being man, and all its glories, sharing bread and sun and death, the forgotten astonishment of being alive;
I have known my friend Geo ever since we lived next door to each other in Evanston, Illinois in 2006. Though my adventures took me to Missouri and around the world in subsequent years, Geo made an effort to stay in contact. The man traveled to visit some of my shows, even appearing in Columbia, Missouri for an exhibition in 2009.
In more recent times we have taken to writing missives via email and text, sharing books and ideas. Geo has been a woodcarver for many years, and his work has been sought out all over the Chicagoland area since the 80s. I’ve appreciated the friendship Geo has given over the years, and see him as a kind of “future self mentor.” Imagine a version of yourself visiting from some alternative future who gives encouragement? That’s kind of what Geo is for me.
Through our chats and several visits, we have connected as artists and visual thinkers. Every once in a while Geo would send me small carvings and I started wondering what shared art-making might be for us. Eventually, it seemed natural to start formally collaborating on a group of carved paintings, three of which appear below.
Geo began these works by creating carvings based on some of my own WHENEVERwhen or Ensigns For Miyoko Ito series works. He owns several of them (in fact, Geo has purchased many of my paintings over the years) and was able to observe them closely. Inspired to bring some carved aesthetics to bear on those visual themes, Geo crafted some really interesting surfaces. One (the “Wedge Interpretation” piece above) he actually painted most of as well. I added chromatic exploration to each of the relief carvings, seeking to transform both Geo’s carved environment an my own formal structures.
I’m feeling excited – and thankful! – for this fresh collaboration. Here’s to many more shared works with Geo.
I’ve got a group of works on display at William Woods University in Fulton, Missouri. The show runs through October 6th, and I’ll be giving a talk that evening. For a preview, look below.
This is the third time I’ve shown this body of work, and I’d like to get the chance to show it again. The subject of the work – a “friendly-fire” bombing of a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan. If you’d like to see more about this situation, check out my writing about it here.
I’m also pleased to have a small group of my collaborations with Joel T Dugan also on display at the gallery. These Phoneme works are some of my favorites, and there are a number of just finished works included.
Many years ago, my Cousin Chris and I were constant companions in the woods around Camden, NY. In particular, we explored the region between our homes. His place was several miles away to the west if you took the old dirt road that emerged onto the highway 50 yards from the house I grew up. We also did a lot of camping and hiking in the woods east of my own home.
Here’s what that area looks like today (well, a few years ago via Google Earth):
I grew up along Route 70 – Wolcott Hill Road – about two miles from the town of Camden. Wolcott Hill Road runs roughly South to North away from Camden, so this view is oriented with East at the top and West at the bottom. You can see the small lake in the lower half of the image; that is a reservoir, and part of Camden’s waterworks system. If you were to walk due West from the South corner of the reservoir, you’d come out on Wolcott Hill Road right next to my childhood home.
From the ages of 12 to 16 or so, I started making maps of our haunts out in this section of land. When I was 19, I decided to make a larger, more refined version of the map, bringing together all of the various places we used to camp and hunt. The result is below.
There are some obvious mistakes of guesstimation here, most glaringly in the position of Route 85, which we locals know as Skinner Settlement Road. There is also some distortion of the placement of various fields, and a bit of miscalculation of distances, but I’m pretty pleased with my effort since I did not use any proper map as a source.
There are some great memories here.
At Winter’s Night, we camped in -2° weather. In the morning, we were lying in impressions in the hard snow caused by our heat coming through the tent.
At Cowadunga, we cooked venison in beer and used hard, flat cow poop for fuel – hence the name we gave the place.
The Reservoir Cabin Site was a special spot, and we stayed there quite a few times.
One night, at View, we had amazing, super clear skies all night long. It seemed as if we could see forever.
Though we never camped at Lone Tree Hill, we often climbed the massive maple there.
At Earthview we had one of our strangest camping trips ever, when we were accosted by a large number of Woodland Jumping Mice. What seemed like dozens of them came through our area, but the issue was that this was in the wee hours of the morning, so it was very dark, and the rhythm of their jumps through the underbrush sounded like footsteps. Pretty wild.
I’m glad I made documents like this throughout my teenage years. Though most are in a more rough or not so presentable state, they represent my attention to and interest in my surroundings and experiences. I’m glad to have them.
Eric L. Sweet left us suddenly on April 6, 2015, at age 44. Sweet was a beloved member of the MU Art faculty, having worked at MU since 2012 as an Adjunct Assistant Professor, teaching Printmaking, Drawing and 2-D Design courses. He was an alumnus of the Art program, having earned both his BFA (1997) and MFA (2011) from the University of Missouri. In 2008, he received an MA in Printmaking from the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Sweet was an active member of the Southern Graphics Council International and the College Art Association.
To celebrate Eric’s life and positive role as an educator, Sweet’s wife, Catherine Armbrust, established The Eric Sweet Exhibition & Speaker Series to continue passing on his gift. I have created a series of work celebrating Eric almost every Seize the Sixth, and this year is no different. I will be donating 100% of the sales of these pieces to the Fund. This program was created because he strongly believed in the importance of community accessibility to art and encouraged meaningful conversations about the state of contemporary art. Funding this annual exhibition and speaker series for the gallery is the perfect way to make contemporary work accessible to the MU and Columbia communities, and to honor this special man who made an impact on so many lives. In fact, the initial funding goal was met in 2021 and the very first iteration of The Eric Sweet Exhibition & Speaker Series took place on December 6, 2021. See the exhibition poster here.
Look over my limited series of CNC relief cuts, posted below. If you’d like one, contact me. You’ll get an icon of Eric’s life and students and community members will get to see art because of the donation I make from the sale. As Eric (and his 4th grade teacher) might say, “You don’t HAVE to, you GET to.”
I’ve made eight artworks for Seize The Sixth this year. There is one group of five CNC relief cuts that feature the classic “running devil” icon that Eric had embroidered on one of his work shirts. Below the devil is featured part of Eric’s axiom, “YOU GET TO.” It’s a proclamation of hopefulness and gratefulness. Here’s a detail of the Running Devil carving if you want to see a close up view.
How to get one?
I can take PayPal, CashApp, and Venmo (click each for a link to my info). If you’re local you can give me cash. The cost $50 each for these. Ones with text are 5.25×5.75 inches and those without text are 4.5×5.5 inches. Each piece is made on a PVC sheet and painted in gold spray paint. Each is signed and numbered. The ones with text are numbered 1 through 5 and the ones without text are numbered 1 through 3. First come, first serve. Feel free to email me if you have any questions – balloum (at) missouri (dot) edu.
Why no Sweet Audio this year?
Most of the time I’ve been able to put together a compilation of classic Sweet audio clips. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any more usable clips this year. There’s a chance I still have some in the depths of my files, but I just couldn’t locate anything for this year. In lieu of that, please head over to SoundCloud and check out the previous years’ offerings!
This past week I watched the most significant film I’ve seen in the last few years: Come and See, a 1985 Soviet-era anti-war film. Taking place in what is now Belarus in 1943, the film traces a few epic, devastating days in the life of a teenager who “joins” the local Soviet resistance to German incursions.
I will not spoil the power of this film by giving too much away. I will say that this film, at its core, shows the radical transformation of a smiling, whimsical, 13 or 14 year old boy into a gray, hollow wreck in a matter of hours. His heart and mind are smashed against the brutality around him. He sees not only death up close but also the horrendous inhumanity that war brings forth in our species. Scenes of almost fairy-tale light and mood give way to instances of the most egregious forms of torture, humiliation, and murder. We witness these acts conducted by carousing, laughing, crazed soldiers, while inhabiting the view of our protagonist, Florya.
Aleksey Kravchenko’s performance as Florya is beyond incredible. To think he was able to inhabit this character at the age of 14 is amazing, and I can’t imagine that he escaped the production without some trauma. Many sources claim live ammo was used, and he was certainly very close to real incendiary devices, raging fires, and extremely gory depictions of dead people. His performance was beyond things such as honors or awards. Simply legendary.
For a significant portion of the film Florya is thrown together with Glasha, a strange, beautiful young woman who sometimes sees and says what Florya can’t. There are several intense scenes between the two characters. One, where they dance in raindrops after narrowly escaping death is contrasted with a later sequence where they struggle neck-deep in a bog, frantic and animalistic.
The film is built using historical accounts as its backbone, but there are threads of magic realism here as well. Certain moments strike me as direct references to iconic moments in film classics, such as the sliced eyeball in Un Chien Andalou (1929) or the screaming nurse inBattleship Potemkin (1925). But the piece is a work entirely singular and unique. There are moments unlike any I’ve seen, and from my cursory exploration online I can see that many of the most important cinematographers and directors of photography in film cite it as an influence.
The thing about watching Come and See right now – and why it’s essential viewing – is that it highlights the Russian war against Ukraine in stark ways. One reason this film got past the Soviet censorship machine was that it demonstrated the pure barbarity of the German invasion. But it is easy to understand that the filmmaker, Elem Klimov, was making a broader point about what war – both in terms of materiel and the political machinations behind it – does to people. There is an cold, bloody irony in the fact that a Russian film from the late Cold War era shows the illegitimacy of Russian warmongering today. There are young men and women, just like Florya and Glasha, lying dead on the streets and countryside of Ukraine right now, and their deaths are every bit as criminal as those depicted in Come and See.
So, yes. Come and see, and then reject evil of war.
On February 25, 2022, I had the privilege to meet with students and give a talk over at Missouri Valley College. It’s about an hour away from Columbia where I teach, and the talk was in support of my exhibition at the college, Digital Art: Exploration and Education. I gave a brief overview of my use of digital tools, from nearly 25 years ago through today. If you’d like to watch the talk, I’ve added in all of the visuals I used, but I also worked in supplemental videos and other support information to bring more background to the talk. Many thanks to Mary Linda Pepper Lane, Sarah Fletcher, and Mike McJilton for their hospitality and conversation during my visit.
Below are a number of the works I showed in that exhibition. Left to Right, Top to Bottom: “Young Joe,” “Cardiac ICU,” “Touched Pelvis,” “Color Figure Study,” “Hitt Street Parking Garage,” “Jesse,” “Self Portrait With Neck Girth.”
From a conversation between David Gracie and Matt Ballou on January 15, 2022 in Lincoln, NE. Editing for clarity and length.
Matt: The installation of this exhibition isn’t chronological. What was the idea? That there would be pictorial themes or color themes?
David: That’s right. It’s not chronological, but there are some pieces that are grouped together, you know? There are pictorial themes, and I think that kind of like went with the territory, with the type of painting he was doing at any particular time. So there’s landscapes, still life, portraits, and figures.
This exhibition is a little bit different because there are some older works that are kind of out of context, but I thought they were worth putting in just because of the spirit of the show. So there are two rooms of main, finished works, and then there is also the room of only unfinished work.
David: These two real highlights of his portrait painting. I love these two paintings. If I could have gotten the George Tooker portrait, it would have probably been my favorite one. I remember when I had him as a teacher, he talked about that George Tooker painting as being the best portrait he’d ever done.
I think the different conventions (landscape, portrait, still life), you know, they all kind of add up to the same type of thing. But this (show) is a result of the work that was available. And also, in some ways, this is the way he would have done it (a range of whatever was available at the time). Because, when he had shows, they would be called just, like, “NEW WORK.” And then there would be some thematic shows that the galleries would put on, like Alan Stone Gallery and those 57th street galleries that would do still life or portrait shows. Because this work is all coming from Gretchen, his widow, there are 16 portraits of his son, Rushton.
Some of these works he was doing when I was a student. He was talking about Van Gogh’s boots and that Diamond Dust Shoes essay, the Fredrick Jameson one.
Matt: I love the shadow here.
David: I love the fact that the boots can’t sit there. There’s not enough space. They poke out into our space because like that line doesn’t make room for the heels. The heels couldn’t live there.
Matt: There’s a simultaneous compression and expansion to it.
Matt: I feel like there’s like a luminous opacity in so many of these. It reminds me of some passages in Paul Fenniak’s work. There’s a sense of it being so thick but also almost phosphorescent…
David: You can see that it (Brown’s approach at times) was very much like Lennart Anderson. And then over the years, you know, he would [shift influences and interests], so he went through these different, completely different phases, you know? And he was part of a whole group of artists that were meeting together (in the 70s and 80s), the Alliance of Figurative Artists.
Matt: What’s the timeframe on making these works? Did he have them scattered around the studio and he was working on them over months and years?
David: Yeah, off and on like that. He would work on the paintings for a very long time. That’s how he worked, though; he would do forty paintings at a time. There’s a lot of on these, too.
Matt: I mean, the thickness of that! There’s so many layers of glaze… almost like it’s got the presence of light and flesh at the same time. That quality.
David: He would pile it on and then sand it off – power sand – the surfaces down. He worked in a barn, too. You can see it in the other room (featuring unfinished works), like, different stages of development. Also, on this Gillespie (portrait) in this room.
Importantly, he lived near Gillespiein Massachusetts, and he was really into Hans Holbein and Spanish still life painting. Towards the end of his life, he was really into self-portraits. He also painted a bunch of trees, like these weeping cherry trees.
When I was there (Hartford School of Art) he was the kind of guy who would get up every morning at 5:00 a.m. to play tennis. He was strapping, super energetic, and full of exuberance when I knew him. I knew him from ‘97 to 2002 and then kind of lost touch with him. Then he got sick. Some of the students he had after my time said he taught in a wheelchair.
David: Gretchen told me how sometimes she would go out to his studio and say something about a painting, like, “Oh, I really like this part.” And then she’d go to bed, only to hear the power sander start… he’s just sanding that part off!
So, it’s like these things are so precious, but at the same time he’s so willing to just power sand that shit off! There’s such precision and detail but none of it was safe. On one hand he’s got all of this chaos going on – some of these look like they were laying on the floor and he’s stepping on them, you know? But then you go over into the other room and see some of those perfect portraits with incredible frames, and the contrast is so intense.
Matt: But then you think, did they exist in that (chaotic) state at some point? You know what I mean? I think they probably did.
David: Yeah, I would say they did exist in that state at some point. And you can see some that are almost there but not quite…
Matt: Because it seems to me that the cohesion that the finished ones have – some of these more refined ones – that cohesion is based on it having come through that unsafe process. I do like that a lot of these things require a sitting period. They’re not alla prima at all. The accrual has to happen.
Matt: Is this show kind of like a labor of love for you? The essay you wrote is great, and I especially like the title, the poetry of the title (“The Aching Beauty of It All: Paintings by Stephen Brown”). You know, it’s almost like something that he wouldn’t have done for himself. But that’s the way he talked about painting, right? Like, the feeling in the moment of painting, in the moment of observation.
David: Yeah. I mean, that’s what his painting was about. It was in the painting. He didn’t write shit about it. Writing was too literal. So I was self-conscious about [writing about it] because it is almost like, too much, too earnest or something.
Matt: But that’s kind of the way it all is!
David: Yeah, the whole thing is so earnest. But it’s not like some of the over-the-top, romantic painters out there taking themselves too seriously. He wasn’t self-centered.
Matt: It’s straight. There’s no affectation. That’s the difference. It’s not trying to be something other than what it is.
David: I just wonder if other people see it as if there is too much, of it being on the edge of too earnest. Perhaps there is some affect in that way.
Matt: Well, that’s half my problem over the last 15 years: with all the horrible things going on in the world, can I believe in the earnestness of this act (painting, art making)? But the sense of living in the work is so present here; obviously he’s worked on some of these for hundreds of hours, potentially. So much evidence of time and attention.
David: With the amount of sanding and number of layers going on we have no real idea how he got from A to Z. Maybe I have a closer idea of how they work than someone generally, but still, I’m not quite sure. I think his works are hard to unravel in terms of how they feel.
But that was his thing.
Matt Ballou is an artist and writer who teaches at The School of Visual Studies at the University of Missouri.
David Gracie is a painter and professor at Nebraska Wesleyan University.
“The Aching Beauty of It All: Paintings by Stephen Brown” will remain on view at Elder Gallery in Nebraska Wesleyan University’s Rogers Fine Arts Building at 5000 St. Paul Avenue, Lincoln, NE through January 30, 2022