Becoming the Student, #13: Kevin Stark

Way back on St Patrick’s Day Kevin Stark and I sat down to share some Guinness and make a portrait. After a long while I’m finally posting it. It’s one of my favorites of the Becoming the Student series, and I am very happy I documented its creation in a video. See that video at the bottom of this post.

2014-03-18 17_17_11Kevin Stark. Digital drawing created with Adonit Jot Touch 4 in Sketchbook Pro on iPad Air, 2014. Click for enlargement.

On Shared Experiences

“I try to be present. I don’t like it when I’m not. That’s why I’ve been doing this game night thing. The games themselves are a blast – I love the strategy and going for the win and all – but I really love the way that games reveal things about people and you get to know them. I’ve always been big on shared experiences. I derive quite a bit of joy from knowing and being with people. Like, I’m not so interested in going to see a movie with someone. But, for instance, going to the True/False festival with someone – doing something you have to journey through together – is something I love. You’re participating in it together, sharing it together, and every connection between you is growing. Those are the kind of things I’m big on.”

On His Rebellious Childhood

“Everything that I’m into now I said I hated as a kid, like Star Wars, the Red Socks, and The Beatles. My dad tried to introduce me to each one of them and I was like, ‘NOO!’ I’m glad I grew out of that ‘cause they’re pretty awesome.”

On Mellowing Out

“I’m more OK with people mellowing out. I used to be annoyed that this concept of a ‘restless youth’ thing was just a youth thing. The idea that people sometimes become confortable with things… I guess I’m mellowing out about mellowing out.”

On Music

“I’m really into discovering new music right now. There’s too much. Too much. I really like Daytrotter. It’s a download website where a bunch of bands from around the world share four song sets and they get posted.”

“And Destroyer. You ever heard Destroyer? Oh, man – it’s great! Get into Destroyer. He has two albums that have affected me greatly.”

“I’m annoyed at how much I’m a sucker for long songs.”

On His Portrait

“Thanks for not making me make a stanky face for two hours.”

Digital painting of my friend Kevin Stark. Two hours.

Becoming the Student, #3: Bobby Schembre

Bobby Schembre is a pastor, musician, questioner, lover of fine bourbons, and grill-master. In many ways we are different, but in many ways we are very similar… from the deepest hopes we harbor to the sorts of challenging questions we explore. Last week Bobby agreed to be a part of my “Becoming the Student” project. I greatly looked forward to our conversation. We moved through some intense existential territory over the course of our 2+ hour session. Some topics we touched on were: Pink Floyd and spiritual awakenings, how to understand the taste of bourbon and scotch, the nature of musical liturgy in contemporary Christianity, the glory and grace of our wives, and our experience of scientific awe.

Here is the resulting portrait:

IMG_8350Portrait of a Man (Bobby Schembre, 2/24/2014). Pastel on Stonehenge Paper, 22 x 24 inches, 2014. (Click for enlargement)

Bobby on musical liturgy and storytelling:

“I love the fact that we talk about how God is holy and untouchable and yet He’s here and gracious. It doesn’t make any sense really. Or that He’s indescribable and infinite and then we turn around and spend the rest of the service describing Him.”

“Part of the reality for me is that I can’t believe the bible or have a real experience of Christianity without being OK with deep tension. Everywhere, everything has a balance to it. Everything has a paradox involved in it. Nothing is just something you could put in a box and tie it up neatly and say, ‘I’ve got this.’ When we explore something about God there’s something else that makes us think, ‘well, what about this?’ And so one of the things I’m always thinking about in creating a musical liturgy is how can we expand the way we think about God, uphold the paradox, and marvel at the paradox of God.”

“I’ve been pondering my job as a ‘worship leader’ – which is just something we’ve made up – you know, what is this? I think part of the answer is that I’m a storyteller. I’m helping people think the story and sing the story of the gospel. It’s practicing a pattern.”

Bobby, with his manly beard and barrel chest reminds me of a few other bearded big men of history…

spurgeon_chair1Famed Christian pastor and author, C.H. Spurgeon

portrait-of-sculptor-james-vibertSculptor James Vibert by Ferdinand Hodler

Repin-portrait-of-the-composer-modest-mussorgsky-1881Russian Composer Mussorgsky by Ilya Repin

Also, there’s this great Portrait of a Man from the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago. Click to check it out.


Thanks for being a part of this portrait series, Bobby!

A Question of Balance

Dedicated to George, who introduced me to A Question of Balance in the mid-80s.


It is interesting what stays with us from the early years of life. Seemingly banal or incidental elements can mysteriously transmogrify into certain means of grace. And grace is always strange.

It follows then that these grace-laden elements might be loaded with weirdness or saturated with some slow-acting agent of unforeseen change. Of course, that’s part of why the grace that has touched my life is different from the grace that’s touched yours. So often what is tremendously meaningful to one heart seems trivial, shallow, or just plain boring to others. Sometimes what changes me forever would do nothing to the person right next to me.

Nowhere is that fact more apparent than in the music with which we fill our lives. The bands we become attached to, what songs move us, or which albums are soundtracks to our personal transformations are usually radically different for everyone. Everyone seems to have a different constellation of sounds, a different set of aural landmarks. When we do find someone who shares our deep connection to a piece of music there’s instant rapport. When we encounter those who seem unable to grasp the importance of our historical tracklist we can find ourselves incensed.

With that preface let me say that A Question of Balance is one of the major musical touchstones of my life. Released in 1970 by The Moody Blues, Question is, for me, one of the most significant works of art to which I’ve been exposed. It is strange. It is bombastic. It is epic. It is philosophical. It risks existential engagement. It tries to take on everything. It is critical of our default positions. It asks us if this world we’ve made is really what we want. Before I knew much of anything about the wider world, I was connecting with the introspective spiritual and societal quandaries the band was dealing with in this classic concept album.


If you are aren’t familiar with the record and want to experience it you can listen to the whole thing here.

Hearing Question as a child was one of the things that would, by the time I was 13 or 14 years old, initiate in me a long-term investigation into the nature of meaning and experience. The sorts of questions the record poses set me off on what has been a lifetime of learning and intellectual exploration. It was a means of grace to me simply because it stimulated me to contemplate those bigger existential concerns that so often get drowned in the machinations of everyday life. Question, along with a number of other factors, created an ongoing state of contemplation in me that helped me avoid many of the pitfalls of adolescence.

There are a thousand things I could say about this record. Like how those jangling guitars at the opening of the album can instantly return me to George’s old golden/mustard/brown Dodge and the smell of propane. Like how the album’s assertions went with Chris and me on our adventures northward so many times. Like how its words were a reminder of the feeling of home as I ventured out across the country in my twenties. The sounds and questions and arguments of A Question of Balance accompanied me on many late nights in the studio, on the road, in contemplation, in worry, in joy.

I could spend time exploring any of those avenues, but there’s one aspect of Question that has really reverberated within me over the years. A major theme of the record amounts to acknowledging the relational consciousness that transcends obsessive, hyper-individualism. This one thread, running throughout the entire record but focused in one particular track, was definitely a seed that found good soil in me.

Below you can read the major content of that single track. Called The Balance (click here to listen to it), it is the last song on the album and is comprised mostly of Mike Pinder’s spoken word recitation of a poem co-written by Graeme Edge and Ray Thomas.

After he had journeyed,

And his feet were sore,

And he was tired…

He came upon an orange grove.


And he rested.


And he lay in the cool.

And while he rested

He took to himself an orange, and tasted it.


And it was good.


And he felt the earth to his spine

And he asked…


And he saw the tree above him…

And the stars… and the veins in the leaf… and the light… and the balance


And he saw

Magnificent Perfection.

Whereon, he thought of himself in balance –

And he knew he was.


And he thought of those he angered, for he was not a violent man.

And he thought of those he hurt, for he was not a cruel man.

And he thought of those he frightened, for he was not an evil man.


And he understood…

He understood himself.


Upon this, he saw

That when he was of anger

Or knew hurt

Or felt fear

It was because he was not understanding


And he learned Compassion.

And with his eye of Compassion,

He saw his enemies like unto himself.

And he learned Love.

Then, he was answered.

The tired wayfarer of the poem gains perspective from the Common Grace embedded in the world around him. He relishes the coolness of the orange grove, the simple pleasure of tasting the orange, and – suddenly – the glorious awareness of the Great Order that is before him and beyond him, yet is also permeating him. As he pays attention to the tree, the stars, the leaf, and the light his growing perspective and awareness coalesce into a unifying understanding. The traveler experiences what could be seen as the state of consciousness called Savikalpa Samadhi (something which has more recently been termed The Overview Effect) and he is fundamentally changed in his relationship to other human beings.

Suddenly he’s not obsessing about his rugged individualism any more; he’s thinking of others:

And he thought of those he angered…

And he thought of those he hurt…

And he thought of those he frightened…

Thinking of others – believing that they actually exist and are valuable. Considering others – imagining how your words, actions, or attitudes impact them. Revolutionary ideas, right? But it doesn’t stop there. The journeyman turns his new-found perspective on himself and starts to see that being enslaved to anger and hurt and fear displayed his lack of understanding. In fact, it showed his inability to understand at all apart from a revelation from beyond himself. Realizing this, and sensing his necessary reciprocity with the rest of humanity, our traveler learns compassion. That is, in giving up his self-determined privileged position he can no longer feel superior to or more valuable than those around him. He can, in acknowledging and respecting their value, live out a higher value in himself.

All of this can be passed off as trite, sure. It can be dismissed as sentimental, unrealistic, or melodramatic. It can be ignored as the cheesy platitudes of a bunch of hippies. Sure. But it can also be seen as aligned with the heritage of the great faith and wisdom traditions that have been passed down to us, traditions that certainly inspired the band while creating this album.

I know it’s all more complex than this. I can see how The Balance can come off simplistic and hokey. I know that real change and real meaning require more than a singular experience, more than surge of feeling… but there is something important here, something worth declaring, worth believing. Rejecting sentiments such as those contained in Question seems like such a shallowly postmodern thing to do.  What have cynicism and petty ideological divides gotten us? I guess I’d rather stand in awe with the kitschy hippies than smirk in conceit with those who would disdain words – however sentimental – supporting basic human dignity and value.


Post Script:

My experience of A Question of Balance is a demonstration of Joseph Kupfer’s ideas about the inherent moral component of experiencing art. You can read more about this concept here.

The album is certainly worth buying and grappling with. Purchase it at iTunes or Amazon.


We Need Tears

“Tears streamed down Guston’s cheeks as he spoke about the painting.” – David Reed, Soul-Beating

This is where I live, where I want to live, where I wish I was all of the time, where I hope to be when I’m not there, the place I seek when I’m distracted by maintenance and administration and logistics. The place of hopeful devastation. The place of eucaristic, sacramental meaning. The place of alchemical negotiation. When Guston wept over Piero della Francesca’s painting, he knew the work more truly than any of our theories or proliferating words could hope for. Those manifestos and ideologies and conceits so often deaden us to the transformative power of good work, so often distract us from sensing the potency there.

This week I’ve been weeping over Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. In particular, his Great Gate of Kiev is so full and so amazing that it transcends analysis. I could go on and on with words – context, philosophy, history, theory – but the reality is that the wrenching torque created by that string of notes is MORE MORE MORE MORE MORE than any of that! My face is contorted and tears stream because of an intense inner hope/fear/joy/sadness brought to the fore by Mussorgsky’s music.

I don’t know why I’m writing this other than to say that this paradoxical emotional state is why I am an artist. The razor edge between enforced humility and exultant pride, between tragic fear and triumphant happiness, between deep sadness and rich, confident hope – these are the things great art gives us. The paradox is the liminal zone, the threshold between true feeling and mere conjecture.

We need tears in the face of these things, not jokes or theory or attempts at certainty.

Above: Viktor Hartmann’s design for the Great Gate of Kiev. Click the image to listen to a great performance of the piece.

The Greatest Mix Tape/CD/USB/Playlist I’ve Ever Received

Back in 2009 or so one of my students, Tina, gave me a collection of songs. I knew of her audiophile tendencies. I knew she had good taste. I knew she was an artist and a scholar and a writer and a thinker and an all-around quality individual. So it was with great anticipation that I began to play this mix. Little did I know that years later it would still be a staple of my iTunes, a cornerstone of my sonic environment, a touchstone to contemplation and significance.

So here it is, in all of its glory. Where I can find a link to a song, I’ll place a link. If I were you I’d load this beast up and let it play. And when you do, thank Tina’s good taste.

1) “Pistol of Fire” – Kings of Leon

2) “Cocaine Habit” – Old Crow Medicine Show

3) “Down to the Well” – Pixies (Tina actually gave me a rare version of the song that I can’t link to… but this is awesome anyway)

4) “Proven Lands” – Johnny Greenwood

5) “Traveling Man” – Miwa Gemini (this is a live version, different from what Tina gave me, but still awesome)

6) “That Can be Arranged” – Tom Vek

7) “Bring it on Home to Me” – Spoon (A great Sam Cooke cover)

8) “Celia of the Seals” – Donovan (One of my all time favorite songs now…)

9) “KKK” – Serge Franklin

10) “Paint the Town Red” – IMA Robot (Super intense track)

11) “Fonklogi” – Sigur Ros (Sorry, no link…)

12) “Day of the Deadringers” – McLusky

13) “List of Demands” – Saul Williams (CLASSIC)

14) “Till I Get My Way” – The Black Keys

15) “Black River Killer” – Blitzen Trapper (Like listening to a Cormac Mccarthy novel…)

16) “Pablo Picasso” – Modern Lovers (Jonathan Richman deserves rock immortality for this track, especially when you take THIS track [which is one of the greatest songs of all time] into account…)

17) Out Of Time – Blur

18) 2080 – Yeasayer

It’s a strange mix, this mix is. It’s a conflagration of narrative and imagery, of poem and scream, of hysterical missive and crafted mission. I’m thankful to Tina for giving me this particular grouping, this particular constructed meaning.

So in honor and thanks, I present here the first drawing Tina made for me. It was a drawing that told me she had some serious ability. In spite of its humble scope, this drawing really has some serious understanding behind it. Tina went on to make great drawings in subsequent classes, but I know her life path will be much more expansive and contain much more amazing visions. I’m glad I got to witness a bit of it. Here’s to you, Tina! Thanks for the music!

The Best 23 Albums of 2011…

…a completely subjective, personal list that was based entirely on how much I played them and/or was inspired by them, and regardless of when they came out. So here they are – artist, album (conveniently linked for your perusal), and year of release.

m83 – hurry up we’re dreaming (2011) 

battles – gloss drop (2011)

broken bells – broken bells (2010) 

the national – high violet  (2010) 

doves – kingdom of rust (2009) 

tori amos – abnormally attracted to sin (2009)

bat for lashes – two suns (2009) 

beck – modern guilt (2008)

the shins – wincing the night away (2007) 

the national – alligator (2005)

radiohead – OK computer (2003)

the decemberists – castaways and cutouts (2003) 

yeah yeah yeahs – fever to tell (2003)

broken social scene – you forgot it in people (2002)

doves – the last broadcast (2002)

neko case – blacklisted (2002)

cake – comfort eagle (2001)

modest mouse – building something out of nothing (2000)

holly golightly – God don’t like it (2000)

soul coughing – el oso (1998)

alice in chains – dirt (1992)

the pixies – trompe le monde (1991)

tom waits – rain dogs (1985)

Now if I had to pick 3 absolutely essential recordings from this list, I think I’d pick the Tom Waits, the Neko Case, and the latest The National albums. But, then again, it seems to me that the whole “desert island list” thing is played out and – at least now days – ill-conceived. Right now I can carry pretty much every piece of music I’ve ever owned in the cloud… so let’s not say this is a desert island list, no. Let’s say it’s an electro-magnetic-pulse list. An EMP has hit the earth and YOU – you alone – have a way to play a select bit of music in our post-EMP world. What would you play?

Yes, I think I could survive with some Neko, some Waits, and some National. But, man, I’d really need some Shins and Radiohead…

What are your EMP essentials?

Keep rocking in 2012, folks! (image above taken by Jake Johnson)

Ghost Wire Writing?

One of my favorite songs, from one of my all-time favorite albums (Blacklisted) and one of my all-time favorite artists (Neko Case), is called Ghost Wiring. When you listen to the track, I suggest a late night and low light and the tension of strange memories to enhance the experience.

One of the song’s enduring aspects is the short, whispered sentence that precedes the opening bars of music. I had listened to the track dozens of times before I heard it, and now it’s something that I love to bend in close to hear – especially when traveling late at night on empty roads, or ensconced in my dark studio trying to suss out glory from paint. Below is the section in question, pulled out and enhanced. What do you think is going on here?

Ghost Wiring Intro Whisper (mp3 format)

Music for Reading A Mnemonic of Longing

Music for reading A Mnemonic of Longing,

an unpublished essay, 2002-2009.


by u2


by doves


by neko case


by massive attack


by the good the bad and the queen


by mazzy star


by radiohead


by gram rabbit


by gram rabbit


by menomena


by doves


by calexico


by doves


by mazzy star


by cat stevens

Hope Sandoval

Hope Sandoval and the Warm Inventions just released their second, long-awaited collection of music, titled Through the Devil Softly.

The new music stands in some dusty, murky ground between the previous HS&tWI CD, 2001’s Bavarian Fruit Bread (BFB), and the legendary body of work created by Sandoval’s other (long dormant) band, Mazzy Star. Through the Devil Softly (TtDS) is neither as downbeat-shoe-gazing as BFB was, nor is it as deathly otherworldly as the Mazzy Star work was. TtDS finds a glowing haze that the others forego in their overcast evenings and midnight reveries.

The sonic textures of old (glinting, rain-like guitar work; fleeting harmonicas; noir-ish, understated drums) are back and certainly reference the previous HS&tWI recording. But in TtDS they feel not so much quoted as rethought, reconstructed; there really is a different feeling to this new group of songs. Bavarian Fruit Bread’s sound was nested largely in an acoustic feel and this inflected every aspect of the production – even the layered use of keyboards and other ambient soundscapes present in the work. In TtDS, layered instrumentation and vocals signal the constructed, incremental product that it is.

I’m pleased with the confidence in Sandoval’s voice on TtDS and find the syncopation of delivery that she’s using really lovely. Yes, the trademark lilting languidness is there – it’s something fundamental to how she uses her instrument – but on TtDS her intonation touches a clarity and closeness not felt on previous tracks. The music stays pushed off in fade and reverb, yet Sandoval’s breathy voice is near and concise when compared to her past work.

Overall, TtDS feels more varied and staged than BFB… and that’s good. It’s a body of music that feels like it is referencing a greater range of feeling than past tracks were while retaining the trademark sound and mood for which Sandoval is known.

It’s nice to have more Hope out there.

Key tracks from Through the Devil Softly:

For the Rest of Your Life
Sets the Blaze