Of Peacocks and Bovine Interlocutors

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

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

IMG_1634

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

IMG_2278

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

IMG_2234

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

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

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

IMG_2245

IMG_2219

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

22549579

A Eulogy I Never Got To Give

On February 14, 2016, my sister Denya died at age 47. After my mother’s tearful call, we went into robot mode and made plans to get back to central NY for the funeral. It’s always a trial to get packed, organized in the van, and on the road. It was more trying this time, though, thinking about the reasons for our trip. Part of what I was trying to work out was just what to think about losing Denya.

I was asked to speak a eulogy and I had been thinking about it during the drive – I had a good chunk of it formulated in my mind. So after the calling hours on the 17th of February, we went back up to our hotel room and I began writing down what I’d say.  At least that’s what I have been informed happened, because I had a heart attack in the hotel room fairly soon after arriving there that evening. I forgot much of what happened over the previous few days, with only brief snippets remaining.

Providentially, my wife was right there, as were the many EMTs, nurses, and healthcare professionals who were in our family or friends with my sister. Within minutes I was being worked on and transported to hospital. Though I am nowhere near 100%, every day feels like a bit more has returned.

So now I want to share the eulogy that I never got to give.

**

Denya was the definition of determination, clarity of vision, and kindness of heart. At 16, seeing that our stepfather was abusive, Denya decided to leave home and make her own way. She stayed with friends. She got herself to school and work. She did not allow this provisional stage to define her; she aimed toward college. She didn’t let herself get tripped up by small thinking. She didn’t fall into a spiral of foolish actions and relationships; she was wise. Continuing to work and support herself, Denya went to nursing school, eventually rising through the EMT ranks and working in the intense world of Emergency Room trauma.

imageDenya, age 4.

She grew in faith. She grew in family. She had seen her way through difficult situations at home. She worked toward a vision of education and work and made it happen. She found love in the stability and thoughtfulness of a strong, gentle, honorable man – a man who shared her vision for work and family, for faith and clarity of purpose. In marrying Timmy, Denya truly became an iconic example in my life.

imageDenya and Tim on their wedding day in 1993.

She had already been a great example of hard work and applied education, but now she was living out the sort of teamwork marriage to which I could aspire. Together, Denya and Tim built a home that was hospitable, secure, fun, and a stage for dreams. When I think back on Denya, that’s what I see: faith, family, and fun.

I also see someone who persevered through periods of intense physical and emotional pain – losing Cassandra; struggling with the effects of lupus constantly; and nearly dying when Cassilyn and Elisabeth were young. It was not merely going through these and other things that were important. It’s that she went through them with grace, strength, acceptance, and transformation. These qualities were already in her, and they were focused and made more potent through her experiences.

She – along with Tim – modeled long-suffering of physical pain like no one else I’ve known. She – along with Tim – showed us what good parenting could be: parenting with grace, fun, and high expectations. She – along with Tim – demonstrated gentle guidance, constant availability, and true enjoyment of their girls. She – along with Tim – lived life with joy and thoughtfulness. She – along with Tim – crafted a home life that nurtured not only their own family but also the families that touched theirs.

imageDenya with her girls.

So while her death is horrible and sad, and we wish we could have had many more years with her, in a very real way – at least to me – her death is not tragic. What I mean here is that nothing was wasted. She had no dead years, no years of lost potential. She redeemed the time. She made the most of what was given to her. There were no excuses in her life, no regrets. She didn’t live in anger or sorrow about what might have been. That is a triumphant life – a life full of meaning. It’s a life we can be thankful to have witnessed and been a part of.

Denya’s death is a huge loss. Yet each of us has been allowed to bear witness to her example, to her grace, and to her laughter in some way. Seeing her working at the Super Duper. Seeing her pursue her nursing education and succeed at it. Seeing her Camaro with the airbrushed roses on the sides. Hearing her infectious laugh. Watching her play the Red Queen in a high school production of Alice in Wonderland. Maybe you’re even one of the lucky ones who experienced her jumping out of the twilight shouting “I’M DA BREATHER!!!” at you, scaring you half to death.

imageAn airbrushed rose from the side of Denya’s Camaro.

I will miss you, Denya. I’ll miss your love and faith. I’ll miss your sense of humor and your grace. But I know that these things clearly live on in those who knew you, loved you, and built lives with you. We are so thankful to have had you with us for this time, and we know that you carry on.

imageA recent note from Denya.

**

Every Brushstroke An Opportunity to Help Change a Life

il_570xN.276209062Situation and Circumstance Overcome, Oil on Panel, 16 by 20 inches. 2003.

Eleven years ago I created this painting. Over the years many people have asked me to create copies of it for them. There are more than 15 versions of this piece scattered across the US. Now you have an opportunity to get one of your own AND help support the adoption process for two of my good friends, Aarik and Brooke Danielsen.

il_570xN.276129237Detail of Situation and Circumstance Overcome.

The original piece is one of the most important artworks I’ve created. Its quality of construction, unique place in the story of my art making, and the personal significance it holds cause me to value it highly. For $400 you can have your very own version of this painting. I will donate every cent of the sale price to the Danielsens’ adoption fund.

I am taking up to 10 orders and I will deliver the finished works by July 2015. If you want to have a beautiful, evocative work of art for your home and help give a child a home they deserve, please consider ordering one here. I love the Danielsens and am excited to give anything I can to their adoption journey. If you follow my blog, you know how close adoption is to my heart. I hope you’ll give me a lot of work to do; every brushstroke will be done with love and joy, and in the knowledge that each one is making a real difference to a real person.

To find out more about the Danielsens’ adoption and learn more about how you can help, check out their blog here.

If you have questions let me know.

il_570xN.276209106Detail of Situation and Circumstance Overcome.

PLEASE NOTE THAT THE SAMPLE IMAGES ABOVE ARE EXAMPLES OF THE ORIGINAL PAINTING. Copies that I create will have variation, but will maintain the overall composition, color, and general surface structure of the original, and will be created exactly to the scale of the original.

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.

url

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.

 

Remembering the Shapes and Textures of China

In just a few hours we’ll be leaving the People’s Republic of China. We are ready; home and friends and family call to us.

Right now, though, CaiQun sleeps nearby. She has no way of realizing how much her life will change. We don’t either. As I looked into her eyes tonight, giving her a final bed-time bottle in her native land, I thought about how rich and beautiful and strange and amazing her country of  birth is. We leave it, and hope to return. She is beginning an amazing journey. I’m priveledged to go on it with her, for at least this part.

As we depart China, I again make a post that features some (for me) lasting images of this Land. Two and a half weeks is certainly not enough time to really know much of anything about a country, but we will be forever changed by what we’ve seen, heard, felt, and known here. These images are just part of the rememberance I’ll take with me.

Enjoy. Click to enlarge. Visit China. Hear her sounds and see her sights. Love her people and acknowledge her history.

We’re a part of this world.

IMG_5607[1]IMG_5608[1]IMG_5610[1]IMG_5559[1]IMG_5611[1]IMG_5612[1]IMG_5614[1]IMG_5615[1]IMG_5613[1]IMG_5616[1]IMG_5618[1]IMG_5617[1]IMG_5619[1]IMG_5621[1]IMG_5620[1]IMG_5637IMG_5638IMG_5643

New Homes

2012 was a good year for selling my work. Many pieces that we’ve lived with for many years are now gone. They live new lives with others. They will, in tandem with these fresh viewers, take on different resonances, build more meanings. Three recent sales in particular are significant to me. What’s interesting to me as an artist is that these works don’t necessarily represent the height of my prowess as a painter or draftsperson (Though I do count Four Pale Bricks as among the most significant paintings I’ve ever made). Nor are these works the end of a particular line of thought or closed, singular achievement. Each was, in some sense, a reaction to different pressures and concerns. They were attempts to understand influences, necessities, desires. They were stepping stones.

11

Untitled Landscape (#1), Acrylic on canvas, 36 x 46 inches, 2000. Private collection, MO. Click to view larger.

They are all about different times in my life. The colorful Untitled Landscape (#1) above was made when I was a junior at SAIC. It wasn’t meant to be my own personal expression. I was trying to understand Diebenkorn and integrate his approach to composition and structure. In spite of the derivative quality (something that’s unavoidable for any artist and something that, when embraced, can spark true development) the work displays my growing sense of color and use of mark and mass.

As I packed it up for delivery to its new owners, I was so pleased with the craftsmanship: the bars are still square; the canvas stretched and primed beautifully; the corners wrapped flat and tight. It was that follow-through with the love for the materials at all levels that, I think, made me develop as an artist. I wasn’t just winging it. I was being thoughtfully engaged all the way through. I’m not saying this just to toot my own horn… I’m just proud of the fact that, in spite of myself, I got something about materials, process, and focus that still rings true and gives the work quality.

ballou-fourpalebricks

Four Pale Bricks, Oil on canvas on panel, 14 by 22 inches, 2006. Private collection, MO. Click to view larger.

The second piece, above, really shows (to me) how my grasp of composition and visual dynamics was affected by combining my early love for Diebenkorn with my research, via Frank Stella’s Working Space, into the formal concerns of the Renaissance. Four Pale Bricks was painted very soon after my return from Italy, a trip that greatly supplemented what I thought I’d learned from Working Space. My encounters there with alchemical pictorial formulas, various numerological/metaphysical theories a la sacred geometry, and the intense formal constructions of everyone from Giotto to Pontormo were extremely influential. In many ways this work was the beginning of my current explorations into two-dimensional shape and angle dynamics as they manifest in illusions of space, air, and light.

ballou18-tinfoilcoal

Still Life With Tinfoil, Coal, and Plywood, Graphite on paper, 18 by 24 inches, 2007. Private collection, MO. Click to view larger.

This last work – something I shipped out to its new owner just this morning – is all about my having become a teacher. One of the things I believe in most strongly as an educator is that I must model the skills, ideas, and values that I teach. I will never make any impression at all if I merely vomit out vague data; I’ve got to believe it and practice it. This work came about as a challenge from my students, who did not believe the processes I was teaching them would yield positive results. As I drew this work, I took photos and from them produced a short video to demonstrate how it all worked. I have used this example every semester since. The piece is very sentimental to me because of how it embodies my own practice of teaching. I was willing to live out the things I talked about, and that made my students trust me.

Having these three works – and all of the others recently sold – go into the hands of people who appreciate them is wonderful for me. It’s also a reminder that gratification (and appreciation) is often very much delayed. I do work today that may only become appreciated decades from now. That is something that is hard for all artists – we are a notoriously insecure and touchy lot, aren’t we? – but having these works go out into the world is special.

It’s all the more special for me because every dollar from every sale I’ve made over the last year has gone directly into bringing Madeleine Cai Qun home. Now when I think of these artworks, I won’t only consider what they were for me or how they have gone to new homes, but I’ll be able to see in them how they gave my daughter a new home.

That’s a value that is transcendent. I’m thankful that my work as an artist can be a part of that even greater work of manifesting love and peace into the world.

There’s still a few more weeks before we head to China. If you’d like to help out in the final stretch by bringing one of my works into your home, check out my etsy site here.

 

 

Sea of Red

Sterling W. Wyatt, a native of Columbia, Missouri, died in Afgahnistan on July 11th. The Westboro “Baptist” “Church” people decided that they would continue their crusade of hate and idiocy by picketing his funeral. They sent out a press release to that effect on the 17th. Within hours, people all over Columbia were mobilizing against the horrific, destructive weirdness that the Phelps clan stands for. Today, July 21st, Columbia showed up en masse in red clothing to stand with Wyatt’s family. This is some of what it looked like.

Click the panorama for a wide view of just part of the crowd.

The mass of people in front of the church. The crowd lined the streets for miles between the church and cemetary.

I was proud to attend this event, stand in the heat for four hours with my brother-in-law, and witness the unity and care of this town that is now my home. What was amazing and truly special is that this show of solidarity crossed all ideological boundaries. There were Christians and agnostics and atheists there. There were Republicans and Democrats and Libertarians there. There were blacks and whites and asians there. There were artists and teachers and politicians there. There were babies and teenagers and old people there. There were gay and straight and questioning people there. There were rich and poor and homeless people there. There were veterans and conscientious objectors and peaceniks there.

All standing together.

All standing together in 100+ degree heat. All calm and quiet and respectful. All recognizing the complexities of the situation. All willing to stop their day for 2 or 4 or 6 or 8 hours to honor a man who died along some dirty road in Kandahar. All willing to step out and deny twisted fools any chance to spread pain and misinformation. I was pretty proud to be there to see it.

There was a moment when Sterling’s mother was making her way toward the church, and the crowd parted for her. As she moved through a wave of clapping began to take shape. Wave after wave built into an ovation that lasted for minutes on end. It was a whole community of support – not making it any easier, not pretending it was all ok – but recognizing her sacrifice. We’ve been in these damn wars for so long now and most of us don’t have to count the cost so we needed to see her face. We needed to be near her and respect her. She’s paying. Her son paid. They paid in real blood and real tears and real years gone. If the only thing Columbia could give this woman was an ovation of encouragement, if all we could do was let her memory of this day be filtered through our good wishes and red shirts, if our best job was to keep her from seeing the blasphemy that the Westboro picketers brought… then we did well. We couldn’t make it better, but we kept them from making it worse.

I’m a Christian. I’ve spent the last two decades intensely studying the bible and Christian thought. I’ve heard it. I’ve read it. I’ve preached it. I’ve encountered it in history and in individual lives. I’ve seen it in Pontormo and Dostoevesky, in U2 and NASA. I’ve witnessed it through the chance and paradox and uncertainty of real life. It’s a part of who I am. And it offends me at a level that I can’t even begin to describe to see it distorted by the Westboro “Baptist” “Church” (or pedofile priests or opportunitistic politicians). Their actions are so pestilential, so putrifyingly wrong… yet they have become a picture of what Christianity is, who Jesus is, to so many in this country.

In the face of this absolute distortion all I can do is try to be a good man, a good husband, a good dad, a good teacher, a good artist. The only real way for me to show people that Westboro Hate Mongers (or abusive clergy or rightwing pseudo-Christian politicians) don’t represent MY Jesus is by acting out what I believe He’s all about in my own life. I know I can’t do it in my own strength, but that’s part of what I was trying to do today. It’s what I try to do as a teacher. It’s what I try to do as a dad and a husband. I can’t make any big difference. I can’t change anyone’s heart. None of that is my job. But I can try to be a peacemaker and promote justice, try to express reconcilliation, and work to function in a humble, gentle way with everyone.

“He has shown you what is good and what is required of you: do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.” – Micah 6:8

While thinking about all of the distortion and hate and foolishness is frustrating, it was tremendously encouraging to see my community rise up in a positive way today. I’ll say it again: I’m really proud to live here. I hope our efforts today had some impact – at least on ourselves.

RIP Specialist Sterling W. Wyatt