A Conversation About Stephen Brown’s Paintings

From a conversation between David Gracie and Matt Ballou on January 15, 2022 in Lincoln, NE. Editing for clarity and length.


Stephen Brown – Ruhan (left) and David (right). Oil on wood. 2000.

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.

Gracie holding Rushton in Bedroom, Massachusetts oil on wood, 2009, verso of Portrait of Gretchen, oil on wood, 2009
Stephen Brown – Unfinished Light Bulb. Oil on wood. 2009.

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.

David Gracie pointing out some details.

Importantly, he lived near Gillespie in 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. 

Details of Stephen Brown – Onion. Oil on wood, 2006.

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.

Detail of Stephen Brown – Still Life with Apple Blossoms, oil on board. 1997.

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


The Ballou Collection – Marszalek, Mize

One of the First and One of the Last – Two pieces currently up in the Ballou Collection.

The two paintings below are cherished parts of our collection. I’ve had the Norbert Marszalek painting for about a decade, dating back to my time living in Chicagoland and having a few conversations with Norbert at the Contemporary Art Workshop.

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Norbert Marszalek – Cup and Saucer, oil on canvas, 8×9 inches. 2003.

At the time this was painted, Norbert was still in the midst of several figure-based series of works featuring interiors and portraits. Over the last several years the cup – in particular the tea cup – has become increasingly important to Marszalek and he has focused on it. The attention he has given to the tea cup has caused his work to move out into sculpture and installation. It’s cool to me to have this early cup in my studio to demonstrate the way that sometimes small touchstones can roll up into mountains of concern in the work. I love it.

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Dylan MizeRemembrance, oil on canvas, 12×10 inches. 2013/2014.

I met Dylan when he was an undergraduate at the University of Central Missouri. During studio visits his interest and passion really stood out. Over the years I’ve admired his tenacity and investigative spirit. He’s also really into chess, and has both played the game well but also made some wonderful, effervescent pastel drawings of the action of chess tournaments. He has an instinct for relationships of form and color and mark that are just exciting to me. I just recently got this piece and framed it up with reclaimed oak. It’s a wonderful splash of color in my studio.

 

Becoming the Student #29: Aarik Emerging

SMALLbecomingstudent-aarikAarik Emerging. Oil on canvas on panel, 13 by 84 inches. 2014-2016. Click the image above for a large version.

My friend Aarik Danielsen is a writer, a preacher, a father, a reader, a thinker, a worker, a lover of his wife and of his life and of the small joys that can pass between people who strive to connect. He’s a willing participant in art and music and making of all kinds. He wants to tell the truth about time and meaning and God. He wants to be thoughtful and honest in all that he does. He is a gentle, genuine soul.

aarik-lipdetailAarik Emerging, detail. Click for large view.

Two years ago I began a project to bring Aarik into my Becoming the Student project. He was willing to go along with my strange request to turn off all the lights in my studio and press my ancient flatbed scanner against his head… for 30 minutes. These scans became the basis for the painting that you see here.

Above: A shot of Aarik from the studio when I was making the scans…

aarik-plaiddetailAarik Emerging, detail. Click for large view.

aarik-detailhairAarik Emerging, detail. Click for large view.

Usually I have an interview to go along with these posts. The thing is that it seems to me that an interview – short, minor, without range – would minimize who Aarik tries to be. This observation isn’t meant to degrade my other Becoming the Student posts. I know they are limited. But I guess with Aarik’s what I wanted to do was focus on his emergence as a father. This painting is a celebration of his transformation – a chosen transformation – into a father. All that being a dad entails is strange and hard. None of us who are dads really know how to do it. And we all deal with issues we never thought we’d have to. So this image of a man appearing out of thick darkness, his characteristics manifesting in tenuous and tenebrist ways, is symbolic of every father’s attempt to become what he believes he ought. The multiplicity of it; each situation bringing about change and instantaneous adaptations… It’s where I find myself and where I imagine Aarik finds himself. It’s a holy discombobulation, fatherhood. One in which we fail moment by moment. By grace we try again.

Thank you for doing that, Aarik – trying and trying again. By grace.

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.

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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)

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

Atticus Arrives

967896_10104965202870509_452403013_n My son arrived about 36 hours ago. He is healthy, beautiful, and strong. I’m thankful and awed. A few hours after he came, I posted the following image and words: 10454386_10104960823950899_6612423471633883460_n “I nominate Atticus Garrett Ballou to eventually take awesome color pictures, or paint wonders, or write down glories, or sing high praises, or dream strange dreams, or tread with golden feet on far flung vistas, or wheel through the galaxy on spatiotemporal-controlling power… Or at the very least to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly. 11/29/14, 3:01am”

My friend Frank (a great educator and thoughtful dad himself) commented, “With a name like Atticus, how can he help it?”

Well, here’s hoping that when my son reads about his namesake he will feel empowered. That we, as his parents, will believe that we’ve done something to impart the thread of grace and understanding that makes Atticus a worthy name to hold.

With a name like Atticus, how can we help it?

~

In the hours that have passed, I’ve had the chance to reflect on the epic person my wife is. I’ve now watched her through two pregnancies and one adoption (processes that are surprisingly equivalent and strenuous, believe me). She is someone who exudes a quality of character and force of will I’ve never had the chance to really know in anyone else. When Miranda was born, I got to see Alison’s movement through labor and delivery with eyes of terror and amazement. This weekend, however, I got to be a calmer, more aware viewer. I was much more keyed into what she needed and what she was doing. Seeing her come into full alignment with her body and her second-by-second progression through the final hours of pregnancy was inspirational. Screen Shot 2014-11-30 at 10.52.29 PMAbove Left: Alison just toward the end of heavy labor, around 2am, less than an hour before Atticus was born. I was putting counter-pressure on her lower back and calling out the peaks and troughs of each contraction. Above Right: Alison, exhausted but calm, less than 5 minutes after giving birth. Often during labor she looked like this; totally within herself and focused on the event.

momandboy1

 …and just a minute or so later, Atticus got that precious skin-to-skin contact with his momma.

~

I was pleased to get some wonderful down time with the two of them after the delivery. We were, I think, able to enjoy that first day in a way we were too blown away to when we had Miranda or came home with CaiQun. Something tells me that ease will be a hallmark of our experience of Atticus. He’s such a relaxed yet alert baby. I think those qualities are something we are all hoping to manifest.

~

I got to draw a portrait of him in the early hours today. I love this first little document of looking at my boy. I hope you do, too.

~

Last, but not least, here are those new big sisters. They’re enjoying (and being generally confused by) their new baby brother. Glory. Thanksgiving.

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Becoming the Student, #20: Graham Higgs

imageProfessor Graham Higgs Gloriously Lit. Digital painting, dimensions variable, 2014. Click to view LARGE.

In this post, I want Professor Higgs to speak for himself. If you have a few minutes, please read the story below. If you give the narrative time to work, I’m certain that you will sense both the great truths and the gentle spirit that animate Graham’s life.

~

The Cry of the Spirit Leaving

By Graham Higgs. Posted here by permission of the author.

It was one of those blazing hot, dry days at noon in a small village in Southern Africa, where I lived as a child. Not a soul was stirring. The sky shimmered with heat, and the only sound was the empty shush of a dry breeze against the screen on the porch, where I lay on my back, shirtless against the cool concrete floor.

I watched a fly circling in slow motion and finally settling on the floor a few feet from my head. My cheek felt cool against the floor as I watched the fly brushing its wing with one of its six legs.

Suddenly, from a distance in the back yard, I heard a man’s cry, “Nyoka! Nyoka!”

This was truly startling. “Nyoka! Nyoka!” the cry rang out.

In the Swahili language, the word “Nyoka” means snake, but not just any snake. It means dangerous snake. The odd thing about this was that snakes were very rarely seen in the heat of mid-day. I heard the cry again, and I heard the back screen door slam as my father left the house. I jumped up and left the porch at the front of the house and ran around back to see what was going on. When I reached the back yard I could see my dad crossing the field behind the house toward the garden. In the middle of the field, a tall, barefooted man wearing only khaki shorts and carrying a long stick was standing and pointing in the direction of the garden.

My father reached him and stopped. They slowly advanced, and then I saw the big old king cobra that they were watching. It was slowly moving toward the garden. They followed it, and it became aware of them, suddenly rising up high off the ground and displaying its broad, golden neck with two hypnotic dark eye-shaped spots.

My father and the garden man froze. The snake dropped back to the ground and began to move more quickly toward a large pile of brush near the end of the field. Several other men arrived and all began to pursue the snake, which continued toward the brush pile and then disappeared inside. The men surrounded the huge pile of brush. With long sticks they poked into the pile, jumping back, afraid the reptile would attack. King cobras are known to be aggressive when provoked.

While all this commotion was going on, many of the villagers began to come to see what was going on and stood in the shade of the tall eucalyptus trees that lined the field. Women and girls stood and watched while curious boys ran with sticks and threw stones at the pile. Mothers called out at them and tried to get them to be careful. The men stood and watched and pondered what to do next. The day was very hot and dry, and some of the men receded to the shade of the trees. A sentry of 4 or 5 men stood guard around the brush pile watching for any sign of the snake. The crowd of onlookers swelled to include just about everyone in the village. Some of the boys kicked a soccer ball around in the dust, and a dry breeze lifted the fine dust into swirls around their ankles. Sweat ran down the cheeks of the men watching the huge pile of brush.

One of the men walked over to my father, who was standing with me in the shade. I heard him say, “Baba, we could set the brush on fire. That would surely drive the Nyoka out so we can kill it.” No sooner had he suggested this than a man came running from the village fire with a burning stick, and the brush pile was soon a blaze of heat and crackling light. Visible waves of heat radiated away from and above the fire in visible auroras. The intensity drove almost everyone away and back toward the trees and the shade. Even in the shade you could feel the heat of the fire across the field. The fire cracked and popped, but no snake appeared. An hour went by, and no snake had come from the now smoldering fire. People began to mumble, and some began to return to their huts in the village. Women took their children and said they had food to prepare.

About this time, a quiet whistling sound began to be heard coming from the pile of ash. The whistling became louder, and everyone in the near vicinity could hear it. It became louder still and began to sound like a woman crying in a high-pitched tone. Now the sound could be heard throughout the village, and it became an ear-splitting scream. People looked at each other, terrified. The Nyoka was crying! What could this mean?

One wise, elderly woman said that she believed that the men had tried to kill an ancestor spirit. “What Nyoka ever comes out into the heat of the day?” she asked. “It is a sign” she said, “a sign that we did not heed. In our rush to kill this Nyoka, we may have tried to kill an ancestor who was trying to talk with us. See, she does not come from the fire. She waits, and she will certainly take her anger out on us. Just you wait and see.”

This prediction filled the hearts of the villagers with foreboding and fear, and those who had returned to the fire to see what the commotion was fled from the scene, taking their children and mumbling in low, fearful tones. After a few minutes the crying became quieter and slowly died away. A few men stayed with my father and watched the last of the smoldering coals. Then, as the day became long and the sun began to reach the horizon, my father and the other two men began to poke into the ashes with a long stick. At one point near the center of the ash pile, the stick hit a metal object.

With a shovel and a large stick, they found that a sheet of corrugated metal roofing was at the base of the fire. When they turned it over, the Then, as the day became long and the sun began to reach the horizon, my father and the other two men began to poke into the ashes with a long stick. At one point near the center of the ash pile, the stick hit a metal object.

With a shovel and a large stick, they found that a sheet of corrugated metal roofing was at the base of the fire. When they turned it over, they found the king cobra coiled in a circle. Its mouth was open and the fangs exposed. It had been cooked by the fire, roasted under the corrugated roofing. I recall my father thinking for a few minutes after this discovery and then saying to the two men, “It is now clear to me what has happened here. As the snake cooked, it began to boil, and the moisture in the snake steamed out of its mouth and past the fangs, which created a whistling and crying sound, much like a penny whistle does.” The men looked puzzled.

One of the men was horrified. “Oh, no, Baba, this is not the case. This sound was the cry of the ancestor spirit leaving the snake. We have certainly offended one of our ancestors, and this is a very grave thing to have happened.”

He quickly left the field and returned to his family. That night as the village gathered to eat together and drink beer and tell stories around the communal fire, the talk was about whether to consult the Nganga (witch doctor) to see how they could make reparations to the ancestor. They believed that they had ignored a natural sign. They believed they had violated an ancestor, and they would be punished. My father tried to explain that this might not be the case, but the villagers would have nothing of it. They had their animistic beliefs that kept them in balance with nature. It was an evening of low talking and fearful discussion. Many retired to their huts earlier than usual. Only a few of the older men, including my father, sat and talked late into the night.

Early the next morning a 3-week-old infant died mysteriously while she slept. It was then the people knew that they had indeed angered an ancestor. The Nganga and a spirit medium and herbalist would need to be called to perform a ceremony to placate the ancestor. Women were asked to prepare extra beer, and the herbalist retreated to his hut on the outskirts of the village and pulled out his stock of hallucinogenic herbs and tinctures. Men sat around the village fire and talked while the women served beer and food and in their own groups ate and sang and danced. A couple of drummers and mbira (thumb-piano) players worked themselves into a chanting rhythm and flow that began to persuade those who participated to sway and bob with the beat. The Nganga mixed a tincture and filled a pipe that he lit and passed around the group of men, and the tincture was swallowed by the spirit medium, a man who normally was a very odd fellow, said to possess special powers of vision and the ability to talk with the ancestors.

The spirit medium fell into a trance and passed out on the ground under the watchful eye of the Nganga, who bathed his face with cool water. The chanting and singing became more communal, and some men began to get up and dance. The women, including my mother, joined in the chanting and clapping of hands, and pretty soon, everyone was singing mournful and yet energetic songs of placation. Late into the night, the spirit medium began to speak, and the Nganga called for silence.

The spirit medium spoke in a language that no one but the Nganga understood. After listening to the strange sounds coming from the spirit medium, the Nganga conferred with the village chief, who called for a moment of reflection. Then he spoke about what the ancestor had advised. He said that tomorrow we must kill a goat and 7 chickens and prepare a feast in honor of the ancestor. In addition, we must begin to respect each other and to watch out for the children of others as well as we watch out for our own children.

We must work more regularly in the peanut fields, as the crops are almost ready, and we must always treat strangers with caution but respect. After a list of these sorts of things, some directed specifically at a few members of the community, the ancestor related that life would return to normal. Within a few days, the community had come together with a new commitment to work productively and live in peace as the ancestors intended.

~

I broke some of my rules while working on Graham’s portrait. I really wanted it to live up to the power of his story and the quality of his deep, quiet mind… so I spent a lot more than 2 or 4 or 6 hours on it. While drawing him in his office at Columbia College, I had the advantage of seeing him silhouetted against a bright spring scene, the intense near-white greens illuminating his head as if with a halo. I worked this portrait back and fourth in Sketchbook Pro and Art Rage v3, with some editing and shifting in Afterlight, for several months. I used both the Adonit Jot Touch 4 and the fiftythree Pencil to do the work. I’m thankful for the conversations I’ve had with Graham and I hope to have more in the future.

VINCENT

Andrew Vincent was one of my favorite students. He has a quiet presence, a quirky sense of humor, and the uniqueness that comes from arriving in middle America from somewhere else. In his case, it was South Africa. His father, a scientist and professor at Mizzou, brought his family to the US in time for Andrew to start 3rd grade. In many ways he retains a beneficial sort of otherness in spite of having lived much of his life here in Missouri.

Andrew made some amazing work for me in my Color Drawing classes, work that I have shown to several semesters of students. Here are a few of his pieces:

DSC07844Andrew Vincent, Spilled Milk, Oil Pastel on Paper, 15 by 30 inches. Drawn from an image created in Autodesk 3Ds Max. 2011.

DSC07025Andrew Vincent, Study After Vermeer’s The Milkmaid. Oil pastel on paper. 30 by 22 inches. 2011.

VincentA-Grid1-S11Andrew Vincent, Grid Study #1, Chalk Pastel on paper. 24 by 18 inches. 2011.

Also a gifted digital artist, Andrew has worked with Autodesk’s 3Ds Max for a while. Here is a render he created for a recent project:

10677326_10152670991425049_971583360_oAndrew Vincent, Naivety. Autodesk 3Ds Max. 1920 x 1080 PPI. Output dimensions variable. 2013.

~

Andrew has taken the opportunity to move to Auburn, AL to work at the Jule Collins Smith Museum as a preparator. He’s aiming to enroll at Auburn sometime in the near future. The guy is on his way to an awesome future. I’m thankful I got to know him in my classes and in the time after he graduated… and I’m certainly looking forward to witnessing what he gets up to in his ongoing education and career. Here’s a portrait I created of him when he visited my office/studio before he left town:

VincentVINCENT, digital drawing created in ArtRage and Sketchbook Pro on an iPad. 2048 x 1536 PPI. Output dimensions variable, 2014.

I’ve always enjoyed my conversations with Andrew, and they have always been far-ranging. We have discussed, faith, meaning, culture, humor, analog and digital drawing/painting tools and concepts, and so much more. I have the feeling we’ll have the chance for more conversation and mutual encouragement going forward.

One of the best parts of my job as an educator is getting to see my students go on to become colleagues and truly function as fellow artists. Keep going forward, Vincent!

Becoming The Student, #18: The PhD (Dr. Aja Holmes at Wakonse)

I was blessed to be able to attend the Wakonse Conference on College Teaching earlier this year (thanks, Deborah!) and while there I got to meet so many amazing people. One of them was Aja Holmes. As part of the cohort I was in, she set a tone of inclusion, concern, and thoughtfulness. She was welcoming, passionate, always engaging, and always ready with an encouraging word. It makes perfect sense that she’s found her niche as a Residence Life director working with Undergraduates. While at Wakonse, we got to share in the joy of her being appointed to a position at California State University-Sacramento. I’ve held onto this portrait of her since May, but since today is her birthday, it’s time to post it! Read below to find out more about this awesome individual!

photoThe PhD (Aja Holmes at Wakonse), gouache on paper, 10 by 16 inches. 2014.

 ~

You just earned your PhD. What drew you do your field and what was your educational trajectory?

“As a kid I always loved school. I would play school with my little brother – my first student. He would complain and ask our mom, ‘Why does Aja always want to play school? Didn’t she just come home from school?’ But he would go along with it if I promised to let him try wrestling moves on me (learning to compromise – HAHA!).

I also knew that I wanted to be a doctor, but when I saw blood for the first time it did not agree with me. I knew that I would have to take another route to becoming a doctor. While being involved as an undergraduate student leader someone told me about the work of Student Affairs and that I could live out the rest of my life on a college campus; I said SIGN ME UP! I loved everything about being on a college campus. So after undergrad I stayed on at Illinois State University for my Master’s Degree in College Student Personnel.

Back then I did not know for sure if I was going to get my PhD, but I knew that after my Master’s Degree I should get some significant work experience before going back for a doctorate. I did just that: worked at two universities in the area of ResLife. In 2009, I applied to doctoral programs in Higher Education Leadership and was accepted into Iowa State University. I had heard of Iowa State and I knew that if I wanted to finish I needed to be close to my family. Luckily Dad was a six-hour drive to Chicago and Mom was a three-hour drive to St. Paul, Minnesota. To be in the middle of my family really strengthened my support system.

People often ask ‘what is your ultimate goal in life?’ They ask even more since I earned my PhD. Ultimately, I would like to become a university president. I also want to teach in a higher education program that prepares student affairs professionals.”

You have such a warm and engaging personality. How you do maintain your passionate, hopeful, and excited outlook? 

“I am often asked why am I so happy all the time. I have had to really think about it and truly understand what makes me happy. I decided a while back to take control of my happiness. To rely on others to make you happy relinquishes control on your outlook in life. So I make sure that I have a say in what makes me happy, and things that do not – I rid my life of them. My passion stems from experiences that have occurred in my life that had some effect on my life. Being a multiracial woman oftentimes lends me to have different experiences than most. Whether it’s issues such as the Voting Rights Act being challenged, unarmed African Americans being killed by the police, the DREAM Act, or other situations that involve people of underrepresented groups, I have a passion to act. I take to heart quotes and sayings such as, ‘to whom much is given, much is required’ and, ‘service is what we pay for living’.”

When we spoke at Wakonse, you told me about the important impact your Dad made on your life. Can you name a couple key lessons he provided?

“I was raised in a single parent household. Unlike the norm, it was my father who raised me. He has been one of my biggest supporters and cheerleaders. Since I was in the 3rd grade, my father cared for for my brother and I. He has taught me so much in life, from how to mingle and get to know people you just met, to how to be a woman of Color in a white-male-dominated society, to how to use humor to break the ice. He told me to keep pushing and don’t let what other people think get in the way of my hopes and dreams. I saw his struggles of being a parent while trying to own a business, and of being a parent to a teenage daughter coming of age. He sought out advice from his sisters and other lady friends in his life. But my father had to step up when needed. I will forever be in awe of what he did.”

 10287004_10152438914589534_3993202260772184824_oMe working on Aja’s portrait while we chatted together.

You’re now at California State University-Sacramento working as the Senior Director for Housing and Residential Life. What inspired you to focus your career toward working with students in ResLife situations?

“I love everything about living in the residence halls! I lived in the halls all four of my undergraduate years. Working in ResLife has allowed me to get to know that part of the university from the inside and out. I get to interact with the students in a way that no other Student Affairs person does: while they are in their PJs at home. I get to see them grow into young citizens. Since my research is on supervision, and a large part of Residence Life is supervision, I am able to see how my research can evolve and help prepare student affairs professionals to be the best they can be in this area.”

What do you think is one of the most important issues university students are tackling in 2014?

“One of the most important issues facing students today is the appreciation of differences. I use the word difference in the total meaning of the word: everything that is different. Students are too desensitized to even recognize when something is racist, homophobic, or sexist, etc. Students on our campuses have a unique makeup. They have been using computers their whole life and technology is their way of life; that is all that they know. Interacting with people who are different from them is hindered because of the technology. Technology made the world smaller but actually talking to another human being is a hurdle for them… hence their lack of the appreciation of differences.”

I think you’re into tabletop gaming – at least you were running the show at Wakonse! What’s your favorite board game?

“My favorite board game is really any one that my nieces and nephew are playing. Every holiday season we play board games and I am able to see them learn the process of waiting their turn, reading directions, compromising among each other, and displaying good sportpersonship. It is much more interactive than video games. They are such a joy to be around and I love everything there is to being an Aunt. I will play board games with them for hours and hours!”

~

Thanks for sitting for me, Aja! Your portrait will be on the way soon!

The Chrysanthemum Powder (A Portrait of CaiQun)

I’ve been working on a portrait of CaiQun for over 6 months now. The resulting image is, perhaps, actually more of a self-portrait-via-still-life. The significance of the chrysanthemum powder is huge: it was CaiQun’s last daily material connection to China for many months after she came home with us. The first two years of her life she drank the warm beverage before mid-morning naps. We quickly learned her routine and, informed by the orphanage, purchased many bags of the powder to bring back to the US with us. I saved the last bag we used. It has, like so many other seemingly inconsequential objects, become a part of my studio environment. As I observed it over the weeks and months after China, it transformed into a kind of icon.

Since I tend to be an observational, perceptual painter, I like to keep items I might paint near me as stimulation and inspiration. I placed the bag into one of my paint boxes. There it sat, situated among paint and brushes and sketches for quite a long time, until one day it grabbed my attention with force. The addition of a few other elements – bottles, a sketchbook I’d used in China, a sketch of festival lanterns – and the stage was set.

Chrysanthemum2014The Chrysanthemum Powder (A Portrait of CaiQun), Oil on panel, 16 by 16 inches. 2014. Click to super-enlarge it.

Anyway, I really love this painting.

It goes up in an exhibition next week. If you’re in the mid Missouri area I hope you’ll stop by to see it, another piece I made, and the work of a number of other artists from Mizzou and China. Here’s some info about the show:

East-West Dialogues: Paintings by Chinese Visiting Scholars & Their Hosting Art Professors

Participating Artists:

Zhonghua Gao, Min Li, Rujing Sun*, Ruiqin Wang, Matt Ballou, William Hawk, Mark Langeneckert, Lampo Leong

Show: August 4-15, 2014
Reception: Tuesday, August 5, 2014, 4-6pm

Craft Studio Gallery, University of Missouri-Columbia
518 Hitt Street, N12 Memorial Union, Columbia, MO 65211, USA
http://craftstudio.missouri.edu/gallery/
573-882-2889
Gallery Hours: Mon-Thurs 9am-6pm, Fri 9am-4pm, Sat 12-5pm

Exhibition organized by the Office of the Vice Provost for International Programs, The MU Confucius Institute, and the MU Department of Art.

*Rujing spent a great deal of time with me in my Color Drawing classes during the Spring of 2014. She’s a wonderful artist and was a pleasure to have in my classrooms.

Becoming The Student, #14: JJ

I’ve been teaching at The University of Missouri for seven years. In that time I’ve served on many graduate thesis committees and developed a number of great, long-lasting relationships with grads. But it wasn’t until Jane Jun arrived three years ago that I was a “Main Advisor” or “Head of Committee”. The opportunity to work closely with Jane for those years was a huge benefit to me. As Jane progressed through the program she made huge changes in her work and found ways to grow that were both necessary and surprising. She rose to meet difficult challenges when she really needed to. Her thesis work – which dealt with female Asian identity, diaspora/immigration, stereotypes, societal (and personal) expectations, as well as the ways portraiture and self-portraiture have been transformed in recent years – was illuminating and meaningful. Her thesis writing was excellent and was important for me, as the father of an adopted daughter from China, to spend time thinking and dialoguing about on so many levels. It was a privilege to be up close and see all of her work come together.

enchanter-whatgradclassisJJ and me at Shakespeare’s way back in her first year of grad school.

Now JJ is heading back to South Korea to begin her post-grad school life. I have to admit that the annual exodus of grads is hard for me. So much mental and emotional energy goes into working with my students, so much hope and desire for them to do well. Add to that my sentimental nature and you can probably imagine my mindset each May.

2014-05-18 23.02.38JJ and me at our last Shakespeare’s hangout last month. We point off into the heights of a glorious future.

In creating my Becoming the Student portrait of JJ, I wanted to maintain my method – a short session from observation, with only minor changes after the fact – while at the same time celebrating her achievement. I’m glad she agreed to pose in her cap and was willing to maintain a calm – if a tad pensive and sad – expression. If you know anything about her work (click here if not), you know that the seriousness of her pose and quietude of her face here are nothing like what you’d normally see in an image of her.

JJportraitJJ, MFA. Oil on panel, 8 inches in diameter, 2014.

I’ll sure miss her shouting “SIRRRRRR!” when she sees me.

I already do.