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Charcoal

My friend Dave just returned from the Gila National Wilderness in New Mexico, where I have spent some time and to do so is to not so much to step back in time but to bear witness to the amount of time that the present tense rests upon.  It is easier to understand the time scale that evolution demands when you can sit under crystal clear views of the Milky Way and watch owls slide silently between you and the moon.  He was telling me about his hikes through charred sections of forest 25 miles from any "civilization" that are in the perpetual cycle of burn and growth.  The Ponderosa pine has evolved in this habitat and relies upon frequent burns to maintain life.  Dave told me about areas of blackened tree trunks where tons of pine needles had fallen upon the fine powder ash that foot steps would send into the air like spore clouds.  For some reason, it wasn't until this very moment that I connected that ash with the medium I have become so familiar with.  Charcoal is the physical turning point of carbon.  It is at the very bottom of a spiral.  From one life form that has grown, aged, burned and died, the carbon starts again and feeds the waiting seeds. In light of my last entry, I was very glad to touch on this thought.

Today I feel like I am drawing with fertilizer and the act of bringing this medium "to life" feels different than it did yesterday.  The drawing is in its last stages which is a giddy time in the studio and as welcome as the Spring.  I hardly recognize these drawings as an act of my will.  It feels much more like watching the grass grow or witnessing the erosion of a new tributary so by the end of the few months I give to them, I am as amazed by the sparks in the eye as I am by the buds on our peach tree.  At the same time, it is hard to keep looking at this one.  It has been a long winter and I have been with this choking feeling for some time.  I sense some duty to this piece, though.  It is keeping my heart in tune with North Africa, the Middle East and Japan.  This difficult compassion was not taught to me, no prayers or poems ingrained, so this feels like a new tool to me, and I aim to give it proper reverence.

Weather

I just heard, in the background of some internet radio broadcast, the Afghan military band attempt a national anthem of a visiting diplomat.  It was a horribly out of tune, a-rhythmical attempt, but they just kept pushing this ailing tune forward, and in those squawking horns you could hear the furrow browed valor of this country just trying to manage.  It seemed like such a noble act, for some reason, and it wrecked me a bit.  I am easily wreck-able these days.  Bear with me as I unload some of this:  Our daughter Koruna, had been sick a little while and the midnight cough/cry of a one year old really does hurt me more than it does her.  Her cousin, my dear sweet niece, Aurelia, broke her elbow. ouch.  My wife has been under a dense fog of nausea for two and half months of morning (day and night) sickness, the damping effect of which is hard to overstate but ambiguous at the same time.

Then there is the macroscopic view: Devastation in Japan.  Nuclear meltdown. Radioactive plumes and a death toll that sounds like numbers but echoes the weight of the tsunami as it plows into our psyches.  All this during unprecedented revolution in the middle east and north Africa where the people are seeking democracy and demanding freedom from dictators backed by the U.S.  The protestors are entering the streets en masse with rocks and tree branches and are meeting anti aircraft artillery and tear gas with "made in the USA" on it.  Up through the Suez lumbers the thirsty war ships ready to help "keep the peace."  Then there's the shit they're pulling in Wisconsin and now they are trying to close the public schools in our district and 15 others here in Austin, TX.

The microscopic is what got me in the end.  Scooting home from an appointment I saw a opossum in the road and doubled back to see if it was hit or just acting and in need of re-location to a safer place.  It was hit, and from it's underbelly were stumbling six or so furless and devastated newborn opossum babies.  It was cold outside and they were dying slowly.   I hate to recall it now and I am sorry for my selfish catharsis here and embarrassed that this is what it took to bring me to my knees when so much human suffering is presently palpable, but this is what wrecked me.  With sick and injured babies at home and one on the way, something got tied up and cinched down in my belly and I just lost it there on the side of the road.

The Word That Is a Prayer

By Ellery Akers

One thing you know when you say it:

all over the earth people are saying it with you;

a child blurting it out as the seizures take her,

a woman reciting it on a cot in a hospital.

What if you take a cab through the Tenderloin:

at a street light, a man in a wool cap,

yarn unraveling across his face, knocks at the window;

he says, Please.

By the time you hear what he’s saying,

the light changes, the cab pulls away,

and you don’t go back, though you know

someone just prayed to you the way you pray.

Please: a word so short

it could get lost in the air

as it floats up to God like the feather it is,

knocking and knocking, and finally

falling back to earth as rain,

as pellets of ice, soaking a black branch,

collecting in drains, leaching into the ground,

and you walk in that weather every day.

My working days have been saturated in this weather we are all sharing.  This piece is not begging for any color even though I am aching to put some in somewhere.  It's just this endurance race of self observation through these clouds.  Spring is coming.  This is all part of a cycle.  My prayers go out to those Afghan's and Japanese and everyone else who are enduring real suffering.

Embers Under Flame

The big questions come up again and again:  "Why?"  That's the biggest.  Why do I do this?  Why do I keep doing this?  Why do I spend most of my waking hours in a dark room by myself looking at myself drawing myself?  What is the point?  Who benefits from this and what might those benefits be?  What is the inherent value in what I do?  Why make art?

I try to apply the same skill I use in drawing to answer these questions.  I step back from them, I shake off any preconceived notions about them and I try to look at them with fresh honest eyes and register accurately what I see, think, feel.

-Why?  I draw because I am in the rhythm of drawing.  It's habitual, and it's my job.  It is how I make a living and support my family.  I really didn't know that I was going to write that just now, but it feels pretty solid.  If  I couldn't make a living at it, art would take a back seat.  If there was a pie chart illustrating the different motivating forces that made me step up to the drawing board every morning, "make a living to support my family" would be the pie and "beauty," "truth," and "world improvement" would be some of the little slices. The trajectory of my career started long ago with different motivations that include a dazzling passion for making and looking at drawings, but that impetus gets buried by the daily grind.  I cringe as I write this because I get the sense it is not what I'm supposed to say.  I am supposed to say that I wake up with a pounding need to create.  I am supposed to say I cannot live without my art.  This is the myth of the artist I am "supposed" to perpetuate, but the truth is always richer and layered and much more saturated with poetry.  The truth is that I've tried to build my life around small sparks of passion and I have been surrounded by support and assistance in building such a life.   The truth is that my parents deserve as much credit for the art I make as I do, that the work is the result of so many people focused on stoking those small sparks of wonder and curiosity into a self perpetuating fire.  The youthful passions of artistic expression are still there, but life has happened to and around them and they take constant work and discipline to maintain.  The flames of youthful impetus are embers now.  The fire is not dying as I age, but concentrating.  It is not that I cannot live without making a drawing everyday, it is that I have built a life that functions with everyday drawing as the combustion driving the engine.  "Embers Under Flame" is the result.

In much of my work fabric relates to family and community - many threads coming together in unison to make something more than the individual.  In "Embers Under Flame"  I was wanting to touch on the ambiguous separation between the individual and the whole.  I wanted a reflection of this notion that I am both fractionally responsible for my life and entirely responsible.  I wanted the sense that the two elements in the drawing were in a state of co-creation.  The hexagonal pattern of thread on the skin aims to illustrate another layer of this strange self-to-whole relationship of cells to organism.  This piece is partnered with Baptism which speaks about this microscopic-macroscopic connection with a bit more volume.  Each piece in this series has a partner piece, which allows its theme to jump outside the confines of its perfect rectangle (each piece is a representation of the PHI ratio in their dimensions 82.5" x 51")and continue the iterations of the pattern outward with the force of a collective.

It might not look it, but this piece is the most wildly divergent work I've done for some time.  It doesn't look too tangential to the other pieces in this series but the process of making this drawing was a brand new undertaking.  It is the first time I have worked from a photograph.  For the longest time I could be heard Poo-pooing photorealism as an entirely inferior means of image making.  "It's too easy" I would say, "the human element that translates three dimensional objects to two dimensions, is gone and instead you just copy the lines.  There is no life in the process and thus no life in the resulting image."  I started to hear myself wearing a deep groove in that record, playing it over and over again without stepping back to take an honest look at it.  My dogma came into question with Chuck Close.  I remember the first time I saw a Chuck Close portrait and it is fair to say it was pretty mind blowing.  There is an impressive sense of integrity and dedication to seeing that he manages to elicit from his work with photos.  As the number of people who work from photos increased, my poo pooing of them began feeling dismissive and isolating.  I decided the only way to resolve my conflicting feelings about working from photos was to give everything I had to it to see if there is a gem worth mining there.

I recently met a photographer who shoots with a custom Swiss made box camera onto an 8 x 10 negative.  This means it can capture an immense amount of detail.  I was interested in the patten of pore separation on my skin and so I rubbed charcoal dust and ink onto my face and wiped it all off leaving remnants in the wrinkles and cracks and pores.  I then rubbed oil evenly over my skin so every detail would have a large range of contrast from saturated dark to tiny highlight.  I had the photo printed at the size I wanted to draw it, about 5 feet tall, and as I was preparing to begin drawing I took a nasty spill and blew my ankle out.  I thought I had broken it.  I usually work standing but this injury left me confined to a chair with my foot elevated and suddenly I felt a different respect for Chuck Close who is wheelchair bound.  I had requested some deeper understanding of his work and here I was getting more than I bargained for.  So I rearranged the studio set up and turned the piece on its side so I could fit my wounded leg under the piece and elevate it with ice.  I gridded the photo into 2" x 2" squares and placed it where I wanted it on the paper.  I then raised the photo 2" up and began copying the squares into the 2" space below.  As I proceeded upwards, I would cut a section of the grid off the photo and  copy the new row just below it.

In this photo the forehead and hair above the lower eye has been drawn and the cheek below the eye has yet to get the surface detail of the photo.  The white paper in the middle of the face I put there to eliminate distraction and temptation to copy more than the square I was on.  It took two months to complete the face and after those two months I stepped back and reassessed my thoughts about working from photos.  I had predicted that I would learn something new about my face, about the pattern of the pores I have been studying, or about the proportions of microscopic landmarks on my skin.  This did not happen.  Instead what I learned was exactly how much time was required to give an equal amount of focus to each square inch of an image that size.  I learned that a dynamic image can be made from those hours of tedium.  I learned that I can do it and that I will never do it again.  I have been drawing my face every day for almost eight years and I just figured out that it is endlessly fascinating.  I am back to my magnifying mirrors and the ever engaging process of looking.  I learned how much I really love what I do, how exciting and limitless honest visual investigation is. I feel dangerously close to justifying my poo-pooing of photorealism now, but the truth is, it just ain't for me.

In this photo you can see one of the sixteen stencils cut for each color in the cloth.

So... Why?  What's the point?  I wonder if Michelangelo wondered the same thing after four years of hacking away at the hunk of marble soon to be David.  I imagine he didn't.  When I went to Italy I was floored by the currency, the Lire.  The most common bill had Maria Montessori on it, a teacher, and the rest had artists.  That was the order of respect in the culture and the result was one of the most beautiful cities man has created.  Drinking water flowed into town and poured out of magnificent fountains; homes and public halls were painted with frescoes.  Life was elevated to ecstatic experience (yes, there were brutal consequences to the opulence and atrocities committed for public spectacle, but those things are present in our culture with the strip mall as the height of expression).  I come around to the realization that art is a means of celebrating the wonders of being alive.  Isn't it strange that I should wonder why I do it?  What forces are responsible for my even questioning its legitimacy?  What kind of culture creates artists who wonder why we make art?       Here come the Big Questions again.

Fear of a blank page

How long would you guess I stared at this screen after typing that title?  Three days.  It took me three days to push one key, to lay down that first "H" back there.  The title was in reference to starting a new piece but the concept seems to be contagious and has spread to this blog.  This is my first entry since the creation of the blog (I wrote the small essays about my new works before this blog was built) and because it's the first it feels important. Hesitation begets hesitation.  Right when you need to commit and jump into something this nefarious disease strikes.  Stagnation, procrastination and doubt crawl out from their burrows and begin circling.  Another insidious feature of this malady is that the greater the consequence, the more intense the paralysis.  Even if the consequences are imaginary or self imposed (like the idea that a blog has to be transcendent or a drawing has to be a masterpiece).  I suppose this is where the advice to take oneself less seriously comes from, but it's my life, my one go-around, my precious now dissolving into history never to be unearthed and experienced again and it is the wonderful weight of this miraculous opportunity that can make me st-st-stutter when it's time to sing.

The best thing I can say about the grips of this hesitation is that I beat it.  I win.  Each time I make a piece I have conquered the internal mechanics that seem to me to be hardwired from ancestral days of lizard brains and preconscious tadpoles.  This is the victory of starting the race, of putting the shoes on, even.  This is the under appreciated ore of every work of art: someone had an idea, and then, and then, the silly human began rearranging earthbound molecules to make something new.  I ride the wave of this victory until the piece seems to develop it's own momentum and I enter the proverbial "zone."

I maintain a very rigid work schedule because if I don't I get derailed and succumb to the mighty foes of sloth, but without fail when it comes time to start a new piece and I have stretched my paper on the board, I have to ride out the same anxiety every time.  I would think that it would diminish with time and practice, but this has not been the case for me.  With each new piece I lose sleep, I appear rudderless, I drink a little more booze and a little more coffee.  With each new piece I feel like I have nothing worth saying and I can't find anything worth a long visual investigation.  This defies what I have learned by experience: that anything and everything is worth a long visual investigation.  That infinity is present within every particle and infinite interest resides in our consciousness.   I lecture myself, do some shadow boxing, and get my hands dirty with charcoal dust.  "Go ahead, touch it.  Just touch the paper.  Make a mark.  Get dirty."   And then I set off on that infinite path of visual investigation, and off we go a-bloggering, too.

Forgotten Offerings

I recall as a child loving the alone time I was allowed in bathrooms. The assurance of a locked door and walls surrounding one's own personal space provided meditative retreats from chattery school days. In those brief little pockets of solitude I remember staring at tile floors and walls and watching a secret dance that the lines would do when you tried not to look at them. I would pick an intersection of two lines in the tile pattern and try to keep my eyes fixed solidly to that point. After only a few seconds the entire pattern would begin to dissolve and glide. If you could keep your eyes fixed, the dance would continue with certain lines disappearing altogether and other line firing comets of bright light along their spines. As soon as my eyes darted from the original intersection to observe this new phenomena, the tiles would come back into focus and I was staring at grout again. It became easier to affix my eyes to a spot for longer periods of time and resulting shows were giddy moments of calm for me. I indulged in the dissolving patterns and as that word implies- "dis solve"- it was a counter weight to the schooling, allowing mystery to overtake answers.

I have been staring at my face in a magnified mirror for over 7 years now. Patterns emerge and dissolve. One grid-like pattern has asserted itself and I see it with clarity after about an hour of work. It came most strongly into focus when I was working on the embroidery in a previous piece, "Father", but with each piece new connections show themselves and new directions and axises stand out. When I was working on The Geometry of Happy Children, one of the lines began standing out and demanding attention. It was the line that ran along the side of the nose approximately where the bone ends and the cartilage begins. I actually grew annoyed with this line's insistence, and erased it hoping to quiet its demands but it only added significance and so I drew it back in. Paper never forgets though, and that line kept its heat and at times I could see little else. Looking back and forth from mirror to paper, the line started taking its place on the surface of my skin. When my eyes weren't on that line, but focused elsewhere, it would begin a trampy little dance for attention in bright magentas and blues until my eyes would dart over to see, and back to flesh it would go.

In concluding the series that made up the show, "Divining," I felt a strong pull toward again allowing mystery to overtake answers. The images from that series felt like logical answers to the events of my life. Something in me began rooting for illogic, and again that line on the side of my nose started winking at me. I was very hesitant to give the significance of my work over to a great unknown- the great unknown- THE GREAT UNKNOWN. There is little one can do to reign the grandeur of such a vast question mark, but I had a starting point that seemed like it was not to be ignored, and felt a vow forming in me to give what I could to this thing. Time, focus and more paper.

I started down a path of investigation led by what my eyes saw when they weren't looking, and what questions were flung off along the way. "What the hell does that line want?" "Where do those colors come from?" "Does it catch the light or do my eyes create the lights?" "In chemistry, likes dissolve likes. Do I have light inside myself that is able to read the external light and turn it into legible information for my brain?" "Since we are physically made up of material that was at some point the atomic substance of a star, do we not retain some relationship to light bodies?" "Are we to light, what water is to steam?"

This is the starting point for this piece- an insistent line and the subtle lights it illuminated itself with. As I surrendered to it and gave it the authority to lead, the line began to divide and light poured out. The image is wonderfully startling and I see it as a rapturous thing. The face is in a state of concerned ecstatic transformation and connecting with that single eye, I feel like I am seeing a very private moment, that he is being caught in an act. I imagine it is very similar to the open mouthed gaze I wore when staring at those tiles, and in which I was most comfortable behind locked doors. It is a frightening thing to put that private moment into a spotlight on a world stage. I was comforted to find that Jung was also frightened and mesmerized by his unconscious images. I think there is a palpable fear in this piece.

My largest obstacle became my internal editor who feared my work would begin reading like a Dan Brown novel. I recognized this as a fearful little voice and set about calming him. I found assurance in the very natural way I took to the questioning, but still enjoy the assurance of locking the door to my studio and insuring my solitude won't be gazed in upon by judgmental eyes. To some extent it is that very editor I lock out every morning.

I had an engaging conversation with my mother-in-law about what really happened when Mary saw the angel Gabriel, a body that was made of light, emerging out of the ether. This conversation helped me to see my ponderings as timeless and universal and made it easier to unlock that door and allow other eyes to look in upon my own questions about lights within.

The title of this piece is about this mysterious source- MYSTERIOUS SOURCE- whatever you want to call it, and giving authority to its guidance. I realize that what I am meant to offer back to that mystery will make its way out of me, that all the offerings I am too shy or insecure to show will seep out somehow.