I picked up a new copy of Annie Dillard's Holy The Firm to read a second time. Here is what I read today and it has brought a deep pause (breath!) to my day:
I'm going to let that linger for a while.
I picked up a new copy of Annie Dillard's Holy The Firm to read a second time. Here is what I read today and it has brought a deep pause (breath!) to my day:
I'm going to let that linger for a while.
The following is a slightly edited version of a piece I wrote for my hometown newspaper, The Piatt County Journal-Republican, in Monticello, Illinois. It's actually part two of my "Commoners" series.
I don’t have much hair to cut. I used to wonder why a bald man like my own dad would pay money to have a barber trim what little was left. Seemed like there should have been a “bald-guy” discount. That’s another topic for another time, and all economics aside, it was just a few years ago when I was home visiting my parents in Monticello, building a deck on the front of the house, when I decided to be that bald guy who goes in for that haircut. It was so hot that week in July that it made sense as well to seek a respite from the midday heat and stop in to see Barber Bruce.
My haircut is pretty simple. I have even taken on the duties to cut my hair all by myself, and with the exception of asking one of my daughters to “check the back” of my head for anyplace I missed, have been using that old Wahl razor to trim to near shaved status. I guess I’m grateful that being bald, and shaving most of one’s hair off is sort of on-trend. Many a balding male has now sought to alleviate the torture of the hair-on-the-sides look by simply going with a more bad-ass shaved head look. Most of us have done so all the while allowing facial hair to grow in the form of a beard or goatee; there aren’t many heads completely void of hair somewhere.
That day in July, though, I went to see Barber Bruce Jordan. The Champaign-Urbana News Gazette published in 2014 an article about “Hair Jordan” and memories rushed into my mind, and a life that seemed so far gone for me all of a sudden became vivid again. I knew Bruce had been at it a long time, but fifty years? He still remembered who I was that day in July (and I hadn’t been in his shop for almost twenty years) in part because I look a lot like my dad and my dad knows Bruce pretty well and will occasionally stop in too. It’s as if the only way he doesn’t know your name or who you belong to is if he had never met you. That’s a wordy way of saying the Barber of Monticello has a long memory in the best possible way.
Bruce's work and life are an authentic example of what a true "commoner" is. As I mentioned in my previous commoners post a few weeks ago, it is my intention to help us become more common, not less. In the spirit of James Rebanks' book The Shepherd's Life.
I would go to his shop regularly as a high school student. Our coaches wouldn’t allow us to have long hair, so it was important to keep it clean. Bruce would ask about how things were going in whatever sport I was playing at the time and I could tell him. Our family also attended the same church as the Jordan’s, which gave us some other topics. He seemed genuinely interested in my story and he had a presence that made me want to make him proud of whatever it was that I did in life. I kept my hair short.
But one day I was waiting for my haircut and one man ahead of me got up for his turn in the chair. I don’t think Bruce knew him, but he could tell (as I could, too) that the guy was in the military. Anyone who knows him, knows that Bruce’s stories are 100 to 1 when it comes to his two years in the army compared to anything else (except maybe his wife, Linda). It was at that moment that I learned the phrase “high-and-tight.” Bruce simply said right away, “High and tight?” And the man said, “Yep!” Anyone in the Army knew what that meant. For men, it’s the only option while in active service. Some call it a “crew cut” but I don’t think that quite fits the billing, it’s a tad too civilian. And so in that moment it became clear that Bruce and this gentleman had a connection. It was as if Bruce had just saluted the guy and they were instantly conversant, with Bruce showing a unique empathy and care for what his customer was about to embark upon (active service, not the haircut). I didn’t have words for it then, but in retrospect I was watching the art of connection lived out in the most glorious and unpretentious ways.
Bruce’s shop window is adorned primarily with a manually set dial, reminiscent of Wrigley Field’s manually run scoreboard (a comparison I’m pretty sure Bruce will appreciate as a die-hard fan of the Chicago Cubs), announcing to those who walk or drive by how many customers are waiting for a haircut. There are no appointments which, I’ll admit, could make it difficult if you’re on a tight schedule. But maybe that’s the larger point to my essay. What Jordan’s Barber Shop is is a vital connection to, and functioning reminder of, the most important things: and it has little to do with aesthetics.
Or maybe it does have something to do with aesthetics. Businesses and the commoners who “run” them in this way epitomize the aesthetics of community. Bruce does this through the art of storytelling. That summer visit reminded me again about the reality of Bruce’s craft. There is never a topic or story he cannot converse about. Some people are incapable of doing this in a way that doesn’t become a competition of “one-upmanship.” Thankfully, Bruce is not in that category. His stories are inclusive and playful, even if the topic is difficult. And although “politics” may not be discussed much, if at all according to the News-Gazette article, Bruce will not hold back if there’s an issue he’s convicted about.
The beauty of community and the art of storytelling is what is vital to the commoner life.
After I re-read the article recently, I was immediately reminded of Wendell Berry’s novel Jayber Crow. Jayber, a commoner as well, is a barber in the tiny fictional community known as Port William. I will not belittle Berry’s work or Barber Bruce’s life by making it seem as if Jayber Crow’s story matches Bruce’s in every and exactly the same way, but the fact that Crow is a barber certainly helps. More to the point is that barbers, and others whose work is “small,” are actually the heroes in any community. Today, to say something is “small” is considered “less than” those things that are “big.” While I (and many others I grew up with) moved on to become somehow great, to exceed the small expectations of our communities, many others have stayed. To stay or leave one’s home place is neither good or bad, and depends on the individual’s life circumstances and talents, but Bruce is one who has stayed and been a grounded archivist of the Monticello community. The “bigger is better” mindset is a myth.
Earlier in his life, Jayber Crow had goals of being a pastor which would have set him up as a “big” person in places like Port William. In the end he remained “small” in Port William, observing the town change over decades and thus taking on a “priestly” role in spite of himself. Jayber says:
I don’t mean for you to believe that even barbers ever know the whole story. But it’s a fact that knowledge comes to barbers, just as stray cats come to milking barns. If you are a barber and you stay in one place long enough, eventually you will know the outlines of a lot of stories, and you will see how the bits and pieces of knowledge fit in. Anything you know about, there is a fair chance you will sooner or later know more about. You will never get the outlines filled in completely, but as I say, knowledge will come. You don’t have to ask. In fact, I have been pretty scrupulous about not asking. If a matter is none of my business, I ask nothing and tell nothing. And yet I am amazed at what I have come to know, and how much. (4)
It seems to me that this is an accurate account of the true role Bruce lives in my hometown. He’s a mediator. Better yet, he’s an advocate. He’s someone who listens and speaks in ways that have brought life to the community simply by being present and doing good work.
The ancient Roman satirist Juvenal (c. 55-127 AD) lamented the way in which Roman citizens abdicated their civic and cultural responsibilities for “bread and circuses.” It was the Plebeians, or working class, who were kept from rising up against emperor Augustus through a state policy of free spectacles like the gladiator games and cheap food. At it’s worst, sports in our society borders on that type of pacifying activity. We have entire television stations devoted to sports, and whole sections in our newspapers. The Super Bowl is virtually a national holiday, and let’s not even get into the insane salaries some professional athletes are paid. These are the realities that bother me about our over-emphasis on sports, and the similarities to ancient Rome are food for thought. On top of that are the realities outside of the sports scene all over the world where lives are hanging in the balance. These brutal and humbling realities should remind us that sports fans and athletes may use language of warfare in preparation to face an opponent, but playing a sport is not a true “war” nor is the opponent our true “enemy.”
I loved Friday nights and Saturday afternoons as a football player at Monticello, though. During pre-game it was the smell of that grass as I stretched out on the ground with the rest of the team, or the calm and quiet we experienced as quarterbacks warming up long before others came out to get ready. I also remember the smell of the gear and the usually ill-fitting practice uniforms we had to wear during “two-a-days” which seemed to go on forever. I remember during my years playing at Monticello and falling in love with our game-field. Our home field is still one of the coolest places ever had the privilege to play.
With Moore Gym looming over the field on the north end and no track between the sidelines and the bleachers our field had a small, stadium-like atmosphere. The energy was unmatched, especially during playoffs.
During my years there were bleachers set up at the north end as well and younger kids were always watching the game from there...or socializing, whatever the case may be. When I was in “middle school” at White Heath there were arm-wrestling contests between the kids from White Heath and Monticello in those bleachers. It was a rite of passage. I remember arm-wrestling Tony Galbo, and I think I won but I’m not sure, you’d have to ask him sometime. No matter what happens in the future of Monticello’s facilities I hope varsity football games will always be played there. To move from that field would be as tragic as the Cubs not playing at Wrigley Field anymore.
Our head coach was Hud Venerable. John Beccue (who later became head coach and had a ton of success) was our defensive guru. The other assistants were Kyle Ness, Larry Albaugh, Butch Sawlaw, and Brad Auten. I looked up the word “venerable” a few years after I graduated because I kept hearing it used in other contexts. It means “someone accorded deep respect because of age, wisdom, and character.” I’m fascinated by that name, it defined Hud, and it (to me) defined the program for his time there; and it remains over the Sages football tradition. Everything was about excellence and that sense of honor. One of the hardest hits I ever took during my 8 years of football came from Coach Beccue himself. It was during practice when he demonstrated a technique on me, but it did not feel like a “demonstration.” It hurt! That was the mentality that permeated Sages football.
Another deep-seeded memory from my era was the attention to detail and perfection Hud instilled in every aspect of our game. There was one practice when the offense was breaking from their huddles and sauntering to the line of scrimmage. No urgency was expressed, zero energy. Coach Venerable became as angry as I had ever seen him about the lack of “it” that he lit into the offensive units and made us practice the “break!” If my memory serves me correctly, we spent what seemed like a half-an-hour breaking from the huddle the right way, and that’s a ton of time in a 2 hour practice. To this day, when I watch football I become so frustrated when I see offenses “saunter” to the line. It drives me nuts when players “walk” onto the field of play in general, no matter what the sport: soccer, football, lacrosse, etc. For Coach Venerable, and now for me, it was all about readiness and enthusiasm.
Coach Venerable had a look of intensity, he walked with purpose, and you couldn’t help but want to play for him. Even with that “intensity” he often sported a grin that would accompany his confidence in what we were out to accomplish. I wouldn’t call it “cockiness” but an air of confidence and, even better, joy, at the prospect of playing another day. Contrast that intensity with a crazy-striped-winter hat complete with a fuzzy ball on top during extra cold games, and you get the picture of Hud. Serious, with that glorious playfulness thrown in almost against his will. He reminded us that if he wasn’t on our case then there was a problem, he cared and therefore he pushed us. He was never abusive, but he made us envision success. And then, for me, there were also those glorious moments when you would see into his world outside of football when he’d have players over to his house for a meal, or when he chaperoned the prom dance.
I’ll never forget the Monday after a particularly hard game for me when I was a sophomore. I’ll admit that I didn’t fully understand how to “play” football early on and he called me out during halftime when I sort of “danced” around a tackle and in turn missed it (turns out that’s an important part of the game!). Anyway, that next Monday, after P.E. class (he was my teacher), he put his arm around me and checked to make sure I was doing ok. You see, the best teachers and mentors really do love their students.
We enjoyed a great deal of success (four straight undefeated regular seasons, one quarterfinal and three semifinal appearances). We never got to that coveted State Championship, but we had a ton of fun and started a tradition that I believe still influences Monticello football. There’s nothing like those late nights riding the buses home from a far-off playoff game in “nowhere” places with a hundred cars following, and then being greeted by our families and friends at the school celebrating the delight of a win. If you’ve seen the movie Hoosiers you will remember the scenes of the cars lined up behind their team’s bus. It was like that. In fact, I happened to be home last year after the MHS Boys Cross-Country team returned from their state championship! Again, a convoy of fans, car horns sounding off, and sheer delight in our school’s first team title. That was no small feat and no matter what sport our kids may play, as a community those are things to celebrate.
I could tell dozens more stories and so could many of my former teammates. But what stands out to me is the image of community. There was an authentic feeling that we were actually playing for our hometown.
The importance of this cannot be overstated. Where my family currently lives there is a whole “club” system for most of the sports, and although there’s a great benefit for kids honing their craft as players and that in turn helps the school teams, what it can and sometimes does create is a division between kids who do and kids who do not play for a “club.” Further still, it can at times lessen the significant role school sports play in any community. To their credit, Coach Venerable and Coach Bob Trimble (our basketball coach, who I’ll write about as hoops season approaches) always encouraged us to play multiple sports because it wasn’t just about their sport but about the community.
My son has played Lacrosse the last few years and like other sports there’s an entire system for kids to play during the off-season. One of the other purposes of the club system is to give kids exposure to college coaches. I said to one dad of my son’s teammate last Spring how much I appreciated the way his son played under great pressure. I asked this dad if his son was easily rattled and how he generally handled the pressure of his position as goalie. He said to me, “he really doesn’t feel much pressure in these games, there aren’t any college coaches watching these games anyway.” Now this may not be the attitude of all families, but it is telling. This young man is a great player on our school team, in fact he broke some school and state records for saves, but the mentality of the team and school’s program being insignificant is telling.
I played three sports at Monticello High School and then went to Taylor University where I competed in two. Now that my oldest two kids are in high school this year, I’ve begun once again to reflect on what playing sports is all about hopefully in a non-living-vicariously-through-my-children sort of way. Ultimately, it is about community. To play for your hometown, be it Monticello, Grand Haven, wherever, it is a privilege. Coach Venerable said that to us on day-one of my freshman year. He said what we were doing is a privilege. It didn’t make us better than other people in our school, but it is a deep honor to be a part of a group working together for the purpose of representing our community in the best possible way. I had never heard of playing a sport as a “privilege” before that day; and as you can tell, it shaped me ever since.
But let’s be honest here. Winning makes it even more fun.
During my sophomore year we went to play St. Teresa in Decatur. The game was highly anticipated that week because both our teams were at the top of our conference and looked to play deep into the playoffs. St. T was known for their size and athleticism and Monticello, well, was not.
Don’t get me wrong, we had great athletes who made a huge impact like the farm-strong John Lieb (whose son is on the current team), but what made our team truly go were the generally unheralded “small” lineman who didn’t look like “lineman.” Stan Johnson in particular was one of those guys. One could have made the case that he was one of the smallest players on our team, but what I remember about Stan was him running off the field after a score where he once again surprised and dominated his opponent (wearing those classic padded gloves) yelling, “I LOVE THIS!”
Anyway, back to the game at St. Teresa. I was more nervous than usual that night and I wasn’t even a starter. I remember when we first ran single file out onto the field as a whole team and I was running behind Ryan Perry, another player like Stan (padded gloves and all), who exceeded all his limits as a lineman and made the team go. What I heard as we came onto the field were a bunch of folks on the St. Teresa side literally laughing at us! Comments regarding our stature and competence flew, and I do think I wondered for at least a moment if it might be true.
None of that was true. We won in convincing fashion.
Although winning isn’t the purpose, it is the point.
It’s amazing, for me anyway, that although most of my life has now been spent outside of Monticello, those memories remain vivid. Now in the Facebook World especially I’ve awakened to the truth that what truly mattered in all this was the people. I may not have seen someone for 20+ years, but I still care about them. I’m still moved and saddened when I hear about deaths, divorces, life-threatening accidents, that classmates and teammates experience. I’m also moved to see photos of friends’ kids now in high school as well, and then realize how time really does move quickly.
Juvenal was right to call out his fellow citizens and warn them of the complacency that accompanied the gladiator games with their cheap food and entertainment. Our society has certainly taken things too far with our obsession with sports. However, what we learn by playing sports for our hometowns and communities has to do with fidelity. Fidelity to the reality of our connections to others for whom we play. We train in the off season because we care about what we will be doing during the season, even when game days are far off. We endure the mundane with the hope that there will be moments in the future when what we have chosen to do, the people we have chosen to do it for, and our deepest desires for delight are one and the same.
This fidelity manifests itself in our adult lives. As frustrating as it is, it’s in how we handle adversity and suffering and loss that we learn the most about ourselves and how to relate to others, and sports is one experiential “classroom” where kids get to learn some of those vital lessons. Several years ago, Ryan Dyson had a horrendous accident that nearly took his life, he’s survived and persevered in heroic ways consistent with what I always knew of him since the 1st grade. He now has a son who is a student-athlete at Monticello and some of those traditions and lessons are finding ways to breathe life into the current generation.
Tony Galbo and his wife Liz, as most in Monticello are aware, lost their 5-year-old daughter, Gabby, through a series of events that no one can explain or rationalize. Not everyone survives such a loss, and I know Tony might argue that he’s not “surviving” very well but he’s still there for his family especially. Now on top of that, they have persevered on behalf of other families with their work in passing “Gabby’s Law.” Tony and Liz will never be done mourning their loss, and they should not be expected to do so either. What made Tony a great teammate wasn’t just his blocking as our center, but his absolute loyalty (his fidelity) to his teammates, and it is this same loyalty that won’t allow Gabby’s life to be forgotten or for the rest of his family to be left alone.
These stories are what playing for your hometown is all about. When we know our “neighbors” we will do anything for them, even those who we don’t normally get along with. The “life-microcosm” of sports like football is one place where some of us were allowed the privilege of learning those things. I’m amazed at how powerful these truths are for me, even as I live in another state.
I don’t know Monticello’s current head coach, Cullen Welter, but I’ve been following Sages football from wherever I’ve lived. So far this season looks like another great one! I know that the traditions I experienced remain in part, plus a Twitter account! [@SagesFootball] I know we’ve been on the verge of some great things and I’m hopeful the team this year will take that next step and complete the task that even all our great teams could not accomplish. My senior season, sadly, we did not make the playoffs. All four years of my college career I never had a winning season either. I have experienced lows and highs. But no matter what, autumn still brings about another season of anticipation of success for a bunch of boys committed to each other and their hometown. I like to think Juvenal would enjoy watching games at Monticello for this very reason.
Ok, folks. I need to get real for a moment.
I continue to find work as a carpenter (which I do enjoy), I also have artwork. Quite a bit of it, in fact, and all of it is available to purchase. I have new work and some older pieces to choose from. On top of that I’m always, and I do mean always willing to do a commission and make a piece just for you!
Another project is my first book utilizing my Red Flag Drawings that will be coming out in the next couple months.
And of course I encourage you to stop by this blog and look for updates and essays on diverse topics and ideas I have been milling around.
Things have been tough for me and my family of late. I need to make more money. Period. Like many of you, your dream is to make a living doing something you love. It doesn’t mean it’s easy because you “love” it, in fact our dream work can be exhausting.
I have a website and a Facebook page, and I’m on Instagram and Twitter as well. I work at pushing my “business” in the art world through all the sources at my disposal. As much as I plan to continue to manage and empower my web presence, the truth is that sometimes the digital world and all it’s “requirements” get in the way of simply doing business with people.
So...you can certainly go online to my website here and click a nifty PayPal button and send me money in exchange for a beautiful work of art. That will always be available and I do hope some people will take advantage of the opportunity. But, what I can’t explain clearly in that format is how much I am willing and happy to do business the “old fashioned way.” By this I mean if you’d like to work with me on making payment arrangements over the course of 3-4 months...great! If you want to barter a bit, let’s do it! If you want to send me a check, that works. If you cannot afford a painting that is priced online at $1,000, talk to me…make an offer! I do reserve the right to say “no” if it just isn’t worth it, but please please please give it a shot. Right now I’d rather get artwork into folks' homes and offices and make some money than not at all.
Recently I sold some work to a friend from Seattle. I gave him a killer deal on three drawings framed. He paid me what I wanted originally for each drawing and I “included” the frames. I asked, however, that he pay me for the shipping. I didn’t make as much as I truly would have wanted, but again, I made enough and also wanted to bless his workspace.
What I’m trying to say is that I am on some level desperate to get some income from doing the work I love. And I want you to have some artwork. Just email me, or call me, or write me a letter and stamp it and mail it. Please just let me know. I want you to have some art and I need to make money.
Now there exists one caveat to this “doing-things-the-somewhat-old-fashioned-way” that I’m proposing: what's a reasonable price?
I will never be offended by an offer, but I do reserve the right to turn it down. Part of the value of artwork is the value of thinking thoughts and seeing visions in unique ways, another part is the “sentimental” value of a work, there’s the actual material cost, and then the time. On top of all this is my interest in making a “profit.” People who don’t “understand” art and pricing art quickly scoff at the price tag without considering anything other than their immediate reaction and pocketbook. I get that, I have not bought hundreds of works of art for that very reason, the difference in my case is that I actually do believe artwork is worth that price even if I cannot afford it. And no, just because it’s abstract or “simple” doesn’t mean you kid could do it. Take time to consider the ideas and thought behind it.
To invite you to make an offer that is “within reason” isn’t very helpful, but it is what I’m saying. If you see a price that is a bit high, do the math and take 20% off (or more depending on the piece and current price) and see if you can do that, make the offer and see what happens! I would honestly say that I will consider most offers of this sort. I might even make you a sweeter deal but ask that you pay shipping or something like that.
One other option could be a true “barter.” Maybe I need an electrician to do some work in my home, or new tires for our car. Perhaps a work of art strikes your heart in a way that you see the value in it, let me know, let’s work it out! We can create and thrive in an economy that functions in this way again. We don't have to work for "money," we can trade services.
Make an offer! I’d rather you have my work in your place and make some money than not.
A couple years ago, my wife and I really loved a painting we saw displayed in a local pub. I happened to know the artist a bit and she (the artist) is so "local" that she lived just a couple blocks away from the venue. I understood what goes into the work, and I understood that she probably labored over the price to actually post there. I’m pretty sure every young and or emerging artist goes through that...I did and still am. I also knew I didn’t have enough to pay her the full amount on the spot, so I emailed her and told her we loved the work and that we wanted to buy it. I told her I couldn’t spend the full amount all at once but could pay what turned out to be 20% of the asking price and she agreed and I payed the rest in three payments over the next month and a half. We were blessed, and I know the artist was blessed as well. Would she like to make more? Who wouldn’t. Could she price higher? I think she could have. Could I have just scoffed at the price because I couldn’t afford it at the time? You bet. But I knew it was worth a shot and it was and still is a joy to see in our home.
So give me a holler! Tell me what you like. Commission me to make a 2D or 3D work particular to your home or office, and we can work something out. Seriously!
There may come a time when I won’t be able to be quite as flexible. I hope to always be generous, to give and receive good gifts, and cultivate communities where we all function as "commoners" (if you don't know what I mean, please read this blog post).
Give me a try! Let’s talk!
A while back I wrote about one of my favorite old paintings titled "Driftwood Time" which was painted around 1998-99. In the blog post I mentioned that I intended to cut the oil painting (which is on a scrap piece of particle board usually used for construction) into multiple smaller works. Well, I did just that.
Pictured here are the 12 remaining sections. The visual effect is intriguing and playful. Each square can be turned any direction I hope you'll enjoy.
As always, each square is available for purchase at the Store where you can quickly and easily click the badge above each individual piece.
I don't recall when exactly I painted this one, so I'm saying it must have been around 1999. I was teaching part time at West Shore Community College in Scottville, Michigan. My wife and I had gone to the beach one day and I had done a handful of brief watercolor sketches right there on the spot. It was, as you can hopefully see, a fairly active day for the waves with whitecaps and color and sound. I was intrigued by the incessant movement, and the horizon so far away (almost invisible). It has always been a "window" to the lake for me, and even when I may not have had a view to speak of out our windows, I could look in and through this painting to be reminded of the vast world out there.
I am fascinated that I am still fascinated by the themes and imagery of water. This last year I drew what I call "Red Flag Drawings" which once again have connected me to the endless imagery and symbolism of water.
The painting has been one of my wife's favorites. We've always had it in a prominent place in our home and we would half-jokingly say to those who inquired about the price by saying "fifty-thousand." You, the reader may choke a bit when I write that, but the reality is that it held deep emotional value for us; and that truly is part of the value of any work of art. Obviously we would love to receive that much money for it, but no one has taken us up on it.
I have suggested a few times in the last year or so to Heather that we ought to sell it for what is (sadly) a more reasonable price. However, it wasn't until just last week that she looked at it and said that perhaps it was time for us to sell "Endlessness." So here it is: a painting that is far more valuable than the $1,600 we are asking! You can go to the Store section of this website to easily and quickly purchase through PayPal or email me firstname.lastname@example.org to make arrangements.
I know little to nothing about sheep or the work of a shepherd. In fact, I've heard more jokes about the lifestyle than I know the truth. However, it is one type of agriculture, and my interest in all-things-agricultural compelled me to pick up this incredible book by James Rebanks titled The Shepherd's Life: Modern Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape. Rebanks book is both a detailed peek into the sheep and shepherd culture of what is called the "Lake District" of England as well as the author's memoir of growing up in the ancient lineage of shepherds. What intrigued me about the book before reading it, was the dust jacket describing Rebanks' story of what it means to be from a particular place and choosing to remain in the place. It is a story of his ongoing journey to stay.
My interest in the effects, and particularly the benefits, of livestock grazing on our land(s) drives me in many ways to learn from every source at my disposal. I was looking through the "biography" section at our local independent bookstore, The Bookman, when I found it. I hadn't heard of Rebanks or his book. I was looking to purchase one of Michael Perry's books. If you've not read Perry, you're missing out. The man's stories make me laugh out loud, a much needed remedy in the face of my seemingly incessant melancholy (if you shuffled through the music on my iPhone you would understand what I mean). Yet, Perry's humor brings with it a dose of grace in truth-telling as the following excerpt demonstrates:
However, the irony of my search for a book by Perry, who lives and works in rural Wisconsin, leading me to A Shepherd's Life is, in retrospect, more than coincidental. You see, both men now live where they grew up. Both journeyed for a season into other places, but both somehow knew they would end up "home" and finally have.
To say these authors' stories are alike is helpful, but it would be a disservice to imply that they are identical. The big picture view, however is that they both address the presence and absolute necessity of the "commoner." Perry delightfully reminds of the significance of place in talking about small-town watertowers:
I'm thrilled by Rebanks' quote at the beginning of this essay, defining what a true "commoner" is. I think most, especially here in the US, think of the commoner as some kind of lower-life-form of society. There is the "ruling class" and then there's the "commoner." What Rebanks is attempting to do is reclaim the term for what it truly is from within the particular context of his own story. Its akin to Wendell Berry's words in numerous places affirming the interconnectedness (better still, the interdependence) of all of life. In fact, it is this interdependence that pushes our language further than the commoner being simply utilitarian, and instead breathes life into the reality of mutuality among members of any community.
My friend Makoto Fujimura approaches these themes from the perspective of "culture care." (5) Instead of waging culture "wars," we are called to be a generative presence in our communities. Regardless of whether or not we live where we came from is besides the point. We are all commoners, and therefore we are part of the ecosystem of the culture in which we live. Most of us, though, haven't taken the time to listen well to the place we live. Gone are most, if not all, "native" traditions and practices. Yet we still remain dependent upon each other for everything, even if we have never met the source of our sustenance. Rebanks, also now a consultant with UNESCO, writes:
Rebanks, then, affirms the necessity of connection. Unfortunately our culture has sought to grow and "heal" by becoming more autonomous instead of more connected. Wendell Berry writes:
We cannot live as commoners if we seek to live autonomously. We can pull our selves up by our bootstraps only so far, we still need someone to craft the boots. Writing from my own mid-west American context I can say that autonomy is the virtue of virtues. Craftspeople or carpenters, like me, have to continually defend our work and seek to justify our prices in order to make a viable living. Sometimes it feels as if it is forgotten that those who have "good" jobs working for larger companies still have to make a profit and that is dependent on others who do the work and those who purchase the goods or services with little concern over the markup for profit. Generally speaking, the larger the company the further the distance becomes between the consumer and the producer.
And for some reason we question less the large company because that's just the way it is and they're too big. The problem, then, is that as soon as we start to say, "Well that's just the way things are," then we've given in to a sense of powerlessness that will hinder real growth and health within our society. Our imaginations become limited, and we lay down for the empires around us. True freedom from empires of unending consumption, ironically, is accomplished through the healthy and porous "boundaries" of the commoner's existence. For Rebanks, his life on the fells of the Lake District, exemplifies just such a freedom:
And so Mr. Rebanks, along with Michael Perry and others, has propelled me to write about what it means for us to become more "common," not less. So some of my upcoming posts will deal directly with the ways I see the commoner working itself out today.
I hope you'll check back in and join me.
Whatever is foreseen in joy
Must be lived out from day to day,
Vision held open in the dark
By our ten thousand days of work.
Harvest will fill the barn; for that
The hand must ache, the face must sweat.
- Wendell Berry
In my previous post, I told the sad story of last year's ArtPrize entry, "Galal." It was, in fact, that experience that influenced most my entry this year. "Play" was always the theme. I wanted to have fun. I wanted to create something that looked cool...and was easy to transport! But most of all I wanted to enjoy the work.
Instead of working with a heavy medium, I went simply with a large piece of foam (8'x4'x2'). I carved it, and painted it. Fairly simple, right? It wasn't important to me this year to make a statement with the medium itself, but to produce something that stood out and brought pleasure. Although working with foam is messy and does necessitate a care for and awareness of waste. It became a meditation practice whereby I was repeating the mantra, "play."
My experiences as an athlete came to mind. As a college football player I never had a winning season, and there was a point finally during my senior season when it had to be about having fun again. It was about connecting with my body and considering the joy of exerting myself physically in spite of the score. I'm further convinced that the word "spiritual" is less and less useful. We have divided the "spiritual" from the "material" in harmful ways and have forgotten the connections that are essential to true health. This is why "play" is vital. The bodily experience is fully integrated into whatever it means when we say "spiritual." We "learn" by doing stuff with our hands and our feet and our bodies.
"Work" is meant to be enjoyed. However, our culture equates "work" with "drudgery," which implies the utter lack of joy.
Work is good. Using our hands is good. What inspired me for this piece is, in some ways, what always inspires me: a deep reverence for the natural world, water in particular, and physical work. There are infinite specific patterns in liquid, and yet there are some repeated forms or impressions. As I was considering this year's entry, I kept coming back to the "doodle" that would regularly emerge on the margins of my school notebooks. These doodles are often profound images. There is a spontaneity that refreshes and a depth that comes with deep bold lines and swells and shapes. So as much as I considered water and flow, I was thinking simultaneously about my best doodles.
Further, this sculpture is a "cross-section" of that doodled-wave. My family and friends will go the beaches here in Grand Haven and play in the water. There are limits to my vision when I'm playing in the vast waters of Lake Michigan; so to try to paint or sculpt the entire thing is impossible. At the beach there is what is called a "red flag day." A red flag means the water is dangerous because of waves and undercurrent, etc. Ironically, the most fun is had on a "red flag day".*** I keep waiting for the next giant swell to come crashing in, carrying my kids' and my own body toward the shore. There is sheer delight and complete terror all at once, and so I become more acutely aware of who I am and where my fears lie.
That's the nature of play.
I knew that the venue this year was the Sixth Street Park. I also knew that there would be grass. I was overjoyed to see how boldly the sculpture stood out on that green space. It seemed to me a stunning contrast. Add to that the placement near the Grand River, the sculpture literally popped visually and this has brought me joy.
*Special thanks to Richard App for inviting me and being a normal dude, Jason & RandiLynn Talsma for the use of their vehicle and trailer, and my neighbor Mike Eller for the use of his truck when I picked up the foam from Harbor Foam (Grandville).
***I am, of course, in no way condoning unsafe activity on the beach...but there is truth to the nature of play in the waves.
A year ago I was working on a large and, as it turned out, very heavy wooden sculpture for ArtPrize in Grand Rapids. I had the privilege of displaying it at the Vandenberg Plaza best known for it's gigantic sculpture by Alexander Calder. There was a great deal of turmoil inside of me as I was working and preparing a work in a medium I had only minimally worked with in making visual art (I have worked with wood a lot as a carpenter). I almost withdrew from the event because it had become so overwhelming. The idea behind the piece titled "Galal" ("roll" in Hebrew) was intended to be a wave constructed of reclaimed lumber. I remember thinking about Mia Lin's work with wood in her "Systematic Landscapes" exhibit years ago in Seattle, and sought to provide something that would engage folks in a tangible way.
Much of the wood, in fact, was 3rd time "reclaimed." My friend, Todd, had purchased large beams from what was once the Eagle Ottawa leather tanning facility here in Grand Haven. You can read a bit about the history of that company here http://www.eagleottawa.com/about-us/eo-timeline/
Todd's company, which builds and remodels fine homes along Lake Michigan, had taken large beams and lumber from the old building and had it milled in Grand Rapids to be used as trim and decking and other finish surfaces for a home. I had the privilege of then using the "scrap" from his work. It brought satisfaction knowing some of the story of the wood I was using as I considered the history contained in those beams. Likewise, working with the theme of a wave and it's "rolling" along I sought to create something that was redemptive not just as a theme but also as it pertained to the actual material being used. I tried not to manipulate pieces too much, but I did have to cut some. Like much of my work, it was balancing act between spontaneity and manipulation. In other words it was a hard work that was also play at it's best.
"Galal" is a word from the Hebrew text of the Bible used in many places but specifically I had in mind the words of the prophet Amos in chapter 5:24, "But let justice roll down like waters, righteousness like an ever-flowing stream." So water and waves "rolling" (which have always been visual elements and themes for me since living in Michigan for over a decade now) and seemed once again the perfect way to provide a framework for the piece.
Then, however, all my idealism met reality.
On the level of "success" I would not have ranked the piece very high. One friend of mine kept thinking it was a dragon. Another friend said it looked like a llama. Talk about discouraging! I half-heartedly laughed as these friends said these things. I am open to various responses to imagery, particularly works that are abstract. However, when my intent was not to create an "inkblot" scenario, in which so much is dependent on the viewer, to hear that viewers saw things (creatures) I never intended to depict seemed antithetical my purpose. It seemed the only thing saving it from outright misinterpretation was the little bit I did write about it to help guide the viewer.
I believe artwork needs to be crafted enough to at least not look like something else. It is a standard of mine that somehow the piece not be so specific that the viewer isn't invited to wrestle with the content; but to have a wave be seen as a llama or dragon points to two things. One, it was a failure of the viewer to consider longer the piece, to allow it to interpret them first. But secondly, and more importantly, it was my failure in the execution of the work whose "concept" was bigger than the present capabilities of the artist. So I've struggled to this day with what it means to make "good" art and whether or not I'm a "good" artist.
It's a blessing and a curse for a visual artist to write some description or explanation of the themes in a work of art. After all, there are no "requirements" for written work to have visual pieces (as helpful as that might be most of the time). But we must have words to help someone "read" a painting or a sculpture, etc. I'm not crying "foul!" but instead pointing out the work an artist has to take part in. It's the work of interpretation. It's the art of guiding the viewer without over-simplifying the themes and ideas that can be exhausting as well as satisfying. I venture to say that most artists know what I'm talking about. [Sidebar: I also believe much of what is considered "realism," which most folks find more "accessible," has a great deal more abstraction than one thinks. I am a "scholar" of the work of Andrew Wyeth and can see abstraction in his realism. "Realism" is actually more challenging in some situations. This is a good thing, it is not a criticism.]
Reflecting further upon the wave-dragon-llama sculpture, I can remember other artists whom I knew who never really committed to their like or dislike of the piece. This is another difficult reality for me as an artist who, for better and often times worse, cares very much what others think. There exists the incessant push and pull between making something that folks "get" and expressing what it is that delights or challenges me as an artist. Ultimately I want what I do to be a gift to the world. "Galal" was a gift, but I don't believe it connected in a way that I had hoped.
Where I live here in West Michigan there do exist many artists and creatives. I want to say that right away. But wow do we have even more pragmatists! There were voices everywhere I went with whom I talked about it who made me want to quit. Now I know we artists need pragmatists. They are vital to our existence, absolutely; however it often seems those folks are somehow made the arbiters of what qualifies as successful. It's quite similar to the way science has been placed in a hierarchy above religious faith and intuition. [Another sidebar: I'm not saying science isn't important, it's vital; I'm critiquing the tendency to make it the sole arbiter of truth...and I fully expect some to still not read what I just wrote nor accept it. Oh well.] Whether it was how bulky and heavy and awkward "Galal" was or if it was the issue of "what it was," the voice of the pragmatist sang louder than all others.
Which then, made me nervous about delivering it to Calder Plaza.
That was the day (finally) when a bright light showed up, his name was Rich. I was to meet Richard App, the venue curator, there and he had a place for it. I just "knew" my work would be the laughing stock of the venue. As soon as I arrived, though, all I felt was the welcome of a like-minded brother. He knew, of course, that I almost quit and I remember him slapping me on the shoulder saying, "Glad you decided to hang with us!" It was in those few moments with Rich before and after the event that kept me in the game. I regret that life and work kept me from being present like I wanted to be to interact with people during the event, but I was assured I was "normal" in the best possible way. I wasn't, and my work was not either, what the pragmatists said I was. I was a guy with a gift to share; and, to use a phrase from Seth Godin, I "shipped." It wasn't my best work, but I shipped on time. And frankly, the sculpture wasn't as bad as I may have thought.
Another piece of the story is that the work was later on display at a church here in Grand Haven. It was up for a while, and then when the snow flew it quickly needed to be moved for snowplowing (pragmatic reasons). I remember the day I was moving the sculpture to another location at the church. It was cool out and I started taking as much of it apart as I could so that I could store it behind a garage on the property. I grew more and more contemptuous toward my work as it proved once again difficult to take apart and move. I cursed that I had ever actually risked such a lofty piece. I threw or heaved as best I could the sections into a U-Haul truck to move it basically a block away, sweating my tail off and praying I didn't gouge my hand with a screw or nail in the process.
An older gentleman who was at the church to help with their programming that night was in the parking lot and offered to help for a moment as I lifted one of the cumbersome sections. He, too, admitted in a slightly gruff way that I associate with older folks in the church (sorry to folks who fit that category, the guy just fit the stereotype) that, "I just don't get this at all. I don't understand in any way what this is. What's the point?" So what at first seemed like a kind gesture of help turned into yet another strike against my artwork. I wish I had had the time or the patience to engage him at that moment, but like everything else in the process of my ArtPrize experience I was in a rush and might have said some words I would later regret. So I thanked him for his help and he went back to shoveling the snow.
As one can tell from this story so far, my little sampling of responses to my work was downright depressing and frustrating. I knew people didn't "get it." Even with the meager attempt at writing briefly about it in the description seemed of little help. As far as I could see, "Galal" failed. The rotten cherry on top, then, was that what was a recycled material piece ended up once again in the garbage as this spring I took it apart further and some folks from the church hauled it away over a few weeks to the dump. Delusions of grandeur come to mind. The work seemed more of a burden than a blessing to anyone.
I know some will read this and argue that that was not true. Or that perhaps I'm being too hard on myself. But this is the truth from my perspective when I remember my sculpture. I console myself at times with the thought that I just happen to be around too many pragmatists, that there are others out there who might understand. However, I never heard an artist say to me anything positive about it. Responses were always non-committal. It was as if I got a participation award, that's it.
So I'm not sure what my real expectations were. Most likely I had hoped that it might sell or that it would lead to other commissions or works being sold. But alas, it did not.
The other thing I learned was that I need to have more fun. The work doesn't need to be so serious. I should have a good laugh and move on which may be the point of this post. I need a good laugh. I need to play again. And so my upcoming piece is titled "Play" and will be an attempt at different installation medium.
"The birch is an abundant tree in my township and becoming more so, whereas pine is scarce and becoming scarcer; perhaps my bias is for the underdog. But, what would I do if my farm were further north, where pine is abundant and red birch is scarce? I confess I don't know. My farm is here."
- Aldo Leopold
Wendell Berry writes:
"The digital devices are recommended or required in order to prepare for 'the world of the future.' The cost of this expensive preparation is virtual exile from the present world that is available at no cost outside their front doors. And so they spend their liveliest years mostly sitting and looking at screens."
I am, as most folks are, living into this lifestyle. The allure of the screen is a constant. I'm typing this little post from my phone, in fact, because apparently for my work to have a fighting chance as a business, I must be active in this world through a blog, a Facebook page, a website, a Twitter feed, an Instagram account...
...but I want to engage what's REAL. I'm growing weary of trying to keep up with the world of the future.
Berry writes further, "when people begin to replace stories from local memory with stories from television screens, another vital part of life is lost." I propose we take the time today to touch something real and linger and consider the irreplaceable gift of life. Get dirty, skin your knee, play.
Much like the painting "Substance of Redemption" I wrote about on February 22, my painting "Driftwood: Time" was painted around the same time (exactly the year, again, I'm not sure). I had found a piece of driftwood near Lake Michigan and kept it around the house for quite a while. Like many artists, I had been working on numerous works at the same time. In my case, this particular work didn't start out as a painting of a piece of driftwood at all. Far from it. I was painting landscapes, trees, and the like. But I was looking to step out of my norm a bit and do something different involving multiple human figures in motion on this 8'x2' sheet of OSB or particle board (scrap material from a construction job site). It was planned to be a dramatic figurative study seeking to reflect both spontaneity (like the energy found in a sketch) and realistic figures.
I began planning to use only a blue hue to create a monochromatic piece. For whatever reason it didn't work. So before the oil paint dried I took a cloth and dampened it with linseed oil and some thinner and wiped down the surface. The effect turned out to be a glorious sky-blue "wash" that can be difficult to achieve with oils. I let it sit and dry. My hope was to preserve that wash and then use it as the underpainting for another image. However, what that image was to be I had no clue.
While working on other paintings, I noticed that piece of driftwood in my workspace. In real life it was only about a foot long and 4 inches wide in it's cylindrical form. It had this incredible hole to look through. I kept looking at it, did a couple charcoal drawings and decided that was the subject meant to be painted on that blue wash.
The result is what you can see in the accompanying image. Ironically, the imagery "feels" like those figures I had originally envisioned. I sought to keep a spontaneous feel full of contrast. What one might notice is the minimal "use" of that blue wash. I'm still struck by the fact that when I look at this painting I first think of that underpainting. Some might ask, "Why, then, if you loved that blue so much did you cover most of it up?"
The vibrant orange is certainly a compliment to the blue and so I began there; covering the entire background it seems to dominate. In fact, the orange does seem to take over. However, looking a bit longer you begin to focus on the hole in the driftwood and then the eye is drawn in two directions flowing along with the grain in the wood. In those grains are the slight dashes of blue, and if it isn't clear yet, that's my favorite part. The title, "Driftwood: Time," tells of my fascination with the amount of time it must take to shape a piece of wood into this gloriously smooth relic. The elements of wind, water, and sun patiently (albeit sometimes violently) sculpting something so intricate is a great mystery.
So through the seemingly infinite decisions made while producing work of art, I decided that that blue would be more powerful if it were understated. It's kind of like a scene of a movie or a section of a song that is so profound that you wish it would go on and on. At first I wish it would be longer, but then it occurs to me that the profundity would be dampened if the scene had lingered too long. The coming and going to that feeling is enhanced by it's understatement.
The painting was stored in Michigan with my friends Mike and Brooke Anderson for over a decade. They love art so much they put up with a heavy and awkwardly long piece of wood (driftwood?) while my family and I lived in Washington and for few years after we moved back to Michigan. They never complained, but Mike would remind me from time to time that it was there. Last fall I finally retrieved it and brought it home. It still hasn't found a good home or a place to be displayed.
The more I write about it, I'm struck by the fact that this painting tells my own story. I've learned enough to realize that we're always "waiting" for something, that life is constantly at play in the times of drifting. I feel most times like I'm drifting. However, true to the ever-popular Gandalfian wisdom, "Not all who wander are lost." It can feel like being lost at times, but there's motion and play and laughter and tears that are ever present. Perhaps it's true what I heard Andrew Wyeth say once in a documentary that we ultimately always paint ourselves. I suppose in one sense that is true: if we're true to out calling we will paint "ourselves," our unique vision for the world; much like a self-portrait. On the other side of that idea is the prospect of self-absorption. This is why we must share our work so that it doesn't just become a relic of "me." We share because we are nothing without others. The sharing is risky, of course, because some won't "get" it, or in the case of more abstract art some will get lost in trying to "figure it out." It's a risk worth taking, though, as we wander together in the various directions and delight in the things we discover.
My life and this painting have been cared for by numerous folks intent on enabling me to thrive in and through the drifting. The particle board has been minimally scuffed and bumped, it shows some wear but the life is still in it. I'm actually contemplating carefully cutting the painting into several smaller pieces. I'm not sure of the symbolism of this act, I think it would be intriguing to allow diverse people and homes to be able to encounter a piece of this old painting.
For a piece of driftwood, time is both a medium and a tool for clarity and beauty.
I painted "Substance of Redemption" (see below) years ago, I would say sometime between 1998 and 2001, my father-in-law, Jim, and I were hired to do a unique project near Hamlin Lake (Ludington, MI). We were going to plant trees!
I don't recall what type of trees, and I don't know how the plot of land was cleared before hand. However, we planted saplings around which we wrapped translucent plastic tubes to aid in the gathering of sunlight and in order to protect the little trees from the deer.
Looking back now it may have been some of the most fascinating work I've had the privilege of doing (it tapped into what would eventually become my future agrarian interests as well). The site was secluded not far from a bridge Jim and I would later replace connecting two two-track "roads" for Hamlin's seasonal residents. [as an aside, that bridge project was where we were when the 911 attacks took place] However, our tree-planting work was meant to bring vitality back to a bare piece of land. To this day, and perhaps in part because of 911, that time, that work, and that place linger as a place of rejuvenating, concrete practice.
But the painting is also part of that story and that place. While we were working, I noticed another mature tree in the corner of the plot. A walnut, I think. It had the most unusually distorted form. It wasn't straight, but instead had what was a 90 degree jog from which it then went straight up into the canopy. The tree wasn't a runt, it seemed to be thriving, but it was not typical.
I decided to take my sketchbook to the site the next day and did some drawings during breaks in our work (Jim was always supportive of my artistic pursuits). What emerged was this painting. Further still, what I realized was what I think happened to that tree sometime in its history.
That walnut was wounded. It had been struck down or fallen upon by another tree. It may have been struck by lightening. Who knows for sure. It occurred me that the tree had overcome what, for some trees would have been a fatal blow, but it somehow grew back up and looked just fine other than the obvious "jog" in its form. Although abstract in color and feel, what is depicted in the painting is true to the form and dimension of the actual tree.
It is a symbol of redemption.
"This thing of soil conservation involves more than laying out a few terraces and diversion ditches and sowing to grass and legumes, it also involves the heart of the man managing the land. If he loves his soil he will save it."
- Henry Besuden; quoted by Wendell Berry in his essay "A Talent for Necessity"
"Galal" detail. A redemptive gesture in a world of waste.