Whatever is True…Telling the End of the Story in Song

Jonatha Brooke

Jonatha Brooke performing in New York “My Mother Has 4 Noses,” (photo Sadrine Lee NYTimes)

Now that I’m in my mid-life I find as I listen to an album of an artist I followed vehemently in the 90’s or 00’s I think, “What are they doing now?” Just as my creative practice is still going strong, isn’t theirs?

Some have faded and yet I have found a stalwart set of very good musician friends (whose work has inspired me for many years) still in the game if not perhaps making some of their best work; artists such as Over the Rhine, Jackson Brown, Buddy and Julie Miller, Patty Griffin and Emmy Lou Harris keep going strong.

Recently I began listening again to the album “Angel in the House” by the Story.   Jonatha Brooke one of the artists in that duo broke out on her own soon after that album’s release in 1993 and I faithfully purchased her CDs in the subsequent years. Her songs stood sure footed with hard won lyrics, a sincere voice, and were embodied in a singer songwriter and jazz inspired creation that I found striking (Check out the album “Plumb”). Many of her songs I can still quote by heart.

Jonatha Brooke

Jonatha Brooke performing. (photo Sandrine Lee NYTimes)

I discovered in the last weeks that her most recent project was a one woman musical in which she recounts taking care of her mother through stages of dementia. I bought the CD “My Mother Has 4 Noses” initially (yes I still buy CDs) because I simply like her music, unaware that it was a musical. Listening to it, there were several songs, one of which “Time” I found arresting.

Reading the liner notes (those come with actual CDs you know) I discovered the song was written when she put her mother in hospice and Jonatha knew it was the end of her mothers life. Knowing the content now, her song struck an even greater cord in me for over seven years ago I followed my own mother down that same path. The song was like a punch in the gut.  It was then when the album was playing recently in the kitchen when making dinner I stopped it when the song “Time” came on.  I didn’t want to go where it would take me, as I began to remember that moment in my own life and my mothers with clarity.  I gave myself a few minutes and then sat down, took a deep breath, pressed play, and let the song do its work.

I was awestruck when I found that the one clip on-line from the musical is the song “Time.”   It packs a emotional chord even more so in her performance. Tolstoy in his essay “What is Art?” relates that good art is infectious in its clear transmission of emotion. Jonatha’s song does that in spades.

Here is a link to a good article on the show in the NY Times, and here is the website for her or actual show.

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Language and Losing God

511Z3iQ5NwL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_While traveling in May I had a book situated in my bedside stand for some time that I finally got around to.  Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes by Daniel L. Everett is one part sociology text, one part linguistics text, and one part personal memoir.

Moving with his family to be missionaries to the Pirahã (pronounced pee-da-HAN) Indians in the Amazon in the late 70’s, Everett would begin a 30-year journey. He would discover a people whose language was daunting, and completely “other” to Western thinking. Not only tonal he encountered that Pirahã language had no words for color, past or future tense and other anomalies. He discovered a communal community that lives entirely in the moment who loves to joke and that is resilient in having no desire to “modernize” in any sense of the word. In the process of living and learning from the Pirahã Everett became an atheist.

The book captivated me in part because it communicated that language is very much a product of ones culture. One can’t communicate outside the “language box.” When reflecting upon thoughts of Worf (one of the first linguists) and Sapir (a founder of American linguistics) Everett writes:

Daniel L. Everett and the Pidahan people.

Daniel L. Everett and the Piraha people.

According to Sapir, our language affects how we perceive things. In his view, what we see and hear in our day-to-day existence results from the way we talk about the world… Sapir even goes so far as to claim that our view of the world is constructed by our languages, and there is no “real world” that we can actually perceive without the filter of language telling us what we are seeing and what it means.

 If Sapir and Whorf are correct, the implications for philosophy, linguistics, anthropology, and psychology, among other fields of study, are vast. Worf went so far as to claim that Western science is largely the result of the grammatical limitations of Western language. (pages 218-219)

As I reflect upon topics like friendship and brotherhood that have run like veins through my own work, when reading I couldn’t help but think of the lack of value we put on such things in our culture, and how our language (or lack thereof) reflects that. Yes we value the word “marriage” in our culture, but other relationships (friendships and the like) clearly have been regarded in our language and understanding as second, third or fourth class across the board. Terms of old such as wedded friendships, covenant brotherhoods and the like are as extinct as the passenger pigeon, or simply misunderstood. “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down ones life for ones …marriage…?”

Everett looses his faith in the process of working with the Pirahã, which honestly reading his account seems very reasonable. The Pirahã don’t want or need to be “saved” from anything. They are entirely about present experiences. Everett points out with a clear eye the good he sees Christians do as when they save his wife and child’s life “I have never known kinder people in all my life. I suspect I never will.” And he points out the ill Christians do as when talking about the Colarios, ostensibly evangelical Christians of the Assembly of God denomination who would cheat the Pirahãs in trading. Makes me think of the C.S. Lewis quote that Christians are the best and worst witness for Christ.

A detail of my piece

A detail of my piece “Fear and the Blind Girl” ink, watercolor, and gouache,

In my heart, Everett story came across as painful as clearly he lost his family in the process, and his lack of words on the topic seemed to reflect that those wounds may be tender. It was then too I noticed that there are no photos of them in the book. I would like to hear his wife Keren and his children’s perspective and story as they lived with the same people but seem to have come to a different conclusion.

Soon after reading Don’t Sleep There Are Snakes, I came across the Liturgists podcast called Lost and Found Part One, and Part two which follows Mike Gungor and Mike McHargue’s very moving and sincere stories of loosing their faith, and then not so much them finding it again, but being found. I found it a hopeful nod that God may be working way out of bounds of language or any limitations we may put on Him. I hope… I hope…

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Acquiescence & Mystery; Jonah

“Acquiescence & Mystery; Jonah” 48″x48″ Oil on Wood, 12/14

Veronese's Allegory of Love III, Respect.  About 6'x6', National Gallery London

Veronese’s Allegory of Love III, Respect. About 6’x6′, National Gallery London (You can see the liberties I took with this composition, especially when constructing what would become the whale.)

It is quite an endeavor to spend a whole semester on one work of art, but in the Fall of 2014, any moment I had for studio time was poured into Acquiescence and Mystery; Jonah. Continuing on the body of four pieces I am doing riffing off of the allegories of love by Veronese, this painting proved to be an exceptional challenge. From the metallic whale I chose to create, to the several attempts it took to figure out how I wanted to create ribbons of water, I felt the painting kept me on my artistic toes. I learned a variety of things from never save the lead character in a work until the last, to letting a painting simply do what it wants to do no matter what your original objectives were. I was very happy with the results but it took a while to get there.

Here is process shot for the piece.  I used a variety of reference material to get what I needed even referencing a Copley painting I love in the background of the painting.

Here is process shot for the piece. I used a variety of reference material to get what I needed even giving a nod to a Copley painting I love for the background. There are some fun little things that happen in retrospect with these pictures.  For example in the 9th painting ribbon drips appear only to be gone in the 10th, and being so disgusted with them I didn’t attempt them again until the 13th painting.  Creating is always a learning experience.

I created a model of the whale out of clay to help me to figure out perspective and lighting.

I created a model of the whale out of clay to help me to figure out perspective and lighting.

Here is an image of the piece as it was displayed at Willamette University at the Rogers W. Rogers gallery in the Spring.

Here is an image of the piece as it was displayed at Willamette University at the Rogers W. Rogers Gallery in the Spring of 2015.

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Quiet Paris, Quiet London

A 360 view of The Dove, Hammersmith, this quiet beautiful pub next

A 360 view of The Dove, Hammersmith in London, this quiet beautiful pub boasts of being one of the oldest in London.   It’s practically next door to the humble home of William Morris (Kelmscott House Museum) that Siobhan Wall also suggested.  Adventuring to the two together was well worth the endeavor.

Quiet London lists the Tate, and unlike the Tate Modern this one is absent the crowds.  It's also full of a room of William Morris statues, and rooms of delightful British painters like Stanley Spencer.

Quiet London lists the Tate, and unlike the Tate Modern this museum is absent the crowds. It’s also bursting with gigantic  Henry Moore statues, and rooms of delightful British painters like Stanley Spencer, Paul Nash, and Walter Richard Stickett.

I’ll confess that I’d be happy to avoid big cities when traveling.  Smaller towns to me so often feel more humane, easily manageable and connected to the people of the community.  With that said listening to a Rick Steve’s Program two weeks prior to running amock in France and England with 20 students in May I was introduced to Siobhan Wall and her books Quiet Paris and Quiet London.  I had them shipped to me ASAP before leaving.  What a relief her suggestions were in the hubbub of these gigantic urban centers of 2.2 and 8.3 million respectively.

Listing places of worship, bookshops, museums, gardens, cafes, pubs, galleries, shops, libraries and restaurants.  Her suggested locations came across as authentic, local and sincere. Siobhan’s recommended shops were absent of trinkets of the Eiffel tower or Big Ben, and the restaurants she advised one to visit had good and interesting food without large televisions blaring on the wall.  I never felt she steered me wrong.  The only thing I wish she had was maps her books so I could of easily found what suggested places were close to other locations.

Greensmiths in London was just a treat for lunch with fresh sandwiches, quiche, salads, and the like.

Greensmiths in London was just a treat for lunch with fresh sandwiches, quiche, salads, and the like.

Deyrolle, a taxidermy shop for over 180 years in Paris was on her list, unfortunately when I swung by it was closed.

Deyrolle, a taxidermy shop for over 180 years in Paris was on her list, unfortunately I was only able to drop by when it was closed. The window still was well worth the peek!

In Paris I had a very adventurous group of students with me that traipsed all over the map to Siobhan Wall’s suggestions:  a bustling ramshackle bookstore (Shakespeare and Co), a great store of vintage tchotchkes in a hoot of a neighborhood (Au Petit Bonheur La Chance), a shop where all the goods were made by nuns and monks (Artisanat Monastique), a delightful hand made ceramic studio in a beautiful neighborhood (La Tuile a Loup), and an extraordinary stationary store (Ecritore).  We attempted to end our adventurous day with a restaurant Siobhan suggested, L’Estaminet des Enfants Rouges.

Roaming the streets looking for the address the students saw a brasserie ending in “Enfants Rouges” and dove in saying, “This is it!” our feet weary from our day of walking ten miles all over Paris.  As I looked around at  the T.V.s and drone of blaring music, I said “This can’t be it, Siobhan would never list a place like this!”  I darted outside but still couldn’t find the placed she listed, and desperate for food we simply ate.  Once done, I told the students, “There is a really interesting indoor farmers market next door, we should go over and check that out.”  We did, only to find it closing and the pub of our longings in the back corner.  Darn it…. Well, next time I’m in Paris I’ll know where I’m going.

Found in Montparnasse, Musee Bourdelle, was one of my favorite finds.  Likely the only non-French person there, I found Antonine Bourdelle's (1861-1929) studio, work and home to be inspiring.

Found in Montparnasse, Musee Bourdelle, was one of my favorite finds she suggested. Likely the only non-French person there, I found the French sculptor Antonine Bourdelle’s (1861-1929) studio, work and home to be inspiring.

Pick up the books – they’re a wonderful breath of fresh air.  She also has one for Amsterdam and New York, let’s just say if going to those locations two books will be added to my library.


Near Luxembourg gardens and open since 1845 Polidor was a haunt of Victor Hugo and Hemingway and the like.  In this photo, my colleague Caitlin, her mother and our friend Elizabeth wait for a table.  A French man wanting to grab a seat but seeing the line that formed about ten minutes later left abruptly muttering loudly, “Tourists!”  Well, if you lived there after awhile Paris likely would be a bit of a love/hate relationship I am sure.

A shelf of vintage characters of old, I had a hard time pulling students and myself out of the Paris shop Au Petit Bonheur La Chance.

A shelf of vintage characters of old, I had a hard time pulling students and myself out of the Paris shop Au Petit Bonheur La Chance.  Let’s just say I bought a little someone that likely will appear in a piece in the future.

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Puppy Butt Leaves the Portland Airport

PDX airport show in action.

PDX airport show (Greta Blalock the director of the Portland Art Program with some of my students).

a1dlN3D5yEeC2-q3nOme0Gl3e674LIRP3jZge3ARCckNDouL5KFC4WAed9mx3Gtdrn1SozSWtfOEVF-KtiGGlDogfEpQ-HkgrpJCLqNhMrNDh1wRY6GFbzNVFPMGJ0vf79brf2jLLrY3dXq_1Yt5RqAigqxqw5346Rb00dAIDx5BLpUjlSUh9l9uRX-A4F7knNPayeRxcj3oO2vYYjEpgTrQlx7Nothing like having 14 cases of artwork up in Terminal A at the Portland Airport for six months to get some eyes on the work. I pick up all the art Monday. It has been a blessing to receive so many kind comments about all the art (almost making one woman miss her plane), and assuring to know as an artist that the work is out there doing the job it was made to do.

Thanks for the many kind comments from colleagues old acquaintances and friends alike who have been a bit surprised to run onto some familiar characters while trying to catch a flight (and yes Becky Ankeny I did get your note).

I can now say I have been tweeted by an actor in a soap opera, and had work become part of an inside joke. I had a very fine fellow Patrick send me a note that he and his girlfriend were debating if a packing peanut was supposed to be part of one of my shadow boxes (damn packing peanut –although it did give me an idea for a piece), and Patrick also wrote:

Mr. Murphy front side.

Mr. Murphy front side.

The one with the puppy backside has created a new inside joke between us – “puppy butt.” For example, after a long plane ride you rise from the airplane seat stiffly, and the other asks… “Oh, do you have puppy butt?”

Mr Murphy the piece he’s referring to (named after my fourth grade teacher), has a dog puzzle piece attached to his back side simply because I thought he needed a loyal companion with him. Lookie there, art on its own begins telling its own story…

Thanks to Greta Blalock the director of the PDX art program and the Portland Airport for a great experience!

Thoughtful artist with art.

Thoughtful artist with art.

A new piece

A new piece “Town Crier” can be seen in this case along with “Traveler” that was one of the most inquired about pieces in the show.

Art in action.  Janitorial staff and all....

Art in action. Janitorial staff and all….


Mr. Murphy’s “puppy butt” revealed…

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Engaging Liturgists

-1Through the suggestion of a friend, I ran onto a very engaging podcast as of late on the LGBTQ issue that I’d highly recommend you take the time to listen to. “The Liturgists” are a collection of emergent church minds that run with likes of Donald Miller and Rob Bell. Thoughtful, seasoned, researched, personable and reasonable from what I’ve read and have listen to on their site I find their theology is evenly balanced with their humanity.

From the get-go they make clear that they were tentative to engage LGBTQ topics as a podcast as they have diverse opinions on the matter, a caveat I found very refreshing. They chose to go for a very personable tact in part, letting those who self identify simply tell their story of faith and sexuality.

The interviews and conversations are engaging. Tabitha clearly is a lovely person whom I’d be delighted to see at my church, I felt educated about the science of it all and the thoughtful dialogue between science Mike and Preston Sprinkle I found enlightening. Most impressive was J.J. Peterson who comes across with humility as a man that has simply been doing the work God has put in front of him, and who as of late has been coming to terms with his sexuality. Peterson’s center is in his relationship with Christ, and he comes across as sensitive and insightful. In contrast Matthew Vines seems like not the best fit for the dialogue as he appears myopic and naïve. Often using “you” and “we” statements when what he really means “I,” from the get-go Vines negates others stories and writings on the matter which I assume he would not want others to do regarding a certain book he has written? Vines at one-point states emphatically, “sexuality is the linchpin to how you bond and connect with other people.” Something granted I’d expect to hear from a man in his early twenties, but as a lifetime celibate man in his forties I’d beg to differ.

The Liturgists also have a very engaging conversation with Stan Mitchel and Mellissa Green from Grace Point church in Nashville, a now (as of January 11, 2015) evangelical and inclusive church. Clearly these are pastors wrestling with trying to do the “right thing,” and they come across with sincerity and kind hearts. Mitchel remarks that they have lost the majority of their 2,200 congregants. Was the loss of those members due more to church governance than to homosexuality?  From what I know some members felt Mitchel simply made the decision for the congregation and did not let the body of believers decide as a whole. Did members feel unheard and disregarded and left not so much due to the embrace of homosexuality, but because of the strong-arm tactics of the leadership? Both?

Joshua Meyer,

Joshua Meyer, “Silencing Stories,” 2013, oil on canvas, 32 x 28 inches. http://www.joshua-meyer.com/home-g.html

Grace Point’s story makes me think of a couple in their later forties I know who were active in an Episcopal church some years back, but left never to return. They are liberal in their stance regarding LGBTQ issues, but they related to me how years back they were appalled at how the individuals in their church (largely older members) were treated when the church became inclusive. Even though the couple agreed with the churches stance they said the treatment and disregard of these long standing members disgusted them so much so they never want to be a part of a church body again.

These are difficult waters, tender matters indeed when inclusion can mean exclusion. How do we make room at the table? What does love embodied really look like, practically in the here and now? I know I’m still working on it.

Give this a listen to this podcast, I think the Liturgists are trying to figure this this too:

The Liturgist Podcast Episode 20: LGBTQ

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Tender Matters

Ben Shahn. Man. 1946 MoMA

Ben Shahn – “Man.” 1946 MoMA

It has been said that one should contribute to a conversation only if you can add something new or different to the dialogue. I have spent the past four years listening and querying others about their journey of faith and homosexuality, expanding the depth of breadth of my circles. I’m to a point I feel I can share what I’m finding and what I see and know. So I’ll begin here.

In the Spring of 2011 I published a book: A Bigger World Yet; Faith Brotherhood and Same-Sex Needs, (see the book tab for details). The book was the culmination of a ten year process of gathering stories and data, and the text basically presents that friendships are central to getting same-sex needs met, the core of who we are is grounded in God not sexual impulses, active homosexuality is not the best for a Christ follower, and that all men struggle with what it is to be a man in our age. I intentionally steered away from the term “gay” and instead used more neutral terms like “high-same-sex needs” (I know, a term that is bulky at best). The book was self published, as I had several Christian publishers communicate to me that they were going away from this difficult issue and/or that my book was not far enough in one camp or the other for their readers. So much for moderation… Since the book went to press I have received many kind notes from men who found it helpful, honest and life-giving.

And the conversation has continued in the past four years, and quickly.   Homosexuality is the hot topic in Christian communities as gay marriage becomes a reality in States, and more and more Christ followers have felt freedom simply to proclaim a gay identity outright. Perhaps I’ve steered away from writing about this topic for fear that this its artistic suicide, and people talk with such finitude and certainty regarding homosexuality, while I with all I know at 48 am wary to declare universal truths on the matter. I also do really care about what others think, and feel a level of responsibility and obligation of sorts to those whom I’ve had the privilege to mentor, lead and walk with over the years.

Several days back in the span of twenty four hours, I had a conversation with a dear friend of mine on the East Coast who after heading up a ministry for years and being married for over 30 is now divorced, openly gay and in a relationship with a man, and I had a good chat on the phone with a friend in his early forties in Arizona who’s getting married this August to a lovely woman after being very sexually active with other men in his teens and twenties. Both men call themselves Christians, love Jesus, and both are doing what they feel is “right.”

What I don’t see happening at large is openness to a diversity of stories regarding homosexuality and faith. There are a variety of experiences and choices men make as they try to live out what is good, right and true. One side does not exclude the multiplicity of other stories being lived out. With the conversation with both of these friends, I realized that I have been blessed to know a broad spectrum of men who have made a variety of choices with their same-sex desires. In the name of “having a voice” some individuals getting media attention seem to feel they need to exclude others whose story they feel may threaten their own. That is not honest, good or kind.

So within the category of “Tender Matters” my objective is to write with candor and transparency about my own path as it continues beyond A Bigger World Yet, and the narratives of the amazing array of men and women I call my friends. I’ll keep you posted.

Ben Shahn – “Self Portrait Among Churchgoers” (1907)

Ben Shahn – “Self Portrait Among Churchgoers”  1907

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