Monday, September 29, 2014

"Christian" art

What I am writing below is a reaction I had to a blog post by Peter Chin about why he really dislikes Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) but listens to it anyway. (You should probably read that first if you would like anything I have to say make sense.) This article made the rounds where I work and I reacted to it. I suppose it was partly because I have heard variations on this argument so many times about why it is okay for Christians to make bad artwork. I originally sent this to friends, so it is written with a smile on my face! Anyway, here are my thoughts:

Sorry [fantastic colleague], I can't follow you down the road of liking this article. If loving "secular" music is wrong, I don't wanna be right. What is the sense of listening to (pop) music that everyone concedes is no good? There is no joy in it. The best - the absolute best - the author can say is that it is not as disagreeable as "secular" music. (I think he sets up a huge false dichotomy here, by the way.) It's sort of milquetoast neutral lyrics set to highly produced music. It's bland, shallow and simplistic. If that's all there is, then I'll choose silence. At least there is a very long tradition of Christians (and Old Testament Jews) recommending silent meditation as a spiritual discipline. 

I will not concede that it is difficult to be creative within a discipline. If anything the opposite is true. Try being creative without any structure at all - I've never been able to do it. Not to mention, it doesn't seem like John Donne, Dante, John Bunyan, Tolkien, Lewis, Gerard Manly Hopkins, George Herbert, St. Francis, Anne Bradstreet and others had difficulty in being creative within the strictures of thousands of years of Christian thought. Of course those people all had things to say that were shaped and seen through their experiences of living a Christian life. I doubt very much if they gave a great deal of thought about systematic theology as they were writing their poetry and stories (Bunyan aside); rather, I would bet that since they were orthodox themselves, their work was naturally orthodox as well. (And don't think that "secular" artists have any less of an orthodoxy that they have to stick to. They will fail as commercial acts the moment they apostatize. Their orthodoxy is just a lot newer and is only as current as the spirit of the age.) 

I will also take issue with the idea that CCM is a ministry beyond the sense of what any of us do as Christians simply living our lives. I do not think that I am under any kind of proscription against writing, as he calls it, authentically in order to write infantile prose, poetry or music so as not to cause someone to "stumble". That is why we are given pastors. It's the job of the local church to foster spiritual formation, to help immature Christians to lose their illusions and to experience mature Christian life. Musicians do not have a para-church ministry as if they are, by definition, lay ministers. They are artists and they are to make good art. And good art is sometimes very difficult stuff. Holy smokes! For heaven's sake, I've actually read the Psalms! Talk about causing people to stumble! "The book of Psalms ... spits piss and vinegar at God in praise..."* David would never get a record deal today, he's just too hard. I suppose contemporary songwriters should look elsewhere than the Bible's songbook when they are composing their own tunes.

I think the real problem is how to make a marketable product. He's right that evangelicals are a thin skinned bunch. I would also say that for the most part they reflect very nicely the content of their music. Record labels are concerned with how to make a product that will meet all the criteria listed in this article as they are selling a product that reflects their market of consumers. Musicians need not be concerned with these issues - at least they don't as artists. 

Maybe the problem is that there is such a thing as CCM in the first place. If you've been reading about it at all, the music business is in a lot of trouble. The money does not flow like it used to - at least not from record sales. In fact, U2 just released their new album as a free download. It think the problem of insipid CCM may vanish in the near future as music becomes more easily available to listeners (almost) directly from the artists via online streaming websites. If musicians who are Christians want to write great songs with challenging music they will not have to deal so much with record labels as they will with a smaller but more discerning public. Lay it all out there! Let us hear about your dark night of the soul, how God has forsaken you, how you thirst for vengeance against the enemies of God; let's hear just how good and challenging of a musician you are - learn a 4th or even a 5th chord!

I have only reacted this way because I have been given this argument about a million different times in regards to "Christian" art. The excuses for bad art masquerading as somehow "Christian" are myriad and they are infernal. Geez, if making art or music to the glory of God were easy, everyone would do it! It's making a buck while doing it that seems to be the real issue.

Thursday, September 25, 2014


In Norse myth, Jormungandr is also known as the Midgaard Serpent or The World Serpent. The Greeks called it Orobouros. It is a monstrous serpent that circles the world; it is so large that it is able to stretch around the earth and still fit its tail in its mouth. This fitting of the tail into the mouth is telling because it speaks of cycles, repetition. 

This drawing is about many things. It's actually a pastiche of several different drawings that laid around in my studio for a long time before I knew what to do with them. The head was a demo for pen and ink and the gargoyle heads were for an illustration job of some sort. Jormungandr came later. I put all of this together because of my reading of Purgatorio in The Divine Comedy and CS Lewis' The Discarded Image. For the medievals, chance, fortune, mutability, change, sin, all of these things were alien to the heavens properly speaking. All that stuff only happened below the circle of the moon. (Did you see the moon in my drawing? Did you? Did you?) The title of my piece is Subjected to Futility and Beset with Temptations. Because we live below the circle of the moon, we are subject to things like temptations - we repeat cycles of temptation, self-denial, temptation, capitulation, repentance, temptation, self-denial, etc.

The Divine Comedy itself is, of course, based on circles, a spiral, and spheres. (My chart of Paradiso can be seen here.) In hell everyone is confined to a circle which is a never-ending cycle. Once in a circle, no one in it can ever leave it. In a sense, in hell, the serpent bites his tail and never lets it go. This is my diagram of hell and its circles:

This is a two page spread from my drawing book Sins Committed, Sins Remitted. There is an orange Jormungandr and a blue Ouroboros. My Ouroboros is crying for reasons that I will leave up to you, the viewer. (The red earthworm astronaut should maybe be ignored - or not, it's up to you.) I like the medieval artists' tendency to draw all of their animals with little ears and a dog nose. And plus drawing mammalian dragons is pretty fun. 

To sum up, Jormungandr and Ouroboros are cyclical monsters that devour themselves and they figure into my artwork somehow. I don't know how much more I have to write about them as I still find them both mysterious. I will just have to keep making drawings to figure it all out.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Making a Drawing - The Painting!

This is a cleverly titled part two of a previous post. There I discussed the ins and outs of making a drawing and inking it with pens. I also wondered why this generic looking man had the expression that he does. Who knows? But I figured he could use some color, the camera was still set up and so I went for it. The painting is very simple and was done in just a few minutes.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Making a Drawing

This is how I generally go about making a drawing. I did this as a demo piece for my students so they could see the steps from initial drawing to inking. The face is of no one in particular, it's just a generic man. He looks nonplussed about something or another. I wonder what he has to be so miserable about? Early on in the drawing he looked more alert, hopeful somehow. But it all seemed a sham; this dude is not having any of it. He hasn't even shaved in who knows how long?! How can you expect him to get all excited about your inane news?! Cut the guy some slack, mind your own beeswax and enjoy the short video.


Monday, September 15, 2014

Picasso in Hell part 1

I am a big fan of the Divine Comedy by Dante. I won't write much about it here since that would be like trying to describe the Brothers Karamazov using only pictures from Awkward Family Photos. But please allow me to say a little bit. Dante populates his Inferno with a lot of people; some of them he knew by reputation and some of them he knew personally.

I started to wonder who he would put in hell if he was writing today. This may be a pointless exercise; I'm not sure. But I don't mean it out of any malice, so I don't think there is any harm. Looking back on recent art history (Dante has several artists in Purgatory on their way up to Paradise) I thought about Picasso as a colossal figure whose ego would demand that he be mentioned in a work like The Comedy. Knowing some of Picasso's biography, I think it is safe to assume Dante would have assigned him to hell.

While he would probably have landed in the circle of the lustful and their blowing winds, I put him down with the wrathful. Not because he was a particularly angry guy (I guess), but because I used Eugene Delacroix's Barque of Dante as my model.

I began this piece as a watercolor but soon became dissatisfied with the bland colors and flatness of the piece. I liked the drawing aspect of it and wanted to rescue that from mediocre painting.

I painted over the whole thing with oils. I didn't really add anything except the flaming city of Dis in the background. I switched up some colors and juiced everything for the electrifying spectacle seen below. 

There's a lot going on here and I will talk about the content of this picture next time in part 2 of Picasso in Hell.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Illustrations of Bugs

Once upon a time I had the idea that I would be a scientific illustrator. I really didn't know what doing that would entail. I figured I could just make some good bug drawings and BANG! I'd be a successful scientific illustrator. I found out that's not the way it works. After speaking with my entomology professor in college, I realized that while I truly love bugs and good drawings of bugs, I was probably not the guy to do it as a professional. This was not because of my abilities or anything like that, rather it was that I didn't want to go to school for a master's degree in entomology on top of what I had already done.

In the mean time, I still really like making bug drawings. Some real, some not so much.

Madagascar Hissing Cockroach, watercolor. I had quite a lot of these at one point but I got skeezed out and got rid of them.

This is a Florida Plant Footed Bug, watercolor and ink. No skeez factor here, it's just a cool looking relatively large bug.

Stag Beetle, pencil. These small stag beetles were super common where I lived in PA. I think their larvae ate the decaying mulch on playgrounds and the emerging adults were then easy to find while I was taking my kids to the park to play.

Mydas fly, pencil and white ink. One of my kids caught this Mydas fly at a playground. He just reached out and grabbed it. I had never seen a Mydas fly at this point and it looked very wasp-like to me. I prepared for the worst, but it never came. It just made a cool drawing.

Alien Insect Head, photoshop. Alien insect heads are not so real. I made this one up, but it was fun to draw all the imagined nooks and crannies.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Of Gyotaku, Real and Artificial

The number of gyotaku posts here are all out of proportion to the actual number of prints I have pulled. I am actually far more interested in making drawings of the fish than in pulling prints of them. "Ah," you say, "then why are you polluting the internet with all of your fancy fish rubbings when you could be showing us drawings?" Fair enough; here are two examples of "fish rubbings" as you so condescendingly refer to them.

This first one is perhaps a bit of a cheat - so maybe a little of your smarty pants-ness is warranted. This is a flounder that I bought for use in some of my classes (the kids don't always do so well with real fish - there are things like guts and eyeballs to consider). It's rubber. Okay!? So I made the print of my rubber fish on one side of transparent paper, painted the reverse side of the paper gold, cut the whole thing out and glued it to a fresh sheet of paper. I rather liked the result.

These lovely fish are golden shiners that I caught while fishing for bluegill. They're pretty much giant minnows. But they are very beautiful and if I had it to do again I would try to catch their color like I did here. Regardless, I think this is a successful print.

So here you are, an actual drawing of a fish. This is the prince of fishes, that most delicious of panfish, the majestic bluegill. For me, bluegill is what I call almost all of those fish that other people call brim or bream. They are quite beautiful in their own right and great fighters on light tackle.

And here we go with a little woodcut of a fish. Actually it's a tetra that I used to have in my fish tank. I often take some time to draw the fish that make it into my tanks. This one was a great model. It stayed very still for me the whole time. Probably because it was dead. That's the way it is sometimes. We artists have to be a hard-hearted lot when it comes to our fish drawings. We don't have to kill the little guys, but we must be willing to take advantage of the opportunity when it arises.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

The Drawing of Skeletons

Everyone loves a good skeleton drawing. Of this I am absolutely convinced. And why not? Skeletons are cool to look at. They are tempting for the artist because they show off his command of drawing. They are also a shorthand way of imparting gravity to your work.

Take this piece seriously! Can't you see it is about death?! Finitude! Temporality! "As you are, I once was. As I am, you will be!" Memento mori for heaven's sake! The Incarnation!

Huh? Did you see what I did there? You thought I was going to continue being morbid; but that's not at all what this is about. If Christ is Incarnate (and he is), then our bones are more than just significant of death, they are significant of life. The Creed recognizes this when it has us affirm that "I believe in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting".

Even our gross old bones will be sewn back together and made new. I find that has way more gravity than merely reminding ourselves that we will die one day.

Of course, there is also the resurrection of the damned. While this is not something to be hoped for, it does underscore the importance of our bodies in general and the centrality of the Incarnation.

Monday, September 1, 2014

The Crawdad that Keeps on Giving

Yes, I know that you are saying to yourself, "What a redundant title. Of course crawdads keep on giving. Of all the decapods, the crawdad is the most selfless and magnanimous." This is of course true. But I mean in the artistic sense. I have been recycling this crustacean for a couple of years now.

Gaze upon the original:

This drawing has been on this blog before. But I like it that much. Since that initial drawing, I've made this image into a couple of collagraphs. 

Here are the plates; one of them is made from the positive image and one of them is from the left over negative image:


Making collagraphs is not really difficult. The idea is simple enough; make a plate that has a variety of textures that will hold varying degrees of ink and then print. Simple. However, PRINTING a collagraph is not always so easy. At least not for me. Here's the first attempt at a straight black image:

Blech! Nothing worked out! It didn't turn out to look like the glorious image I had in my head. Here's the next go-round where I blocked out the background and tried to print a clean image of the animal only:

This is marginally better. The lines filled in too much and the sterile(ish) background leaves me feeling flat. So next I went for color. I used both of the plates for these.

I find these far more successful. I love the contrast of deep brown/black with light, airy yellow on the top image and the blend of red and yellow on the bottom image. I was particularly satisfied with these  as I was pulling these prints as a printmaking demo for a bunch of students! It's always embarrassing to have a print go awry as you are trying to position yourself as the arbiter of all printmaking knowledge to a bunch of 6th graders.

Since we all like morals to our stories, the moral of this story is to keep looking at your old work. Also, don't give up when your first attempt turns out to be absolutely terrible. And your second try isn't much better. And also, crawdads are spectacular animals. So lots of morals today.