Archive for July, 2020

Sunday Morning with Randy in the Motel

July 5, 2020
Ozark Court Motel. Stanton, Missouri

Sunday morning rays of sunshine lanced through the slits in the closed blinds of Room 6 at the Ozark Court Motel. Randy lay with his eyes closed. It took a few moments before he realized where he was and what day it was. Hitchhiking had not fared well the day before. Driving rains soaked him to the skin and no one was pulling over on Route 66 to offer him a ride. Why would they? No doubt he carried all the charm of a drowned city sewer rat as he trudged along the muddy shoulder, his knapsack beginning to let in water as well. But this morning he was OK. A soothing shower the night before and a Jack Daniels nightcap ushered in a quality night’s sleep. But now it was Sunday. What to do?

His Greek Testament lay on the bedside table; he had removed it the night before, intending for it to be the first thing his eyes would see the morning after. Now he sat up in bed, stretched his limbs and reached for the small volume he thought he was going to discard once he dropped out of seminary. He couldn’t. Though he no longer congregated, he still woke on Sunday mornings feeling the need to reach for a text that had been his companion for two-and-a-half years, only now he no longer felt shackled by deadlines of term papers and Sunday morning sermon manuscripts. He could read what he chose.

But what to read? The Gospels crossed his mind. Always a good choice. But what did he want this morning from the Gospels? Did he want to see or hear? Seeing would include mental images of Jesus walking either along a shore or down a dusty Palestinian street. Would he be solitary, seated in the wilderness, or thronged by a clinging crowd? Maybe Randy wanted to hear. But what? The voice of Jesus resonating in a synagogue, or speaking softly inside a living quarters? Would he be strolling country lanes with disciples listening, or seated on a boulder discoursing? Or would he be sitting in a boat, his voice going out over the waves while disciples pulled at the oars?

Why was Randy reaching for the New Testament? Because it was Sunday? He wasn’t congregating. He wasn’t called upon to address any hearers. What did he want this morning?

Outside the motel, traffic was heard rolling along Route 66 along the bottom of the bluff. Randy was aware that he was seated in bed, alone, in the heartland of America. Today is Sunday, the Fourth of July, 1976. The country had been surging with anticipation for months as she edged closer and closer to this day—the nation’s bicentennial. No doubt Randy’s former seminary friends—preacher friends—had been whipping themselves into a frenzy over what to preach on this Special Sunday. Randy was glad not to be under that kind of pressure. What exactly would he say today, standing before a congregation?

Opening his Greek Testament, he let his mind drift down pleasant corridors of memory. To this day he was grateful that he had learned Koinē Greek. The first semester was strictly recitation, vocabulary and functional grammar; the class never saw a New Testament. The objective was functional literacy. As children learn to speak their language before learning to read and understand the technical architecture of grammar, so Professor Corley wished for his students to recognize and read Greek early and dissect the grammar later. And so, Randy studied his lessons and performed the daily recitations for a semester.

On the first day of the second semester, the Professor walked to the blackboard, picked up the chalk and scrawled the following:

Sitting at his desk in the third row, Randy leaned forward earnestly and read the words instantly: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe in the gospel.” The Professor turned to the class and solemnly declared: “You are now reading the New Testament. In Greek.” Sitting up in bed, Randy felt waves of warmth surging through his being as he recalled that historic morning. It was as though scales had fallen from his eyes and enlightenment had dawned. His life had been marked by so few quality moments. Opening his New Testament to Mark 1:15, he read the words afresh.

The time is fulfilled. On that historic day, Randy felt that he had fulfilled his apprenticeship to elementary Greek vocabulary and grammar. He read a Greek New Testament passage with no assistance from a teacher or book. It was a new day. A new world dawned and beckoned. He had no idea then that a ministerial life, just underway, would collapse and burn in less than two years.

Now it is Sunday, July 4, 1976. The nation celebrates its 200th birthday. Randy wondered what exactly he was celebrating, if anything. What was life offering now? Was he about to pass through another portal? Again, why was he reading the New Testament? Because it is Sunday? Because it is the Fourth of July? Because the country is now two hundred years old? What was in the air for Randy? He wanted to know.

Was he reading from the life of Jesus because he needed a mentor? Someone to guide him? Thinking back over his life, Randy realized that he had always sought direction from a strong leader. His father, his pastor, his professors, and a few years ago he had that conference with Reverend Elton in Dallas. Did Randy need a mentor now? Or was it time to think for himself? Maybe his apprenticeship to life was ended and it was time to stand up, to strike forth and find new ground under his own direction. The time is fulfilled.

Rising from bed, Randy stretched and strolled across the small room to the writing table in the corner where he had placed his journal the night before. Opening it to the pages he wrote the day he quit the seminary, he found a passage he had copied from James Smart’s The Divided Mind of Modern Theology.

There are remarkable parallels between the European mood of the twenties and the English and American mood of the sixties: God seemed to have gone into hiding; religious and theological language out of the past had become wooden and unconvincing; men felt themselves suspended between a world that had died and a new world that was waiting to be born; a church indifferent to the plight of the masses was recognized as unworthy of the name Christian; the identification of Christianity with Western civilization, and of divinity with the higher elements in man, had become highly suspect; in various forms the hunger for a new world now was felt, and some understood it as hunger for a living God. In that kind of world Barth and Bultmann became theologians whose one endeavor was to find the word that would unlock the future, the word that would bring wholeness of faith and creative power by being the very truth of the living God.

It is Sunday, Randy thought. Today, churches would perhaps be filled to capacity, no doubt to celebrate a 200th birthday. Yet, Randy sensed that the ministers would still crank out those same tired sermons, their singsong voices rasping like rusty squeeze boxes, sounding out the same two-note refrain of the deadly forces that continually threaten the vitality of our church and nation—abortion and communism.

Randy replayed from memory a line he had memorized from his reading of one of Nietzsche’s early essays:

He who has but two strings on his instrument . . . does not understand those who can play on more strings. It is of the essence of the higher, multi-stringed culture that it is always misinterpreted by the lower culture . . .

Randy’s sojourn of recent years had definitely added more strings to his life’s instrument. No doubt this is why he was not attending church this particular morning, or most mornings for that matter. Virtually everything delivered from pulpits he had heard before, and indeed was beginning to write them out in his own sermons before he quit. He didn’t need to hear them again.

Randy recalled with a smile a quote he had read from his readings in the religions of India, how the Upanishad movement was sprung partly because the general population had grown weary of listening to the traditional chants of the Vedic priests “who sounded like croaking frogs in the swamps.”

America in 1976 was sounding restless. Perhaps a new world was beginning to dawn. The time is fulfilled. Randy wondered if his own odyssey was corresponding with the quest of this American nation in 1976, poised to enter a new age of Enlightenment. Where was Hank? It had been months since that night they sat at the fire, camping in west Texas. It was time to get together and talk some more. No doubt Hank had just as much weighing on his mind as Randy. Later today, Randy would return to Turvey’s Corner, having been away four years. Maybe Hank was already there.

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Thanks for reading my blog.

I make art in order to discover.

I journal when I feel alone.

I blog to remind myself I am not alone.

A Quiet Word on the 4th of July

July 4, 2020
Social Distancing

. . . a single stroke of paint, backed by work and a mind that understood its potency and implications, could restore to man the freedom lost in twenty centuries of apology and devices for subjugation.

Clyfford Still

After an hour of reading news and social media posts concerning our Fourth of July and the event last night at Mount Rushmore, I decided to lay all that aside and read for my own edification. While reading a Robert Motherwell biography, I came across the above words from Abstract Expressionist painter Clyfford Still, one who gets little attention because he exhibited very little and wrote even less during his lifetime. Now, throughout the four decades following his life, we are uncovering much value from his work and words.

. . . a single stroke of paint, backed by work and a mind that understood its potency and implications, could restore to man the freedom lost in twenty centuries of apology and devices for subjugation.

I post them again, just in case the reader flew over them too quickly the first time, and I hope what I add enhances rather than diminishes . . .

Standing in pulpits for eleven years, I delivered thousands of words, many of which I would no doubt take back today, if only I could.

Standing in classrooms and lecture halls for thirty-four years, I delivered millions of words, many of which I would no doubt take back today, if only I could.

I meant well, truy wishing to improve lives by what I offered. And sometimes I did, no doubt. But today I think of all the words that were empty, all the words poorly chosen, and even worse, those that were destructive. If all public speakers and social media posters could possibly pause and consider the power packed behind their words, perhaps they would choose more judiciously, as I wish I would have.

I still think. I still write. And I still question. And at this age I am more aware that odds make it easier to be wrong than right, considering the complications of human experience. On this calendar day, if just some people would reconsider their public utterances, there is hope that life in this country could improve.

. . . a single stroke of paint, backed by work and a mind that understood its potency and implications, could restore to man the freedom lost in twenty centuries of apology and devices for subjugation.

As for making art, this quote shook me the most. “A single stroke of paint” . . . if ever I could harness the power of a good thought, saddle it with paint, and then release that pair into this world, then I would believe I have accomplished something worthy.

Thanks for reading. I hope this blog post doesn’t exude depression, because I don’t feel depressed in the least. But I do feel very sobered by what I read this morning. And I intend to do better, be better because of it.

I make art in order to discover.

I journal when I feel alone.

I blog to remind myself I am not alone.

Evening Ponderings over Motherwell Art

July 2, 2020
Time spent reading Motherwell biographies

As always, the studio was the space of revelation. For all his sociability and engagement with the public world, he admitted on several occasions that he felt essentially awkward outside the studio and only comfortable inside its solitude, that his real discoveries were made in direct contact with his materials.

Bernard Jacobson, Robert Motherwell: The Making of an American Giant

Having wrapped up another commission, it felt good today to relax, stretch and spend some time poring over a pair of Robert Motherwell biographies I purchased on the centennial year of his birth. I read both of them within weeks of their publication, but then put them on the shelf for five years. Those who know me are aware that I spend much of my leisure reading biographies on artists I’ve admired throughout my life–Andrew Wyeth, Edward Hopper, Paul Cezanne, Joseph Mallord William Turner, Henri Matisse, Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol et al.

Motherwell and Hopper are especially dear to my heart because they were profound thinkers, always adjusting their compasses to pursue the direction they felt compelled to follow. Both were needled by friends and associates that they spent too much time in books. Motherwell especially was criticized for devoting too much time to writing, publishing and lecturing. I am grateful that they left behind a considerable sum of pages of their ideas; I am just as immersed in their words as I am their images. As an artist, I have always aspired to be a thinker as well as craftsman.

Completed Commission

My main purpose in posting this blog is to show the commission I just completed today. This Ozark Court Motel no longer stands. Since 1977, I saw this motel ruin on the north side of Interstate 44 (historic Route 66) in Stanton, Missouri as I traveled back and forth from Missouri to Texas. All I know so far is that the business dated back to the 1930’s. Hopefully in the days ahead I will be able to uncover more history of the site and attempt to spin out some stories. Hank and Randy need some new adventures.

Thanks for reading.

I make art in order to discover.

I journal when I feel alone.

I blog to remind myself I am not alone.

Transformation by Choice

July 1, 2020
Nearing Completion of Work on a New Commission

Dr. David Harold Fink, the eminent psychiatrist, says that, by changing our mental concepts of ourselves, we can change our lives.

Advertisement from April 1963 Harper’s Bazaar

We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,

gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.

Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:

would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.

Rainer Maria Rilke, “Archaic Torso of Apollo”

I must say that today has been one of the most satisfying of days. For some reason waking just around daylight, I felt a desire to go straight into the studio and work on this historic route 66 motel site that has been removed from our landscape but not from my memory. I am grateful to the patron who found my earlier painting of this site on the Internet and contacted me to commission a new one. Memories of these motel ruins I saw in my travels from St. Louis to Fort Worth keep stirring. And I recall the closing lines from the Woody Allen film “Another Woman”–

I wondered if a memory is something you have or something you’ve lost.

As I painted this morning, my mind continually drifted to the Zeitgeist that swirls around us every day, and has done so for several years now. Wondering if my own temperament was coloring my perception of what I was hearing daily on the news, I had to pause and say emphatically No. The days we live in now cry out for introspection and evaluation since we are forced to spend time apart from the masses. And frankly, I look over my past life, admitting that there were years, indeed decades of rage probably spawned by my own self-doubt. Those days are gone, I hope for good now. I am deeply grateful for this gift of life, and that I am still allowed to share in it, and finally, to be genuinely happy.

But what I hear and read continually when I log on to the news or social media is a cascade of hate, anger and invective–words cascading like raw sewage across many platforms, cable news, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram–so much poison and stench.

Taking a break from my painting, I picked up and re-read portions of Pop: The Genius of Andy Warhol and found the quote above from Harper’s Bazaar. It was in reference to people crowding into the new photobooths of the 60’s to print strips of pictures of themselves mugging in front of the camera. I laughed, thinking of people today on Instagram, holding up their smartphones and looking intently at them while posing for their glamor shots. The Harper’s Bazaar ad pointed out the potential for improving one’s own life wilfully.

From the Warhol reading I turned my attention to Rilke. The poem of Apollo I learned of for the first time when watching Woody Allen’s “Another Woman”, a severely underrated film that remains one of my favorites. Many themes can be abstracted from viewing the film, but what sticks with me the most is the protagonist wilfully choosing in the end to make hard decisions for the purpose of improving a life that others around her had judged a success.

From that point, I decided to re-visit a passage from my Greek New Testament, Romans 12:2. In that passage, the reader is urged not to be conformed (schematized) by this Zeitgeist, but to be transformed (metamorphosed) by the renewing of the mind. The renewing of the mind. Every day the invitation is there for renewal. Every day an opportunity to begin afresh.

I have now been three years retired from public school teaching, and a semester separated from the university classroom. When asked if I miss it, my immediate answer is No. I’m so thankful that when I sit down to read reflectively that I do not have to shape the material into a lecture or lesson plan. I do not have a schedule or deadline looming before me. I can now read for pleasure, at leisure, and take seriously the words confronting me. I can take time to hear the words, pause with them, roll them around in my mouth, repeate them, revise them, apply them. Every day, an opportunity to receive fresh revelations, novel insights.

I know I am meandering, but this is a blog, not a polished essay. So . . . back to the painting above. I have nearly completed the network of ruins beneath the motel sign and now look forward to refining the foreground whose foundation I laid last night with a series of layered masques and washes followed by plenty of dry brushing. Now the masquing has been stripped away and (my art history colleagues will understand this) I am free to “Jackson Pollock” my way down to the bottom of the composition.

Thanks for reading.

I make art in order to discover.

I journal when I feel alone.

I blog to remind myself I am not alone.