Posts Tagged ‘art history’

Altar Building

August 21, 2016


My Favorite Room on this Planet–a Sacred Space

Emerson knew there was “an innavigable sea of silent waves between us and the things we aim at”.

Robert D. Richardson, Jr., Emerson: The Mind on Fire

Sunday is a day set aside for worship by many. Personally, I feel that I worship far more frequently than weekly. Nevertheless, throughout this day, I’ve been building an altar in preparation for tomorrow morning when school begins for the 2016-2017 term. I could easily say that the altar preparation began when I left the last day of the Spring term. But it would be even more accurate to say that this altar has been under construction for decades. I don’t know when I first thought I would actually be an educator by professionI signed my first contract in 1985 when the University of North Texas offered me an adjunct post, teaching Introduction to Philosophy. It was then that I knew for certain how I wished to live out the rest of my life.

Tomorrow I meet my sections of Advanced Placement and Regular Art History, three ninety-minute classes total. I’m gratified to see a roster filled with familiar names–students I have already had in Regular Art History, Philosophy or A.V.I.D. When I see their faces, I will experience a homecoming of sorts. And knowing they chose this elective class gratifies me even more deeply. I hear many teachers express that they want to be liked, and of course I know that feeling. But far more satisfying to me is the idea that these students trust me.  They chose to return because they trust me. And I trust them. That is why I feel so much potential for good as we enter this relationship for a second year. Two of these students entered my classroom last week when I was setting things in order. I can’t explain what I felt when I saw them come through that door. I had no idea how much this summer I had missed their enthusiasm and positive contributions to the classroom environment. And now tomorrow, I get to see them again, and begin a new chapter in this odyssey.

Altar building. A teacher invests a great deal of time and effort, assembling material for the day’s learning, enters the room and tries to set the materials afire. It doesn’t always work. Sometimes the match is wet and won’t strike. Sometimes the match ignites, but the material isn’t combustible. Sometimes the match ignites, the materials flame up, but the students are looking at their phones and don’t notice any of it. There is so much that can go wrong, even when one spends hours, days, indeed a lifetime preparing for the Event. But there is so much that can go right. And that thought is what keeps us coming back.

The altar has been prepared, and I’m praying for fire.

Thanks for reading.

I paint in order to learn.

I journal when I feel alone.

I blog to remind myself that I am not alone.


When the Past Fuels the Present

February 5, 2015
The Back of My Classroom

The Back of My Classroom

When the darkness breaks, the generations to come may contrive to find their way back to the clear splendor of the ancient past.


Today was spent studying Renaissance art history–Donatello, Verrocchio and others in Advanced Placement, Michelangelo in Regular Art History. The students lately have had such fertile minds, prompting me to dialgoue with them on issues related to Machiavelli in philosophy and Robert Johnson in blues music. What a day! I rose from my bed, physically exhausted, and after the first three hours, found my mind swimming with fresh ideas, thanks to this environment the students created. There are days when being a teacher is indeed the most rewarding profession on our planet. Today was one of those days.

These rules of old discovered, not devised 

Are Nature still, but Nature methodised;

Nature, like Liberty, is but restrained,

By the same laws which first herself ordained.

Alexander Pope, Essay on Criticism

I am convinced that the twisted path to learning is far more interesting than the linear one.  For example, today in the A. P. class, we examined a pair of equestrian monuments from Renaissance Italy:

Donatello's "Gattamelata"

Donatello’s “Gattamelata”

Verrocchio's "Bartolommeo  Colleoni"

Verrocchio’s “Bartolommeo Colleoni”

From memories of my own past as a student, I’m bored with the bare-boned notion of learning names, titles and dates of works of art and stopping there, confident of passing a written examination. Today I tried to lead the students in an exploration of ideas associated with these two monuments. In 1513, Niccolo Machiavelli authored The Prince, arguing that the effective ruler would embody the traits of the lion and the fox. As students saw the cunning of the Donatello statue alongside the aggression of the Verocchio one, they were given the chance to expand on these contrasting personality traits.  Gattamelata displays the calm, cunning demeanor, in contrast to Bartolommeo Colleoni and his visceral posturing. Thanks to crossover students from my philosophy class, there were those who were already familiar with Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy with its contrast between Apollo (ordered, quiet, principled) and Dionysus (chaotic, petulant, impassioned) influences. In the history of ideas, we also like to draw our contrasts between the Neo-Classical and Romantic periods of creativity, the former harking back to principles from the ancient Greco-Roman culture, and the latter drawing from nature and its organic ways of accomplishing things. Neo-Classical seems more Apollo-driven, and Romantic Dionysian-driven. I cannot say that I managed to extract all I wanted from my students, but long after the bells rang, ending the periods, my mind continued to work on these ideas, and I found the study of Art History much more invigorating than it had been in the days when I sat in the student desk, recording data in my notebooks and hoping for nothing higher than passing written examinations.  As I remained at my desk after the final class had departed, I suddenly realized that I was doing the same thing I saw my college art history professor doing, well into the afternoons–seated at his desk with an art history volume opened before him and poring over the text.  I wondered then what was going through the mind of that keen intellectual scholar, and wonder today if I am even approaching the standard he set so long ago.  I’m glad for that visual memory of him, and proud to be engaged in the same profession, all these decades later.

Thank you for reading.

I paint in order to remember.

I journal when I feel alone.

I blog to remind myself I am not really alone.


January 7, 2015
Quiet Time in the Studio after the First Day of School

Quiet Time in the Studio after the First Day of School

He fumbled for some sheets of clean paper, forgetting where he kept them.  He had to write the editorial that would explain and counteract. He had to hurry. He felt he had no right to any minute that passed with the thing unwritten.

            The pressure disappeared with the first word he put on paper. He thought—while his hand moved rapidly—what a power there was in words; later, for those who heard them, but first for the one who found them; a healing power, a solution, like the breaking of a barrier. He thought, perhaps the basic secret the scientists have never discovered, the first fount of life, is that which happens when a thought takes shape in words.

Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead

Throughout this day, I have been fumbling with words to couch the ideas tumbling about in my harried mind.  It was the first day of the spring semester, and a good one for me.  The three art history classes were huge, but we managed to study our content and struggled to organize it into meaningful structures. Today our key word in art history was axiology, the Greek term for the study of values. A close study of this word reveals the word logos for word, subject, study, etc. and the word axios from where we derive ideas like axis, axle, etc. The students had to stretch their imaginations to grasp this concept. As one looks at the hub, or center of the turning wheel, and realizes that it is the hub that creates the movement, the rotation, so also values are what move people and move cultures. We spent some time discussing the core values of the ancient Greeks and Romans, and finally the early Christians (today’s focus was on the first few centuries of Christian art). And I tried to prod the students toward the larger question of what values move our lives today. What exactly is it that drives us? What is the nature of our motor? What force lies at the core of our everyday behaviors and aspirations?

As the day progressed, I kept thinking about the notion of tributaries and how our scattered thoughts appear as tributaries, teasing us with the possibility that there is a common source from which they’ve sprung, or a destination to where they are all converging as a delta. And I wondered about what it is exactly that lies at my own core? What is my base of operation? What moves me? And of course, with a brand new semester of philosophy dawning tomorrow, I find myself thinking about the source and the destination. What exactly is my ultimate value, and does it lie at the beginning of my action, or does it stand at the goal and pull me toward that destiny? Currently, there are so many ideas, like tributaries, fighting for my attention daily, even hourly, and I am now wondering what exactly lies at the core of all this.

As I turned to the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche, I found this from an 1873 essay of his:

That my life has no aim is evident even from the accidental nature of its origin; that I can posit an aim for myself is another matter.

Later, in his seminal work, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, he recorded these words in the prophet’s sermon:

The time has come for man to set himself a goal. The time has come for man to plant the seed of his highest hope. His soil is still rich enough. But one day this soil will be poor and domesticated, and no tall tree will be able to grow in it.

Currently, I am looking for a source to unite the scattered streams of ideas that I have accumulated with interest throughout my years, and hoping at age sixty that my intellectual soil is still fertile enough to grow this new tree (ugh! that’s an unattractive mixed metaphor!).  Oh well, this is a blog, right?  Let’s try this one again: I’m hoping to unite these tributaries into a single source, the seat of my values (better!). And when it comes to values, I have thought in recent years that I may uncover the ultimate meaning of all this as I pursue the making of art.

Oh yes, the painting above.  Most of what I’ve been hammering out in today’s blog has been clattering in my mind since I returned to my cold garage studio this afternoon (27 degrees is cold by Texas standards–glad I have a decent electric space heater to help me here).  I’m finding a genuine delight as I tinker with this watercolor and am really trying to give it daily attention now.  Today, I sketched in the hinge on the left-hand side of the screen door, then laid my first wash of shadow behind the door to make a dark frame on the left side of this composition.  My plan is for this to be the darkest part of the picture. I then laid some shadows to the left of the pail. I re-worked the shadows beneath the apples and laid some new washes on the shaded side of the apples themselves, relying for the most part on Winsor Violet. I peeled away quite a few layers of masquing to reveal where I want the scratches to show on the surface of the wooden floor beneath it all. Finally, I flooded the pail with water and began darkening and texturing the exterior of it and tried to define the ridges around the side as well as at the base of the pail. To someone looking at this painting since yesterday, perhaps it isn’t changing much. But I can see a world of difference emerging from the details, and hope that all these “tributaries” will unite to create an attractive painting ultimately.

Thanks for reading.

I paint in order to remember.

I journal when I feel alone.

I blog to remind myself I am never quite alone.