FALL ON YOUR KNEES

oxen

Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
Now they are all on their knees,”
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.

We pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.

So fair a fancy few would weave
In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
Come; see the oxen kneel,

In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,”
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.

–The Oxen, Thomas Hardy

—————————————————–

Kneeling is everywhere we look or listen right now. Professional football players have been kneeling during the playing of the National Anthem at games, in protest of police brutality against minorities. This has conjured an immense nation-wide reaction. On one side, people say these men are using their first amendment rights to peacefully protest. On the other side, people say they are disrespecting the flag, our freedom, veterans, and America.

I honestly don’t see how you can have one without the other, but there is another point it seems many have missed: since when is kneeling a sign of disrespect?

sancta scala
Pilgrims climbing the Sancta Scala in Rome

In the legend of Hardy’s era, the oxen in their stalls, on the most holy of nights, are struck to their knees at the glorious revelation of God to mankind. We kneel to pray as a gesture of humbleness before God. In Rome, there is a flight of 28 marble steps inside a small chapel. It is the Scala Sancta (Holy Staircase), brought from Jerusalem, and it was a part of the palace of Pontius Pilate. It is believed that Jesus himself walked up these stairs, on his way to be tried by Pilate. Since the 4th century, Catholic visitors to Rome have come to the Scala Sancta, to climb them on their knees.

I read an article about a woman in China who went to an official in the environmental protection office, carrying a canister of contaminated water from her local river. She went to show him what her town was dealing with, and tell him how it was affecting their health and lives. When she was shown in to his office, she dropped to her knees as she begged him to listen and to help her community. The writer of the article was aghast at this demeaning display. He explained that in Chinese culture, it is almost unheard of for someone to kneel to anyone. For her to do this, to kneel before an official, meant that she was truly desperate.

footballAre kneeling athletes showing a lack of respect for our flag, our National Anthem, and our country? Or are they on their knees, supplicating the world to listen, to help their community? They could remain seated (which is under certain circumstances acknowledged as a sign of disrespect— for example, everyone stands when the President enters a room). They could turn their backs. They could shake their fists. Let’s face it, they could moon us all on national television.

But they kneel. A posture which is universally recognized as a gesture of respect, humbleness, or desperation.

Of course, there is a much bigger issue here — what are they kneeling about? Police brutality against minorities. They have been very clear about this, even though some people are choosing to ignore it, and instead insist these protests are against patriotism. A man on a call-in show this morning, who is angered about the “take a knee” protests, talked at length about veterans, homelessness and single mothers — all of which are great things to be concerned about. None of which have anything to do with this particular protest movement.

A demonstrator protesting the shooting death of Alton Sterling is detained by law enforcement near the headquarters of the Baton Rouge Police Department in Baton Rouge, Louisiana
A demonstrator protesting the shooting death of Alton Sterling is detained by law enforcement near the headquarters of the Baton Rouge Police Department in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, U.S. July 9, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY – RTSH3XR

But,” people will say, “that isn’t really a thing. Police kill more white people than black people.” Even though statistically that isn’t accurate (an unarmed black man is 5 times more likely to be shot and killed than an unarmed white man), let’s take a look at that statement: “Police kill more whites than blacks.” So then the BIG QUESTION I want to ask here is this: Are you saying you’re okay with that? Are you saying that since, if you look at the numbers without taking population percentages into account, there are more white bodies than black bodies, no one should be speaking out?

According to a Washington Post article published July 11, 2016, at that point in the year police had shot and killed exactly the same number of white, and black, unarmed people: 50 each. Is everyone okay with that? Really?

What I want to know is, why isn’t everyone kneeling?

I am all for supporting our police forces. I am also all for holding people accountable when they make bad decisions. Some of those shootings were not justified. Some of them were the result of fear or hot-headedness. Some of them were outright mistakes. And yes, some of them were influenced by the fact that the person in the crosshairs was not white. The data shows this to be true.

If no one speaks, no one knows there is a problem. If no one knows there is a problem, it will never be addressed. If it is never addressed, it will grow. Ours is a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. It is our responsibility to speak up when something isn’t working. Right now, certain professional athletes are making use of the fact that they have a public platform to peacefully, and I would argue, respectfully, speak up.

I implore everyone, from here on my knees, to listen.

crying

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SIZZLING YOUTH

I recently had a long ride on the New York subway, coming into the city from the airport. When I got on there was a man sitting in the farthest front seat, his body hunched protectively over the 3 ragged bags around his feet. A frayed woolen cap was pulled low on his brow, and he was dressed more warmly than the balmy weather outside might dictate. He stared at the ground.

Homeless. Possibly unbalanced. One glance took this in, as I and everyone else moved farther down the car. No one sat across from him, even though for some of us it meant having to stand. As the car filled up more and more at each stop, still no one chose to sit across from this man. I clung to the pole I had claimed as I tried to learn the unfamiliar movement of the train.

subway

As soon as someone got up to leave a few stops later, I quickly slid into a seat. From my new vantage point I watched as a young man dressed neatly in a sweater and long shorts walked to the middle of the car and set down a small paper bag with a few dollar bills peeping out. One of his legs, from the knee down, was a gleaming metal prosthetic.

“Good morning ladies and gentlemen,” he began, as the train swayed into motion again. “I do not enjoy being homeless, and I try very hard to stay clean. If you could find it in your heart to help out in any way you might be able….thank you,” as a few people held out dollars and coins to him.

“Here, brother,” a voice came from the end of the car, and I turned to see the original “homeless” man moving forward, a five dollar bill clutched in his hand.

The man with the paper bag immediately waved him off. “No, no, I couldn’t let you do that. You need that. Thank you so much for your kindness, but no.”

“Yes, I want to!” The other insisted. “I’ve had a good day, and I’m not like that. I want to share it with you.”

“God bless you, God bless you,” murmured the young man.

The courtesy passing between them put all of our presidential hopefuls to shame.

The older man clapped a hand to the younger one’s shoulder. “You’ve done service for us, and for me. I know what it’s like to be homeless. I used to be out there, without hope or anywhere to go. I know how it is. But I got my life back together, with God’s help.” He flung one arm wide as his chest puffed up proudly. “And look at me now!”

Perception is a tricky thing.

When first starting the “Famous” portraits project, I looked for a way to contact Naomi Shihab Nye, whose poem “Famous” is the inspiration for the series.  I wanted to see if she would consent to being included as a portrait subject. To my surprise and delight, she responded almost immediately to my first note, with a warm and very kind letter which included agreeing to let me paint her portrait.

Given that she lives in Texas, I live in Wisconsin, and she travels all over the world almost constantly, it was another matter to try to coordinate a meeting for a photo shoot. While not ideal, I don’t always get to do my own photography for portrait subjects—I suggested that I could work from a photo, if she had a good one of high enough quality.

She responded to that idea enthusiastically. Over the next few months during her travels, she sent me photo after photo, all of which were completely useless as reference material for a portrait. She sent a photo of herself in Abu Dhabi with a group of about twenty school children, her face almost lost in a sea of little smiles. There was one from Ireland: a snapshot of her with two men (“I’m the girl in this photo”), she sandwiched in the middle, all of them grinning happily with arms entwined. Hong Kong: a lovely view of lush forest—and Naomi in silhouette in the foreground.

hong kong

Eyeing this last one gloomily, a phrase from her original letter came back to me: “Certainly I would consent to be painted, and it would be an honor to be included,” she wrote, “though I am no longer at my youthful sizzling best.”

Aha…..

I sent off an email: “I’m noticing a theme in these photos, which is that you seem to want to be hidden as much as possible.”

“Busted!” was her immediate reply.

Well.

What to do with a portrait subject who doesn’t want to be seen? I assured her that I took the responsibility of painting her very seriously. She assured me that she trusted me.

As luck had it, we did get a chance to meet in the fall of 2015 when she was speaking at a book festival in my state. Contrary to her internal dialog, she is very photogenic and I came away not only with some good material to work from, but an enhanced respect for her as well. I spent 2 days trailing her, listening as she spoke in schools and talked to kids about poetry. I watched her keep a large audience at a university captivated for an hour and a half, and duck her head in apparent surprise when they gave her a standing ovation. I learned that she doesn’t allow someone introducing her to list her awards (which are many); instead she wants them to talk about how her writing may have spoken to them personally, or which particular poem they like.

She didn’t read “Famous” while I was there, which was just as well since I would have undoubtedly burst into tears. She did read several of my favorites, including “Kindness” (the kids all call it ‘the kindness poem’):

Before you know what kindness really is

you must lose things,

feel the future dissolve in a moment

like salt in a weakened broth.

What you held in your hand,

what you counted and carefully saved,

all this must go so you know

how desolate the landscape can be

between the regions of kindness.

(excerpt, Kindness, Naomi Shihab Nye)

Perception, humility, kindness. Two homeless men on the subway. A brilliant writer shrugging away accolades. People who don’t know me, opening up their time and energy to help propel this art project forward.

I understand that we all have an internal view of ourselves, and “know too much” as Garrison Keillor says, to really take ourselves all that seriously. I started working on Naomi’s portrait about a month ago. The painting is almost life-sized, which makes me nervous given her reservations about being prominently featured. Maybe she will forgive me. Maybe I will manage to capture not just the likeness of her face, but something of her spirit which refuses to believe she has done anything unusual, while traveling the world and inspiring people who have also found that kindness can be a rare event. That it can be like a cool cloth pressed to a feverish cheek. Or a five dollar bill offered on a subway.

“Look at me now!” The man’s proclamation still rings in my ears, weeks later. Who knows what paths have brought each of us to where we stand today?  Who knows what obstacles have been overcome to get here? Before casting our mental vote assigning someone to a particular class or group, how often do we consider that they may well be proud of where they have gotten themselves?

While ruefully lamenting the loss of her “youthful sizzling best,” I dearly hope that Naomi has not missed the blooming of the beauty she has spread to the world, in a way that few of us ever will. She may wish (as most of us do) to turn back the clock and erase some of those lines we all earn with the daily effort it takes to navigate the world.

But oh, Naomi, look at you now.

 

MY FATHER’S TIE

Today we are blessed with an essay from a guest blogger, one of my “Famous” people! Travis DuPriest is a retired English /Creative Writing professor and Episcopal priest who with his wife spends part of each summer on the James River in Isle of Wight Co. VA.

I have a few things that belonged to my father: his bamboo fly rods, a wrist watch which I gave to our older son, some studs and cuff links, some country Chippendale furniture he saved and refinished from various barns and back porches in Piedmont Virginia. When I think about it, though, I’ve probably inherited more qualities than possessions: his body build, his baldness, his love of being on the water, preferably fishing, and I hope some of his dedication, affection and tenderness.

At the time of his death, just on the cusp of his 60th birthday, I didn’t really want any of his “things.” He died much too early, just as I got married and was finally holding down a real job, earning a living, rather than going to yet another graduate school. (I heard from a neighbor that my dad almost cried when I told him I was going to Divinity School after Graduate School). In other words, my dad died before he could be proud of me. Before he could be the grandfather to our children.

And I was angry – angry at him for checking out so early. And I took out that anger, foolishly, by not saving more personal items.

I eventually came to realize how incredibly self-absorbed all this was. After all, most grief is for ourselves, isn’t it? If there was any saving grace in all this, it was that I was even angrier at myself — for the completely irrational reason that I wasn’t with my father when he died. Wasn’t even nearby, wasn’t “home” the night he came back with my Mother from dinner with friends and died. It was completely irrational, but there it was.

I just felt that I should have been in Virginia, in Petersburg, in his bedroom. Near him. For weeks I was obsessed with this notion of not being there. Darting through my mind was the question my dad’s brother had asked me, “T ( my childhood nickname), when are you going to move back home?” I’d hated that when my uncle asked me that question, implying I was some kind of traitor to abandon my native Virginia and my family. Now I was asking that of myself that very question.

Then one evening, quite unexpectedly, my Father let me know everything was OK. He visited me in a dream:

I was in college at the University of Richmond. My dad stopped by the fraternity lodge where I was living my senior year, to take me out to lunch. It hadn’t been planned. My father was in Richmond on business and just stopped by to take me out to lunch on the spur of the moment. Yet somehow, in the dream world, I wasn’t at all surprised.

We ate lunch at a little café out in the country somewhere outside of Richmond, and after lunch, we walked down a country lane, talking. Eventually, we hugged, and I turned to walk back to my car, and my dad walked away in the opposite direction. He turned and smiled then kept walking down the gravel road bordered with tall loblolly pine trees.

And, yes, in my dream he walked into an intensely bright and comforting sunlight. He had come say Goodbye. He had come to assure me that my not being there when he died was okay—because we have never really ever been apart.

“Try as you will, you cannot annihilate the eternal
relic of the human heart, love” – Victor Hugo

After the dream, I regretted even more my hasty decision not to keep more of his things: I wish I had his Harris Tweed sport coats with the smell of his pipe tobacco, his suits, his hats.

But I do have My Father’s Tie.

My dad either bought or was given the tie in the late 1930s — probably while he was a freshman, on a football scholarship, at Wake Forrest.

It’s a woolen “Dress Stewart” made in Scotland. To my knowledge my Father’s family, the DuPriest’s, a French Huguenot family that settled in New Kent Co. in the 1680s, had no claim to be part of a Scottish clan. He must have just liked it. As do I. I wear it because I like it. And, of course, because it was my Father’s. And because, when I put it on, I’m aware of my father’s gentleness and patience.

IMG_0076
My Father’s Tie (Santuary), Oil on Canvas, Deb Marett

I guess these feelings and reflections have been kicking around inside me for thirty years or so, but it was portrait painter Deb Marett’s titling the painting “My Father’s Tie” that called these reflections to the surface. Which broadens our conversation:

In a recent issue of the Harvard Divinity Bulletin and on several websites, Vietnamese Buddhist monk Tich Nhat Hanh’s concept of “inter-being,” the space created between the art and the viewer, is referenced. In this space, as I understand it, all that has gone into the piece of art is summoned and something new is created. When I see the portrait titled “My Father’s Tie” a new relationship springs into being between the art and me, and a new relationship between my father and me is formed within.

Material objects often get a bad rap from preachers and spiritual writers. And to be sure possessions can be burdensome. Possessions can own us, as Thoreau put it. But possessions can also form deep connections that bring us into expanded consciousness. In other words, certain possessions function as relics with the ability to transport us out of time and space to a different, perhaps even sacred, sphere.

My Father’s Tie, then, is a “real tie,” but it is also a metaphor that carries a surplus of meaning beyond the literal. It is the title of Deb’s imaginative portrait. It is a relic that transports me to another time and place. It is the “tie that binds.”

How appropriate, this verse from the old hymn “Bless be the tie that binds”:

When we asunder part,
It gives us inward pain;
But we shall still be joined in heart,
And hope to meet again.

If the archeologists of the human condition, Mircea Eliade, Carl Jung, and Joseph Campbell, are on target, then our life’s work is to find our place, our role, in the central mythos or transformative myth, of our culture, so it is my work to find and live out my proper role in the narrative of my family – as son, husband, father, grandfather, friend.

When I wear My Father’s Tie, I’m riding in the car with my dad’s arm over my shoulder; I’m fly casting at Mountain Hall Farm, I’m learning to back up a trailer, and I’m a freshman at Wake Forrest, just out of Crewe High School in Nottoway Co., Virginia, a handsome, dapper young man, with a head of curly black hair, dating the beauty queen of Lunenburg Co., dancing to the big band music of Tommy Dorsey. And wearing the best looking tie on campus.

#whyareyoufamous

SCARS

 “De Krijger” Oil on canvas, Deb Marett

One of my favorite of Naomi’s poems is “Jerusalem” which begins:

“I’m not interested in
who suffered the most.
I’m interested in
people getting over it.”

Naomi’s father was a Palestinian refugee, and she witnessed the everyday realities of that conflict from ground level when she spent part of her childhood living in Jerusalem. She has written and spoken extensively about the need for understanding, and for viewing things from a zoomed-in, personal perspective before passing judgement on any given situation.

I sometimes think of those lines from a little different perspective too, in that we all have hardships we have dealt with or are dealing with, and how important it is to look beyond those moments to see where or how we are moving past them.

Sitting here on my couch, I look across the room to one of my works-in-progress, a portrait of a woman named Diet Eman. Diet (pronounced DEET) was 20 when the Nazis invaded the Netherlands, her home country. She and a group of 15 other young people went to work finding hiding places for Jews and stealing ration cards to feed them all. She spent the entire war working with the resistance, and by the end of it all she had spent time in a concentration camp, and lost 8 of those friends–including her fiance’.

Then, because she is an adventurous sort who claims that all she ever wanted was to live “an interesting life,” she spent the rest of her life telling the story of her work during the war, working as a nurse, and volunteering for the Red Cross as a translator, going into disaster zones, sleeping in the mud.

Years ago, rushing to get onto the ice where a student was waiting, I forgot to take the hard guards off my skates. As any skater who has done this (& we’ve all done it at least once) could tell you, the resulting fall was horrific. I honestly thought at first that I had broken my hip. I limped for a month afterwards, and it wasn’t until I spent several months in physical therapy that the pain truly left me. But that spot, where scar tissue is permanently entwined with the muscle structure, is vulnerable. If I don’t take care of it with stretching and exercise the pain begins to seep back in.

It seems to work that way with our psychological scars too. By this time in my life, I carry a few deep mental/emotional scars, as most of us do. I am not a believer in the idea that, because someone else’s suffering is greater than my own, it makes mine less important or impactful. We all carry the scars of past hurts, experiences, and disappointments. We all feel the recurrent pain of a scar, long healed over, when it gets reopened just a bit.

I took Diet’s portrait to a critique session, looking for help in a few areas where I was stuck. My mentor, Mindy, started going over the painting area by area. “See here, where the palms of the hands come together,” she said, tracing over the paint with the edge of a fingernail, “the angle should come up more steeply.” “And over here on her neck,” the fingernail sliced though the paint across Diet’s neck, “the shadows need to indicate more form.” This continued throughout the critique; I left with the portrait marked every which way with fingernail cut lines.


I actually didn’t think too much of it at first, thinking I would just paint over them and all would be fine. But it didn’t work– the lines still showed very clearly. The cut across her neck was especially deep. I tried scraping it carefully with my palette knife, which left an even wider gap. I tried to fill the new gap by using paint kind of as spackle, trying to smooth the surface back out.

Diet’s book, Things We Couldn’t Say, is a moving autobiography of her work during the war. She willingly speaks all over the country about her experiences. The tears that still come to her eyes, at age 94, attest to the fact that her scars do not entirely shield her from the painful memories.

I agree with Naomi, wishing for resolution to old conflicts, healing of old wounds, and looking forward rather than back. But I also hope to remind myself and others, that the old scars we inevitably all carry are tender, and we should try to remember that we are among the walking wounded at all times.

I am so honored to create a portrait for Diet, to commemorate her courage. And I think it is quite fitting that out of all the portraits that will hang for the “Famous” show, hers is the one that will forever carry hidden scars. May we all bear our own with as much courage and determination as she does hers.

#whyareyoufamous

THE PROBLEM, THE EPIPHANY, AND THE POEM

Exactly one year ago, I spent a Saturday afternoon in my friend Timothy’s apartment, writing my artist statement. For those of you who haven’t encountered this particular vehicle of torture, the artist statement is supposed to sum up everything about your inspiration, message, vision, and world view in 200 words or less.

It is one of the standard things asked for when applying for grants/shows/competitions. It is a Big Deal, as evidenced when my friend who is working on her MFA at the School of the Art Instsitute in Chicago told me, “for us, the statement is almost more important than the work.”

I had been turned off from artist statements ever since I read the one by an artist who puts motion sensor cameras in the woods & then frames the resulting photos of passing woodland animals, and….well, that’s it. Her statement made it out to be critically important, groundbreaking work.

Please.

My favorite one ever is by Anthony Howe, who makes kinetic sculptures that move in the wind which are truly mind blowing (If you do nothing else today, click on that link). His artist statement? “Let’s sit out on the patio and watch the whirligigs.” I love this man.

Nevertheless, faced with the edict to come up with something or lose out on the opportunity to enter in a show, I sat down with Timothy, (who loves artist statements, and the type of art where someone puts motion sensor cameras in the woods), and got to work.

After 5 versions, during which Timothy would read what I wrote, give me feedback, and leave me to it while he got on with his life, he finally took the ipad away from me and wrote out a very thoughtful statement about my work. I pounced on the free help with profuse thanks and called it a day.

Having spent a restless night being chased by words about intent, voice, purpose, and Why I Paint, I got up in a strange mood and wandered around the house aimlessly for awhile before stepping into the shower.

Most creative people will attest to specific times when something comes upon them from quite outside their own minds or beings. Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED talk discusses this beautifully: in ancient Rome, artists were believed to have a “genius” living in the walls of their studios. Note, the artist was not himself a genius. He had a genius–an external creative force that helped him create his art.

When that happens, it is as if someone unscrews the top of your head and pours a whole bunch of stuff in: fully formed ideas that had never occurred to you before. In this case, I ended up wrapped in a towel on my bathroom floor, sobbing as image after image came into my mind: the statement, the purpose for my work, the very reason I am painting. The next series I would paint. Who I would paint.

That’s big. That’s huge. I had never found my voice with painting before, and had pretty much dabbled with anything and everything that I felt like, wandering from still life to plein air landscapes, to animals, and lots in between.

Now I knew. I knew that portraiture is my voice, and I knew that I have work to do. I sat down and wrote out a whole new artist statement. It was quick, it was easy, and it was all true. And it brought back a memory of a poem I had read many years ago, which was about to become the basis for the next 2 years of work.

Famous
by Naomi Shihab Nye

The river is famous to the fish.

The loud voice is famous to silence, 
which knew it would inherit the earth   
before anybody said so.   

The cat sleeping on the fence is famous to the birds   
watching him from the birdhouse. 

The tear is famous, briefly, to the cheek.   

The idea you carry close to your bosom 
is famous to your bosom.   

The boot is famous to the earth,   
more famous than the dress shoe,   
which is famous only to floors.

The bent photograph is famous to the one who carries it   
and not at all famous to the one who is pictured.   

I want to be famous to shuffling men   
who smile while crossing streets, 
sticky children in grocery lines,   
famous as the one who smiled back.

I want to be famous in the way a pulley is famous,   
or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular, 
but because it never forgot what it could do.

From Words Under the Words: Selected Poems by Naomi Shihab Nye. Copyright ©1995.