In 2000, it seemed as if the whole world was reading the Harry Potter books. That did nothing to make me want to check them out. Truth be told, even though I was in my 30s and ought to have been well past any sense of adolescent nonconformity-for-the-sake-of-conformity, it made me less interested in checking them out. My sister told me, “Really, they’re really good!,” but someone in the grip of unacknowledged adolescent rebelliousness is likely to do the exact opposite of what her older sister recommends. I stayed steadily unintrigued. All those people lined up for the midnight release of the fourth book? Yawn. Even the discovery of a Harry-Potter-themed sermon online by a much-admired colleague and teacher, Ken Sawyer, didn’t draw me in, though I enjoyed the sermon.

Then a church member pressed the audiobooks of the first three books on me–I had a long commute and listened to books on tape all the time–and within the first few minutes, all my resistance crumbled. I loved them. I gulped them down, got a hold of the fourth, gulped it down too. They lived up to all the hype.

Oh, they’re conventional in many ways, and even the best of them has a plot hole you could fly a hippogriff through. And I’m angry with their author, who has torpedoed a deserved reputation as one of this planet’s kindest, most generous people by stubbornly insisting on a bigoted, mean mischaracterization of transgender. But the delights of these books are too many to list, and they keep on delighting me.

When I first discovered them, I sought out people who wanted to talk about them all the time, the way I did, and found them in the Yahoogroup Harry Potter for Grownups. I made good friends there, people I’m still friends with 20 years later, and among the funniest, smartest people in the group, I met the woman I would eventually fall in love with and marry. So Harry Potter changed my life in the most literal way possible. If I had continued to avoid it because it was so annoyingly ubiquitous and adored, Joy and I wouldn’t be married, we wouldn’t have Indigo . . . it’s scary even to think about it.

It’s rare for anything to live up to its reputation when it’s as widely hailed and appreciated as Harry Potter. But once in a while it does. Listen to my cautionary tale, dear reader. Do not deprive yourself of a greatly hyped cultural phenomenon just because it’s a greatly hyped cultural phenomenon.

The other work that has inspired me to say, “It lives up to all the hype, and more,” is Hamilton. Yes, it won 11 Tonys after being nominated for a record-setting 16 (inspiring this pre-Trump parody by Randy Rainbow). Its composer, Lin-Manuel Miranda, has won Tonys, Emmys, Grammys, the Pulitzer Prize and a MacArthur “genius” Fellowship, well before the age of 40. Its songs have been quoted by countless articles and as the title of a self-serving book by a wingnut who managed to become National Security Advisor and still undermine U.S. national security. It caused millions of middle-class white people to enjoy hip hop; millions of people who would never cross the threshold of an opera house to enjoy an opera; and countless people who don’t love musical theater to be unable to stop singing its tunes. Doctor Who predicts that it will be performed by 900 different casts over time, all of which the Doctor will see. Despite its near-universal popularity . . .

. . . it really is that good.

So, dear reader, don’t believe that the hype is wrong. Once in a while, something comes along that lives up to its stratospheric reputation. Heed my tale of narrowly-averted woe, and if there’s something you’ve been avoiding (despite the recommendations of people you respect) because it’s just too popular, give it a try. I won’t guarantee that you will meet the love of your life, but it might change your life, which is what art is all about.

We are doing portraits now in the drawing class we’re taking. I have drawn a lot of portraits in my life, but this is probably the best.

I’m resisting my self-protective habit of listing what doesn’t work well,and taking Katie’s advice to list what does: the ear, the eye, the shape of the shadows that define the cheek. And it looks like her.

I’ve done lots of drawing over the past ten years but have taken only one drawing class in that time. Now, in quarantine, all three of us are taking a class via video conference with Katie Gilmartin, whose printmaking classes we’ve taken before.

It’s really fun to do together and Katie is a great teacher. Also, this is the best drawing I’ve ever done of my left hand, despite its being a fairly frequent subject, being that it’s always–can I resist the pun? nope–on hand.

Until a week ago–heck, two days ago–I thought people who called for a dissolution of police departments were crazy fantasists. Sure, we should funnel more money into social work, education and other measures that we know actually prevent crime and improve the lives of our people. But defund the police? We do have laws, I thought, and we do need to enforce them.

I’ve changed my mind. Yes, as long as we’re an archist, as distinct from an anarchist, country, we need to empower people to act when laws are broken, but we need to start from scratch. The police of our country have always been pulled two ways: protect the ill-gotten gains of robber barons against the poor who press to receive their due, or protect the people’s rights? Be the legitimized face of white supremacist terrorism, or protect everybody? Act as judge/jury/executioner, or respectfully turn over suspected violators of the law to the courts?

This week they have chosen the evil path over and over, and it’s just one bad week in 250 bad years. Time for a new way.

I retrieved this collage from the pieces-in-progress box, where I had filed it just the other day in the course of going through some piles in our home office. (The Onion, as usual, is sardonically accurate; after two weeks of the coronavirus shutdown, our house task list is noticeably whittled down.) I began it, a few years ago, with some playful, purposeless clipping of an old Thomas guide, which I had bought when I moved here in 2003 and which was rendered redundant within a few years, when I got my first smartphone. Redundant for navigation, but a gem in the collage-materials collection.

As soon as I started playing, the similarities between map features like freeways and anatomical drawings of veins and arteries appeared. Also, I kept noticing places that had a strong emotional tug: hospitals where many of our congregation members have been patients, a cemetery where some have been interred, and, snaking their way down page upon page of the book of maps, the railroad tracks where two have died. And just like that, it became a portrait: of a place, of tender moments from a shared history, and of relationships.

It’s complicated. Many of the moments have been sad, even heartbreaking ones. There’s a tremor of trauma running through this landscape. But joy runs through it too, and sometimes in the same places. Finishing this collage helped me integrate them.

Any ideas for a title about the body, loss, place, lives and deaths, finding one’s way . . . ?

So, drawing with SketchbookX. Luna was surprisingly cooperative.

When Diane Savona said that she would make me a stole on commission for the 20th anniversary of my ordination, she asked, “What sort of images mean the most to you?”

Wow. Where do I start? Even more difficult, where do I stop? I started scribbling in my notebook, which is my way of breaking through Questions Too Big To Answer, and came up with this list:

Burning bush: this became an important image for me in the process of writing a sermon to be delivered to colleagues on one of the great challenges of this work: How to stay present to people at the most painful, intense moments of their lives, and not just shrivel up and float away on the breeze. The best I have come up with, then or since, is that there is something deeply invigorating about entering fully into such moments: that (as I said then) it is in the places of pain and risk that we find the strength and solace to withstand the brokenness of the world, and even be transformed for the better by it. And the burning bush is of course an image from my cradle religion, and was even, it occurs to me now, the logo of Conservative Judaism as I was growing up (or was it the Jewish Theological Seminary, the movement’s rabbinical school?), with the accompanying phrase in Hebrew and English: ” . . . and the bush was not consumed.”

Spirals: these are, essentially, my personal yin/yang, a reminder of balance, because of the way they combine two kinds of motion: forward motion (in the way they move outward, or in the case of a helix like in DNA, onward), and cyclical/repetitive motion (in the way they circle around). In a spiral, one comes around again and again to the same place, but not quite the same place. Which is how life is, I think. I try to communicate this kind of balance to the folks in my congregation: stillness and progress, tradition and change, being and becoming.

Decay/erosion: for several years now, as followers of this blog know, I’ve been drawing and photographing decay. Layers of walls in Oaxaca exposing hundreds, or even millions, of years of change; the patterns left by insects burrowing in wood; wrinkles on faces; etc. I find erosion very beautiful for the way it reveals time and history, and there’s a tension between that beauty and the way our culture (over)values youth and novelty. A big part of my ministry is helping people perceive the beauty in the ordinary or despised.

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Sun, stone, seed (monoprint, 2018). The lack of centering comes from having to snap the photo of it while it’s attached to the stairway wall. 😉

Seeds/stones: I’m moved and intrigued by how closely many seeds resemble stones. There is so little difference between them, and all the difference in the world. And then there is the way seeds have to split open, essentially die in one form, in order to become more than a stone and actually grow. Whereas stones are just . . . nonliving. (No shade on stones. They’re pretty cool in their own right; note the title of my blog.) I don’t quite know what is so meaningful to me about this image of the seed in the act of sprouting, but it keeps popping up in my own work, as much as I cringe and worry that it is a cliché. There is something there about the way life and death are intertwined that keeps troubling and inspiring me, especially as I get older and try to come to terms with the reality that I am going to die. Also, an early and dear memory of mine is planting the family garden with my dad, and I always got to plant the beans, which are satisfyingly fast and visible in their process; you can often see the remnants of the seed still stuck to the first shoot as it emerges from the crack in the ground.

That’s what I told Diane, and after a bit of further dialogue between us, and many, many iterations that she worked through and recounted to some extent on her blog, she has now finished the design phase. She added so much. Mexico is in there now, and my wife and daughter, and the subtle suggestion of a rainbow, and the subtler suggestion of bees, and a water lily leaf (a.k.a. lotus–despite the fact that I never even got around to saying what was important to me about Buddhism), and roots finding their way through brick- and stonework to the sources of life. I’m so excited to see how it will be further transformed by her stitching.

 

As I was tracing, my brilliant daughter asked me why I didn’t just print out the photo.

!?

Because then I could just sandwich carbon paper between the printed version and the linoleum in order to transfer it. No need to trace it and turn it over, as I’d planned.

?!

As long as I didn’t mind the image being reversed, my brilliant wife added.

!!

The printout is fine, and I don’t mind the image being reversed. I am set to show up tomorrow and transfer it to the lino. The tracing was fun and not difficult, but yeesh. It’s a good thing I have people around to point out the obvious.

The linocut class we signed up for as a family months ago is now one day away, and we’re all finishing up our drawings. Remember how my plan was a triptych showing three stages of seedpod decay? Well, I decided against seedpods for a few reasons. I couldn’t find the fresh seedpods; I didn’t document the decay as it happened; and frankly, I don’t find them much more visually interesting now than I did when they were closer to fresh. So I decided to print leaves: one freshly fallen, one more desiccated, and then one worn down to almost a skeleton.

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I collected and drew the leaves earlier this week, but when I did sketches of
the skeletal leaf, I realized that a print of it alone would take me the five hours of the workshop–at least. And it conveys the point without the earlier stages. So I am now working on tracing the version on the left from my computer screen onto tracing paper. (I’m holding the stem with a fishbone tweezer to keep my hand out of the shot.) I’m probably going to render it in black and white, no grayscale, so the print will look more like the version on the right.

Whether I can transfer the tracing to carbon paper and then onto the linoleum, carve it, and print it satisfactorily, all in five hours, is doubtful, but I’ll give it a go. I really want to work on the delicacy of my carving, and this fits the bill.

Several months ago, I decided that in honor of the 20th anniversary of my ordination, which will be April 30, 2020, I was going to commission a stole. At first I looked at the websites of people who make stoles, which include many talented artists who make beautiful pieces. But I soon broadened my search, looking for fabric artists in general, which is a pretty wide net. So it was sheer luck that I happened upon the website of Diane Savona, whose work was so arresting that I put aside stole-related thoughts and just wandered happily through the gallery of her past pieces for a long time. Then I clicked on the link to follow her blog.

As I was to tell her when I finally reached out, not only is she a deeply thoughtful artist with consummate mastery of her craft, but the kinds of themes and issues she explores in her work resonate with many that are important to me. We share a fascination with the way the past is embedded in the present physically and psychically, with the beauty of objects that are obsolete or decaying, with certain objects such as keys and maps, and with art forms that are a mixture of found objects and new creation.

I don’t know whether she would describe her work as spiritual, but I see spiritual themes within it, such as her deeply respectful homage to places touched by tragedy (in the series Maps, which includes Hiroshima, post-Katrina New Orleans, and Japan after the 2011 tsunami). Her pieces in Soft Bodied Specimens and Fossil Garments show a knowledge of and respect for past wisdom, and in This Too Shall Pass she reflects on transience. And in “A Map of Hometown Perceptions” (another of the Maps series), she illuminates the racial segregation of her region in a way that is unflinching and also visually compelling, and that feels akin to my own activism.

I knew right away that I had found the artist I was looking for, but it took a couple of months before I got up the courage to write to her. It felt somehow presumptuous. “Hello, artist who is very busy developing her own ideas. I see you are working on an Opus” (that’s really what her current piece-in-progress is called! I like her sense of humor also) “but could you take a detour to work on a piece of clothing for a stranger?” I knew this fear was irrational, because artists do accept commissions, and if it’s not a good time or the commission doesn’t interest them, they will say no, and no harm done. Also irrational was my feeling that it was somehow degrading to ask an artist to make something for daily (well, weekly) use. She is, after all, a fabric artist, who has chosen a medium that, like pottery or weaving, is closely connected to pragmatic arts, in order to make works as complex and meaning-laded as any sculpture in marble or painting in oils. She is not likely to be offended by the idea that someone would wear one of her pieces.

So I took a deep breath and sent off my proposal. And she wrote back right away, intrigued, and by the time we’d exchanged a couple of e-mails we had arranged a commission. Not only that, but she could finish it by the anniversary, which was something I hadn’t hung a lot of hope on (I hadn’t even mentioned the date at first). And, best of all, she wanted to collaborate quite a lot, beginning by asking me what images were important to me, and then sharing many steps along the design path by checking in and asking what I liked. This is a tricky matter. It’s all very well to point at a design in progress and say “I like this better than that,” but to really know, I needed to know some of her thinking. Was there some significance to this seed or that photo of crumbling wall? She gives such careful thought to the many layers of meaning in images that I didn’t want to choose them only based on their visual impact, but to know their significance. That informed my choices.

Damselfly on a poppy seed pod, Sandy, Bedfordshire (14459158976)

Damselfly on a poppy pod (Orangeaurochs from Sandy, Bedfordshire, United Kingdom [CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D)

Some of the significances were serendipitous. For example, there was a skeletal seed pod in one design and, intrigued by its dramatic shape, I asked what plant it was from. It turned out to be a poppy, and poppies are our state flower. It’s a different genus than the California poppy–which is good, visually, because California poppies’ pods are long and thin, like elongated mini-okra, not as interesting a shape. But it has the same name as its cousin, poppy, and as someone who, somehow, has ended up spending the bulk of my career as a Californian, I like having it there. She wanted to make sure I didn’t mind the association with opium, but it’s fine.

And, speaking of opium, Diane proposed some walls of Oaxaca, sharing photos that she’d found on the internet, I guess, and one of them was very familiar to me. I wrote about it here; it’s an exterior church wall graffitied with the line from Marx, in Spanish, “Religion is the opium (opio) of the people,” and became a family joke immediately because of the first-glance similarity to “Religion is the celery (apio) of the people.” It turned out Diane hadn’t even taken note of the graffiti; she just liked the wall itself. So I asked her to incorporate it if she could, and she has. I don’t want the phrase on my stole, either with “opium” or “celery.” Marx is too down on religion for me, and certainly for a religious ritual item. But having a bit of that wall right at my back will be funny, and a reminder to myself that my purpose as a leader is always to use religion to wake people up, not put them to sleep.

So, you can tell part of what I responded when she asked what images are important to me, but this has gotten long enough, so I’ll say more about that in the next post.

 

The images I suggested

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