One of the
most arresting elements of your oeuvre is the relationship between the
titles of your works and their ostensible subject matter. As often in
poetry, the provocative juxtaposition of title and work seems to create
a space of lyric, even spiritual, resonance. How do you conceive of
the relationship between title and artifact? Which comes first, the
title or the work?
The idea for an image or actual image comes before the title in almost
every work. Sometimes I start with the subject or theme, inspired by
something I have heard or read. This can be an event in history, a work
of literature, or even science. Sometimes I start with something visual:
an image in my head or something I’ve seen. When I start with an actual
image, I have to discover what it means. I have to consider if what
it implies is true and think how I might tweak it to make it mean more.
My primary job is to communicate visually with the viewer, to create
a strong compelling object that causes someone to want to view and examine
it. That said, the titles and text used in most of my collages are very
important. They provide extra layers of meaning or hints on how to follow
a trail to meaning for any viewer willing to pursue it.
In the case of “The Fall of Rome,” the image was from a photograph
I bought on Ebay that wound up working with a poem by W.H. Auden ending
in the lines, “Altogether elsewhere, vast / Herds of reindeer move
across / Miles and miles of golden moss, / Silently and very fast.”
I started with an image that seemed to have some resonance, partly because
I liked the strong diagonal. Auden’s reindeer are an obvious connection
with the image but an abrupt shift within the poem from which I got
the title. If the viewer discovers the origin of the title and reads
the poem, a whole additional meaning becomes apparent. At the same time,
I hope the image and cryptic title work for viewers who don’t know
the reference. But why that particular poem out of a number that mention
reindeer? It felt right, and it seemed true. "A Hundred Familiar
Objects Which No Longer Exist" is a quote from Mark Twain describing
a visit back to his boyhood home. I’ve been thinking about that phrase
since I first read it, and it seemed to fit with the image in some way
I can’t quite explain. For this collage, I liked the challenge of
trying to make something of the sentimental image.
Many of your key works take their titles from Eliot (or, in the case
of "Children of the Apple Tree," a memorable misreading of
Eliot). What makes Eliot resonant to
you, to your creative process?
When I became a Christian a little over 20 years ago, I started exploring
20th-century Christian writers such as Flannery O’Conner, Evelyn Waugh,
and others to try to learn how they incorporated their faith into their
work, yet were still able to speak to those with other beliefs. T.S.
Eliot had been a little intimidating to me until 1998 when I attended
a conference where Greg Wolfe, editor of Image, spoke on his work. I
found Eliot much more accessible than I had imagined. I identified with
this middle-aged curmudgeonly Anglican, and he is still my favorite
poet. What an artist reads can’t help but creep into their work, so
for years my work has contained bits and pieces of Eliot.
My interest in poetry started late in life, so I’m still playing catch-up
and overwhelmed by all the books I want to read. Recently I’ve read
several books by Andrew Hudgins and Mark Jarman as well as C.S. Lewis’s
poetry. I’m still exploring Zbigniew Herbert, Czeslaw Milosz, Geoffrey
Hill, and Auden because there’s so much there. A new novel by Erin
McGraw is arriving any day from Amazon.
I’m still trying to understand why I like some poets more than others.
Usually it’s because they write something I recognize in our shared
humanity while at the same time surprising me. Occasionally what they
have to say is so profound and affecting I can’t help but utter a
quiet almost reverent “amen” after reading it. It may seem surprising
that I don’t find many examples of visual art that affect me in the
same way. I don’t know if this is because of my familiarity with the
visual arts or something about the nature of the two means of expression.
I'm intrigued by the theme of watching in many of your pieces. You've
spoken elsewhere about the role of the glued eyes: as organizers of
space, as metaphors for the omnipresent gaze of God. But what about
watching as a narrative act, among the figures in your compositions?
There are the boys who look on in "Children of the Apple Tree,"
the bystanders in "Praising the Beauty of What Is Transient"
and "Friends Discussing the Possibility Someone Came To Shore,"
both figures in "David and Bathsheba," the
spelunker shielding his eyes from the blast in "Plato's Cave"....
To tell you the truth I haven’t thought of this much. Very often when
I pose figures looking at one another, I do so because this is a design
device causing the viewer’s eyes to follow their glances diagonally
back and forth across the composition. They ricochet. Certainly by doing
this I imply relationships between the figures, as in "Children
of the Apple Tree," or “Allegory of the Senses.” In "Praising
the Beauty of What Is Transient,” the viewer joins onlookers portrayed
in watching the fire consume the building. In “Jerusalem, Athens,
Alexandria, Vienna, London,” the subject is directly engaging the
viewer. In “Plato’s Cave” the explorer is coming out of the dark
of the cave in to the light that hurts his eyes.
In "Sentry" (1993), the viewer's eye moves from foreground
(the boy slumped in the chair, expression vacant, headphones on) to
the back left of the composition, and then to the back right, where
a woman is drawing back a curtain to reveal--something; we can't see
what she, and one of the other adults in the composition, see. The essential
mystery of the piece is dual: who (or what) is the "sentry"
of the title, and what is being guarded, or guarded against? In "What
Is Hidden Everywhere" (2007), we're presented with an analogous
composition, only this time we see directly past the backs of the heads
of the watchers into the scene they watch: a busy winter ski slope viewed
from the cozy comforts of a rustic ski lodge. Again, the mystery is
announced in the title: what is hidden everywhere, what exactly are
we seeing (and not seeing). Can you talk a little bit about these two
pieces in relation to one another?
I hadn’t thought about their relationship to one another before. Perhaps
“Sentry” would make more sense if you knew that the woman drawing
back the curtain was meant to represent the “bride of Christ,” the
church, and that the whole collage is an allegory complete with vanitas
still life. None of this is labeled to allow for the mystery you describe.
The title, “What is Hidden Everywhere,” is from a line in a Samuel
Menashe poem, “Reeds Rise from Water.” What you can’t see from
the website is a narrative about Magellan’s sailing through Tierra
del Fuego typed and glued to the bottom of the collage. It tells of
the Indians who saw his boats but dismissed them as an apparition, ignoring
the evidence of something right before their eyes. I like combining
a seemingly unrelated image, a title and story, hoping the viewer will
do the work to put it all together.
It doesn’t concern me that viewers have their own interpretations
of my work. That’s inevitable, especially since we live in a splintered
culture where there are fewer shared references. It’s also going to
happen if an artist design’s work to give the viewer space to interpret
it. I struggle with each collage with how much to make obvious and how
much to veil the content. One reason I frequently quote other writers
for my titles and text is that they say things much better than I am
able. I also piggyback on them, adding references to their work, collage-fashion,
to make my work richer and denser in meaning.
Of the many antique forms that blend, braid, and distill into what
we now call the prose poem (or flash fiction)--anecdote, joke, parable,
sketch, journal entry, list, postcard, fragment--the one that seems
to bear most directly on your work is the parable. Can you talk a little
about the parabolic tradition, in literature or in visual art, and how
it relates to your work?
How to answer this depends on how broad we want to define parable. Several
of my collages, “The Good Samaritan” or “The Prodigal Son,”
are inspired by well-known parables told by Jesus. In other works, like
“Henry Ford’s Peace Ship” or “When Sparrows Fell,” the viewer
might find a lesson in the historic events that are my subjects. Sometimes
the text is something from science such as in “9.81 Meters per Second
per Second” which a viewer can interpret. The text for that collage
“Near the surface of the earth gravity is a downward acceleration.
Over time, it causes all unsupported objects to pick up a downward speed.
Since gravity is a persistent acceleration, falling objects keep falling
faster and faster. For objects near the surface of the earth, gravity
causes them to accelerate downward at a constant 9.81 meters (m/sec)/sec.
This means each second it falls, it will be traveling 9.81 meters per
In another work, “The Strange Dust of Our Actions Drifts and Settles
Upon Us” the text is from a list of chemicals and particulates given
off when someone fires a gun. The text is deadpan and descriptive with
information I got from the EPA. It reads:
“Emissions from a .45 caliber ball cartridge: Acenaphthene, Acetonitrile,
Acrylonitrile, Aluminum, Antimony, Arsenic, Barium, Benzene, Benzo[a]anthracene,
Benzo[b]fluoranthene, Benzo[k]fluoranthene, Benzo[g,h,i]perylene, Benzo[e]pyrene,
1,3-Butadiene, CO2, CO, Carbon disulfide, Chloromethane, Chrysene, Copper,
Dibenz[a,h]anthracene, 1,2-Dichloroethane, Dioxin/furan compounds, Ethylbenzene,
Ethylene, Fluoranthene, Fluorene, Formaldehyde, 1,2,3,4,7,8-Hexachlorodibenzofuran,
Hexane, Hydrogen cyanide, Indeno[1,2,3-cd]pyrene, Lead (Pb), Methane,
Methylene chloride, Methyl ethyl ketone, 1,2,3,4,6,7,8,9-Octachlorodibenzofuran,
Oxides of nitrogen, Phenanthrene, Propylene, Pyrene, Styrene, Toluene,
1,2,4-Trimethylbenzene, TSP, m-Xylene, p-Xylene, o-Xylene, Zinc.”
You incorporate text into many of your collages (though in reproductions
it is usually impossible to read). How does text relate to the visual--the
basic facts of the composition, or the collage components from which
you build the composition?
Unlike other collagists, I don’t cut out individual letters out of
magazines and assemble them like a ransom note on the collage. I hammer
out the text on a forty-year-old portable typewriter on paper painted
various colors and glue it in strips around the edges. In works when
I’ve combined texts from sources as varied as scripture, literature,
spirituals and American popular song within one work, I’m approaching
the text as an additional collage element, one part of all the varied
things I try to pull together.
It’s different in every piece. At first glance “Sugaring Moths”
might appear to be a mere decorative arrangement. The text I wrote implies
“He had perfected his recipe for sugaring moths: A bottle of Guinness
or other good stout, the mashed flesh of a ripe banana, 4 spoons of
black molasses, and a pound of the stickiest darkest sugar he could
find. After boiling, he let it simmer on the stove until thick. Then
added a little Jamaican rum after it cooled. Sweet, fruity, winelike.
Ready to brush on fence posts or tree stumps at dusk, especially when
there was no moon and the night would be hot, humid and dark. Returning
to his spot with his flashlight he would find a company of moths tippling
his cocktail, intoxicated, sucking the sweeten patch. He made it so
easy for them. The Mason jar he used for trapping and killing moths
was originally made for preserves. Like the old guys he used potassium
cyanide. It reminded him of lump sugar. If he’d hold the jar just
a little under the moth, the creature would drop down in to it on the
first rush to get away. Clap the jar lid over him! He’d flutter for
just a moment. He set them in order. Gathering against the night.”