Saturday, January 11, 2020

Calm, Comfort, Courage

I know, I just posted a few days ago! I'm trying to get back on track posting regularly. Yay for starting the year with good intentions!
Calm (Still). January 2020. Collage on canvas, 8"x10".  

On Monday I went home from work planning to spend the evening tidying up, crocheting, and catching the latest episode of Saturday Night Live on Hulu.

Instead, the evening became a mad rush to create. I haven’t had a strong collage urge lately; I started a couple of very small pieces a few months ago, but nothing large or elaborate. But by the time I got home Monday evening, I felt it. 

I needed to make a collage!

Then "a collage" turned into three collages. Why hold back?

I started by looking through some photos and pulling out three that I wanted to use. I can’t describe why I picked them over any others, they just had the right feelingThen I dug through my extensive collection of painted and textured paper, old maps, feathers, bits of lace, and odds and ends I’ve saved on the off chance they’ll come in handy for a collage. 

Eventually I pulled out several different-colored sheets of mulberry paper, some scraps of a Chinese newspaper, and some pieces of an old world map, and set to work.

Comfort (Small). January 2020. Collage on canvas, 8"x10". 
After organizing all the materials into three stacks, one per photo, I got out three 8x10 canvas boards. I might have done larger if I had any, but that was the only size that I had three of. We look for a lot of meaning in a piece of art, analyzing everything—subject, color, symbolism, composition, size, media—and I generally think carefully about everything, even the canvas size I want to work with… but sometimes an artist’s choice is as simple as what she happens to have on hand!

I lined up my three small canvases so I could arrange the collages simultaneously. I started by determining and laying out the key elements: the photos, three squares of paper that felt meaningful to me, and three rectangles of paper to coordinate the colors within each piece.

The first, Calm (Still), features a photo of the beach on Tybee Island, Georgia. In this collage I used a lot of silver, soft blue and bronze-y grey.

The second, Comfort (Small), has a photo of a quilt that was handmade by my great-grandmother, then finished and given to me by my mom. For this one I focused on the colors in the quilt, like soft blue, warm tan, and golden red-orange. In the corner I used a piece of paper inscribed with a definition of peace written by a dear teacher of mine... 

Contentment. Calmness. Assurance of "it will be okay."

Courage (Voice). January 2020. Collage on canvas, 8"x10".
Finally, Courage (Voice) features a photo of myself—that is, myself a few years ago, when I had very long hair. You can’t see my face, only my hair tumbled down around my heart, with a few feathers woven in. For this one, I used mostly black and gold. 

The paper square in the lower corner is cut from the table of contents for an old book entitled The Emblems of The Holy Spirit.

Even though each individual piece contains some different colors and motifs, I wanted the series to be easily recognized as one image. A triptych, technically. Arranging them all at once and placing certain parts so they lined up perfectly with one another helped to create this feeling of oneness.

If you were paying attention to the parenthetical titles and the symbolism of three in one, you’ve probably picked up on the fact that this was a very spiritual project.

I’ve always struggled with what it means to make “Christian” art. I’ve written about this before. It’s an ongoing point of tension in my work.

Over the years I’ve drawn Bible scenes, made collages of what the Church or Christian community means and does, and made pieces inspired by certain Bible verses. This one doesn't contain a single piece of scripture or Bible story, but for me, this triptych is as deeply faith-based as anything else I could make. 

Comfort (Small) detail.
With each scrap of paper I glued down, I thought and prayed about my relationship with God.

My faith has been difficult for me; I won't lie. It’s not that I struggle with belief—I can’t see any way for me to stop believing! I absolutely believe that the Bible is true and that God made us, loves us despite our flaws and mistakes, and defeated sin and death so that we could be with him. 

The trouble for me has always been the challenge of spreading my faith from my mind to my heart.I can see his works, the things he’s done that no coincidence can explain. I know how to read the Bible, I know a lot about its history, about theology and what some of the different Biblical concepts mean. 

The truth is, knowing about God is different from knowing him, and knowing him is different from having a relationship with him.

When I first started making collages, my art teacher had a rule: no matter what other materials I used, I always had to include something I drew or painted myself. I break plenty of art "rules", but that's one I have kept.

Courage (Voice) detail. 
So I set these aside for a few days, not sure what to draw (and I was busy! It's hard to balance full-time work, some semblance of a social life, writing, and art!). But all the time, that last, all-important element was needling at me. I needed one, single image to draw across the three and make them really, truly one artwork in three pieces.

The answer came when a friend shared a few song lyrics on Instagram. 

The song was from my long-time favorite band, Relient K. I don’t remember which friend it was and I don't remember which song they shared, but it called to mind a different song. This is one of my favorite Relient K songs, "Prodigal." 

"Prodigal" is about returning to faith after periods of stagnation, or times when life seems to take over and push God aside. One of the verses begins, “Sweet Jesus, I was coming to pray, but Lord, I’ve been so busy and I kept you away.”

Oof. If that line doesn't hit you in the gut, I don't know what will. I don't know why, but it's just so easy to let busyness get in the way of the more important things! Whether it's your relationship with God, your significant other, your best friend... I know I'm guilty of this on several accounts. 

...I seriously love good bread....
The chorus of the song goes like this:

“I am the champion of wine,
you’re the bread on my tongue.
I am the last one in line,
the prodigal.”

It probably helped that the night before, I ate some delicious homemade sourdough bread... 

Regardless, there it was—the image I was looking for. 

Bread and wine.

Of course, if your church is anything like mine, bread and wine is translated to be wafers the size of your pinky-fingernail and half a swallow of grape juice.

I’m not looking to bash my church—I love my church! They are a group of people who worship and serve God with a passion, love each other truly, and try to live according to the Bible. I love the community, the preaching, the worship, the teaching... but I’ve never loved how we do communion.

Once in a while, I wish I could walk up to the communion table and rip a hearty, wholesome chunk from a crusty loaf of bread and dunk that bad boy into a nice glass of… well, I don’t like the taste of wine. The daydream stops there. I guess I’m glad my church serves grape juice, after all.

And due to food allergies and intolerances, I know those minuscule wafers are a better option.

My point is, communion is an act of remembering, with all your senses, the sacrifice Jesus made to redeem us all. When I really take the time to fully experience it instead of going through the motions as I so often do, this rejuvenates my faith like nothing else can.

Three in one: Calm, Comfort, Courage (Still, Small Voice). January 2020. Collage on three 8"x10" canvases (24"x10").  

Sometimes keeping faith feels easy, and sometimes it’s really, really difficult and I revert to simply going through the motions. But no matter what, I always come back to my core beliefs, like that song Prodigal. I always come back to communion... 

Soft, crusty bread, bread that’s hard on the outside but nearly melts on the tongue, warm and oh-so-sweet, symbolizing Jesus' teaching: difficult at times, but oh-so-sweet. A glass of wine—Jesus blood, his life, his spirit—that tastes like swallowing a sword, but is capable of easing the spirit and resting the heart. 

This year I've decided to make some changes and actively work to strengthen my faith, starting with this collage (and the little daily devotion book I received for Christmas). I hope you'll join me!

-Cailey

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Mars, Bryce Canyon, and the Sketchbook Project

Detail, Mars Landing. Watercolor, ink, gouache, and
mulberry paper on paper cloth. March 2019.
It's almost exactly a year later, and I just found a few drafts I wrote about Silhouette Girl and the Moonhorse last year! That's a little embarrassing, but I'm embracing it. It's not late and disorganized, it's time-travel. So, kick back with your device and get ready for the next few posts to be throwbacks about the art project that kicked off my 2019. Ready, set, go...

One of my favorite things about art is a little thing called "artistic license."

Artistic license means I can change how something looks just for the sake of aesthetics I have the freedom to be realistic or abstract in my depictions. I especially love surrealism, art that recreates the impossible in a life-like style.

I used a lot of artistic license in my paintings for the Sketchbook Project last winter.

For example, obviously we haven't found extraterrestrial life, especially not lunar life, but I invented a Moonhorse.

Obviously you can't fly to Mars in a night, at least until they solve the problem of faster-than-light travel. When that day comes, you better believe I'll be vacationing on Mars!

I've never seen or heard of a horse walking a tightrope, and even the deepest craters are more like gradually-sloping bowls than the straight-sided pit I painted Hellas Planitia to be.

Nothing in my story is possible, but I still drew inspiration from reality.

I modeled Silhouette Girl's steampunk shuttle after the NASA shuttles of the last few decades, changing the color to bronze and adding just a few "steampunk" details of my own. The terrain of Mars is based heavily on Bryce Canyon, Utah. 

Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah, October 2018.

The Mars we see sometimes in the early morning, like a large, untwinkling star, is a planet humans have long been interested in. It's our second-closest neighbor and bears many similarities to us.

We're tilted on similar axes, share similar seasonal patterns, and the geography of Mars has many of the topographical features we have - mountain ranges, valleys, deserts, canyons, plains, and polar ice caps of frozen CO2 (we're familiar with this as dry ice). Mars even has water, amounting roughly to that of Lake Superior, frozen underground. It also has many craters like our moon.

Speaking of our moon, Mars has two lopsided moons, named Phobos and Deimos. 

Though it's smaller then Earth, a Mars day, called a sol, is about 40 minutes longer because it rotates much more slowly. Orbiting at a greater distance from the sun, however, a Martian year is 669 sols, or 687 Earth days.

No planet's orbit is a perfect circle, and the oval-shape of our orbit causes the seasons.

Sol 343 on Route to Mount Sharp, Mars. Curiosity Rover, NASA .
July 24, 2013.
On Mars, the seasons are almost twice as long as Earth, and tend to see slightly more dramatic temperature shifts because Mars' orbit is more eccentric, or oval-shaped, than Earth's. This means that even if Earth and Mars were the same average distance from the sun, Mars would have greater temperature extremes.

Negev Desert, Israel. April 20, 2007. By brewbooks.
Earth is covered with a strong atmosphere that burns up approaching space debris and blocks the sun's most harmful rays. We rarely even think about space debris even though it's flying around us all the time, because virtually anything that hits the atmosphere is incinerated.

Mars also has an atmosphere, but it's very thin and provides little protection. Mars has craters like the moon because its atmosphere isn't enough to burn up all of the space debris flying at it.

In the research stage of my project, I was surprised to find that on top of all these scientific similarities, most our photos of Mars look quite a bit like any number of Earth's own rocky deserts.

In fact, a quick Google search brought me to the Negev Desert in Israelsome of the pictures of Mars and the Negev Desert are almost indistinguishable, aside from the blue skies and a few signs of life. Sparse vegetation dots the landscape, dirt roads criss-cross through it, and animals like leopards, gazelle, hyenas, tortoises, and birds.

However, I wanted to make Mars look entirely foreign, while still echoing patterns in nature. It is, after all, an entirely different planet!

Bryce's otherworldly hoodoos were the perfect model for my Mars.

The main amphitheater of Bryce Canyon. The edges of the thousands of
hoodoos are a little difficult to make out in this direct light. October 2018.
Hoodoos like these are found on every continent, but Bryce is the largest concentration of them in the world.

Bryce Canyon is a national park in southern Utah, famed for its bright orange rock formed in strange towers and walls, like castle ruins.

Bryce is a beautiful park. Less popular than its neighbor Zion, but definitely worth visiting. If anything, being less popular means it's easier to find a parking spot so you can get out of the car and enjoy the park.

The main part of the park, a huge natural amphitheater, looks a little like a giant bowl holding a stone army, all wearing pointed gnome hats.

A series of smaller amphitheaters and hoodoo outcroppings are lined up north-to-south from the main amphitheater, extending about 20 miles to the highest point of the park, Rainbow Point.

When my family and I visited, we drove all the way up to Rainbow Point and then made our way slowly back down, stopping at most of the viewpoints until we reached the main amphitheater. Once there, we hiked down into the canyon. This seemed like a fine idea, except that once you're at the bottom, you have to get back up. It turned out to be a much tougher hike than I was prepared for! This really dampened my experience, but I try not to hold my own lack of fitness against Bryce.
Bryce Canyon National Park, October 2018. This is the photograph on
which I based the scene below. 

Months later, back in my basement-bedroom in Ohio, I turned to Bryce's alien terrain for Mars-spiration.

Watercolor, ink, gouache, and mulberry paper on paper cloth. March 2019.
I transferred my initial sketches onto the sketchbook pages, painted the dark sky and orange-brown watercolor landscapes, and added line details in gold, yellow, and black ink. I painted the stars and moons with white gouache, which is basically opaque watercolor paint.

The poetry text boxes were the final touch before packing up my sketchbook and mailing it to the Sketchbook Library in Brooklyn.

Silhouette Girl and the Moonhorse irreversibly ties together Bryce and Mars in my mind. This is the power of artistic license. You can arrive at entirely new connections, create new ways to envision and understand reality. Not that I've forgotten what I see in photos of Mars, but that there's a vast gap between reality and my creative depiction of it.

There's a little irony hereMars looks so much like Earth that I instead based my fantastical Mars illustrations off a geological feature on Earth. Granted, we've only seen a tiny fraction of the red planet. I'm certain there are hidden wonders on Mars, just as there are on Earth. But still, we live on a spectacular planet, indeed.

I wonder if a group of Martians and a group of Earthlings switched places, the Martians might be much more shocked by our terrain than we'd be by theirs.

-Cailey

Friday, December 27, 2019

Fine Art Friday: Robert Colescott

Robert Colescott, Eat Dem Taters, on display at the
Contemporary Art Center in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Hey there! A while back I shared a really special project I was involved in at work, Arts and Accessibility: Robert Colescott at CAC.

I had the amazing opportunity to write detailed descriptions of ten artworks from "Art and Race Matters: the Career of Robert Colescott," an exhibit which opened in September, kicking off the 2019-2020 exhibition season at the Contemporary Art Center (CAC) in downtown Cincinnati. This exhibit consists of 85 works Colescott created over his 53-year career. 

The descriptions I wrote were narrated and recorded by a couple of coworkers who work in audio. I loved this chance to work closely with these passionate, highly skilled people, who also happen to be a lot of fun to work with!

The resulting audio recordings, along with recordings of all of the exhibit wall-text, was loaded onto mp3-players. These mp3-players and some hard-copy braille booklets were made available for any blind or visually-impaired (BVI) visitors at CAC.

Next month (January 2020) the exhibit and BVI-accessible materials will be traveling to Portland, OR, followed by a few other cities around the US. I love the fact that our hard work will benefit blind people across the country!

Now, as promised, I want to share a little more about Robert Colescott and his art. 

Robert Colescott, 1919. Acrylic on Canvas, 1980. 
191If you haven’t heard of him, rest easy. I hadn’t either. 

I think it's safe to say most people are familiar with just a few of the very most famous artists in history: Leonardo da Vinci, Vincent van Gogh, Michelangelo, Pablo Picasso.

If you go to the occasional art museum, you may also be familiar with Edgar Degas, Georgia O'Keefe, Jackson Pollock, Frida Kahlo, Paul Cezanne, Rembrandt van Rijn, Claude Monet, Salvador Dali, or Andy Warhol.

Compared to these names, Robert Colescott is an unknown. But take a look at the New York City arts scene in the 1970s and '80s, and you might find his name cropping up a bit more. 

Colescott was an African-American artist from California. He passed away in 2009, at the age of 83. His best-known works are Eat Dem Taters and George Washington Carver Cross the Delaware, both of which are new renditions of earlier famous paintings by other artists (Vincent van Gogh and Emanuel Leutze, respectively).

Robert Colescott, Eat Dem Taters. Acrylic on Canvas, 1975. 

Eat Dem Taters was my first solo stab at describing. It is based on The Potato Eaters by van Gogh, but in the place of impoverished Dutch coal miners, Colescott painted stereotypical "happy darkies." This is classic Colescott: taking a familiar image and filling it with imagery that strikes discomfort, pain, and horror over appalling subjects like racism. 

I'll be honest: at first, I was not a fan. I didn't like his style and I didn't like his subject matter. 

I'm still not a major fan of his style, and that's okay. I can appreciate the skill, effort, and care his painting required, without loving the technique. But now that I understand his work better, the common subject matter, and the manner with which he presents it, has grown near and dear to my heart. Colescott's combination of frank humor and gut-wrenching imagery is a one-two punch that has become mesmerizing to me.
Robert Colescott, George Washington Carve Crossing the Delaware. Acrylic
on canvas, 1975. 

No one likes looking at things that make them feel uncomfortable or guilty. And for many people, racist imagery is extremely uncomfortable. As it should be! No one should feel comfortable looking at something that demeans others! 

It’s horrifying that the blackface and "happy darky" imagery he used is from real cartoons, made by people who look like me. 

Even more appalling is seeing these images larger-than-life on ten-foot canvases, in garish colors and exaggerated poses. 

As an African-American man, Colescott made it his mission to create satirical, racially-charged paintings to create discomfort. He painted these things to force people to think about race, sex, inequality, discrimination, systemic racism, and what these things are doing to individuals, communities, and the world at large. He wanted to spark conversations, spark emotions, and most importantly, spark fires under the seats of those untouched by racism.

Cesar Cruz, Mexican poet and human rights activist famously said, “art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.” 

Robert Colescott, Colored T.V. Acrylic on canvas, 1977.  
Colescott's work is disturbing for everyone, no matter their race, sex, age; whether they're comfortable or uncomfortable. The comfort of Colescott's art lies in the opportunity for open and heartfelt communication. 

A month or so after the exhibit opened, I toured the exhibit with a group from work. We were a large group, some 15-20 individuals, and a mix of blind, visually impaired, and sighted. 

It was amazing to experience this exhibit with my BVI coworkers, listening to descriptions before discussing how we felt about each work. Several of those in our group were also people of color, and it was truly special to hear these people share how they felt about the art and the painful history behind each piece. 

One painting that struck a major chord is called Listening to Amos and Andy. This painting is based on the old radio show Amos and Andy, a comedy about two black men from Atlanta who move to Chicago for a fresh start in life. It follows their friendship, struggles, and the development of their taxi company. 

Sounds perfectly nice until you learn that the show was created, written, and performed by two white men. 

From there, things go straight down-hill. After looking at (and listening to a description of) Colescott's painting, we listened to a clip from the radio show. Just a few minutes long, the clip was exactly what we all expected: 4 minutes of racist stereotyping, delivered by two white men using "black voices." 

Robert Colescott, Listening to Amos and Andy. Acrylic on Canvas, 1982. 
This painting led to a great discussion about representation and racism in the media. For BVI individuals, the issue of representation hits home because blind actors are few and far between. Most blind characters are played by sighted actors. And for those in our group who were African-American, this painting was especially jarring. 

The first time I heard of Colescott was when I was tasked with describing his art. Being a white woman working in a style of writing entirely new to me, I was suddenly extremely aware of my phrasing in these descriptions. Every time I pulled up one of the curator's hi-res photographs, I found myself battling both white guilt and the fear that I might mishandle any of the subject matter. 

Robert Colescott, Le Demoiselles d'Alamaba: Vestidas. Acrylic on
Canvas, 1985.
Looking at Colescott’s art with my black coworkers was awkward at first, but discussing it together also eased my mind. 

We acknowledged together that the subject matter was disturbing and offensive for all of us, that these paintings brought to mind worldviews, art, and events that we all desperately wish had never happened. We experienced a wide range of emotions together, and some of us even cried together as we looked at these paintings. 

It would be foolish and na├»ve for me to say that I’ve never made a racially-based judgement or decision. I’m aware that I grew up benefiting, and continue to benefit, from a society filled with systemic racism. 

I fervently wish that weren’t true, but pretending it doesn’t exist is a mistake white people have been making throughout history. Racism is everywhere, from the justice system to the arts, and the only way to make things right is to acknowledge the harm done and then to do better. 

It was good to see these emotionally-charged paintings in person, and to discuss as a group how bad things were in the past, how much society has changed, and how far we still have to go before everyone can truly be equal. It's a long way, but each step is another step away from a long history that must never be repeated.

As both a year and a decade come to an end, it's only natural to take a look at where we are as individuals and as a society. It's a time of examining our values, habits, and growth across the years and decades. What did we look like ten years ago, when Robert Colescott passed away? What did we look like 100 years ago, on the verge of the Roaring '20s? What might we look like ten years from now, in 2029, or 100 years from now? 

The arts demonstrate society's values and habits, and upholding work like Colescott's is necessary for us to continue growing together. 

-Cailey

Saturday, December 21, 2019

The Watchman

Ahhh, the long-promised art of my western adventure!

Since my vacation at the end of October 2018, I've made several art pieces inspired by what I saw in Utah. This one is the first, completed just a few weeks after the trip. The Watchman is acrylic on 18"x24" canvas, exactly how I imagine the sunset setting Zion National Park ablaze.

The Watchman, acrylic on canvas. November 2018.

I waited to share this because it was going to be published in a Utah arts journal, alongside other gorgeous images of the American West. There were some miscommunications and now, a year later, it's safe to say it won't be published. All this time, I’ve wanted to share the finished piece here on my blog, or even on Instagram. I held off, honoring the journal’s rights to publication. Well, the painting is here now! It’s here, published on my blog, where it should have been right from the beginning.

I painted The Watchman following a two-week autumn adventure in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah (check out my Western Adventure for more details about my trip). I fell in love with Zion National Park while hiking the Narrows, a gorgeous up-river hike which was very difficult for a rookie-hiker like me! Despite the ice-cold water and tough hike, it was one of my favorite activities of our vacation.

One of the most famous, often-photographed features of Zion is The Watchman, a mountain that juts up near the park entrance, overseeing the park's 4.5 million visitors each year. The Watchman makes for a perfect sunset shot down the Virgin River, an image many photographers have sought.

One of my initial colored pencil studies. October 2018.
Dad and I were hopeful about catching that sunset shot in Zion, but hungry bellies got in the way and we all ended up getting dinner at a nearby Tex-Mex restaurant instead of waiting for sunset. No worries! I took some reference pre-sunset photos.

Back home in Ohio after the rest of that unforgettable vacation, I got out my paints, palette knives, sketches, reference photos, and a 16"x20" canvas. It was time to recreate "the shot," The Watchman at sunset.

Inspired by Zion's brilliant rock colors and the golden-yellow autumn foliage filling the park while we were there, I wanted to build up the color, each layer brighter than the last. But first, that watery wash to fill in the weave of the canvas!

I forgot to take a lot of process photos... You know how it is. You're in the zone, Netflix is on, hands are covered in paint... so you'll have to trust me for a few minutes here.

My wash was mainly red and blue. Red in the sky, and blue in the ground. Yes, you read that right. Red sky, blue ground!

According to the laws of the color wheel, complimentary colors, which are opposites on the color wheel, cause each other to appear more vivid. Blue makes orange POP, because they're opposites. If any blue were to shine through at the end, it would only make the yellow-orange mountain look more vivid. Color theory, people, I love it!

Over the blue and red wash, I started layering in my dark and light values
in yellow and purple-brown, and laying down my sky. Note that the sky is a
muddy grey right now... Not for long!
Red in the sky... because while I wanted a vivid sky of red, purple, and blue, I also wanted it to feel as if the sky goes on forever. I couldn't risk any stray dots of green or yellow showing through the layers of paint to break that impression of infinity. Instead of a complimentary color, I chose red for the underlying wash.

Over the wash, I blocked in my values. Bright yellow for the light spots, and a mix of brown, purple, and grey for shadows. 

From there, it was just a matter of building up the color. Browns, reds, oranges, greens for the land, and purples, blues, red, and white for the sky.

The sky, dramatic and stormy, took more effort than the ground. I had it going pretty firmly and decided it wasn't working.

I believe that decision went a little like this...

"This sky isn't working. It's just... Off. I'm going to redo it. This sky is really not working for me. Hold on. I need to fix this. It's... It's bad. I hate this sky, I have to redo it before I explode!"

I know, that escalated quickly. Needless to say, I redid it. That's the sky I ended up withfierce, anger-driven, directional paint-knife work. I typically try to avoid emotion-painting, but I'm actually really happy with the resulting sky.

Almost done...
The shot to the right is nearly finished. It's come a long way from the previous picture, eh?

It stayed this way for a while. Not bright enough, and missing a particular tree in the foreground, one I recognized in multiple reference photos.

When I finally got around to it, finishing this painting felt a little like coming home.

In the time since Untitled 37, I made very little art. In many ways, I felt unable to make art. I couldn't connect with it. It almost hurt to think about art. I managed a few drawings and half-begun paintings, including the illustrations for Stars & Seas, but it all felt off. Until The Watchman, art was out. Finishing The Watchman last November really was like coming home, and not only from a vacation. For the first time in about a year, I felt truly connected to art again.

I considered giving The Watchman to my dad for Christmas, but in the end I kept it for myself. I had another, long-promised pair of drawings to make for Dad, and I honestly didn't want to let The Watchman go. It's currently propped on my bedside table where I can see it every day. It's a good reminder of my trip, of the golden light at the end of the day, and hopefully a reminder for me to take action and not allow miscommunication to get in the way of putting my work out into the world. It will not be appearing in that small Utah arts journal, but that’s alright. Utah already has the actual mountain! I’ll keep the painting, and its likeness, here with me.

-Cailey

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Does my Degree Still Matter? Thoughts on the Closing of my Alma Mater


A drawing I made of the CCU Worship & Ministry building. Colored pencil
on paper, 2014. 
Two days ago it was announced that my old college, Cincinnati Christian University, would be closing its doors after this semester. 

I have very many mixed feelings about this. 

On the one hand, I believe it's good. The university has been floundering for years. 

It is deeply in debt, it has failed to align its increasing liberal arts bent with its long history of theology and ministry, and has failed to find a good president in years. The revolving door of leadership has brought people who came up with extravagant building projects and costly new programs, while alienating donors, alumni, and students.

The truth is, I've long believed CCU's days were numbered... although I hoped, and dearly wish, that number were a little larger.

Tonight I spoke at length with one of the trustees, in an effort to understand what brought the university to such a sudden end.

A student-led worship campus worship service. The lyrics on the screen
read "you are for us, you are not against us." I truly believe that even right
now, God is not against us.
Hindsight is 20/20, and he agreed that in hindsight, many, many mistakes have been made in the governance of this university. He agreed that communication has never been a strong suit, and that some of the attempts made to save the school, while well-intentioned, were very poor choices. 

He freely admitted that some of these decisions were made, and/or communicated, without enough research and consideration for the potential consequences, direct and indirect.

In my gut, I wanted to throw it all back at him and say his job was to communicate properly, consider every possible implication for every possible decision, and make the wisest choices to keep CCU going. But I didn't say any of that. What's done is done. Humans are human, and they make mistakes, and they can hardly be held accountable for the mistakes made by others. By the end of our conversation, the trustee I spoke with sounded just as defeated as I feel. I trust that he, for one, did everything he could to save CCU. 

Where I was angry and hurt, I now feel mostly sad. Deeply sad for a university that never truly functioned properly, and a strong community that  has loved it despite all of its issues. 

That thought takes me to the other hand. My heart aches for those whose lives just took a drastic turn: current students, staff, and faculty. I have friends who, in a couple of short months, will be job-less and school-less. Some of these woman and men are one more semester away from graduation. Some of these women and men chose CCU for it's highly-respected counseling graduate program, or took the opportunity to be the first college student in their entire family, or were given the priceless chance to play their sport at a college level. Some of these women and men have worked or taught there for years. Decades, even. 

My grandpa, Glen Springer, later known as Poppa.
Wasn't he handsome?
I'm heartbroken for the hundreds of people directly affected by this. 

Naturally, I thought about this all day yesterday and all day today. I thought long and hard, with a heavy heart, a resigned heart, a drenched and aching heart. I thought a lot about the school itself, about my friends there, and my professors. I also spent a lot of time thinking about my personal history with CCU.

CCU opened 95 years ago, in 1924, as Cincinnati Bible Seminary (CBS). My Great-Grandpa Woods attended CBS not long after it was established. 

My dad before he was a dad, dressed for Halloween c. 1986. Any CCU
Gents recognize this hall? He's posing in one of the halls of Restoration!
My grandpa went to CBS. He and grandma lived in a tiny apartment above a diner in East Price Hill when he was a student. He went on to work as a minister, a camp director, and a diesel mechanic.

My parents, aunts, and uncles went to Cincinnati Bible College & Seminary (CBC). As students, my family all went to the original Skyline Chili on Glenway Avenue. And until that location had to close, I went there, too. It was the family meeting place, the family celebration place.

As a child I lived two doors down from everyone’s favorite CBC professor, Dan Dyke. He would give my sister and me little trinkets and gifts. He liked to get Happy Meals at McDonald's just so he could give us the toys.

My sister and me hyped for a CBC basketball game!
I'm the one in front, posing like a starfish. Or maybe like
an eagle, wings outspread? I definitely had more school
spirit then than I had as an actual student... check out
those matching purple cords!
I spent hours playing on the CBC practice field with my sister and our friends. At the time the field was bordered all around with large square blocks of stone, and (oddly) my sister and I found it amusing to walk laps around the field on those rocks.

My babysitters went to CBC, and my cousins went to CBC. Once my cousin took my sister and me to a basketball game, and we both dressed head to toe in purple and yellow... complete with purple and yellow cheer pom-poms!

My church was (and still is) filled with alumni, and staff and faculty both current and former. Older kids from my youth group went to CCU. 

The Associate Minister at my church was also on staff at CCU when I was looking at colleges, and he’s the one who suggested I consider applying to CCU. I did so. Grudgingly, but I did it... and a few months later I moved into room 301 of Alumni Hall.

I met some of my dearest friends there. During Orientation Week, I and one of my new friends were looking at old class pictures and discovered that we knew each other’s grandparents. Our families had known each other for generations, thanks to CCU (and CBC and CBS).

One of my first college classes was History and Literature of the Old Testament, with my old neighbor, Dan Dyke. Taking his classes was a highlight of my time at CCU!

I got my first real (non-babysitting) job at CCU. I learned to make coffee at CCU, and soon after that I learned to love coffee at CCU. 

I had art shows at CCU. I met my first boyfriend at CCU.  I had my first panic attack at CCU.

A drawing I made as an abstract illustration of a campus worship service,
using rock-like shapes to suggest where people were sitting and standing.
I preached a sermon on prayer and God's faithfulness at CCU. I never imagined I'd stand on the stage and preach like that, but I did. When my friend suggested speaking in public, I laughed out loud... and then immediately knew I needed to do it. I waited a few days before signing up for a speaking slot, but I knew I'd regret if I didn't go for it. I will forever be glad I did. 

My life-long best friend started at CCU a year after I did. I had many heart-to-hearts with her and our other friends within the walls of Alumni, Restoration, Worship & Ministry, Crouch, and President’s Hall, Bloc Coffee, and the Skyline Chili on Warsaw Ave.

I got my second real job at CCU. I painted the halls of Restoration and ripped out flooring and built-in furniture that was all at least twice my age... Furniture that had been around when my Dad and uncles lived in that dorm. I counted signatures on old closet doors, collected long-lost memorabilia, and on the last day of my summer job I was allowed to make a collage of all the old photos, movie tickets, event flyers, class notes, student IDs, and everything else we found in those rooms.

I think it's safe now to reveal that I even broke some rules in my time there. Some (anonymous) friends and I sneaked into the condemned Rhine Hall just months before it was torn down. I went to a concert in Columbus with friends from CCU, and we drove back that night and sneaked into our dorms well after curfew. Yes, we had a curfew! I ate a chunk of raw cookie dough whenever I made cookies in Hilltop. I gave away the occasional free coffee, free cookie, free squirt of whipped cream. I broke dress code, I swore, I broke curfew, I skipped classes, I danced. Yes, dancing wasn’t allowed at CCU! I sometimes went barefoot when the weather was nice. Yes, even going barefoot wasn’t allowed.

I cried, laughed, did homework, ate cookies fresh from the oven, drank too much espresso. 

At the coffee shop, there was a drink on the menu called an Undertow. It consisted of vanilla syrup, an ounce of half and half, and a single shot of espresso, served in a tiny glass and knocked back like a shot. I had a few Undertows in my four years!

In April 2017, I handed over my portfolio, a hulking 95 pages of material demonstrating my abilities in the English field, collected from 20 courses in the fields of English and Communication Arts. 

I was working on yet another paper in the CCU library when I got the news that Poppa passed away. 

In May 2017 I graduated from CCU, my proudest achievement yet. I was one of the first three students to receive an English degree there, just two and a half years ago.

This history, these numerous personal connections, are not mine alone. Many students were 2nd-, 3rd-, or 4th-generation Eagles. Students traveled around the globe to attend the school their families, friends, and pastors attended. We are a close community.

My graduation cap, tassel, and magna cum laude cords.
Moving forward, I know that my degree is still valid. I earned a degree from a fully-accredited, fully-functioning university.  No one and nothing can take that away from me. 

I know that, by law, my transcript will always be available at my request. 

I know that I am, unfortunately, far enough removed from graduation that I still have to pay off my loans... 

And I know that the relationships forged there are far more important than the university itself. But this still hurts me personally, because CCU was, and still is, my college. It is a huge part of my life and my history. 

In their advertising, colleges like to use words like “legacy” and “future.” CCU’s legacy is a beautiful one, and one I feel very close to as I look over my family history. When I heard that the Higher Learning Commission was preparing to pull accreditation, I wished I could believe that CCU would still have a future, but I knew the truth. CCU’s leaders finally dug a hole they couldn’t get out of. 

For all that beautiful legacy, the future is suddenly gone.

Ant yet… that’s not true. CCU’s future is not gone. CCU will be only as gone as our memories of it. Yes, it will fade away over time, just as memories fade. Sooner or later, the arrangement with CCCB will end. Sooner or later, the property will be sold and the buildings will be torn down. Eventually, our great-grandparents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, and parents will pass away and take their memories with them. Eventually, my generation, the last generation to attend CCU, will be gone as well.


But until then, CCU’s future lies in us, the former students, just as its legacy lies in us. Starting in December, CCU will be freed from the control of trustees acting without honesty or integrity. CCU will no longer thrash from one “money-making idea” to another, announcing mergers and building projects it can never follow through on.

CCU’s future lies in us, the former students. Transfers, drop-outs, and alumni alike.

"An Abundance of Hope." Ballpoint pen on paper. I doodled this during a
slow evening at work in the coffee shop. 
CCU’s future lies in our sermons, in our mission fields, in our teaching, in our counseling sessions. It lies in everyone with whom we share the gospel. It is in the words we share with one another, the knowledge we keep, and the old essays gathering dust, either in our Google Docs or the boxes in our attics. It is in our dresser drawers of t-shirts and the highlights and underlines in our bibles.

CCU’s future lies in our relationships and our reminiscing. It is in the relationships we have with our mentors and our mentees, the wisdoms we share with one another. It is in our wedding anniversaries celebrated every May and June, and our friendiversaries celebrated every August. It is in our social media accounts, email address books, and phone contacts, and the small reunions that can happen at the oddest times and places.

CCU’s future lies in our shared love of Skyline, Chick-fil-A, Bloc Coffee, and the 86; in our love of brinner, bingo, The Price is Right, and chili served in a bread bowl. It lies in our strange love of dodgeball, and in Kentucky Christian University, and in the fact that every time we hear the word “yellow” we silently finish the chant, “is the color of urine!”, because CCU’s future lies not only in our togetherness but in our rivalries with one another and with other colleges.

CCU’s future lies in our job hunts, our diplomas, the transcripts we’re all suddenly anxious about, and in our fresh, perfectly-formatted resumes, reference sheets, and CVs. It lies in the books we write and the films we make.

It is, finally, in the anger we feel, because something we dearly loved was twisted and torn and made ugly before our eyes, and we were powerless to stop any of it. And that anger is good and honest and right and valid and true. And maybe it is the right time for the university to close, but for the current students, faculty, and staff, that does not ease the pain and stress of having to pick up the pieces. 

If you are a member of the CCU community and you need a listening ear, please don't hesitate to contact me. Unfortunately I don't have the knowledge or the authority to explain everything through the decades that led the school to Monday night's devastating announcement. I’m only one shy and sad alumna, but I see your hurt and I wish, I truly wish, that I could give you each the answers, opportunities, and resources you need as you move forward. I can only pray and listen, but I like to think that's better than nothing.

-Cailey

Thursday, September 26, 2019

Arts and Accessibility: Robert Colescott at CAC

Wow, so much has happened this summer. Have I got some updates for you!
First I've gotta tell you what I've been up to at work.
You know I’ve always loved both art and writing (hence this blog), but I’ve recently combined the two in a way I truly never expected.
In August 2017, a few months after graduation, I stumbled into what is now my current job at an agency contracted by the Library of Congress and the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS). The place I work is a regional braille and audio-book distribution center, supporting 72 NLS branch libraries throughout the eastern US (and working with our counterpart to the west). We help the NLS branches serve thousands of patrons who are blind, visually impaired, or have other challenges reading traditional books. 
My particular job within this grand scheme is pretty unspectacular, entry-level work. I was lured by good pay, a quiet, introvert-friendly environment, and access (at work) to the entire NLS audio library... but I discovered so much more: a close-knit group of coworkers, a kind boss who supports and advocates for each of us, and work that makes me feel fulfilled.
It feels really good to be part of a program that delivers literature straight to people's hands!
More Than Meets the Eye is a brilliant book about
blindness and art by Georgina Kleege, English
lecturer at UC Berkely and life-long lover of the
arts, unhindered by her visual impairment.
Even with all of that, I was floored when an opportunity came up at work that would perfectly combine my passions: writing descriptions of visual art. 
Much of the arts world (except the obvious, music) is not accessible for those without sight. Touching the artwork is a big no-no in museums! 
Even the performing arts like theatre are heavily dependent on the visual—actions, sets, even playbills are all vision-oriented. 
However, blind and visually impaired (BVI) individuals are by no means uninterested in the arts! A large portion of the BVI population loses their sight later in life, and the thought of losing access to some of the arts can be a painful part of adjusting to a new lifestyle with limited or no vision.
However, arts institutions are trying to help the situation.
Some museums have regularly scheduled touch tours, others offer on-demand audio tours. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, for example, has options for visitors who are blind, deaf, autistic, or even have dementia! Unfortunately, many places don't have the necessary resources to support so many programs. Lack of funds, lack of staff, and lack of awareness are major hurdles for accessibility. 
The parent organization of my job, Clovernook Center for the Blind, started the Arts and Accessibility Initiative in 2016. The Arts Initiative works to help museums, galleries, and other cultural institutions become accessible for BVI patrons.
The Arts Initiative is comprised of blind and sighted braille transcribers and proofreaders, an audio engineer and a narrator, a tactile graphics producer, and writers... that's where I fit in! We come alongside institutions and help them determine ways to better serve BVI patrons, consulting with BVI individuals and focus groups to ensure that our strategies and end-products are truly beneficial. 
I and my work-friend LT got involved earlier this year because the Arts Initiative was looking for writers. With our English degrees and love of writing and the arts, we were excited to join.
The Arts Initiative made this summer a whirlwind of meetings and projects, on top of my regular workload. We spent the early part of the summer preparing for several members of the Initiative to give a presentation at the Kennedy Center Leadership Exchange in Arts and Disability (LEAD), an annual conference with the goal of creating accessible cultural arts programs around the world. 
Earlier this year we received a $25,000 grant to provide free accessible materials to ten institutions. We reached out to a variety of cultural institutions, both local and around the country.
Since LEAD is over, it's time to get working on the grant projects. First up: the Contemporary Art Center (CAC) here in Cincinnati!
Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati.
Photo courtesy of The Cincinnati Region
We worked closely with Shawnee Turner, Associate Educator of School and Docent Programs at CAC, to find out how we could best serve the museum's BVI visitors.
Together we made arrangements for the Arts Initiative to provide accessible materials for their 2019-2020 season-opening exhibition, Art and Race Matters: The Career of Robert Colescott. We would write and record audio descriptions of ten paintings, record all of the wall-text provided by the curators, and produce all of that text in accompanying braille booklets.
This was a daunting project for LT and me. It was our first attempt at this sort of description, the stakes were high, and the art was technically and thematically challenging. But we did it!
The first thing LT and I did was sit down with several sighted and visually impaired people to look at the first painting, a huge piece titled "George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware." Together we wrote down every single thing we could see. Shape, size, texture, composition, color. We wrote it all down and then transformed and arranged these notes into careful, logical descriptions.

George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware: Page From an American History Textbook, Robert Colescott, 1975.
Acrylic on canvas. After George Washington Crossing the Delaware, Emanuel Lueuze, 1851. (Private
collection, Saint Louis, © 2017 Estate of Robert Colescott / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, photo: Jean Paul Torno)
.

One challenge I enjoyed was thinking about the logical order in which to arrange information. I had to think about the the prominent features of the painting, plus the overall composition and the pattern in which the eye moves around the canvas, and then write it all in a natural, easy-to-follow manner.  

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and I wanted to make sure each word was in the right place. If I misplaced a single word, it would throw off all 999 other proverbial words.

That said, once I got over the prestige of the project and finally started writing, this was a fairly easy project. 

My favorite art teacher’s mantra was “draw what you see, not what you think you see.” It means not to let your expectations or ideas get in the way of what’s actually in front of your eyes. Not to let your mental image of a house obscure the actual house you’re drawing. 
Eat Dem Taters, Robert Colescott, 1975, on display at
CAC. After The Potato Eaters, Vincent van Gogh, 1885. 

This “draw what you see” mantra held true for writing these descriptions. Write what you see, not what you think you see. Write what you see, not what you expect. 

Once the descriptions were complete, our brilliant audio duo, Joey and Chris, took over. They recorded 40 pages of material, both the descriptive text and the CAC wall text.  
Last Friday, I and my artist-friend, Brynnae, went to the CAC Colescott opening. It was a great event! 
I loved getting to see this artwork I’d so carefully described, all hanging together on the broad white walls, alongside 75 other paintings and drawings by Robert Colescott. I loved getting to learn a little bit about the art scene in New York in the 80s, when Colescott’s career was at its peak. I enjoyed getting to be a part of the VIP crowd, as a contributor to the exhibition. Most of all, I really loved getting to see some of my blind coworkers enjoying the art through the efforts of LT, Chris, Joey, and myself.
Next time, I'll share a bit more about the life and art of Robert Colescott... See ya later!

-Cailey