DEAR JAMES: If you ever wondered who burned out the motor on the art department’s jigsaw, it was me. I hope you weren’t forced to pay for that. You’ve paid too much for the sins of others.
I was using the jigsaw to cut up the triptych I’d made for my final undergrad art show. I was halfway through saving the few living bits—the sections of drawing and collage that were working—when the jigsaw started smoking and died. I flew at the remaining parts in a fury, slashing months of work to jagged pieces with an industrial utility knife. Samantha tells me I was crying the whole time. All I knew was that I had to break the originals to make the kind of breakthrough you had talked about.
Art making often begins with a break, doesn’t it? The snap of bone or will from repeated abuse. A leaving or a throwing out. Exodus. Exile.
You begin your pivotal Dreaming of Lions series with a break. In What the Polishers Saw, as a window washer rappels from the absolute peak of a glass temple in a fantastical inland China, a building shaped like the keel of an upside-down ship, a pane of glass shatters beneath his mop.
I told you once that he looks like you, that polisher, and I couldn’t tell whether you were surprised or bemused. You’ve never been an easy read, you or your art.
There are details in your drawings that remain unseen unless I tilt my head and peer. Like the faint reflection of a hang glider high above the polisher and his coworkers. One of them looks up to see it overhead; the other sees its reflection in the glass he’s standing on. But the viewer doesn’t get to see the hang glider directly.
When I think of you, I think of that pilot zipping by, just out of sight.
I think of that because I almost missed you.
I saved this story until I was introducing you in chapel at the Iowan college where I am now a professor. You came to talk about Passages, your new multivolume art and poetry project, and to present drawings from your new Triage series, which was showing in our campus gallery. I told the crowd of twelve hundred students, “I’d like to introduce you to the teacher who almost failed me out of his art class.”
Before that class, I’d never failed at anything, and I was furious with you. Do you remember? There may even have been a letter to the administration. Even now, I am sorry for my behavior then.
You were patient with me, though. With all of us in that class. You said, handing back the assignments, that maybe you hadn’t explained yourself well enough, that we could resubmit. Then, to help us better understand how artistic language could serve us in telling of our own spiritual journeys, you showed us slides from Dreaming of Lions, the epic series of pastel drawings you’d made after being pinballed around the advertising world, where you worked for Esquire, GQ, Rolling Stone, House and Garden, Saturday Night, Canadian Business, and others. Tired of being paid a lot “to tell fragments of everyone else’s story,” you left, and embarked on a four-and-a-half-year project that eventually became Dreaming of Lions, a Tolkien-esque fantasy told in eighteen pieces.
Of those eighteen drawings, which I first saw projected on the wall in your Intro to Art class, I kept coming back to the one with the shards of glass exploding beneath that mop. That piece starts the whole adventure. After breaking the temple roof, the polisher is arrested and dragged to prison inside labyrinthine gardens. There, he is met by a light-juggling harlequin hang-glider pilot who helps him and his fellow prisoners escape, and shows them a way through storms and battles to a place of rest. The polisher’s journey became my journey as an artist and student.
I kept coming back to that piece because it was impossibly realistic, the broken glass sharp enough to cut. I wanted to believe that I could draw like that someday. But I also kept coming back because I felt like you had pressed me too hard with that failing grade. Fragile as I was, that F shattered me. But I took you up on the redo.
I photocopied your handwritten comments and the grade you gave, reproduced them dozens of times, cut them up, and collaged them with copies of the bloodiest, angriest artwork we had discussed in class so far. I created a sequencing of numbers that seemed to drift across the page and even collaged a photo of a chalk drawing of the Virgin Mary—cut from that morning’s newspaper—in cruciform position, her arms ripped from their sockets, her body broken on that numeric grid. It was a riff on Asher Lev’s painting of his mother from Potok’s famous novel—a childish riff. Angry, churlish, immature.
But in the time since, that image has left me thinking of my mother and all the systems that have hurt her over the years—churches and church schools, men in leadership—and all she sacrificed to build the safe world I grew up in, the evangelical bubble I have come to lacerate in my fiction.
In your class, I saw myself as the victim. Looking back, I see that I was the one with the utility knife in my hand. When I handed in that redo, I expected you to be angry. I think I wanted it. But instead, you gave me an A, and that melted something in me.
I could have said—as I’d heard classmates say of professors they struggled with—“I finally got what I deserved from the prick.” But I didn’t. In your comments, your penmanship barely legible, you wrote: “I didn’t realize you were so angry. But you’ve found a powerful visual language to communicate that anger—your own hurt. I see now how my comments broke you. That is not what I want. That is not helpful. Can we talk?”
You were professorial and helpful during that talk. I was embarrassed—increasingly so—because as we talked, I realized I had done exactly what I had indented to do: I had hurt you. You never said so, of course. But I saw you wince as you tried to smile. I remember this especially: you didn’t shrug me off or avoid me. Instead, you taught me, patiently, quietly. And I woke up. I realized I was not broken glass, but a polisher, like you.
And like the polisher, I was dragged kicking and terrified into the maze of the modern art world—into a long discussion of Dali’s bloodless Jesus and Grünewald’s leprous Iseheim savior, Rouault’s saints and Serrano’s Piss Christ. For a young evangelical like me, raised in the pious, conservative holiness tradition, the idea of looking at (let alone discussing) an image of a crucifix submerged in the artist’s own urine was unimaginable.
I’m not sure either you or Sister Wendy Beckett would call Piss Christ a great work of art, but I think I recall you saying once that greatness isn’t a thing an artwork says. And that we should pay more attention to what art can say—to us, in its own aesthetic language—than on whether or not it is great. Did you say that? It seems like something you might have said to young artists learning their craft, discovering and practicing their own languages. Don’t worry about being great. Find your language. Say something that matters.
I think that is your legacy: you found a visual language—what you call “cartographic realism”—to say something that matters. What matters for you is communicating with people, telling them a story that invites them to find their own place in a grander narrative: the Gospel story. A story in which it is possible to move from slavery to freedom, darkness to light, confusion to clarity. From death back into life.
As you know, the beauty of this story is also its horror. After all, none of us makes this pilgrimage from death to life only once. Every time the glass beneath our feet cracks—from abuse, trauma, loss, death—we are plunged again into the thick of it. But your art suggests that though we fall again and again—because of things we’ve done, because of things done to us—we are not alone. The living Christ is with us.
Of course, though this is always true, we do not always see it.
Art, for you, is about learning to see what is unseen, perceiving realities that are spiritual, emotional, psychological, and relational. We need such art in times of chaos. When I am alone and afraid in my own house, worried about immigration paperwork and what it might mean to raise my children in this country, I look at my print of What the Polishers Saw. From across the room I have to peer to see the faint reflection of that hang-glider pilot, who for you is an evocation of God—God who is both above us and able to swoop into our lives, both transcendent and incarnate in the person of Jesus.
How is it that you still confess that, after the cold autumn night you heard your son shot in the street outside your house?
You and your wife Donna sat in your home that night with your pastor, surrounded by police, listening to officers fail in their attempts to negotiate with Alex, listening to the swat team take him out when he pointed a gun at them.
“Suicide by cop,” they called it.
You told me that your response to trauma is to numb, and you called that numbness a gift. “It’s a merciful anesthetic you emerge from slowly, later, when you are alone”—after the logistics of funeral arrangements, after enduring “the crush of friends and supporters, none of whom know what to say.”
I am one of those friends. Even this letter, I find, is a stuttering effort to speak of that moment, to speak of Alex as the flesh-and-blood son he was—the brilliant athlete weaving his way through your poems—and not merely some abstract personal crisis. Over the years I have seen something in you that I want to bear witness to here. But I want the reality of what happened to you—to Alex, to Donna, to your family—to breathe through, like the Arches ninety-pound hot-press watercolor paper you use breathes through your drawings. Especially in the white and light of Grace, one of a series of flower studies you made to console yourself when Alex disappeared from your home into the world of drug dealing [see Plate 6].
Grace, meant to console, became a flower at Alex’s funeral.
I’m sure you didn’t expect that—how could you?
You have told me that our wounds come as shocks to us, just as the death of Jesus must have shocked his mother, as I imagine Alex’s death must have shocked you and Donna. I cried when I read the connection you drew to Mary—to a Pietà drawn by a woman in your church—in a poem written for your Passages project:
Now here my son lies silent
and scarred by inconceivable raging.
The angel said it, and I put it away,
I buried that sword in a mother’s dreams.
It will take time to comprehend,
to fathom the unimaginable.
Fathoming the unimaginable: That is what you do.
“To fathom” means both to try to understand an enigma and to measure depth in water. A fathom is six feet, the depth of a grave. Sometimes we say that certain people are deep as the grave when we find them hard to understand. Whether we are fathoming a relationship or water—as you know from years of psychoanalysis and canoeing—we are mapping our surroundings: testing for safety, checking for the possibility of safe passage.
You do this kind of mapping in your art too, in your cartographic realism, which you define as “a marriage of aerial mapping, scientific realism, natural iconography, and narrative sequencing.” For you, cartographic realism is far more than an artistic style. It has saved your life more than once.
When you sat in my living room on your visit to Iowa, my framed copies of What the Polishers Saw and Raising a Mark in the Storm (both from Dreaming of Lions) triangulated our conversation. We were talking about our artistic journeys: me making excuses for moving away from visual art into creative writing (it’s cheaper, for one) and you filling me in on losing your job at my alma mater and your work with the Flagship Gallery in downtown Hamilton, a venue for Christian artists. I told you that Raising a Mark in the Storm, along with your example as a mentor, is constantly in my mind as I try to navigate what it means to be a Christian writer in this day and age—a writer who is a Christian and not a pedantic, abusive, or reactionary jerk.
I remember you were a bit taken aback. You got quiet, and I wondered if I had offended or embarrassed you. I went on to talk about why the black-and-white images in the Dreaming of Lions story, with their more limited points of view, mean more to me than the mind-spiraling complexities of the larger, God’s-eye-view colored panoramas. For example, in The Gates, the story’s ragtag pilgrims, encamped on an inlet or river, endure an aerial attack, firebombs smoking in from on high [see Plate 12]. There are hundreds of characters in that scene, each meticulously drafted with your CarbOthello pastels.
Though The Gates is visually stunning, images like What the Polishers Saw resonate with me more. In most contemporary fiction, including mine, a character rarely gets to see his or her life from God’s point of view. I’m not one for omniscient narrators. A limited perspective sharpens my focus: I can only know as much as this person; I am as finite and fallible as they are. The more limited the perspective, the more heightened the reader’s empathy.
“But you use a map when you canoe, don’t you?”
I blinked. “Yes.”
“The larger, color images are like maps,” you said. “They let you know where you are in the story and where the story is headed.”
“So the viewer doesn’t get lost?”
“It can be terrifying to be lost.”
You would know, having been raised in the chronic depression of a toxic, abusive family that revolved around your mother, whom you describe as a narcissistic alcoholic. Navigating such a childhood sharpened your obsession with aerial realism, you told me, an aesthetic language born of vigilance and the acute need to know where you are “relative to places of safety and risk.” An hour alone, daydreaming and drawing, could be an escape from danger into beauty, and such escapes are a means of survival.
Because you had learned to navigate life with a parent who was an addict, and because you had mapped that experience through the processes of both psychoanalysis and art making, you had some tools to work with in surviving a world blasted by Alex’s death.
It is no surprise to me that your work since then has been a little less aerial, a little closer to the ground. It has been obsessed with magnified texture and surface. The scale of the maps is smaller, spanning inches instead of miles. I’m thinking here of your Triage series, specifically Black, Snagged, and Promises, Promises, and the brightly colored title piece [see Plates 8 to 10].
Triage, in medicine, is where a doctor assigns a degree of urgency to a patient’s case. In Black, the patient is you, after seeing a gifted student make a self-damaging choice. The chasm is the depression into which you fell, as often happens to teachers and artists. But in this piece, a climber’s rope descends into the darkness: a sign of hope. A lifeline. A kind word over email or drinks. Christ, entering deeply into our pain and giving us a way through it. In Snagged, you tell me, the wounded are artists seeking out “places of vulnerability to damage…tragic but beautiful.” The lure and line are the artist fishing for truth, the lily pads fragile moments of beauty the artist uproots and casts aside in his pursuit of that truth. And Promises, Promises is a lament for the years you poured into teaching, only to have your position cut. I hope hearing from me, a former student, is some salve.
The subject of the title work, Triage, is the kind of mark a hiker might leave in the wilderness so he can find his way home [see Plate 11]. The piece recalls a much earlier drawing called Lazarus, from your first solo exhibition, in 1977 [see Plate 7], but here the landscape is marked with bright ribbons instead of cuts and gouges. Triage’s color palette points back to Dreaming of Lions and the great colored mobile erected in the series’ final vista, a mobile prefigured by the fragile kite in Raising a Mark in the Storm. Both the cross of Triage and the mobile repeated throughout Dreaming of Lions point the viewer toward Christ, who, in your experience, uses color, artistry, and allusion—marked beauty—to orient us back to God in the midst of a disorienting reality.
You have called Triage “a defiant celebration of Christ’s identification with the brokenness of the world, the empathetic grace of the cross,” grace that can fathom the darkness surrounding Alex’s death. In doing so, it leaves carefully placed, uniquely designed marks for those stumbling toward the light.
In your work since that time, I see that stumbling toward the light.
You’ve said of your poetry from this time that a lot of it is angry and brooding, and that it is taking you a long time to work through Alex’s death. Even now, you don’t feel you’ve fully arrived. You admit to still feeling lost. Disoriented.
Am I wrong to see Triage as dressing on a wound, as the balm that is the knowledge of the presence of Christ—the piece’s cross—marking your loss of Alex? And is it specifically about your loss of Alex, or is it all loss? Are all our losses one in Christ? Or is each loss unique to him?
I want to know, does God look as closely at us as you look at the living lichens on the exposed stone bones of the Canadian Shield? Does God see us—attend to us—with that level of exacting care?
The gigantic mobile in Dreaming of Lions and the tiny hiker’s cross in Triage mark deep losses for you. I also think both mark ways forward.
The Gates is a map of such hope. From its complex aerial perspective, we witness a violent, confusing attack played out on a stone point carved as the face of a lamb—a lamb we see, though the players cannot. It’s a dramatically ironic reminder that we exist—confused and besieged, demoralized and bombarded, without hope yet loved—before the very face of Christ. And because of the reality that Christ is with us, sees us, we can move, as do those in The Gates, as have you, from fear to love.
You bore witness to that love when you spoke to my students in chapel about how God reached into your life and Donna’s in specific ways to help you process Alex’s death.
First, you said, God did not bury you in “super spiritual advice and platitudes from well-meaning ordinary people in ministry.” What God did—and this is you looking back on the madness as a hang-glider pilot, giving us the aerial map of that chaotic time—was to surround you and Donna and your daughter with respectful support, a superb funeral staff, and the ministry of a pastor who, like you, had already processed life with an alcoholic parent. God gave you friends who spoke kindly but clearly at the funeral, not hiding the truth about Alex’s addictions. God made sure that all of Alex’s friends were there, minus his current dealer: all the friends who had ushered him into the drug world and persuaded him that you and Donna were not his real parents. God made sure, you said, “that they were all there to hear it all, and to hear about the Lord’s overarching grace.”
What else did God do? He brought out of the woodwork a ragtag group of survivors who had lost children and spouses of their own. Looking back, you can see how these people—and professional counselors, friends, artists, perfect strangers—together shared a message of comfort: that God understands sorrow.
God knows what it’s like to be the leper, the one with scars, the one who has known abuse—physical, emotional, institutional—who has been drowned in piss, spat on, thrown out, broken down. Forgotten.
Like you and Donna.
Your drawing Span, made to honor a friend who fought to “hold on to humanness and grace” in a brutal academic environment, is another icon of what Christ did for you and Donna in the wake of Alex’s death [see Plate 13]. In that piece, a slender blue cord ties together two rocks separated by water. The larger one, tied more tightly, seems to anchor the other. In that cord I see the tenuous yet certain way God spoke to you both, especially Donna, through recent news stories about concussions. The more she learned about the long-term effects of concussions on young brains, damage compounded in Alex’s case by drug and alcohol abuse, the more she began to understand that his snowboarding concussions, coupled with his addictions, created, in your words, “the perfect storm for cognitive oblivion.”
It was not good news, not welcome information, but it exposed a medical truth behind Alex’s behavior. Knowing all this radically altered the focus of blame for you both. This was God’s way of helping Donna at the time, speaking to her in her own language, the language of a social worker.
But God spoke to you differently.
You have always said that God speaks to each of us in our own language. He appears to us in ways only we might understand: to Joshua as a soldier on the plains of Jericho; to Abraham as an itinerant traveler; to Shadrach and his friends as a firewalker; to Joseph, Daniel, and others in vivid, precise dreams.
In the more than seventy journals you’ve kept since you began psychoanalysis in the 1980s, you have recorded the ways in which God speaks to you, including cloud formations. At Alex’s funeral, you showed a photograph of him two months before his death, paddling his blue kayak over water still as glass. You were there, too. In the photo, he is floating off your starboard bow, ripples drifting out from his paddle.
After the funeral, you asked God to show you where Alex was now, not expecting an answer. But God gave you one, spanning that fearful silence. He gave you a cloud formation perfectly replicating the position of the two kayaks in that photograph, but in the shape of a small heron off the starboard quarter of a larger heron. Herons, you’ve said, are a kind of code God uses with you in significant situations. Out of that natural icon—that fleeting cloud formation—God spoke to you.
What depths will Christ fathom to find us? What humiliations and trauma will God endure to know us, and in knowing us, to give us back our own lives, bent and bruised yet seen from above, understood, and loved?
Did you know that when I was carving up that triptych, the smell of electrical burn souring the air, Samantha was watching me, hidden in a crawl space above the basement wall between her dorm and mine? We used the crawl space to prank each other’s dorms, and she had been edging her way through the tunnel to pay us back for either the cornflakes in the bed or the cupboard full of water, when she heard the jigsaw spark out. While I blundered in the smoke and sawdust—angry at you for saying I hadn’t quite broken through—Samantha watched me make art.
I didn’t realize I was making art. I thought I was destroying what you considered crap.
Later, on the ratty couch in her dorm, she told me what she had seen.
“You spied on me?”
“I wanted to leave you alone, but I couldn’t look away.”
“What all did you see up there?”
She looked at our hands, fingers laced for the first time, and what she told me brought me back to The Gates. I was on the ground trying to carve my way out of it. At the time I couldn’t see that all around me were the puzzle pieces I would eventually bring together to create a new piece of art.
That night Samantha taught me to step back from what I’m doing to really see it—to see what could be made of the whole mess, what beauty might be created of brokenness. She spanned the gap for me then. She gave me the God’s-eye view, as she still does today.
As do you.
You will never know the mustard seeds you have sown in my life—in classes and shared studio time, in Dreaming of Lions, in the art you have made of your own scorched life.
You are known of God, James. Every pastel stroke. Every mark.
This morning I spread printouts of your drawings on the kitchen table. My youngest son, Micah, three years old now, climbed up on a chair and stared down at the clutter. Then he picked out Lazarus, your drawing of that branch scarred by hatchet strokes and left to rot, named for a dead man called back to life.
Micah held the picture and smiled at me. He turned it clockwise. Then he bent his arm to match the crook of the branch and reached out to touch me.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.