This is a flying drawing I did in 2012. It reminds me of one my early songs.
In 1978 I was working at the Wind River Nursery in the Gifford Pinchot Nat'l Forest, just south of St. Helens before she blew. A friend of mine loaned me his big old reel-to-reel tape recorder to lay down some music I'd been working on. One of the songs was about flying.
Here's a YouTube link for it: http://youtu.be/mq_0Ot4YQ-8
This is what the drawing eventually became:
I call the painting "Come Away, Come Away" (oil on canvas, 32 X 42, 10/2017) from the chapter title in "Peter and Wendy”, J.M. Barrie's profoundly moving tale where they soar out the open window. Sad to say, after they return from Neverland and grow up, they forget how to fly.
The last chapter is incredibly moving. Peter returns for Wendy after she has grown up. She says "Don't waste the fairy dust on me. I've forgotten how to fly." He tells her he'll soon teach her again. She demurs, and tries to get him to stay. Peter draws back, saying "I don't want to be a man. I don't want to go to school and learn solemn things."
Fast forward to the plasticity of dreams. I painted this in 2017, which is already..last year! Point is, I want to envision myself flying NOW, as I am today.
It feels like much of the time I simply endure this world. Nevertheless, I remain emboldened by a graphic vision the Lord placed in me when I was yet a boy,the hope of..UNALLOYED FREEDOM.
It's imbedded too deep for the devices of this world to extract, although he world has done its darnedest to teach me its solemn ways and mold me into someone who "knows better".
I still hear the call, "Come Away, Come Away!”
In one sense, I do not blame Peter for not wanting to become “a man”.
I mean, what do we have to look at as a model when we consider the prospect of becoming one? I find the question only resulting in dilemma beyond dilemma. It was enough of a problem for the great Russian speculative thinker Nicolas Berdyaev to make the following declaration:
“MAN IS NOT WHAT HE IS.”
If he is not what he is, then what IS he? It must be something far far beyond what we’ve seen up to this point, not just someone who’s been born, but someone who lives out their destiny. It must be someone who doesn’t get old and die, someone who transfigures the whole world.
In the beginning was music, my invisible friend. I was inside it and it coursed through me as
blood through a vein. How does one describe something which is of the spirit yet entirely wed
to the physicality of matter? Creativity in this world.
Music and I suffused each other, but we were not identical. Music was free. But my freedom
was ever partial. Although my experiences in its warm current were rapturous, it felt like I
was always giving chase, like a famished lover. I could never ultimately merge with its beauty.
Nevertheless..notwithstanding..even so..I believe it will happen. Until then, however,
the promise must remain the beckoning earnest of life to come.
I’m swimming in it now, no longer churning. I’ve allowed myself to drift. All the seeming disparate streams of my work — music, writing, drawing, painting and film — are converging into one focus: myth.
I am essentially a graphical artist and view image as text and text as image. I look at words as instant image, and imagery as instant narrative.
Although each work is initiated in the making of the piece, its purpose is fulfilled only within those who experience it. In that sense, art for me has no longer a solely exterior locus. Its potency hovers, ghost-like, as in a myth, ready to be drawn from or added to.
“There really is no such thing as Art,” as E.H. Gombrich sagely said. But I do not hold to what Gombrich says next, that “There are only artists.” I would state, rather, that “There is only humankind.” We are ALL meant to share in the emergence of the altogether new.
Let us resist objectification and the taxonomies of culture. Creativity is antinomic. Think paradox. Where IS a painting, for example? It has both an interior and exterior locus, both a subjective and objective reality. It only partially exists in time and space, and it’s physical existence can only be made meaningful, can only reach fulfillment WITHIN the experiencer of the work. Then it is neither matter nor spirit but both/and.
We must create a New Myth, one which needs every Experiencer’s private range of thought, emotion, and memory. One might ask “How is this different from what art does currently? What makes the myth new?”
I would offer the following: the Old myth, the old “Art” is an antiquated paradigm. It describes a world in which, through the making of unique or separate works, the artist seeks personal recognition or commensurate remuneration. This has proven to be a deceitful promise, inadequate for the present age, unable to raise hearts in hope. That old myth, or paradigm brought forth just the opposite. It made life bleak for the many in the very act of making it fruitful for the few. This is akin to the phenomena of pride or power: they REQUIRE that other humans be insignificant in order for you to become significant.
So we need a New Myth. Our creative work must be something in which ALL of us may “live, move, and have our being.” As Baudelaire said of the sensate world, “All these things think through me, or I through them.” Perhaps this is not a new myth at all, though. Perhaps it is simply true myth. I’ve been trying my hand at the prose poem..
The myth is far from something false. It’s truer than the worlds we touch. It calls up what we once have known. Before we knew we’d learned too much, before the way was hard and straight, divisions either day or night, we dallied by the open way, a winding trail still bathed in light. We find this way again in myth, and open wide its welcome doors. We do not bow to blight of fact, within the age of myth restored.
I was a minister’s son and Robert Illes was the son of a printer. We lived across the street from each other in south central Los Angeles from about 1956 to 1959.
Rob’t was a fun guy, and we did fun stuff. For us that meant creative work. Sparks flew when we began to make books. We went for it, totally went for it.
Rob’t’s dad brought home reams of typewriter paper for our unbridled use. Mr. Illes also gave Rob’t an old typewriter, which he made use of. I preferred to hand-print my sentences with a pencil. Some of the pages we made included our rough-hewn illustrations. We celebrated the raw irregularity of our work, the way it filled each page in a different way. I STILL love the way our first books looked even today.
We’d take out a pinch of paper from the ream and fold it at the horizontal half-point. Then we stapled it near the fold. Presto, a blank book!
Nothing holds more wondrous possibility than a blank page - or an empty canvas. Anything can happen, and the artist is always at the epicenter of whatever emerges. Rob’t and I both knew we had front-row seats.
I recall kneeling beside a bed, each of us with our own blank book. We must’ve put something underneath to provide a firm working surface. We hurled ourselves into the work. Each of us let his respective tale unfold.
My character was Flank Ander, a scrappy, tough-talkin' western hero, carrying a pair of “pop-guns” strapped to his hips. I was inspired by the programmers I used to watch with my father on Sunday afternoons, also maybe the Warner Brothers series of television westerns we were watching at the time, like Cheyenne. Rob’t invented Ben Benton, a brilliant private investigator. He was a combination of Sherlock Holmes (he had the same hat) and Joe Friday.
We passionately scrawled out our pulp novels, stretching them from cover to cover, inserting expressive drawings of the action here and there with the lines they illustrated written underneath. We just kept writing and drawing from the first page to the last. Voilà, we had a book! I can’t describe to you how significant this experience was for me. I was 9 or 10 years old.
I’d been drawing at home for several years before this. My mother especially encouraged me in it. I used to draw cutaways of underground passageway and hideouts. They might have been inspired by Phantom Empire, the Gene Autry serial or perhaps by crawling around Injun Joe’s Cave on Tom Sawyer’s Island at Disneyland.
Robert and I still can’t remember just when it was that we met. This makes me think it must’ve been in a class we were in together at 74th Street Elementary School. We were definitely in the same fifth grade class. Rob’t recalls showing our books to Mrs. Ballotte. I just noticed a spelling correction in one of the books. It might’ve been made by Mrs. Ballotte. She cheered us on. So did our parents.
Robert wasn’t a Christian as far as I knew, or at least we didn’t discuss such things. I’ve never been overly concerned if a person I enjoyed was “inside or outside” the church, anyway. I knew Dad wasn’t, either. Robert came from a family of Hungarian immigrants. I knew that I came from immigrants, too; I was a German/English hybrid critter. But, again, we never thought about that. I didn’t even learn how to pronounce his name correctly until I was in my late-sixties. Our attention in those early 78th Street days was concentrated on the wonderful things we could make for free, and out of nothing! We loved it. It was exciting, adventurous and it made us laugh.
The other kids liked to play war games outside. Each kid’d have a toy rifle or pistol. You pretended to shoot, making gun sounds with your mouth. I tried doing that for awhile, but it wasn’t nearly as much fun as making books.
When I played with the other kids sometimes I’d get into a fight about whether I was dead or the other guy was dead. I’d say, “I shot you first!” Then he’d say, “Uh-uh, I shot y-o-u first!” I didn’t like that part. When I wrote my own stories I always survived..and there was no argument. Oh, I got wounded a lot, but I didn’t have to die. I liked that a lot better.
Flank Ander didn’t take guff from anybody. He was a tough guy and a good fighter. Ben Benton could solve mysteries and figure things out. Besides that, we we had a lot of fun. Besides, it seemed a better way to go than butting heads with bullies in the street.
I soon realized that Robert didn’t have the “restraints” on him I had as a preacher’s kid. He definitely still uses words I would not employ even now. But, what was this strange compunction hovering over me? I have a feeling it might be one of the reasons we church-folk don’t enjoy life sometimes. We’re confused about many things. My mother, especially, taught me to be a “nice” boy. Robert didn’t have the same baggage. That was part of the reason I enjoyed being around him so much. It was eye-opening. It still is.
Rob’t and I have just made a new book together. When I first read the text, I heard my mother’s voice again, saying, “Now Daniel..is that a nice thing to say?!” But I weathered the lying compunctions, and hopefully stayed true to those I needed to stand firm on. Whew! I got past my initial qualms about illustrating Robert’s text. After 58 years, we’ve made a book again!
The graphic novel, I, Alien should be published soon. I’m not sure it’s as great as the books we made back in ’59, but it’s still very good. It’s a comedy about alien abduction.
The narthex was a long room just inside the church doors where the ushers greeted everyone. They gave us a pamphlet called Order of Worship and we went in.
The sanctuary arched high over us like a loving cloak. As we walked forward down the aisle, I looked to either side. Between the ribs of each wall were tall stained glass windows illumined from without by the bright sun. We found a place to sit on the smooth wood. Sometimes I scooted so I could sit where the colored light from a window streamed down onto the pew.
In the center of the back wall was a rough cross. Light shone through chunks of stained glass which had been imbedded in the cast fiberglass. I found myself reminiscing about when Dad & I visited the sculptor in his studio where the cross was being made. Since it was sunny California, he worked outside in his grassy, jumbled backyard. Wow, a real artist! It meant a lot Dad doing that with me.
Waking from my reverie, I heard music coming from behind us. Both the choir and organist were situated in a balcony above the narthex. In Tucson, which was our next church, the choir and director were in front, behind the organist. I was in the youth choir and all of us wore red robes. It was a great experience singing in that choir. We toured the states one summer. The choir director was a great teacher. It was he and Dad taught who me how to use my diaphragm.
The high wooden pulpit was in front on the right side of the platform. Dad stood behind it so everyone could see and hear him. A purple cloth with an embroidered cross and gold fringe draped over the top in front of the microphone. On the left was a lectern for the associate pastor. Under the cross in the back was a large wooden table, which Dad stood behind to officiate weddings or celebrate communion. At both ends of the table were large white candles on gold candle stands. Sometimes the table was covered by a blue cloth decorated with liturgical symbols. My father wore a black robe and a scarf around his shoulders.
When I heard the soothing sound of my father’s voice in the call to worship, I reached for the hymnal and opened it to the first hymn. Then he began to sing. I have to say, I think the rich sound of his voice may be the dominant memory of my childhood, aside from the palpable presence of God himself.
I wrote a list of favorite hymns in an old hymnal of mine. When my father sang A Mighty Fortress Is Our God, it moved me deeply..
A mighty fortress is our God,
A bulwark never failing;
Our helper he amid the flood
Of mortal ills prevailing:
For still our ancient foe
Doth seek to work us woe;
His craft and power are great,
And, armed with cruel hate,
On earth is not his equal.
What the hell was my God preparing me for?! For example, there was
O God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come,
Our shelter from the stormy blast,
And our eternal home!
These songs have stood by me all my life. Recently I worked on a guitar version of Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus and sang it in the Princeton Methodist Church.
Come, thou long-expected Jesus,
Born to set thy people free;
From our fears and sins release us;
Let us find our rest in thee.
I'll cite one more by Charles Wesley, He, along with Bob Dylan, have been my greatest influences as a songwriter. Wesley wrote the hymn I just mentioned and he also penned O For a Thousand Tongues To Sing. It’s the first page of my hymnal:
O for a thousand tongues to sing
My great Redeemer’s praise,
The glories of my God and King,
The triumphs of his grace!
My young soul basked in the glories of this music. You'll just have to take my word on it. The lyrics alone do not convey what power they have. Before the golden age of fifties rock n’ roll, before the rich and varied music of the sixties, before the classical music I grew to love as a young man, there were these great hymns. They still resonate deep in my heart.
And then there was the visual counterpoint to the sublimity of the music - the stained glass windows. They weren’t just scenes or illustrations. How could they be? The colored glass was all broken up into shards, separated into fragments! The form defied taxonomy. A stained glass window didn’t just refer to a subject. It called up the thing itself. Here in the sensuality of the sanctuary, suffused with beauty and kindness, riding a wave of ineffably rich music, amidst the color and light streaming down, I could touch the Spirit. This is where I learned the act of contemplation, of knowing God - and it became the bed of my life's creative work.
Between hymns, the congregation spoke aloud:
Our Father, which art in heaven ,
Hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come, thy will be done,
On Earth as it is in Heaven.
Some refrains we sang. I so wish you could hear the music of them now. They’re in my bones:
Glory be to the Father,
And to the Son and to the Holy Ghost,
As it was in the beginning
Both now and and ever shall be
World without end, Amen. Amen
The service culminated with my father “delivering” his sermon. The term fit. On Sunday it was like he gave birth to a child that had been gestating all week long.
I knew firsthand how he labored. Once I looked into his study and tried to get his attention, but he didn’t look up. It was like I wasn’t there. Why was I so deeply hurt? It was because I loved him so much, that’s why. It remained a sore wound for years.
Perhaps this is why I still have so much trouble praying. I’ve never been absolutely sure that God was listening. It remains a persistent quandary - is what I desire to say important enough to hold his attention? I've never doubted that he loves me, though. I know he loves me. I feel his love.
During one of my father's last days, I thankfully got what I really needed. He must’ve sensed what I was asking for. Looking up from his wheelchair, he said, “Dan, you’re a wonder to me.” I’ve sealed those words up in a secret vault in my heart. I don’t know what I would’ve done if I hadn’t heard him say this before he died.
His actual sermons are vague in my memory. I guess I was preoccupied, too. Young men do tend to get wrapped up in the throes of their own emergence, so wrapped up they either can’t or plain don’t want to listen to what their father is saying. I do know that what he said sometimes got him in hot water. I remember hearing in Tucson about the parishioner who objected to what they called “profanity in the pulpit.” I was never told what that particular fuss was about. I do know Dad liked to rock the boat, and I know he enjoyed it when I rocked a few myself.
I caroused a bit and, either he didn’t know, or didn’t think it was important enough to stop me. Sometimes I think it might’ve been better if he’d done it a little more - stopped me, I mean - stopped me and talked. But here again, I'm not sure I was always on his radar.
You know, I don’t hold it against him anymore. I’m grown too painfully familiar how oblivious I can be myself.
His sermons always returned to themes closest to his heart. He usually got around to social justice, racial equality, or, and this should cover it - the kindness and compassion of God. I have a photo of him in Africa at Albert Schweitzer’s compound, helping an old woman churn buttermilk. I think the picture says it all. Most of the time he lived to love people and give himself for others. That’s why he respected Schweitzer so deeply. Faith can’t be just what you talk about. It has to be a life you live.
When I was young, my father represented God to me. That’s why my parents’ divorce had such a devastating effect. I thought the kingdom of God was crumbling. Eventually I got over that notion, but it wasn’t until I got a lot more familiar how difficult being a parent can be. I should say being a person..period.
At the end of the service my father stepped off the platform and spoke these words to the people. They have rung down through my life:
“Now unto him that is able to keep you from falling, and to present you faultless before the presence of his glory with exceeding joy: to the only wise God our Savior, be glory and majesty, dominion and power, both now and ever, Amen.”
The Dad walked to the back of the church, turned around, and said:
“The Lord bless you and keep you: the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious unto you: the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace. Amen.
Then arose gradually the usual Sunday after-church rustle - people getting up, the sound of Bibles and hymnals being put back, voices muttering softly - all this over and against the swelling chords of the organ.
Reverend Gilbert S. Zimmerman walked back and stood beside the front doors. I scurried back to sidle up next to him, close enough to feel his soft, cascading robe. I loved standing there with him, as the people filed past to say a few words, shake his hand, and go home.
"The essence of Western Civilization is neurosis.”
I happened across this startling phrase reading one morning in William Barrett’s Time of Need- Forms of Imagination in the Twentieth Century.
I value this early reading time so much. It helps me navigate, or rather, circumnavigate, my own peculiar neurosis. After a night of sleep and dreams, my brain is less tangled by concerns. I’m not driving forward with the heedless velocity which builds up inside me during the day. In the A.M. I'm able to both read and think, and beyond this to send thoughts back for more consideration.
Today again, as I read William Barrett, I am brought up short by his discussion of neurosis, and I reflect on the bizarre theatrics currently on public display. Barrett says of Western man: “We know so much that we cease to know the primal things.”
Does anybody know “the primal things” anymore? If anybody does, they couldn’t possibly all be in one camp. I think a lot of them aren’t making any public noise at all.
On the television news, I watch the dramatic characters determinedly pursuing their impassioned ideas and am reminded of Victor Frankenstein, as he fixedly labored to raise his carefully re-fashioned corpse to life by an obscure combination of both scientific and arcane means. But in the end, after all the sparks had subsided, he was left unfulfilled. I quote Mary Shelley: “We are unfashioned creatures, but half made up,” Victor’s overambitious drive reflected his nagging neurosis. He was desperately seeking a sense of worth, something to complete his “half made up” existence.
Our nation’s awkward (to use the kindest word possible) situation is tragic in the classic sense.
If only we would allow our stubborn ambitions to die, if only we’d go to sleep and dream again, like children do..if only we’d cease our efforts to manically cobble things together, things we should allow to properly decompose..so as to best nurture the soil of a whole new world..maybe..maybe..perhaps..
Perhaps then we’d be able to stop, look around, and see each other, standing together on this grand, beautiful, ravaged Earth. If only we could pause to recognize the great gifts we’ve already been given. If only we’d learn to care for one another.
Frankenstein sought to galvanize the monstrosity he’d stitched together and raise it to life. If he had a change of heart, the horror might have been averted. After all, He who was dead has already been raised.
Now that my ladder’s gone,
I must lie down where all ladders start,
In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.
The quote is from Yeats. A profound humbling of our nation might not be a bad thing.
“There can be worse things than the experience of humiliation through which we learn humility.”
Sometimes there is great profit in defeat.
Notes on the vicissitudes of the creative life.