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No End to Weakness

No End to Weakness

No End to Weakness

This is a collection of meditations that find their center in my studio practice as a visual artist, though they extend outward from that space. The incarnation, hope of resurrection, and consequential recasting of all things infuses my life and work with energy. In my work as a visual artist I draw no specific connections from my explorations to these events. Like any one who makes anything, the themes, qualities, and effects in my work are reflections and microcosms of what happen in nature and in humanity. These sketches describe three categories: Alchemy and Mysticism, Perception and Position, and No End to Weakness. Lest I describe what is more than helpful I want these categories to summon what images they will to the reader. I am a Christian making art in 2014. I teach at Taylor University, live in Indiana, and am married to Michelle. We have three kids.

 

Alchemy and Mysticism

In Invisible Cities Italo Calvino describes a chess match between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan. Khan is overcome with the conviction that all his conquest amounts to nothing. “The end of every game is a gain or a loss: but of what?... At checkmate, beneath the foot of the king, knocked aside by the winner’s hand, nothingness remains; a black square, or a white one.” Marco Polo then speaks up:                       

Your chessboard, sire, is inlaid with two woods; ebony and maple. The square on which your enlightened gaze is fixed was cut from the ring of a trunk that grew in a year of drought; you see how its fibers are arranged? Here a barely hinted knot can be made out; a bud tried to burgeon on a premature spring day, but the night’s frost forced it to desist…Here a thicker pore: perhaps it was a larva’s nest; not a woodworm, because, once born, it would have begun to dig, but a caterpillar that gnawed the leaves and was the cause of the tree’s being chosen for chopping down…This edge was scored by the wood carver with his gouge so that it would adhere to the next square, more protruding…[1]

 

1.

For the first two years of living in our one-hundred-year-old house the glances my wife and I directed to the threshold between our kitchen and backyard were stopped at a “decorative mahogany” steel door with a “fan light” window. This glossy sheet of metal acted as the angel at the gates of Eden for the summer sun’s evening rays. The fan light window was placed at the top of the door at a height my wife, Michelle, could not see through except to see the sky. This became a situation that caused her to voice her sympathy with Edmond Dantés and Mandela on more than one occasion. Michelle found a maple door at an architectural reclaim store in Indy. I’m not proud that a year passed before I hung it. The door’s glass and inlay composition is established by the golden ratio, the glass being the largest section— a large rectangle just above middle. The wooden rectangles are divided into smaller quantities with sums equaling the same ratio as the glass. They occupy spaces above and below the glass. Where the arc of the fan light was repeated nowhere in our home, the existence of the ratio starts off the trail that, when followed, will lead one to see that the sum of the door plus the window equals the expanded entry way into the dining room. Together, both entries—one from the kitchen to the dining room and one from the dining room to the living room—roughly equal the length of the living room wall and the two opposing walls, which also equals the dimensions of the floor and ceiling. The door handle is bronze with a floral motif in low relief. On the exterior side of the door carved into two of the lower rectangles, as if to signify a handshake between material and light, are sunbursts. The carved wood receives the sun and passes it along to us standing in a space that is now a rectangle of light, an interior extension of the landscape flowered by the reflective capacities of humanity.

           

2.

In my office at present, there is slate, wax, limestone, various rocks from friends—one from a cave in Hawaii, bronze, aluminum, sheetrock—walnut, birch plywood, plaster, honey-comb, and dried sunflowers. They are not arranged in any particular fashion. Frequently in between my classes I’ll walk in and move the materials around. I’ll take a long thin S curved piece of bronze rod from the floor and place it on a white rectangular piece of wood already hanging on the wall. All of the materials have undergone some amount of change before they have reached me. I have altered some of the material over a short period of time. The earth has altered some of it over longer periods of time. These materials are my alphabet. The substance of each letter, its molecular constitution, affects the word’s meaning. The medium burnt itself into the message. The material transfigures the message. A line composed of foam and the same line composed of bronze are not the same line.

 

3.

With open doors and open windows in the one-hundred-degree July before we moved into our house, I ripped two layers of linoleum off the kitchen floor. With velocity and momentum I peeled back the top layer. Delighted with back and forth strides that rattled the fixtures, I tore up a fifteen-foot section of 1960s linoleum. Laughing like a madman I ripped through images of burnt orange bundled wheat framed symmetrically with beige nouveau octagons. Screaming in falsetto I took both layers in gloved hand, and then, with one foot shoved to the wall for leverage and one planted firmly upon the almost resurrected hardwood floor, I descended into a low war cry as a parallelogram shaped wedge of seven-o’clock light elongated pushing its way into the darkness, and I pulled up the linoleum, dividing it from both nail and tar. Then I saw, or I felt, I’m not sure which, a sheet of air descend on the seventy-year-old now naked floor.

Christopher Zeeman popularized catastrophe theory. He wrote about how small changes in a system can cause equilibrium to appear or disappear, or to change from attracting to repelling and vice versa, leading to large and sudden changes of the behavior of the system: for example, the unpredictable timing and magnitude of a landslide.

 

4.

Over spring break Michelle took our three boys, whom she sometimes refers to as “those insane small people,” to St. Louis while I worked on our house (built-in leaded glass book shelf, linen closet and cabinet, window seats, etc.). My dad came to help out and take me to Cracker Barrel five times while she was gone.

One of our tasks was to take the three-hour back-road drive to Ikea near Cincinnati and load up his GMC conversion van with goodies. On the day we decided to leave on our IKEA journey a not quite frosty fog diffused all of the lights. My pants had holes in both knees, in one thigh, one in the crotch, and one just above my back pocket that I always accidently put my wallet into only to feel it a few seconds later sliding down the back of my leg. Grouting the newly laid subway tile bathroom wall the night before had left my too long, newly broken, fingernails dark-grey with un-sanded grout underneath.

As long as I can remember, my dad has kept a pair of fingernail clippers in his front pants pocket. So I asked him, “Dad, do you have your clippers?” He rotated around in his driver’s seat, extended his right leg and pulled the clippers out of his change filled pocket. No longer broken, no longer the cover for darkness, with the compression and caress of metal I transformed from animal back to man.

 

5.

I made a mold the size of a single unit of one of Donald Judd’s larger multivolume, multicolored works from the ‘80s. I mixed concrete and filled the mold. I separated the mold from the swarm. I cast aside the wood. I broke material over the concrete object. I hammered sheetrock on top of the concrete. I added new layers to existing layers like I was making lasagna or like I was the Pacific Ocean distributing sediment on top of sediment, building up the strata of the earth. I made another mold the same volume and placed it on top of the wreckage. I cast the form in plaster on top of the mound. I continued the cycle so that a rhythm would persist.

The single most humbling and satisfying experience I’ve had with any work was when Christopher, a Kenyan man living and teaching in Austin, TX saw this work. “You have done it. This is our war, our conflict and resolve. This is the war over all the earth, its ending, and memory.”

 

6.

The earth doesn’t necessarily dictate action. Though it can and will do so if one is attentive to it. There are keys embedded in material. Throughout history many people have found the keys and used them. Through their craftsmanship or lack thereof they have testified to what should or should not be repeated. Often poor techniques are repeated and the result is, at least, displeasing and at worst, disastrous. In my sculpture I act as a microcosm of humanity and of nature, often vacillating between the two in a single work. Humanity is gifted with reflection and cognition and has sign and signifier at its disposal. Nature has the logic of persistence and of force. I build up and I tear down, I reflect and I accumulate.

 

7.

In our house again, the late evening light coming from at least four deflections can be seen on any given wall. I’ve seen it on a western facing wall at 8PM coming from the east. A car parked at the Sunoco station serves as the initial mirror, then through our front row of glass. Reflecting off our bookshelf, bouncing off the western windows, it will spill upon the eastern wall. By that time, the light is barely brighter than the wall now in deep shadow. It looks like sand on the bottom of the ocean, shifted back and forth from so much commotion.

I’ll twist the blinds open while Eden, our youngest boy, is up to his armpits in warm water. The constitution of the big-knotted shower curtain will transform from greyish cotton to white hot light. Eden, now fully illuminated, will snap his gaze upward to meet the vision. And in the morning the light comes in through the seven living room glasses that span the rectangle space. The three boys, Michelle, and I will move back and forth through the air turned to water.

 

Perception and Place

1.

Standing in a field outside of Upland, Indiana I can see the earth.

Walker Percy taught me, in Loss of the Creature [2] not to stand where I am supposed to stand. An observation deck is precisely the place to go not to see what is supposed to be seen. Percy’s primary example is the Grand Canyon. Due to the Canyon’s proliferation through photography and print, the tourist’s perception of it has thinned to a post card before he has ever stood in front of it. The tourist then sets out to capture the Canyon in an image as he has seen it before. Picture perfect. The idea of the Canyon has become a commodity. The traveler is out to consume. He has lost his sovereignty.

Percy’s observation of the depreciation of the traveler’s ability to perceive the Canyon extends to all things that have been given a handle by “the experts” from which they can be grasped. This is the Loss. One learns that the Finch’s scientific name is the Fringillidae and there is no more need to give the bird further consideration. The name becomes the observation deck from which to view the bird called “finch.” The movement from the earth to the deck is an infinite movement. It’s the movement between seeing what is there and seeing what we think we are supposed to see. It’s not the earth that thins out due to proliferation.

 

2.

During premarital counseling one of the things our pastor, Ron Lutjens, told my then fiancé and me to look out for was the “accumulation of disappointments” and the tendency of using language that suggests the other person’s actions have finally, cumulatively effected the other: “you always leave your breakfast things out on the counter” or “you never fold the laundry” or “you always move stuff around so that I can’t find it.” He then quoted Tolstoy: “One of the most widespread superstitions is that every man (and woman) has his own special, definite qualities; that a man is kind, cruel, wise, stupid, energetic, apathetic, etc. Men are not like that…men are like rivers; the water is the same in each, and alike in all; but every river is narrow here, is more rapid there, here slower, there broader, now clear, now cold, now dull, now warm.”[3]

In mathematics, the point of singularity is a point at which a function takes on an infinite value. In space-time, it is a point at which matter is infinitely compressed to an infinitesimal volume. Such is the condition of a black hole or the mega particle from which all things sprang.

 

3.

The pulpit and the crows nest are both transformers. The former moves through the water much more slowly than the later. Both are a lookout and a platform, a point from which sensory information is transferred from one form to another. The crow’s nest transforms an iceberg into a left turn. Similarly the pulpit is a location from which someone stands and having seen an iceberg or land commands a left or right turn.

 

4.

When I expressed to a friend that I was having a difficult time in my studio he told me, “The next time you go, walk in backwards.”

 

No End to Weakness

In The City of God Augustine warns Rome against destroying all of her enemies. “They will check your humility. Without enemies you will do as you please.”

 

1.

It is commonly known amongst my students that I am not a fan of Disneyland. My seniors tease me about it. They buy me Disney paraphernalia. Occasionally a freshman that I don’t know will accost me in the hall in a state of relative confusion to ask me about it. In truth I’m not a complete hater. I’ll probably take my children. I’m concerned about a Disney modeled life when each facet is completely controlled. The trash is taken out underground and the princess never ages. Every vacation is to a resort. Church is a resort. If I answer my students, “I like bronze and fire and other raw material as well as all living things.” The confusion seems to be compounded, and anyway, that’s not the entire answer. It’s helpful to be properly aligned with our weakness. Only from such a position can we see clearly. I think weakness, not population control, is why Ed Abby always talked about the need for more predators. Turn your eyes from the façade. It will cost you thousands, if not millions of dollars in plastic surgery. It might cost you your soul. If we transform into vinyl siding during this life, we may just melt away in the fire that will recast all things.

 

2.

Our Christ came to us, the Son of God, even:

Flesh. Carpenter. No good town. Not Phillip Johnson’s glass house. Thrust through with iron. Standing in boats. Walking on water. Fingers in dirt. Thorns against skull. Descending to the nether regions. Raising the dead. Fingers on shoulders. Walking down streets. Return of the dead. Eating fish. Out from the earth. Mistaken for a gardener. Feet on warm stone. “Clipping roses? Maybe.”[4]

 

3.

Revelation came to us through fire and wind, carved in stone. Men with their heads burning as bright as the sun brought them to us. Eating raw insects and wearing fur, they let us know what to expect. Women waiting without glory in stony buildings told us what we couldn’t hope for. Lying on their sides for too long they gave us warnings. They were pushed out into the desert where they were provided for. They were hemmed in by the Lord of Hosts whose way is the way of the ocean. They were forced to thrive, forced to adorn themselves in beauty. The Hebrew’s were forced to understand that bondage to the Lord is bondage to life, bondage to flourish, bondage to blossom. They were held down until they knew there is no end to submission, no end to being let go, no end to giving up strength, no end to weakness.

 

4.

The way of the earth is the way we will go. We have no choice. Do not fear. On the other side, along with the earth, we will be remade.

John Maede, the former president of RISD commented: “I think there’s a huge lack of self-confidence in a creative person because, by nature, the definition of a creative person is someone who is trying to make something new. They know, if they are a professional creative, that the likelihood of doing that—making something new and significant—is hugely unlikely, so they build within that city of doubt. From doubt, they get to iterate and work extremely hard, hoping to find something new; it’s all about hope. I’ve never met anyone who is good at what they do creatively and is super confident.”[5]

 

5.

Walking with my dad down to the lake near his house, we ran into Richard Beason, one of his neighbors. Richard grew up on a cotton plantation in Georgia. When we saw him under the sun he told us that the slaves at his parents’ plantation would play baseball games on the weekends. When Richard was a kid he and his friends would make and sell popcorn to all of the African Americans during the games. Occasionally, during a game weekend, B.B. King would come and play in the foyer of the plantation. Everyone would gather around B.B. King. They Clapped. He Jammed. They Sang. He stomped. They brought down the power.

“Let them be helpless like children, because weakness is a great thing, and strength is nothing. When a man is just born, he is weak and flexible. When he dies, he is hard and insensitive. When a tree is growing, it’s tender and pliant. But when it’s dry and hard, it dies. Hardness and strength are death’s companions. Pliancy and weakness are expressions of the freshness of being. Because what has hardened will never win.”[6]

 

Lord, bless the work of our hands upon us. Let your church swell into a bud and blossom upon the earth, sending out a sweet aroma to the world.


[1] Italo Calvino Invisible Cities p 131-132

[2] Walker Percey The Loss of the Creature from Message in a Bottle pg 46-63

[3] Tolstoy, in Resurrection 1899

[4] Bill Boyed, Sermon Christ As Gardner 2008 All Saints PCA Austin TX

[5] John Maede Interview in The Great Discontent March 19, 2014

[6] Andre Tarkovsky, Stalker


Josh Welker is from St. Louis, Missouri, where he received his BFA from Webster University and his M.A. from Covenant seminary. He received his MFA from U.T. Austin and is currently Assistant Professor of Art at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, where he resides with his wife Michelle and their three boys, Fred, Charlie, and Eden Wilder.