Sunday, April 29, 2007

Why Maché Artist?

A few years ago when I first got on the Internet, I noticed all these fascinating noms de guerre people had created for themselves… names like “Lips2Sweet4U” and “2L8_4myLuv” for the girls, which, once I thought about it, really made me feel pre-rejected by people I didn’t even know and whose lips I had no interest in anyway; or names like “superSTUD4babes” and “Guy2Hot2Handle” for guys with some serious superiority complexes, which, for some neurotic reason, made me feel surprisingly inferior. For a long time I humbly went by… well, Jim Bohannon. Nothing like using your real name to throw people off! There came a time, however – a fateful time – when I decided I should set up yet a second Yahoo! account, and since my real name was already taken and I was already having to use it with the number “1” attached to it, instead of going for Jim_Bohannon2 (and since “studmuffin879” was also already taken and I had little interest in trying to remember “studmuffin880”) I decided I’d call myself something that represented me to the core. So Maché_Artist it was (Maché is pronounced “mah-shay…some people have trouble figuring it out).

Why would any self-respecting, net-surfing e-mail hopper name himself after a French adjective that literally means “chewed up”? Simple. I love paper maché. When I was boy I discovered a recipe in The Family Book of Games, which I had gotten in an introductory package from Doubleday Book Club (which I had inadvertently forgotten to tell my mama I’d sent off for…but that’s another story). Well, I didn’t care much about soaking strips of paper in a galvanized washtub, boiling them down, and beating them to a pulp. I decided what I would do is tear newspaper (and we always had a stack) into tiny pieces and stick them together with glue made from flour and water. I used this method to make toys for myself. The first thing I made was a very detailed Lunar Excursion Model (LEM) which stood about 5 inches tall and actually came apart so I could both land on the moon and take off from it. The poor LEM – after dozens of landings on the dining room table (aka “the moon” – the white tablecloth was perfect), I hopped off the couch one afternoon forgetting about the lander, and it met with a cataclysmic force from my foot, rendering all future moon explorations unfeasible.

In later years I began to wonder if I could make art with this method, so I began gluing these pieces of paper together to make more detailed works, including an elephant complete with tusks and a long-neck, cartoonish turtle. As the years went by, I made various starts and stops with this art form until I decided to pulverize paper in a blender and mix it with flour and water to make a moldable mash. This worked very well, and my skill increased, until I had a bout with clinical depression and gave up art for a while. Recently I have returned to my passion for sculpting in paper mâché with the enthusiasm of a teenager who’s just discovered girls (maybe that’s a bad analogy, but you get the picture). I made a half-hearted attempt to do some things with clay, but it left me uninspired – and it also cracks very easily.

The problem with working in paper mâché, at least the method of building from scratch that I use, is it takes lots of time. Each meager stage of production has to dry completely before I go on, so keeping the motivation for major projects such as I have in progress now requires lots of patience – and it’s perfect for somebody with a short attention span, because I can work on a piece, then set it aside for days and work on something else. It’s a marathon, not a sprint, so it takes endurance, coupled with downright mule-headedness, to keep going. I've also had to change the recipe – I no longer use flour, because those same beetles that love breakfast cereal also love flour...even when it's mixed with pulverized paper. Now I use Elmer's glue, which makes an incredibly strong product when dry, and an incredibly sticky mess while in progress, but one must suffer for one's art.

Something that I really like about my art medium of preference is that I take trash (literally) and turn it into a work of art. There is something profound in that for me – it’s a metaphor, much like what I try to do in my other job as a teacher of inmates at a state prison. Where you see trash to be dropped off at the dump, I see dragons lifting their wings to fly, Civil War soldiers haggard from war, frogs playing musical instruments on lily pads, a country baseball pitcher in mid-windup, and…well, lots of possibilities.

So…I figured that would be the perfect “other name” for myself. How appropriate, because life has a way of leaving us mâché-ed (chewed up) and spit out, and I’m no exception. It’s just that I want to take the chewed-up experience and turn it into something beautiful – and if not exactly beautiful, at least a whole lot of fun!

[I've included a couple of pictures here – an older work (a dragon perched on a rock) and a piece in progress, Dragonlock Holmes, who will sport, when completed, a trenchcoat and the typical Sherlockian cap, and will hold a magnifying glass in one hand and a Calabash pipe in the other.]

Friday, April 6, 2007

Good Friday

Dear Reader,

I am a Christian, and today is one of the most significant days of the Church calendar – it’s Good Friday, a confusing name for the day when Christ was crucified. Who was this Jesus? Did he really make claims of divinity? Did he even really exist? People have chosen a variety of answers to those questions, but one thing is certain – Jesus was, for whatever reason, the most significant person in history. So significant, in fact, that recorded time is divided into two distinct parts by his birth. Christianity and Jesus get a lot of bad rap, and to be honest, some church folks don’t help his case any. But I’d like to invite you, just for a moment, to put aside all your negative stereotypes and consider a few possibilities.

The first thing that I find wondrous about the Judeo-Christian heritage is the book that, for the most part, we share – the Bible. Unlike the claims made about the holy books of some faiths of a specifically divine origin, the Bible is a book of the people. The language of the original scriptures was not some idealized “holy” language – it was pure, everyday language. The Bible was born out of the struggles and experiences of people trying to find their place in history as it related to God’s presence with them. The Bible is not a sanitized account of a people, rather it paints them with all their failures and blemishes. Failures and blemishes – now that’s something I can relate to!

Another attractive point of Christianity to me is the intimate involvement of God in the lives of ordinary people. There is a doctrine in Christianity that many folks find odd (therefore they often dismiss it as superstition, a myth, a fairy tale) and that is the doctrine of the incarnation – carne being from the Greek word meaning flesh. In other words, in Jesus, God became flesh. I can see why people have trouble with this, and why they would scoff and laugh at it, but hear me out. What better thing could happen if there is a God than for God to become intimately involved in the lives of human beings by becoming one? Have you ever heard the wise old saying, never judge a person till you’ve walked a mile in that person’s shoes? Well God decided to go even further – to become one of us. Not just to walk a mile in our shoes, but to spend a life from infancy to adulthood experiencing pain and rejection, joy and delight, hunger and fullness, all the things we experience. This is what incarnation is about.

Another doctrine of Christianity is the dual nature of Christ. An early church debate that raged for a while was about this issue. Some pointed out the human nature of Christ (Jesus had to be human, or he could not have been tempted or have suffered); others pointed out the divine nature (only God could forgive sins and work miracles). How can he be both? The question can be posed like this – “How could somebody be human and God at the same time?” Is he half man, half god? No, the church finally concluded – he is 100 % God and 100 % human. That just doesn't make sense, at least not to our natural sense of logic. How can we understand it?

Well now, have you studied quantum physics, or the nature of light? Here, I believe, we have a kind of analogy in the natural world. Quantum physics is the branch of science that focuses on the sub-atomic world, and we’ve found that to be a very strange world indeed. For instance, did you know that subatomic particles can be in two places at the same time? They can also travel in two directions at the same time. Odd? You better believe it’s odd. It contradicts every shred of evidence available to our sensory experience. But there it is. Scientists know it’s true, but it simply doesn't make sense, and nobody can understand how or why it can be true.

Scientists had a long battle with the concept of light. Is light a wave, or is it a particle? It had characteristics of both. This isn’t a far-fetched hypothesis – it’s an experimentally verified fact. Light is a wave, and it’s also a particle. It has characteristics of two different natural phenomena.

Does this prove that Jesus could have two natures? No, it doesn’t. But it does prove that there are things in this world that contradict our natural experiences, even if we can’t explain them. That should give pause to an outright dismissal.

This isn’t a polemic to try and get you to believe a certain thing. It’s just an explanation, and hopefully a characterization of what some people have believed for centuries, and some of us still believe today. We don’t understand it, but we embrace the notion that God loves us so much that God came and dwelt in our midst, experiencing life from our perspective. If you read about the life of Jesus, you can’t help but notice that he was not an ordinary person, and he never tried to please the powers that be – in the political or the religious world. He pointed out that our notions of power and success are off the mark, that what really matters is selfless love expressed through compassion.

Good Friday is good because it reminds me that no matter what I go through, no matter how bad and hopeless I feel, that God walks with me. What is the worst thing that could possibly happen to me – and I mean to me, not around me. My first two children died, my first born son in my arms, and my daughter just over a year later as I listened from the emergency room door as the heart monitor went silent. I’ve been through a divorce. My family and I have gone from a fairly prosperous life several years ago to one of constant struggle and trying desparately to hold poverty at bay. But one day something with ultimate finality will happen to me. I will die. Good Friday reminds me that death even happened to God. I am not alone, and I will never be alone, and even the worst thing that could ever happen to me is only a stepping-stone to something far greater.

I wish you a blessed Good Friday and a joyous Easter, whatever your faith – or even if you don’t have one. You can still rejoice, and I hope you will.

Peace, blessings, and love,
~ Jim