Friday, July 26, 2013

Artist in America

[Seven days to Take Off.  This blog post has taken a couple of weeks to write.  I have chosen, for now, to leave it as a post in and about process.]

I know that in the next year there will be many moments when I fly my American flag proudly.    I do believe that the United States is an amazing and great nation.  But in the past couple of weeks, I have not been feeling the love.  Recently, I visited my high school friend and college roommate, Neal Adams, in his home in Houston, Texas, where he has lived for as long as I have worked at Austin Community College.  How our paths crisscrossed—how he left Austin just as I returned to Austin after graduate school—is a somewhat complicated story and perhaps not really pertinent to my tale here.  But something in this moment compels me.  I allude to those days in a poem “The Upper Room,” in my book As Long as We Need, if you are willing to fall for a sale’s pitch here.
A recent work by Neal Adams
My life as a poet is bound up with Neal in some very subtle ways.  He and I were creative types—he, an aspiring artist, and I, a hopeful writer—growing up in Temple, Texas, in the late sixties and early seventies.  We found each other because that is how loners survive, by recognizing other people who have similar flaws and imperfections, finding them, becoming friends.  Then, in college at the University of Texas, after I gave up on the idea of being a frat boy, we lived with each other from our sophomore through senior years.  Neal did his thing in art classes, and I did my thing in literature classes.  He would return to the apartment with something that vibrated with color and tell me about Pierre Bonnard.  Maybe I would read to him some Walt Whitman.  In our senior year, when he turned to the abstract expressionists, he jumped ahead of me because I was still wrestling with T.S. Eliot. 

Also during this time, Neal began to take Christianity very seriously, not in the simple ways that most people do when joining a church and Bible study class, but seriously.  Neal is the person who introduced me to Dietrich Bonhoffer and Paul Tournier.  This is not the type of Christianity that says, “God wants me to be rich” or “God will love me if I convert ten more people,” as if the church were some kind of pyramid scheme. Rather, it’s the kind that says, “Get rid of your attachment to worldly things and take up your brother’s burdens.”  Christianity, for Neal, is not about being morally superior; it is about being one with God, about union, about the mystical marriage of the broken and the whole.  Neal is not at all judgmental and never proselytizes, so when, in the late seventies Bob Dylan started singing about Jesus, I understood:  “It may be the Devil or it may be the Lord.  You gotta serve somebody.”  It really is that clear.  Neal knows why he is painting; just as St. Francis knew why he was begging.  I have been trying to write religious poetry for decades and failing.  Neal skipped religion and painted like an angel, maybe, sometimes, as troubled angel or a lost angel, but still as an angel.

As I said, when I was more or less finished with my first round of graduate school and looking for a place to go, I returned to Austin because Neal still lived there.  He was working in a bank, if I remember correctly, and living in an apartment behind a restaurant that aspired to serve good meals to the poor.  I wrote the poems I gathered in “The Church Poems” in my first book, Text and Commentary, during this period, when Neal and his church family, more or less transitioned me from floundering graduate student to productive adult.  Then everyone moved to Houston and I stayed behind.  For most of his time in Houston, Neal has had a successful career as a graphic artist, whose clients have included such companies as Igloo.  At the same time, Neal has been practicing his true gift and passion, painting.  He has won some awards, presented in well-regarded shows, and when his introversion and seriousness allowed, he mingled, talked, and hob-knobbed with other well-regarded artists in the city.

At the current moment, Neal is confronting stage-4 cancer, and painting like a man possessed.  And so I am suffering from grief and anger.  The grief is understandable.  Someday, maybe someday soon, I will lose a pal, a friend who knew me when I was full of dreams and possibilities, when I was a new car without any dents and scratches.  He is one of the few friends with whom I discovered how far away the road from childhood can stretch.  Our horizons expanded together and often in the same direction. 

The anger is something much more diffuse and generalized.  [Well, friends, you know how life is?  At this point, while typing the sentences above, I looked at my phone.  I saw that Andis Applewhite, Neal’s friend, had left a message a couple of hours ago.  Neal has died.  Now, a couple of days have passed, and I can return to this post.]

The anger is something more diffuse and generalized.  It's wrapped in a little paper bag of confusion.  It is related to the goals of my family’s little caravan across America, but it is manifesting very early.  One of our goals and ambitions is to acquaint ourselves with the great works of American culture—pieces of music, books, poems, movies, and works of art.  I am naturally inclined toward in the biographical/historical critical tradition. (I work in the modernist new critical tradition only because I was trained to, and I play with post-modernism only as an indulgence.)  So when I think of art, I think of artists.  Most often, I do not merely recognize that a painting exists; I insist that to understand it one needs to know who the artist is and when and where he or she was working.  

What I am getting at is that I am old fashioned and believe that the source of art is an artist.  So for a year my family will travel across the United States thinking and talking about artists—painters, sculptors, architects, musicians, singers, poets, novelists, actors.  But which artists will we be talking about?  The so-called "great artists," of course.  Ralph Waldo Emerson, Mark Twain, Billy Holiday, Grant Wood, Jackson Pollack, John Coltrane, Georgia O’Keefe, Jack Kerouac, Hank Williams, Patsy Cline.  They are the artists I know about, the ones people write about, the ones monuments and plaques are erected for.

But in my everyday life, I work with and am friends with artists and poets and musicians who are not called “great,” because they are not famous.  For some reason, they were not the ones who were chosen for the role in the blockbuster movie, their album did not break the Billboard charts, their book did not make the Times best seller list, their art was not purchased by MoMA, or after they died no influential critic “discovered” their work.  Still their work—the focus of their true energy in life—is strong and powerful and meaningful.  It’s just that fewer people know about it.

I do not know why my friend Neal’s work is not as famous and well-regarded as that of Cy Twombly and Robert Rauschenberg or Franz Kline.  But at this moment, it isn’t.  And this bothers me, because standing in my little world, I wanted that for Neal.  I wanted him to have lines and lines of people throwing money and praise at him.  Yet I am not sure any of that matters—maybe this disconnect between personal affection for an artist, individual appreciation of their work, and cultural recognition of their artistic contributions will be something that continues to intrude into my thoughts over the next year. 

I am troubled deeply by the feast or famine culture through which Americans regard their artists.  Somehow artists in America are either millionaires or paupers.  If not paupers, it’s because they have compromised and taken day jobs that often eventually suck them dry.  They are either Kevin Costner or an actor in a community theater, Maya Angelou or coffee house poet. And as a consumer, I am as guilty—if guilt is to be assigned—as the next guy.  I don’t attend very many local art openings or theater productions, but I will go to many major museums in the next year, and Hollywood and I often engage in economic interchange.   We Americans don’t love our artists.  We might love a few and for a while.  But over the great swathe of the country and during the wide expanse of time, I think most Americans are more troubled by our artists than accepting or supportive of them.

So, many winds are swirling around in the caverns of my skull.  Why has my friend died at 60, who am I now that he has died, why isn’t he even more well regarded as an artist, does it even matter to be well-regarded, was he pained by this circumstance?  But over the past few days, as these winds have been swirling, I have also been hearing another voice.  It comes from my own searching in Christianity about six or eight years ago.  Henri Nouwen wrote a book, Life of the Beloved, which develops the words God spoke to Jesus when he was baptized, “You are my beloved son with whom I am well pleased.”    If Neal heard this voice in his journeys, all that I have written here is meaningless.  Any appreciation Neal wished from his parents or teachers or mentors or friends or critics or collectors is secondary and unnecessary.  My pain at his leaving is my personal pain; my wishing he and his art had been more heralded is vanity.  Neal was an artist, through and through, and that is enough.  That is how God made him.   I wish we could love each other as God loves us.  I wish we Americans could say to all our artists, “You are my beloved sons and daughters with whom we are well pleased.”  That’s an America I can celebrate. 

Soundtrack:  Billy Preston, "That's the Way God Planned It."


  1. Hey Lyman, this is Neal's nephew Darin. That was great to read, very well written, sir. Living in Austin can certainly show you the disparity between famous and working artists, i.e. all of my musician friends. I do think Neal would have enjoyed the accolades, but mostly, I think he wanted proof that he really was a master of his craft. I think in his last days, as he was painting like a man possessed, he had finally let go of the need for that outside acceptance. He truly knew he was creating work that spoke from his angelic and artistic soul. It was great to finally meet you after hearing Neal mention your name in his stories for as long as I can remember.

    1. Sometimes, in my artistic "it just doesn't matter" stance on grammar, I wonder just how bad mine really is.