Exploration, Editing, Consolidation, Next

Work life moves forward in stages unless interrupted by abrupt catastrophes. I’ve noticed four sequential steps: exploration, editing, consolidation, searching-for-next.

Exploration means learning a new skill, figuring out a job, searching for basic anchor points when working on an unfamiliar problem. Unknowns and unpredictable turns make this step exciting and fresh or scary and bewildering.

Editing comes once the basics have been figured out. The former novice looks for more direct ways of accomplishing goals and discards paths leading to frustration and failure. Surprises still occur, but challenges become less severe and threatening.

Consolidation arrives after the surprises all but stop. A seen that, done that method of operation takes over. A relaxed sense of mastery establishes itself as experience’s reward. Two problems arise near the end of this step: complacency; and loss of ability to adapt to new situations.

Searching-for-next makes its entrance after boredom grows from a sense of comfortable dullness to soul-killing despair. The master of his/her domain starts looking for an escape hatch when hunger for something new counterbalances the fear of the unknown.

I’ve gone through this cycle about five times since graduating from a masters program in painting. A professor told me long ago that it’s important to maintain interest in the act of painting. Once any style, subject, method becomes stale, it’s time to move on. I no longer see the rise and fall of any particular body of work as something to fear, celebrate or mourn.

Some jobs and relationships seem exempt from periodic change. Renewal comes from within an ongoing discipline. Some artists find enough material and room for experimentation to maintain a style throughout their careers. Their work evolves.

Teaching still challenges me student by student, class by class. My subject matter hasn’t changed much in the last 25 years, but I still look for ways to keep my lessons fresh. Every time I teach a new style or technique in class, I learn an alternative approach that may influence my work. The job only becomes stale when I feel too tired to look for opportunities to expand and strengthen my practice.

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Oh Sweet Jane

O.S.J. 1
O.S.J. 2

These color pencil drawings began with the same subject (the Cowboy Junkies’ song, Oh Sweet Jane) as a starting point. I overlapped words and images in the first, and fused layers of symbolic shapes in the second. I also restricted my palette to a limited number of pencils, each drawing having a different range to create distinct moods.

The drawings took on a life of their own, and my original intentions gradually evolved as colors, shapes and tones began to form patterns and unintended associations.

I’ll probably continue with the series until the surprises fade away.

Dinosaurs and Heaven: Science vs. Religion

dinosaur angel

When I moved to Orlando I saw decals on cars that carried on a debate between science and religion.  One was a fish, a symbol of Christianity, and letters inside its outlines spelled out “truth”.  Another decal showed the outlines of the same fish, but little feet replaced the fins.  The letters inside spelled “Darwin”.  A third decal came in the form of a “truth” fish eating a “Darwin” fish.  I’m not sure if anyone’s thought up a fourth.

I’ve seen YouTube videos of mothers protesting against public schools teaching boys about dinosaurs.  They believe that a boy’s aggressive tendencies can be awakened by seeing pictures of T-Rexes, that these images “bestialize” their sons.  Some mothers insist that dinosaurs never existed as the Bible does not mention them.  The thunder lizards are a hoax perpetuated by paleontologists to get grant money from the government.

Other groups believe that dinosaurs did exist, but not before Adam.  They ignore evidence provided by carbon dating.   They claim instead that God snapped His fingers, and the earth suddenly teemed with all the creatures that would ever walk, swim, ooze and fly.  (Whoop, there it was!)

The graphics that illustrate this proposition lack imagination.  They usually show kids playing with baby brontosauruses while a volcano puffs benevolently in the distance.  But if you thought about the rampant conditions shortly after this Creation moment, you’d have to conclude that our planet was truly exciting for the species that currently survive.  Elephants would have had to outrun T-Rexes.  Lions and wolves would have  fought velociraptors over kills.  Owls and eagles flew along side pterosaurs, and sharks competed with fifty foot mosasaurs for the rights to seal hunting waters.  (If I were Adam I wouldn’t have lazed about naming this and that creature and pining for a soul mate.  Instead I would have found a dark corner in a cave and hid myself away while the rest of creation sorted things out.)

I once worked with a woman named Mrs. Putterbaugh.  She was deeply religious and did not approve of a coworker, my roommate Dave.  He was a master’s degree student in biology.  Dave believed that science would eventually solve all the mysteries of the universe and that any form of religion was an obsolete superstition.  She complained about his impatient dismissal of her beliefs and said, “The really smart ones have a hard time getting into heaven.”

She smiled at me as she said that, and I knew that she included me in the heaven bound elect.  She assumed two things:  1) I was not as smart as Dave; 2) my faith in scripture outweighed my belief in science.  My roommate was smarter, but my attitude toward religion at that time was almost identical to his.  If he and I had been plastered flat on I75 by a jack-knifing semi, we both would have been consigned to the flames.

I didn’t tell Mrs. Putterbaugh that it’s foolish to cling to myths disproved by science.  And I didn’t explain to her that the earth has existed for 4.5 billion years, that creatures gradually evolved over millions of years, and that T-Rexes never lay down with lambs.  She would have closed her ears and begun leaving Bible tracts at my work station.

Now I might fare better in a discussion with her.  I believe in the ability of science to describe and predict reality, but also believe that the practice has its limits.  We are puny creatures with limited means of exploring the vast reaches of creation.  It’s arrogant to assume that we will know and understand All if given a enough time to smash subatomic particles and balance equations.

Only God knows why He (She, It, The Cosmic Transcendence) bothered to let the universe be in the first place.  Science is good at figuring out what and how, but usually avoids why.  There are no equations that answer this question:  what’s the point of existence?

The Roman Catholic church has overcome it’s past of suppressing science, and generally embraces the idea that religion and science can coexist in harmony.  My fifth grade teacher, a nun named Sister Joseph Marie, commented, “The Catholic Church has no problems with Darwin and the theory of evolution.”  A classmate asked, “But what about Genesis?  Doesn’t it say that everything was created in six days?”  Sister replied, “What is a day to God?”