Wednesday, March 30, 2011

1 Year Anniversary of the Book


When I say "the" book I mean For the Beauty of the Church: Casting a Vision for the Arts. Yep. On March 2010 it saw the light of day. Twelve months, a couple score reviews and a handful of very entertaining radio interviews later, I remain grateful for the opportunity to collaborate with so many amazing people along the way.

The critically good
Most of the feedback, thankfully, has been constructive. Some of the critical feedback has had a prodding but generous quality about it.  For example, Greg Scheer wrote me this note yesterday, with reference to my chapter:

"In the 'contextually relative' section, I wish you hadn't used children as an example. Kids are cute and young, so nobody's going to complain about their lack of skill. But what about the adult choir, artists or dancers at a 200 member local church? They rarely compare to trained professionals, but within their limitations and context they work hard and achieve good results. It always bugs me that some of my church's sophisticated parishioners will pay $50 for symphony tickets on Saturday and then speak disparagingly of our music on Sunday morning. 

Or the guy I was talking to who compared Sufjan Stevens ("what worship should be") to worship in the local church. The context of the touring/recording musician is completely unlike the level of music you can make from a pool of 100 or 1000."

I appreciate this concern and I'm glad Greg brought it to my attention. This is the kind of stuff that can make or break a music director's/pastor's day.

The critically cranky
I've had a few crabby reviews. It's not that I mind a thorough laundering of bad ideas or poor construction that the book might exhibit. Trust me. I know where the book gets it wrong. Like many of you I wish I had Hermione's time turner, so I could revise. Sometimes, though, you can't do much with a criticism.  Sometimes you get the feeling that a person has read the book a wee (carelessly) fast.

One lady at Goodreads chided it for celebrating "the beauty of a United States, mostly White Church." Well, whaddya say. Fair enough? Or maybe not or, well, ok, so what then?  If I were cheeky I'd respond by telling her that she had massively underestimated my sin of omission. Not only did I fail to use more Baptist women of color, I also neglected to include a single Brazilian, Native American Indian, green architect or Mennonite church elder. The list goes on.

To criticize a multi-author book for not including the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church--and to wit, saying nothing more--is like criticizing my favorite restaurant (Chuy's for the record) for excluding shark fillets and durian fruit. It sure does. But a restaurant can't be "all things to all men," unless you count Denny's as a brave but foolhardy effort in that direction.

While the concern she raises points to a serious issue, in practice two things have to be considered. One, I worked with people I knew. I built the symposium on the basis of relationship, not simply name- or talent-picking. The relational method mattered to me. Two, publishing houses won't likely publish an 89-author-volume, whose goal is to give voice to every conceivable constituency.

If I get another crack at planning a conference, trust me, I'll do my best to include other voices. It's one symposium, one book so far. Hopefully we'll have more to come. (That's me on a horse saying: "I'm on it.")

The critically friendly
The most friendly review I've received this past year was from Hearts and Minds Bookstore. I couldn't ask for a more happy estimation of my book than this. May the good people at H&MB prosper and live long (see review below).

A few thank yous
For all of you who have bought the book: thank you. For all of you who have read the book: thank you. For all of you who have shared the book with an artist or pastor or friend of any sort: thank you. To all of who have taken the time to write a review: thank you. To all the good people at Baker: thank you. To the other seven authors: I was a lucky guy to get to do this with you. To Phaedra for bearing with me through the whole process: I owe you a hot date at our favorite Indian restaurant.

(The photo at the bottom represents the last days of editing on the book. Good times.)

From Hearts and Minds Books:
"From the forward by poet Luci Shaw to the final chapter ("My Hopes and Prayer" by Taylor himself) this is a truly splendid collection. The pieces are relatively short, not overly demanding, yet thoughtful and rich and varied. Makoto Fujimura notes that it is "pragmatic and theologically astute at the same time" and he is correct. There is foundational, thoughtful, and inspiring theology and perspective here, and there are practical pieces, clear-headed proposals and positive suggestions. It is encouraging, if honest, and a wonderful example of how a wide variety of authors can contribute to a single, over-arching vision.

Unlike, say, our very favorite anthology of this sort, edited by Ned Bustard, It was Good: Making Art for the Glory of God (Square Halo Press), this collection is not necessarily by and for artists. Here we have John Witvliet on worship, Lauren Winner teaching us about art patronage, Eugene Peterson on the role of the pastor to encourage artists. (If you are an artist whose pastor does not encourage you, perhaps you could give this to him or her. Or, read this chapter for yourself, allowing Peterson to mentor you through his good words.)

Barbara Nicolosi, a fabulous Roman Catholic leader in the film industry offers an insightful chapter about the inclinations of the artistic types (and how to shepherd them.) There is a chapter for practitioners and a wise essay on the dangers of art-making in the local church. Jeremy Begbie's last chapter is a call for further scholarship and practice, offering good hope for the recent renaissance in Christians working in the arts.

Of course it has long been our position that artists----like bankers or teachers or counselors or engineers---don't have to do their work in the church, or in service of the gathered community in worship. Yet, there can be a vibrant relationship between artists and the local church, and this book has catapulted that conversation a light year ahead in the right direction.

What a fun array of authors, an excellent array of ideas, a good array of suggestions. Get this book, give it away, keep the conversation going."

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Retreat Update: The Virtuous Artist (and Brian Moss is coming too)



(NB: This is part II to an update on the retreat for ministers to artists. Part I was here. If you know anybody who might be interested in this retreat, would you mind letting them know? I'd sure appreciate that. See here to register. See here and here for all information about the retreat. )  

A Question: and then a few more
What if you are a super talented artist, say, you earned your MFA at a prestigious program and were courted by the elites in your field and then were offered the chance to make the kind of work you're most passionate about?

What if you have it, the elusive, coveted it, which means you're the one who is featured in the industry magazines as model artist and you're the envy of your peers and the admiration of the young?

What if, say, you were the one who won the highest award at The University of Iowa's Writers' Workshop? Or you're the kind of painter who gets calls from the Guggenheim? Or the Weinstein brothers call you to go out for drinks? What if you're that person? Or what if your architectural designs win the vote of the city council and every day people drive by and look in awe at your work, every morning, every afternoon at the end of the day and into the night, for years on end? 

And what if, to suppose a hyperbolized situation, one day you're in a car accident that causes you to become a quadriplegic?

Or, perish the thought, your spouse commits suicide? Or you find out that your child has been a heroine addict for nine years and has decided to cut off all contact with you? Or what if the IRS calls and tells you that you're in debt beyond your ability to pay back and that you'll have to forfeit all your assets? Or a tsunami destroys all your possessions except the clothes on your back?

What becomes of you then?

Do you give up your art? Do you harden? Do you pitch into a fever of driven labors? Do you pitch into a depression that you cruelly hope nobody rescues you from?  Do you look for every opportunity to sabotage signs of goodness in your life, with whatever addiction is at hand, so long as it numbs the pain of sadness and anger?

Or do you "settle"?

What if your friends ditch you? Worse, what if the people you thought were your friends turn out to be the fair-weather friends you'd always read about in novels and you never thought you'd be that (pathetic) person to whom it would happen?

Exaggerated situations all? Sure. But exaggerations can be useful as morally imaginative exercises. I also know people for whom, sadly, these tragic situations are far from hypothetical.

Our strange lot: in plenty and in want 
The worse thing that could happen to us as artists, I've long supposed, was sudden fame or sudden disaster. Even gradual stardom or gradual disaster, though, has a way of disclosing the innermost habits of the soul, habits that are even secret to our conscious mind. What is it then that could keep us from pitching into subtle or gross forms of self-destructive behavior, where the constitutional goal, wittingly or not, is to make sure people don't see what's inside for fear that we'll be found wanting (to be sure, one of the more crippling fears for artists, that or being found "all along" a fraud). 

Alternatively, what could help us abundantly flourish "whatever the circumstances," as St. Paul remarks autobiographically in Philippians 4:11?

Yes, I realize I've gone a bit grim here. For most of us, thanks be to God, the circumstances I've described are hypothetical. Or we live toned-down versions of them. Still, many of us we live with a certain cluster of fears that hover at the horizon of our consciousness. Perhaps I've seen too many artists give up or settle. The "bitter settling" is the worst, I find. I've seen artists make themselves at home with their dark tendencies, whether they're the successful type or not, and it makes me both sad and discouraged and it always makes me sober. 

Again I return to the same question I have asked myself repeatedly all these years: What is an artist and what does it mean for an artist to flourish, because I don't think either of these questions is self-evident?

So what does it have to do with our May retreat?
It is curious to me that both Frederica Mathewes-Green and I will be appealing to older histories in our discussions of the vocation of the artist.  With Frederica the icon tradition will serve as the focal point for her talk. She summarizes it this way:

"How different it was in the first thousand years where visual artists of the first millennium saw their mission as one of handing on the visual tradition they had received with humility. They did their work with prayer and fasting, and left their work unsigned. What can we learn from them? What can we learn from the early icon-stylized art?"

The problematic matter of a "successful" artist
With my talk I'll be exploring ways in which the tradition of virtue ethics can inform our work as ministers. The thought is this. What centrally makes for a successful artist? A high level of talent? An MFA? The right internship or patronage? Significant influence in their own field? Vast influence throughout society? Awards? The respect of peers? Continuous productivity? A job with an elite institution? A job at all? In good standing with the church? Work that "glorifies" God? A certain combination of these?

What if you're only one or two of these things? Are you still successful? According to what and on what grounds? 

What I'd like to propose in my talk is that a virtue ethics approach can help us answer these questions in a way that deeply resonates with the biblical tradition, which Christian history, in turn, bears witness to in the lives of faithful disciples. 

What makes for a successful artist? A successful artist, I suggest here, is one who is virtuous.

The virtuous artist: courageous, for example
Take the virtue of courage. Aristotle poses the question, Who is the brave person? He answers that it is the person who “stands firm against the right things and fears the right things, for the right end, in the right way, at the right time, and is correspondingly confident.” The excess of courage, he adds, is to be a pretender of courage, while its deficiency is cowardice.

This answer doesn't exactly tell you what to do. It doesn't involve a principle. It ignores altogether the issue of rules. It describes instead a kind of person. It's the kind of person that Dallas Willard investigates in his work The Divine Conspiracy. This person is like an apple tree. A good apple tree flourishes in a manner consonant with its treeness, which, to the point, is inseparable to the internal design of its life and to its external relation with other entities (rain, sun, dirt, care).

This is the person who knows how to respond rightly, that is, virtuously, in any circumstance. What kind of circumstances? 

Whether or not her poetry is published by The New Yorker (or a lesser magazine). Whether he acts on Broadway or off-Broadway or off-off-Broadway or in regional or local or, God be praised, community theater. Or whether she muddles along, doing the best she can. A virtuous artist will know how to respond rightly whether he or she succeeds or fails or simply hangs in there. He or she will know how to be content whatever the circumstances and will know, crucially, that this is impossible without a faithful community inspiring, surrounding and sustaining all of his or her efforts.

Four virtues & manifold practices
The four virtues I suggest are fundamental to the successful artist are humility, courage, diligence and generosity. In my talk I will briefly explore these four virtues. But perhaps the question that captures my attention even more than these virtues is the question of what practices sustain them.

It's one thing to know the right virtues. It's another thing to desire and to seek them out. It's another thing altogether to discern the practices that enable us to become virtuous and to remain virtuous over the long haul.  

It's still another thing again to discern and to cultivate the kinds of environments that encourage this kind of virtuous living. 

If having good friends around you is one of the conditions for growing in virtue, what do you if you don't have any? What if your present church experience is a difficult one? What if you're a divorced single-mother of three children with no relatives near by? What do you do then? What if you're severely bipolar or suffer from mononucleosis? What if you're in an abusive relationship that you're afraid to get out of?

You know the questions. They aren't easy, but they are the kinds that I'd love for us to explore at the retreat. 


Lastly: the neo-psalmist, the ineffably talented...
... the burly-bearded Brian Moss will be joining us at the retreat to lead our worship. I'm psyched. He's such a good man and he leads so very well. See here for his prayerbook project. See here for comments I've made about him in the past. I am particularly happy because this means we now get to cooperate twice in worship planning: once at Laity Lodge and once at the CIVA conference in June. It rocks.

Our retreat is getting better and better. It makes me so happy. Do join us if you can.

(PS: This blog entry was sponsored by despair.com, the most inspiring site on the internet.)

Friday, March 18, 2011

The Art of Friendship


The good folks over at Comment magazine (chiefly Alissa and Dan) have kindly posted an essay of mine. Titled "The Art of Friendship" it explores a few ideas about friendship with artists in mind, especially as it relates to the condition of art-making and relationship-building in the contemporary art world, both high and popular. I've included a couple of paragraphs below. The rest you can find here, at a fine magazine that publishes regularly stimulating essays.

A few quick notes.

My Lenten practices are going well. Every once and a while I get a bad itch to check Facebook. Then I remember that self-denial actually means something in the Christian faith and that I'll be the better for it if I deny my temptations. Wednesday night, though, I craved a mean piece of dark chocolate. I settled for a bowl of apple sauce instead. Grumble, grumble.

Tonight I speak to a group of IVCF grad students at University of North Carolina (and possibly Duke too). I'll be talking about horror films and the way they open up opportunities to explore the way in which art mediates three common human fears: the fear of the dark, the fear of the future and the fear of the unknown. I watched Gojira and The Host this week to freshen up my monster movie senses. It should be fun and I'm looking forward to meeting fellow graduate students. Oh, hey. How about them Longhorns and Blue Devils? I don't feel as confident about UT anymore, but at least I've got Duke's Kyrie Irving returning to the mix. I love March Madness.

I just found out that Jennifer Lawrence has been tabbed to play the role of Katniss Everdeen in the film version of the very popular trilogy The Hunger Games. Garry Ross will direct. I hope Lawrence can pull it off. She seems a little old and, well, big to play Suzanne Collins' female protagonist, but let's hope she learns how to pull a mean bow and arrow and to give the people of the Capitol of Panem something to be sorry about.

Wondering how an artist, specifically a songwriter, would respond to the natural disaster of an earthquake? Wonder no more. See here for a nice bit on Charles Wesley and his two earthquake-related hymns.

Lastly, about the ministers to artists retreat. I'm going to post part II (from part I) on Sunday. In the meanwhile, three things. One, you can register here. Two, you can find info about the retreat here and here.

And three, would you do me a kind favor and send along info of this retreat to anybody and everybody you know who might be, even remotely, interested? You know people I don't and I'd love to invite the rest of the tribe to join us at the bottom of the most gorgeous canyon in the middle of nowhere Texas.

I leave you then with an excerpt from the essay and a photograph that says it all.

Excerpt from "The Art of Friendship":

The World of Donquixotry
I have just gotten off the phone with an artist. I can't think of a better incitement for this essay than the anecdote that he relayed. He returned yesterday from a gathering with other artists in the Northwest and he described the atmosphere that marked their gathering as the plaintive bleating of lonely, wounded sheep.

I confess to being baffled by the strange obsession with loneliness that marks much of the art world. On the one hand, artists are known for perpetuating a kind of cult of loneliness, while on the other they rue the lonely life that many of them, due to the confused circumstances of art in modern society, find themselves forced to live—even in their own homes, even in New York City.

More here.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Retreat News: Wherever do we get our ideas about what an artist is: Part I



"Artists should see nothing as it is, but fuller, simpler, stronger: to that end, their lives must contain a kind  of ... habitual intoxication." -- Nietzsche, The Will to Power

The sublime "is formless, exhibits no purpose, and is apprehended in a state of excitation, 'a momentary checking of the vital powers and a consequent stronger outflow of them." -- Edith Wyschogrod, citing Immanuel Kant's Critique of Judgment

What is a teacher?
If you asked your average group of Christians, and assumed the best kind of average, to answer the question, "What is a teacher?", you'd probably get a reasonably high degree of agreement from the answers. What is a farmer? A farmer is someone who, all things considered, cultivates land or "husbands" crops or animals. What is a doctor? What is an airline pilot or a chef? These are the kinds of occupations that prove fairly easy to describe, even if in the actual writing of an answer we may fumble around for right descriptive phrases.

What is an artist?
What's an artist? That's the more difficult to describe. Part of the difficulty lies in determining whether we are speaking of "artist" in terms of a vocation or an occupation, or a profession or, in Christian circles, of a ministry. The same difficulty, of course, might be involved in the case of a farmer or teacher. It isn't a 1 or a 0 matter, because we're talking about a range of meaning. We're talking about a range of options on a spectrum, not a point. But with "artist" things seem to be a little more complicated. The vocation of the "artist" is difficult to describe because it occupies a highly fluid identity in contemporary society, let alone in the church.

(Read Rolling Stone mag, The New York Times arts section, People magazine and the latest edition of your favorite Christian magazine and you'll know what I mean.)

Trust me, I've tried this out with audiences for years. I say, "Write down "What is an artist?'" And five minutes later I ask them to share their answers with the group. The definitions are all over the place. You should give it a try. It's fascinating business. And I don't think we would run into this problem with "teacher" or "farmer."

How are we to think of the vocation of the artist?
As a craftsperson? (as per technician)
As an original genius? (as per Kant)
As a self-expressive visionary? (as per Nietzsche)
As a co-creator? (as per Sayers)
As a reverent mediator of the divine? (as per Tillich)
As a responsible servant? (as per Wolterstorff)
As a prophet? (as per Deborah Haynes)
As an imitator of nature? (as per classical Greece)
As a priest of creation (as per Graham Ward)

Yes. No. All the above. Sure, we can say all the above but the fact remains that most of us are probably running around with a certain definition in our head that functions as dominant.

We might answer that context matters for our understanding. If by day I paint for a Chelsey gallery and by night I play for the New York Philharmonica, and on the weekends I make wood cabinets for the neighborhood hardware store, then, well--I guess I'm a pretty impressive artist. But I'm also thinking of myself in different ways with respect to my three contexts.

Our ideas about an artist?
Contexts matter. But so do conceptual histories. Our ideas about what it means to be an artist do not come from nowhere.  Ideas have a history as well as hidden inertias. Those culturally embedded histories give a particular shape, and force, to the meaning of ideas. The idea of the sublime, for example, originates chiefly in 18th-century British and German philosophical settings.

Kant distinguished the mathematical sublime from the dynamical sublime: the feeling of smallness in the face of massive size and the feeling of smallness in the face of massive power (which painter David Caspar Friedrich repeatedly evoked in his work, as seen in the three works I include here). Many of the ways that folks today use the term, however, have no sense of this history. But the idea of the sublime isn't neutral--in particular as it relates to our ideas about art and beauty--and we need to be careful in our use of it, lest we perpetuate notions of the vocation of the artist that run against the demanding patterns of the gospel.

So what does it have to do with our May retreat?
Stay tuned. I'll post part two of this entry on Friday.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Lenten Practices: Putting off the "elsewhere self"

This year I have a theme to my Lenten practices. I don't think I've ever thought of my Lenten practices in thematic terms, but that's what the Spirit seems to be prompting in me and the following quote captures the spirit of my desire to mentally de-clutter. This comes from Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn's very fine essay, "From Inwardness to Intravidualism," published in the recent Hedgehog Review. Tracing out the lines of thought in Dalton Conley's incisive book, Elsewhere, U.S.A, she draws these observations:

"Recent socioeconomic trends have yielded a whole 'new breed of person' and a 'new texture of everyday life' (17-8)--a phenomenon he hopes to capture by employing 'elsewhere' as an adjective. The 'elsewhere' society is comprised of only the most 'fleeting and one-dimensional' social interactions, and the 'elsewhere' individual is in perpetual state of inner conflict, plagued by the uneasy feeling that no matter where one is, one is potentially missing out on something more important.

This new person is not so much an individual as an 'intravidual', someone with 'multiple selves competing for attention within his/her own mind, just as, externally, she or he is bombarded by multiple stimuli simultaneously' (7). Gone is the stable self with an 'authentic inner core'--as in the phrase 'finding oneself'. Instead of being guided by the imperatives of self-development in the old-fashioned sense, 'intravidualism is an ethic of managing the myriad data streams, impulses, desires, and even consciousness that we experience in our heads as we navigate multiple words' (7).

Like a fan at the sports game who, realizing she or he is on camera, cannot decide whether to enjoy the moment by looking at the screen or to perfect his or her image by looking at the camera, the 'intravidual' is uncertain and anxious, forever plagued by the road not taken. Caught up in the winds of multitasking, other fans cannot resist text messaging or talking on their cell phones, even though they have paid an exorbitant price for their seats."

After reading this passage I put the journal down, because I needed to process her words. I felt an intense dissatisfaction with tendencies that I have observed in myself and both Conley and Lasch-Quinn had a name for it: the "elsewhere self."

I have too much going on in my life. I have too many channels of data trying to squeeze themselves into my head. In consequence I feel that I'm losing two things: my moral ability to process the data wisely and a quiet, internal space in my soul. What I need is a re-calibration of internal appetites. I need to constrict the flow of external data so that there can be, as it were, an expansion of simplicity on the inside.

I don't sleep well. I struggle to keep in my memory things that I am studying. I feel increasingly distractible. And with a baby on the way, I sense a need to do things that will strengthen my emotional capacity to be present to Phaedra and the baby rather than, well, be elsewhere.

All I have to say, in that light, is thank God for Lent. Lent is a beautiful season that not only reinforces bonds of kinship with Christians, it also offers us an excuse to reorganize the "spiritual life."

Here, then, are the practices that by God's grace and the ever-present aid of the Spirit, in cooperation with fellow believers, will begin in me a necessary process of mental declutter.

MEDIA
1. Be off the internet by 7 pm. I miss my evenings. The fact is, surfing the internet always provides the easiest, most brainless, most passive way to distract myself. If I want to recover a measure of quiet in my life--that would make going to sleep a gentler matter--then I need to put up a boundary with my internet use. I want to read novels. I want to listen to music. I want to hang out leisurely with Phaedra. I want to have an evening proper, one that isn't chewed away by the internet, and that means raising a fence against the temptation to do what is merely easy.

2. Be off of Facebook. I like FB. I enjoy rummaging around and seeing what folks are up to. But I also have acquired a mental tick. Every time I post something, my mind fidgets with curiosity, wondering if people have written comments. I want a break from that mental tick and so I'm setting aside the use of FB. I'll post on Sundays only. If you send me a message via FB, I'll try to respond as readily as possible.

3. Before I read the morning's news and email correspondence on my computer, I want to practice my morning devotions first. It's a little pathetic how easy it is to crawl out of bed, wash my face, brush my teeth, grab a glass of water and then shuffle over to the computer to see what exciting things have happened while I was asleep. I don't like this habit, to be honest.

Spending 30 minutes to an hour on the computer not only makes it difficult to recover a quiet space to read Scripture, pray and prepare my heart for the day. Sometimes it makes it impossible to want to embrace my morning devotions. So I'm putting up another boundary. I'm forbidding myself from opening the computer until I have engage a proper spiritual exercise and allowed my soul to receive from God his grace for the day.

FOOD
I'm not going to try and tackle a big food discipline this year. The media disciplines will demand plenty of energy. So this year I'm simply cutting sweets out of my week. It'll be simple, sure, but I'm sure my body will thank me for the break.

ONE ACT OF ENGAGEMENT
I want to memorize one Scripture or prayer a week. I've been working through the Collects in the BCP. I'd like to try to memorize all of them. I want things inside my soul that I can carry around with me wherever I go. I've not been good at memorizing Scripture for some time, and I'd like to recover that practice too. If I only manage to memorize one verse, I'll be happy. At least I'll be doing something.

Lastly, it's nice to know that I'm not entering into these Lenten practices alone. Phaedra will join me in some of these exercises, while also practicing a few of her own. And then there is our community at All Saints Anglican and our friends scattered abroad.

May our Triune God grant us grace to keep a good Lent this year. May he encourage you in whatever you take on in your journey with Christ and his people through this season. And may we encounter a "new creation" on the other end. Amen.

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Todd Garza II: "Rosebud Incarnation" film

As I mentioned in the previous post, Todd is a multitalented artist. Here is a film he recently created, called Rosebud Incarnation. I've included below an interview that Matson Duncan conducted with him. It provides a bit of insight on the project.

I'm mesmerized by the juxtaposition of visuals and music, and I've found myself humming the tune for days. I think the film is brilliant; deceptively simple perhaps, but brilliant and a little eerie I guess, though in a satisfying way. I'm proud of Todd and I genuinely hope both his music and film work take off with flying colors.

(I'm not sure how you'd go about watching the original clip, but having watched the original and the "interpreted" piece back to back just makes the experience all the more fascinating. Lastly: watch it full-screen if you can.)


Rosebud Incarnation from Slim Jim Spur on Vimeo.

INTERVIEW

What makes this music video special to you?

For my wife and I, this is the culmination of about 6 years of thinking about public domain footage and how it can be revived as part of new art pieces, but specifically in works that do more than just recontextualize the symbolism or themes of the original films. Films that have fallen out of copyright are freely available to download from the internet, change, and mashup and people are already doing so.

However, most of what my wife and I have seen has neglected the inherent beauty of these films and has reduced the work to parody or political satire. I am especially excited about this film as it is one of the most beautiful song and dance numbers from the golden age of Hollywood musicals at MGM. It has all of the great (and cheesy) elements of that era: beautiful choreography, fantastic costumes, and fresh faced teenagers with vacuous smiles -- all of it happening on stage during a simulated rainstorm with real rain drops falling on the stage.

What does it mean to you?

I'm torn between two opposing impulses that are presented in the original work. On the one hand the film seems to unquestioningly celebrate youth and glamour and revel in a kind of endless quest for physical perfection. There seems to be some dark undercurrents in the way that June Allyson (the girl in the pink rain coat) preens and pouts for the camera. I felt it was important to question the world that was impressed on the viewer and whether the characters were really in the state of bliss that was being presented.

On the other hand I just love the film for these same reasons so I'm just as much under it's sway as anyone else, maybe even more. I find it very difficult not to smile broadly whenever I look at the film. The choreographer and cinematographer are in perfect sync with each other and the colors and the camera movement complement the dancing and the singing perfectly. And it's just fun!

Why are you doing it?

I was intrigued by the possibility of writing a entirely new song that would completely inhabit the footage the viewer is seeing. My goal was to make it look like Ray MacDonald (blue raincoat) was singing my song, that he and the other dancers were dancing to the beats I created.

What you are trying to accomplish?

I feel that most art work that is based on found objects--whether collage, junkyard art, audio sampling, or what I'm doing here--and that this can all be seen as an effort to redeem something that was lost. Very few of the people who have screened the film so far have seen the original version, so there is an element of taking something old and forgotten, putting a new coat of paint on it, and putting it in a place of prominence to be rediscovered.

What can our individual readers do to support you and what can CLProject do to support you?

We are premiering the film in New York City at the 11th annual Encounter Conference sponsored by International Arts Movement. The premier date is March 5th and we will be releasing the film on to YouTube directly after the premier.

Ideally it would be great if your readers subscribed to the Slim Jim Spur channel on Vimeo, watched the video and then left a positive comment and rating for the film. Just search for "Slim Jim Spur" or "Rosebud Incarnation" on Google or Vimeo and then follow the links to get involved.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Todd Garza I: "Slim Jim Spur" the Musician


One of the things that makes me happiest is to promote artists whom I knew during my time at Hope Chapel in Austin. Todd Garza is one of those artists. You've probably seen me use photos of him on this blog--like the one above.

Technically he's a singer-songwriter. It might be more accurate though to call him a singer-story writer. Todd has this uncanny ability to tell Greek-like tragedies in the span of three standard verses. Sometime those verses extend to eight, but that's because his Greek-like tragedies turn into Western murder mysteries. If you crossed a Coen brothers movie with Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood, you will probably get close to Todd's song, "It Was She Who I Wronged Most Of All." If art can only be understood in context, keep the Coen-Anderson context in mind as you hear it.

Todd recently released his CD"Pulling Teeth," working with one of his smoothest alias: Slim Jim Spur.

I've listened to his album four times back to back in the last 24 hours. Two favorites on the album (no surprise to Austin friends) are "Love" and "Talking While I Sing."

On Saturday he premiers a movie he created and for which he wrote original music that, frankly, sounds almost nothing like his album but is still fierce. Not to overstate the matter, but his movie is brilliant. It cleverly subverts a convention of early 1950s movies and it does so in a poignant, witty fashion. He premiers his movie at the IAM Encounter this coming Saturday.  I can't wait to hear how it's received. I'll post an entry with the movie on Saturday late at night.

In the meanwhile, here are the lyrics to "It Was She Who I Wronged Most Of All" and you can listen to the track here.

It Was She Who I Wronged Most Of All
Well I fled into the Blackwood with my black designs.
And I spied Polly Anna and I sang to her from the cedar pines.
and I quoted her a country I had parsed in the spring
of a black peat bottom valley and how soft the twilight came
And I stole her away in the fall
It was she who I wronged most all.

Now I drew my blue-eyed shoo fly flower over peak and vale.
And by the solstice of the wintertime
Polly Anna set to whine, weep and wail.
She said "Willy oh Willy I'm afraid of your ways
I'm a fearing you are going for to lead me astray"
Well Polly Pretty Polly you're a guessing about right.
Cause I've been digging on your grave the better part of the night
But I swear I will spare your life just to stop your squall.
But don't imagine for a moment my heart is yours to call.

So I drug her down the valley, and we jumped into the creek.
I bartered for a plot, a roof and a bag of seed.
I had an acre of corn put down at the first thaw.

By the middle of the may month Polly's belly begins to swell.
And I held my breath, like I was staring at my own death to foretell
I would have left her then if not for the hem of her prayer shawl.
It was she who I wronged most of all.

We was sitting in the evening watching stars roll down the blind.
When off to the left I heard a single step
and the dog let out a low whine.
It was Deacon John and Henry Dade
they were creeping up from the south.
Carrying Springfield carbines, and watering at the mouth.

I lowered Anna and the baby down
into the cellar underneath the stairs.
I took the Spencer down from the mantelpiece
and I crept around to the flank of the pair.
Deacon John called out to the door
"Oh Willie oh Willie, my prodigal son.
Come down to the well
and I'll baptize you for the treachery you have done"
Then the baby cried and the deacon smiled I knew my end had come.

I set off at dead run and I opened up at the pair
I caught the deacons thigh with my first try
I dropped Henry Dade on the second dare.
Then the Deacon rolled and answered back and I felt my legs go numb
But my hand was steady
when I pulled that hammer on the villain named Deacon John
And I laid his black soul down.

Oh Anna pretty Anna now don't you weep for me.
Now there's a strong box buried in a stand of cedar trees.
Down in the Blackwood, in the fall.
It was you who I wronged most of all.

That's Todd on the left, Laura Jenkins (nee Harris) in middle and yours truly
playing at the 2005 Hopearts festival in Austin, Texas.