When creating a painting, the goal of artist Kadir Nelson is to make his paintings “sing.” Nelson relayed that thought to a large audience in attendance at his presentation at Calvin’s Festival of Faith and Writing Friday afternoon.

So how does Nelson make his paintings sing? The answer is simple: By going the extra mile with research and attention to detail.

In addition to his great love for art, Nelson also has a love for history. Those two loves are evident in latest book entitled: We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball.

Nelson was commissioned to put the book together while he was a college student. Now 32 years old, Nelson just completed the book and to wide acclaim. According to Nelson, the book was a journey of several years because of the exhaustive research he underwent to document detail after detail of the Negro League era. In an example of his research, Nelson picked up an old Negro League uniform and wore it himself while standing in different poses to get a feel for his subject.

That kind of research makes his paintings sing.

The cover of the book features a rendering of Negro League home run slugger Josh Gibson with his bulging left bicep staring out at the reader from underneath his wool Homestead Grays uniform.

When I first saw the painting, I thought Gibson was ready to step out of the page and shake my hand because it was so lifelike. I also started wondering how many home runs Gibson would have hit if he had been given an opportunity to play Major League baseball.

As a baseball fan, I’ve always wanted to go back in time and attend a baseball game at old Ebbets Field which the Brooklyn Dodgers called home. Included at the end of Nelson’s book is a painting of Jackie Robinson warming up in Ebbets Field in his first year as a Brooklyn Dodger. Robinson of course is the first African-American to have played Major League baseball. In gazing at the painting, I felt like I was back at Ebbets Field, standing in front of Jackie Robinson. The old stands, the old scoreboard, the old advertising on the outfield fence, it’s all there in sublime detail courtesy of Nelson.

In short, Nelson is a master in taking someone back in time with his work.

“I try to pay attention to every detail in my (historical) paintings,” said Nelson this afternoon. “It’s going that extra 10 percent that makes a painting. When I put together a painting, I want to go all the way to the vein of the goldmine.”

Indeed.

~posted by Jeff Febus

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At the “Literary Fiction: A Place for Faith?” panel this morning, the discussants offered these book recommendations:

Ingrid Hill: Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro; Saturday, Ian McEwan

Beena Kamlani: Wolf Totem, Jiang Rong

Jana Reiss: After This, Alice McDermott; The Ladies’ Auxillary, Tova Mirvis

Vinita Hampton Wright: A Thousand Splendid Suns, Khaled Hosseini; Birds Without Wings, Louis de Bernières

I believe Lil Copan had asked the panelists to recommend recent literary fiction with religious and/or spiritual themes. In any case, I thought the list might be of interest to others!

~ Ashleigh Draft


One thing that I found interesting about the Graphalogia session with Kevin Huizenga and Jon Muth was how different their chosen media are. Many there may not have realized it because of the lack of images shown to the audience, but Kevin works in the style of more traditional cartoonists using line art while Jon’s artwork is mostly painted. And yet both work in similar ways, telling stories with their artwork.

When talking about how the modern day comic/graphic novel industry differs from the past one thing that they failed to mention is how accepting the current industry is to different media. In the past, painted art was primarily reserved for book covers while interior art was almost always done using line art (some better, some worse, of course). Now, it is not surprising to see an occasional story or even a whole series using painted artwork and sometimes, there are books that mix the two, often using the styles of art portray different scenes or moods. This is even true for long-running, mainstream comics that are far from Keven or Jon’s work. It’s another way the industry had diversified and, as I think Kevin was saying, is another way in which there may be a critical mass of work out there to sustain the comic industry and avoid another early-90s-like crash.

~ posted by Steve


Before I reflect on Edward Gilbreath’s presentation this morning at the Festival of Faith & Writing at Calvin College allow me to jot down something that struck me apart from Gilbreath’s talk.  It is simply this:  I like how the Festival brings together people, both those who know each other, and cross paths again because of the Festival, and also those who may never have met.  All across campus today I saw old friends catching up and new friends getting to know each other.

After Gilbreath’s talk, I bumped into my friend Chris Meehan, a former religion editor at the Grand Rapids Press and Kalamazoo Gazette who now does media relations for the Christian Reformed Church in North America.  Chris is a talented author in his own right, and a top-notch journalist. He, like me, was interested in Gilbreath’s journalistic take on race and reconciliation.  And he plans to write about the talk for the CRC news Web site.

I also met a 2005 Cornerstone University graduate who shares the last name of my brother-in-law.  Nicole Beauchamp now lives in Milwaukee, her hometown.  She loves the Festival of Faith & Writing (this is her third one) and she loves Calvin.  So I asked her why she went to Cornerstone instead of Calvin, no offense to Cornerstone which is a fellow CCCU school and doing a lot of good things.  But I was genuinely curious.  Her answer: someone she knew in Milwaukee had gone to Cornerstone; she had never heard about Calvin.  Makes sense.  But I did tell her we are in the middle of a web project intended to perhaps help more people hear about Calvin electronically. 

So what about Gilbreath?  He spoke in Swets Hall in the FAC at the same time that Calvin English professor Don Hettinga was doing an interview in the FAC Auditorium with Michael Chabon.  Tough competition!  Yet Swets Hall was packed; again people were literally spilling into the aisles.  And the 75+ folks in attendance got their money’s worth.  Gilbreath was engaging, interesting, compelling, challenging.  And he said some important things for people to ruminate on.

He spoke about, and read from, his book Reconciliation Blues, subtitled A  Black Evangelical’s Inside View of White Christianity.  An editor at large for Christianity Today, Gilbreath has that journalistic style to his writing that I always appreciated.  He also has a good sense of humor and struck me as someone who doesn’t take himself too seriously.  In fact he joked at the beginning of his talk that “I don’t know if I’m going to be as eloquent as Barack Obama, but I do love America.”  Good line.  And then he proceeded to be as eloquent as Barack!

I especially liked a passage he read from his book about being bused to school as a child and also bused to church, to a white church.  He contrasted those experiences a little, talking about the school bus in yellow with its sharp angles and uncomfortable seat; the church bus in brown and white with the friendly driver, its round corners and its supportive seats.  He talked about having to get up early for school, traveling further to school than some of his friends and getting home later.  It was inconvenient he said, yet a little bit of a status symbol too.  Buses, he said, became a strange symbol for who he was.  “Our sense of worth was tied to those yellow buses.”

I was struck by this anecdote later in his talk when Gilbreath reflected on the sometime-strangeness of being the only African American editor at Christianity Today.  His colleagues, he recalled, would invariably want his opinion on all things African American.  Charles Barkley, Jesse Jackson, you name it, the call would arise to “get Ed’s take on that.”  It got old.  Yet there he was conflicted too.  I sometimes enjoyed it, he admitted.  When another African American would show up in the CT offices, Gilbreath joked, I would say, hey, these are my white people; get your own.  A good line, to be sure, but telling too.  It reminded me of the bus anecdote.  Perhaps a bus of a different color yet again.

Indeed as Gilbreath said:  “No single person can legitimately represent an entire race.”  That’s why, Gilbreath said, writers need to dive into the greyness, to explore the areas between black and white that make up the reality of racial reconciliation, and to help people see more clearly.   And when it comes to racial reconciliation, Christians, he said, need to live out the words of Second Corinthians 5:16, where it says:  “So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view.” 

We don’t have to see folks the way we used to, he said.  It’s time to stop looking at people through those wordly eyes.  Lots to ponder …

~posted by Phil de Haan, director of communications and marketing


Graphalogia

18Apr08

(Cross posted by Danny on I’ve Only Been Wrong Twice)

I have to admit that I left the Graphalogia session a bit early because, no offense to the talented artists leading the session, the whole thing was a bit mundane. They did bring up a point which I thought was worth hearing, especially at a writing conference, with Michael Chabon, to a graphic designer.

It is easy, especially for millennials, how revolutionary media forms are when they are first brought into existence. No where is this more apparent than the advent of the comic strip, comic book and graphic novel. Where word an image where carefully and “appropriately” placed on their own parts of the page, only to occasionally interact when the typography demanded a more nuanced or ornate treatment, comic books were some of the early examples of image and word existing with, around and in support of one another.

Graphic Novelists Jon J Muth and Kevin Huizenga took this fairly obvious but little thought formula and added to it the existence and permeation of the frame: the little black box that most comics employ to guide the reader through movement, space and time. Their point was to show that very few forms enjoy the sort of segmentation, while maintaining a medium’s freedom, that artists can use to guide, manipulate, and in the end engage the viewer just as an author wants.

With as much as this medium has to offer, I can only imagine that it is ripe for what Michael Chabon spoke about this morning concerning convention: that one must build, must start, from these little pieces of existing culture (whether that is your community and your medium), and then change what ever of that is standing in your way to creation, determined solely, and appropriately, by how your brain is wired.


When I read the description for Beena Kamlani’s Friday morning session titled “Writer as Editor,” I almost thought, “Wow, I could lead that session.” I’m now glad that my hubris didn’t lead me to effect a coup d’etat for the podium in the Bytwerk Theatre because Kamlani, with 20 years of editorial experience at Viking Penguin, was much more suited than me to share her wisdom with Festival participants.

I identified with the title of the session because more often than not, I self-edit my work. And though I’ve been writing semi-professionally and now professionally for several years now, I’ve never really had a good mentor-editor to work with me and develop my style, my tone, my pacing. Granted, my writing typically falls into the category of journalism or marketing and Kamlani mainly talked about fiction, but
some the things she said still apply to my work.

Here are a few things I’ll take away from this session – some good words from an editor:

1) A good story must balance the uncommon with the ordinary in life to make it both interesting and credible. Actually, Thomas Hardy said this, but I appreciate that Kamlani brought it to my attention because when I look for interesting stories to write for my job, it’s hard to get excited about those stories that are reported on year after year after year. My instinct here is partly right in that I’m hesitant to write about things that are all too ordinary to be interesting for people to read. And yet it is my job as a writer to yes, tell that story again, but to find the angle that makes it just a little uncommon, or different. In a sense, it’s my job to find fresh ways to tell the stories that are told year after year.

2) Characters in a story need to be painted with “pulsating brush strokes,” not tiny strokes that stultify the characters and make them uninteresting. This point is connected to the last point. When I tell the story of a student researcher or a student leader, I need to resist the temptation to describe them in such a way as to give them a certain identity or put them into a certain box. If I do this, the action in the story will stop because the main character can’t climb out of the box. Stories told about students should be stories of growth and transformation.

3) Finally, be careful with irony. “Irony tends to create distance,” Kamlani said. At the same time, be careful with earnestness in a story. And if you’re going to include both irony and earnestness in a story, be very careful with how you handle transitions from one tone to another. Now I don’t get many opportunities to lace my story-telling with irony because I work to some extent with marketing material, but still, it’s tempting to allow it to creep in here and there. I’m not entirely sure what to do with Kamlani said, other than to be very careful with how I use irony in my writing.

Thanks Beena Kamlani for these thoughts – for being, in a sense, my editor.

~posted by Allison Graff


Walking back from the session by Brian Doyle on “Shaping an Essay” I saw a bumper sticker on a car with Oregon license plates that read “Keep Portland Wierd.” I think Brian would have liked that bumper sticker. Not necessarily because he thinks Portland–his hometown–is weird and needs to stay that way. More so, because there’s a story behind that bumper sticker and the person who chose to stick it on their car and make that proclamation to the world.

I can hear Brian asking the person, “What’s so weird about Portland and why do you want to keep it that way?” and “Do you really want to share that with the whole world?”

Brian shared some really inspiring tidbits for writing great stories–guess what? It’s not about the writing. It’s about the stories. “There’s an ocean of stories swimming all around you, all you have to do is open your eyes. We spend too much time thinking about the shape of the thing, when all you have to do is listen really hard, then put your butt in the chair and type really fast.”

The beauty of writing he said is that you “get to catch and shape stories and then you get to give them away.” You don’t need to establish the thesis of the essay…”no, don’t do that!” You don’t need a conclusion, ie ergo, therefore, in conclusion. Just tell me a story!

~posted by Lynn Rosendale