GARDENING AND THE AGES OF THE WORLD

By Paul

Gardening is one of the oldest occupations known to human beings, preceded probably only by hunting and gathering.  At any rate, it certainly didn’t take very long for our ancestors to realize that it was more efficient and more profitable to actually plan the growing of certain crops, grains mostly but vegetables too, rather than waiting for them to pop up independent of any manipulating on the part of the gatherers.  And so, preparing the soil, looking out for an adequate water supply, followed then by actually putting seeds into the earth for later sprouting and harvesting is something that more or less seems almost to be a part of our human DNA. 

So, it doesn’t surprise me that my partner, Andy, and I love to garden.  That said, unfortunately we do not grow much of our own food.  Maybe someday that will change, if we ever get to move to a more rural area where we have more land.  For the moment, however, we content ourselves with growing things like tomatoes in the summer, and we have in the past grown corn, and beans, and radishes, and of course lots of herbs that we love to use in cooking: thyme (regular and lemon), oregano, parsley, rosemary, basil, chives etc.  Those are wonderful, and we’re very pleased about being able to do so, but to be honest most of what we concentrate on these days is flowering plants.

Just this past weekend, for example, we put the labor, sweat-equity as it’s sometimes called, into creating yet another raised bed in the backyard.  You see, we have no choice but to create these special places that are conducive to growing things, because the soil on our small city property is not so great.  It’s very clayey, first of all, and on top of that it’s full of rocks and bricks and bits of asphalt and who-knows-what other toxic materials from years gone by, before the house we own was ever built.  After all, we live in Long Beach, California, where actual oil wells not all that far from us sprout like giant invasive weeds, or more accurately, like ravenous, mechanical insects, bobbing up and down and sucking the black and viscous stuff out of a reluctant and recalcitrant earth.  

Don’t misunderstand me.  I’m not complaining.  After all, how many city dwellers get to grow anything at all?  And then on top of that this is sunny Southern California, where green things grow year round.  In fact, how many of those few inhabitants of cities who do have gardens can actually plant in October, with any expectation of germination not so far off?  Just this past weekend, for example, we planted several dozen calla lily rhizomes, 12 of the giant white variety and many more of the smaller yellow and pink type.  It was a lot of work, but in the end well worth the effort, or at least we hope it will be.  It meant removing an enormous agapanthus from the area (aka, Lily of the Nile), and drastically trimming back a couple of robust hawthorn bushes.  After that, we dug out a trench 15 feet long by 3 feet wide, fixed our railroad ties in place (well, actually 4” x 6” pressure-treated lumber) to create height, mixed in bags and bags of gypsum (to break the clay up) and grow mulch (to add nutrients), then filled it all in again.  Finally, we planted the rhizomes at just the right depth.  

Now, I know there are some who might criticize us for doing this kind of planting in the first place, given the fact that we live in an arid climate, and some of this takes water.  After all, who doesn’t remember that old song by Albert Hammond, even if it was so long ago: “Seems it never rains in Southern California”?  Or at least not a lot.  On the other hand, for every raised bed we create (and we’ve got half a dozen of them now), there’s that much less grass to water.  So, we blithely go on in as eco-friendly a manner as possible, creating spaces for flowers and vegetables.

"Calla Lily Garden," 3x4 ft oil on canvas, Kevin L. Miller, 2011

“Calla Lily Garden,” 3×4 ft oil on canvas, Kevin L. Miller, 2011

We like to think of it as a way of adding beauty to the world, and who can argue with that?  Just the other day, in fact, I was reading my old copy of Ovid’s “Metamorphoses.”  If you remember, he talks in his great work first of all about the creation of the world, then the creation of Man, followed by the “Four Ages of the World.”  Forgive me for quoting in Latin (followed by a translation), and it goes without saying, I hope, that you will skip the Latin, if you think it to be intrusive.  But personally I just find the words to be so beautiful.   “Aura aetas sata est prima,” the Golden Age was made first.  The earth, he says, “dabat omnia per se,” gave everything all by itself.  People took whatever they needed; “legebant…montana fraga, que corna…et glandes quae deciderant patula abore Jovis,” they gathered mountain strawberries, and cornel berries, and acorns that fell from the spreading tree of Jupiter.  Were these, then, the first gatherers I so blithely dismissed earlier, in favor of those who labor in the fields?    

But of course the Golden Age was not to last.  Soon enough, we descended to silver, and then to bronze: “Argentea proles subiit, deterior auro, pretiosior fulvo aere…que exegit annum quatuor spatiis,” then the silver offspring entered, less than gold, but better than yellow brass (i.e., bronze), that divided the world into four segments.  Here he goes on to describe the four seasons, “Tum primum aër ustus siccis fervoribus canduit,” when first (i.e. summer) the air, burnt with dry heat, grew hot.  And so on to winter, when icicles were hung by the wind (“glacies…ventis pependit”), with only unequal autumn and brief spring in between (“inequales autumnos…et breve ver”).  Finally come the times we live in, the age of hard iron (“Ultima est de duro ferro”).  It’s worth quoting here at a little greater length, not that what he’s telling us ought to surprise anyone:  “Protinus omne nefas prejoris venae irrumpit in aevum.  Pudor, que verum, que fides fugere; in locum quorum que fraudes, que doli, que insidiae, et vis, et sceleratus amor habendi subiere.”  Immediately, all wickedness of the worst kind breaks into the age.  Modesty, and truth, and faith flee, in place of which we see nothing but fraud and deceit, treachery and violence, and the evil love of possessions.

So, that appears to be about where we are now, at least according to Ovid.  And as I said, I’m not sure that any of us today would totally disagree with his characterization of the world.   Granted, of course, it may be a little too heavy on the bleak side of things, but perhaps he was just trying to make a point.  He does, after all, go on for a couple of hundred pages to tell some of the greatest stories the world has ever heard about gods and demigods, and about some very foolish, but also a few very wise human beings.

Perhaps, in the end, what Ovid is really saying is that all four ages of the world actually live in each of us.  We already know we are able to demonstrate our “iron nature.” About that, there can be no doubt.  But who is also not golden, at least a few times in his or her life, and who is not silver or bronze, as well?   We are all quite capable or demonstrating both the best and the worst that human beings can perform. 

So, let each of us do our part and plant gardens that both nurture our physical lives and elevate our consciousness.   If we cannot all plant calla lilies, or rosemary and thyme, there is surely no one who cannot sow what is best and most positive in his or her heart.  It may take effort to remove the rocks and the stuff of our buried toxic past, but what better task can there be for any of us to undertake?  And even if the most we can do at any given moment is to struggle with selfish and egotistical iron, at least we are making the effort.  In the end, that’s what it takes to grow callas, and whatever is nourishing, as well as all that embodies the highest and best within the human heart.

 

“UTOPIA and APOCALYPSE” — Kevin L Miller Retrospective at Manchester University until Dec 4, 2013, about Life on Earth Imperiled by Climate Change

by Kevin L Miller

“The Flood,” 4x4 ft apocalyptic oil painting on canvas, Kevin L Miller, 2013

“The Flood,” 4×4 ft apocalyptic oil painting on canvas, Kevin L Miller, 2013

Deep in the Pennsylvania woods at the dead end of our dirt road, Robert Allen and I share a shabby old trailer house painting studio, a 150-year-old barn art gallery, and a hunting cabin slowly evolving into a cottage, on 12 wooded acres with a pond and stream. This is paradise and we love it. (http://tinyurl.com/nl6s9nm)

A few nights ago I dreamt that Robert and I were in a rowboat with our good friends Susan Finn and Jerry Lee Miller. We were all looking down through the water at the White House submerged below us. We were also congratulating ourselves on managing to procure our little boat, until we looked up and saw a mile-high wall of water racing toward us at top speed from the horizon. The End.

“Check,” lower left corner detail from “The Flood,” Kevin L Miller, 2013. I have grown impatient with subtler communications when it comes to climate change, because our window of opportunity to fix it is closing. Time’s up! So now I try to spell out exactly what my paintings mean. I hope this check does the trick.

“Check,” lower left corner detail from “The Flood,” Kevin L Miller, 2013. I have grown impatient with subtler communications when it comes to climate change, because our window of opportunity to fix it is closing. Time’s up! So now I try to spell out exactly what my paintings mean. I hope this check does the trick.

Robert and I both have one-man shows right now, across the street from each other at Manchester University, in North Manchester, Indiana. You can see my photo essay about Robert’s very popular show, “PLEASE TOUCH THE ART!” at http://tinyurl.com/mtyyrf5 .

"UTOPIA and APOCALYPSE -- Seven Decades Re-Imagined -- Kevin L Miller Retrospective at Manchester University, Gallery G, The Union, upper level, until Dec 4, 2013. Left to right: The Flood, Faucet Head, Magna Mater.

“UTOPIA and APOCALYPSE — Seven Decades Re-Imagined” — Kevin L Miller Retrospective, Manchester University, Gallery G, The Union, upper level, until Dec 4, 2013. Left to right: The Flood, Faucet Head, Magna Mater.

Over a year and a half ago we were invited to produce our tandem shows. I vacillated for a year about the theme for my exhibit. Finally I decided on Global Climate Change, when I realized that I have painted utopian visions and the great flood apocalypse throughout my life. That mile-high wall of water coming at us haunts me. Can’t we try to do something about it? There is still a little time. Isn’t there a moral imperative to save life on Earth?

“Hawaii,” 4x6 ft utopian enamel painting on clear vinyl, Kevin L Miller, c 1991

“Hawaii,” 4×6 ft utopian enamel painting on clear vinyl, Kevin L Miller, c 1991

The Earth is exquisitely beautiful, precious, special and rare. Astronomers and physicists searching the universe for other planets that might support life are telling us that worlds blessed with exactly the right narrow band of conditions for life are indeed extremely rare. Now our Earth-home is in jeopardy from human pollution, causing Global Climate Change. We live in peril of losing our habitat and our health, and endangering the lives of our children and grandchildren if we do not transition to clean energy quickly and stop four kinds of increasingly extreme removal and burning of fossil fuels:

  • Fracking for natural gas
  • Deep sea oil drilling
  • Mountaintop removal coal mining
  • Tar sands exploitation and piping
“Requiem,” 4x7 ft acrylic on canvas, Kevin L Miller, 2013 -- an apocalyptic painting including three quotes from Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel Ceiling.

“Requiem,” 4×7 ft acrylic on canvas, Kevin L Miller, 2013 — an apocalyptic painting including three quotes from Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel Ceiling.

Extreme extraction methods and fossil fuel burning are filling our atmosphere with CO2, now alarmingly over 400 parts per million, whereas our environment can only withstand 350 ppm without disastrous consequences, which are already upon us:

  • Earth’s polar ice caps and glaciers are melting at a catastrophic rate.
  • Greenland is melting and experiencing ominous internal seismic activity.
“Poseidon’s Prophecy,” 4x7 ft oil on canvas, Kevin L Miller, 2013. King Neptune brings apocalyptic news from the oceans to the utopian woodland spirits.

“Poseidon’s Prophecy,” 4×7 ft oil on canvas, Kevin L Miller, 2013. King Neptune brings apocalyptic news from the oceans to the utopian woodland spirits.

  • Our oceans are now 30% more acidic due to CO2 dissolving into the water. Coral reefs are dying. We are losing them as marine habitats and coastal flood control barriers.
  • 40% of Earth’s sea plankton, the base of our oceanic food chain, has already died. The food chain is fundamental.
  • Earth’s atmosphere is now holding 5% more moisture, and extreme weather and precipitation events are on the rise. We have “100-year storms and floods” every year now, like Super Storm Sandy a year ago. https://twooldliberals.wordpress.com/2012/11/04/mother-nature-sends-sandy-to-make-climate-change-a
“The R.L. Miller Farm,” watercolor, Kevin L Miller, 1966 (age 17,) depicts our family ancestral farm as it looked when I was a boy.

“The R.L. Miller Farm,” watercolor, Kevin L Miller, 1966 (age 17,) depicts our family ancestral farm as it looked when I was a boy, and when my father, uncle and aunts grew up there, just outside of North Manchester, Indiana, home of Manchester University.

  • The U.S. Midwest experienced the most severe drought in American history in the summer of 2012, and American food prices rose steeply as a result.
“Drought and Gathering Storm," Kevin L Miller, 2013, digital re-imagining of the R.L. Miller Farm, as it might have looked in the great drought of 2012, if the full-timber black walnut barn had not been demolished.

“Drought and Gathering Storm,” Kevin L Miller, 2013, digitally re-imagined version of the R.L. Miller Farm, as it might have looked in the great American drought of 2012, if the full-timber black walnut barn had not been demolished.

  • Biologists and zoologists tell us that there are no longer any climate change doubters in their ranks, as they are witnessing virtually all animals and insects moving north and to higher elevations in search of cooler climes.
“Firebird Visit’s the Elders,” 3x4 ft acrylic on canvas, 2-artist collaborative painting by Robert F Allen and Kevin L Miller, signed “Allen Miller,” illustrating both the utopian nature of Earth and the peril from climate change.

“Firebird Visit’s the Elders,” 3×4 ft acrylic on canvas, 2-artist collaborative painting by Robert F Allen and Kevin L Miller, signed “Allen Miller,” illustrating both the utopian nature of Earth and the apocalyptic peril from climate change.

Indeed, 97% of the world’s climate scientists and all 12 national academies of science, and the World Bank (http://tinyurl.com/k397rjf), and the United Nations International Panel on Climate Change, and Pope Francis I in the Vatican (http://tinyurl.com/kjwl2eo – the pope’s quote is at the end) are among a host of institutions raising the urgent alarm for action. 

“The Musician and the Tree of Life” 4x4 ft acrylic on canvas, Kevin L Miller, 2013, depicts the joys and burdens of an artist (in this case the Rev Jerry Lee Miller) coping with both the ecstasy of living in utopia, and the agony of expressing prophetic statements and art about the impending apocalypse, while making every effort to save the Earth for the children of tomorrow.

“The Musician and the Tree of Life,” 4×4 ft acrylic on canvas, Kevin L Miller, 2013, depicts the joys and burdens of an artist (in this case the Rev Jerry Lee Miller, musician and climate change activist) coping with both the ecstasy of living in utopia, and the agony of expressing prophetic statements and art about the impending apocalypse, while making every effort to save the Earth as a livable home for the children of tomorrow.

Time’s up! Now we really do have to transition quickly from fossil fuels to clean renewable energy and save the Earth as a livable habitat for all life forms. If we do not do so, what will we tell the children of tomorrow when they ask, “Why did you do this to us?” (lyrics from Jerry Lee Miller’s song, “Children of Tomorrow.”) What will you tell your children and grandchildren?

“Time’s Up,” marker poster on paper, Kevin L Miller 2012 -- responding to the July 19, 2012 Rolling Stone article, ( http://tinyurl.com/okyz2nc ) “Bill McKibben’s Terrifying New Math,” this poster was one of many created for the Lancaster, PA, brainstorming effort to form “The HIVE of Planet-Loving Activity” (See our FaceBook page) to take creative action and support all efforts to halt Global Climate Change.

“Time’s Up,” marker poster on paper, Kevin L Miller 2012 — responding to the July 19, 2012 Rolling Stone article, “Bill McKibben’s Terrifying New Math,” this poster was one of many created for the Lancaster, PA, brainstorming effort to form “The HIVE of Planet-Loving Activity” (See our FaceBook page) to take creative action and support all efforts to halt Global Climate Change.

Rolling Stone’s July 19, 2012 article “Bill McKibben’s Terrifying New Math,” awoke people around the world to the greatest survival challenge humanity has ever faced. http://tinyurl.com/okyz2nc 

  1. The Earth can only withstand 2 degrees Celsius warming without disastrous consequences, and we are almost there when the inertial rise built into the system is factored in.
  2. We can release a maximum of 565 Gigatons of CO2 into the atmostphere by 2050, but at our current rate, we will reach that ceiling in 2028 — only 15 years from now. 
  3. Companies and countries have already committed to extracting and burning 2,795 Gigatons of CO2 locked in proven fossil fuel reserves — five times the allowed limit.
Left to right: Firebird Visits the Elders, Hawaii, and Requiem are part of Kevin L Miller's retrospective at Manchester University, "UTOPIA and APOCALYPSE."

Left to right: Firebird Visits the Elders, Hawaii, and Requiem are on exhibit in Kevin L Miller’s retrospective at Manchester University, “UTOPIA and APOCALYPSE.”

The good news is that there is still a little time to turn this planetary crisis around, and there really are things that each of us can do. None of us has to save the world all alone. If all of us do our own little part — even if we do it badly — humanity will achieve critical mass for a change in consciousness and behavior, and we can leave a livable planet for future generations.

  • Can we buy an electric or hybrid car and use less fossil fuel? I know… Those cars are way too expensive for most of us…
  • Well, are we willing to become vegans or vegetarians? That’s one of the most effective things we can do to shrink our individual carbon footprints. But lots of us really love meat…
  • So, can we buy local products to reduce carbon emissions from shipping? That practice helps local economies, too.
  • Are we willing to write letters to public officials and call our congressional representatives? Or, if solitary action to speak truth to power makes us a little too nervous…
  • Can we join organizations like The Sierra Club, or 350.org, or Citizens Climate Lobby and support them with our resources and participation in their events?
  • Are we qualified to plan and facilitate community discussions on climate change? (http://tinyurl.com/lf3xdqm)
  • Are we willing to start our own local organization with friends? If so, here are some notes about how 13 of us started The HIVE of Planet-Loving Activity. (http://tinyurl.com/149g7lm)
  • Can we talk to institutional leaders about divesting from coal and other fossil fuels? If direct one-on-one talks with authority figures are too intimidating for some of us…
  • Are we willing to write letters to the editors of our local newspapers and urge others to do the same?
  • Can we start a climate change blog and open a larger dialogue?
  • Are we qualified to write poetry or plays, or to compose music, or dance, or paint, or make art of any kind about climate change? Art is a very powerful tool for transformation.
  • Do we know how to make a climate change quilt or bake a climate change cake, or create a T-shirt featuring “Don’t Frack Up the Earth!” as a slogan?
  • Can we urge our churches, colleges and universities and local or state governments to become involved?
  • What else are we willing to do to wake up the world and inspire everyone to take action urgently?
“The Revelations of Eve and Adam,” 16” x 20” acrylic on canvas, 2004, Kevin L Miller

“The Revelations of Eve and Adam,” 16″ x 20″, an acrylic utopian painting on canvas, 2004, Kevin L Miller

When we decide to take creative action on behalf of Mother Earth and the children of tomorrow, we find that we are not alone. Some corporations are beginning to realize, as I have been telling them for 15 years, that extinction is NOT good for profits! They are starting to take strategic action to save their bottom lines and ours. Even the Department of Defense has identified Global Climate Change as one of the greatest threats to U.S. security, and is transferring military operations to clean renewable energy sources, especially in the field. Nations like Germany and Spain and others are quickly getting off of fossil fuels and transitioning to solar, wind, geothermal and other clean energy sources. Cities, communities, and churches are taking leadership roles in creative action to save life on Earth.

“Woodland Spirit Guides,” 4x4 ft oil on canvas, 2010, Kevin L. Miller

“Woodland Spirit Guides,” 4×4 ft oil on canvas, 2010, Kevin L. Miller

There is a major benefit that comes with creative action to heal the Earth — It also heals us in the process. Fifteen years ago when I learned that the polar ice caps were melting due to climate change caused by humanity, I struggled with depression and nausea for a year. It took more years for me to discover that creative action is soul-healing medicine. Sometimes it feels like we have to choose between denial and depression. But there is a third way — creative action overcomes denial and depression and leads to fulfillment.

A display of Kevin's "Provence Style" landscapes is part of his retrospective. This style evolved out of his junior year abroad in Aix-en-Provence, France, and his studies at the Ecole des Beaux Arts there, as well as his interest in Cezanne, Van Gogh, and Picasso.

A display of my “Provence Style” landscapes is part of the retrospective. This style evolved out of my junior year abroad in Aix-en-Provence, France, and my studies at the Ecole des Beaux Arts, as well as my interest in Cezanne, Van Gogh, and Picasso.

Today I know that even spending a whole year making apocalyptic paintings yields nothing but increasing inner joy and peace. Rest assured that when you decide to take creative action, you will find that depression, denial, anger, fear and grief, will be transformed into fulfillment, clarity, peace, confidence and joy, and you will have the personal satisfaction of knowing that you have done the right thing, regardless of the outcome.

The Kevin L Miller Retrospective, "UTOPIA and APOCALYPSE -- Seven Decades Re-Imagined" is on exhibit in Gallery G, The Union upper level, at Manchester University, until Dec 4, 2013 (photo by Alison Stein)

The Kevin L Miller Retrospective, “UTOPIA and APOCALYPSE — Seven Decades Re-Imagined” is on exhibit in Gallery G, The Union upper level, at Manchester University, until Dec 4, 2013 (photo by Alison Stein)

Robert F Allen, Outsider Artist, Rocks Manchester University with His One-Man Show, “PLEASE TOUCH THE ART!” THROUGH NOV 19, 2013

by Kevin L Miller

Outsider Artist, Robert F Allen with two of his most recent 2013 paintings: 4x8 ft "A Winter Walk," and 4x7 ft "Escape!" Both acrylic paintings on canvas are among 44 of Robert's large works on display at Manchester University, North Manchester, Indiana, in Link Gallery, Winger Building (across the street from The Union) until Nov 19, 2013.

Outsider Artist, Robert F Allen with two of his most recent 2013 paintings: 4×8 ft “A Winter Walk,” and 4×7 ft “Escape!” Both acrylic paintings on canvas are among 44 of Robert’s large works on display at Manchester University, North Manchester, Indiana, in Link Gallery, Winger Building (across the street from The Union) until Nov 19, 2013.

Robert feels his way across a highly textured 4×7 ft canvas, “The Story,” at the artist’s reception for his very first one-man show. He tells visitors they can “see” his paintings through their fingertips as well as with their eyes. A mature woman in the group says,  “What are you DOING!?” Her husband stands behind her and rolls his eyes as if to say, “Here we go again…” Robert says, “Ma’am, you can touch the art. I give you my permission.” She asks, “Who do you think you are?” Robert says, “I am the artist.” She demands, “Do you have any identification?!” Another person in the group is holding a copy of Robert’s artist’s statement. Pointing to the photo of himself, Robert says, “See! This is me, and the show is called ‘PLEASE TOUCH THE ART!’ You can touch my art.”

"The Story," 4x7 ft acrylic on canvas by Robert F Allen, 2013. After studying some photos of cave paintings, Robert created this image about a hunt. He says that the upside-down golden bear escaped the arrows with the help of its protector god, left of the bear. The hunters on the right side of the canvas did not fair as well as the bear.

“The Story,” 4×7 ft acrylic on canvas by Robert F Allen, 2013. After studying some photos of cave paintings, Robert created this image about a hunt. He says that the upside-down golden bear escaped the arrows with the help of its protector god, left of the bear. The hunters on the right side of the canvas did not fair as well as the bear.

The lady backs away mortified, but her husband approaches Robert’s painting and runs his hand from one side to the other, calling to his wife, “Sometimes you have to touch the art to know it is really there!” Later Robert tells me that he feels nothing but gratitude toward the lady, “because she was only trying to protect my art.” He admits to watching her out of the corner of his eye, however, and feeling sorry for her when she tries to touch “A Winter Walk,” but cannot bring herself to do it.

"A Winter Walk," 4x8 ft acrylic on canvas, 2013, Robert F Allen. Under both the moon and the sun, in a wintry cityscape, Robert's beloved Cairn Terrier, Scrappy, takes a purposeful walk toward a fire hydrant.

“A Winter Walk,” 4×8 ft acrylic on canvas, 2013, Robert F Allen. Under both the moon and the sun, in a wintry cityscape, Robert’s beloved Cairn Terrier, Scrappy, takes a purposeful walk toward a fire hydrant.

The programming that keeps us separate from art is very strong. From birth we are taught a certain reverent respect for art that requires us to keep our distance. Outsider artists do not mean to be subversive, or anti-authoritarian, but by their very nature they tend to tear down the barriers between those who make objects and anyone who sees and responds.

Robert F Allen with his 4x8 ft 2013 acrylic on canvas, "Matter of the Heart" and other paintings in his Manchester University exhibit.

Robert F Allen with his 4×7 ft 2013 acrylic on canvas, “Matter of the Heart” and other paintings in his Manchester University exhibit.

Outsider artists don’t think of the objects they make as untouchable “objets d’art,” as does the art establishment. They regard making things as being like breathing and eating — a matter of survival, and they often don’t think of their work as “art” at all – just “things.” Outsider artists have almost always been insulated from social and cultural conditioning by profound poverty or physical or mental challenges. In the absence of societal conditioning they follow only their own unique inner visions, which sometimes produce surprising aesthetic innovations and revelations.

Visitors of all ages enjoy touching Robert's art. Children especially want to place their hands on the hand prints in the design of "The Story."

Visitors of all ages enjoy touching Robert’s art. Children especially want to place their hands on the hand prints in the design of “The Story.”

Robert had all three forms of deprivation and more. When he was an infant, his older sisters mistook motor oil for mineral oil and poured it into his ears, destroying his eardrums. He hears a little now with the aid of a mechanical eardrum, but communicates mostly by reading lips. He grew up in profound poverty in the woods 50 miles north of Syracuse, surviving on government assistance and woodland foraging. His family was so dysfunctional and abusive that Robert moved out at age 12 and built his own little shelter in the woods. He lived there for years with his beloved raccoon, “Cooner,” whom he raised from infancy after Cooner’s mom was killed crossing the road. Cooner came to Robert and asked for help, so Robert adopted him.

"The Last Supper," 4x7 ft acrylic on canvas, 2013, Robert F Allen. The background was painted first. Then Robert stared into it until the images of the animals materialized out of his random marks and shapes.

“The Last Supper,” 4×7 ft acrylic on canvas, 2013, Robert F Allen. The background was painted first. Then Robert stared into it until the images of the animals materialized out of his random marks and shapes.

Robert’s skills with animals are legendary. I have personally seen wild raccoons, rabbits, frogs, and even fish, crawl or swim into his hands, looking for comfort. On a pitch black moonless night in the woods, Robert can see wild woodland animals right around the corner or over the hill. He “feels” them. Robert says he has special animal radar. It’s real. I have witnessed it.

"Neon Dream," 4x8 ft acrylic on canvas, 2013, Robert F Allen

“Neon Dream,” 4×8 ft acrylic on canvas, 2013, Robert F Allen

At age 13 Robert suffered a major traumatic brain injury when his crazy step-father dropped a big tree on his head. The doctor said Robert would not survive the night. He did live, although large portions of his brain died. Reading and writing have presented real challenges for Robert ever since. But as sometimes happens with severe brain trauma victims, Robert developed almost savant-like powers driven by the remaining areas of his brain. He has a collection of 300 Rubik’s cubes, half of which he made himself, and he can solve any of them in under two minutes. His spatial intelligence is off the charts.

Robert is displaying 16 of his 4x6 ft abstract expressionist canvases in four art pillars as part of his Manchester University show.

Robert is displaying 16 of his 4×6 ft abstract expressionist canvases in four art pillars as part of his Manchester University show.

These unusual skills came in handy during eight years in the U.S. Marine Corps, serving in the Philippines, Bangladesh, Japan, and the USA. Robert has always said that the USMC was a Sunday school picnic for him after his abusive childhood. He figured out how to fake the hearing tests and he never told the USMC about his severe brain trauma. Interestingly, the profile of many outsider artists often includes a significant period of time in the protective custody of an authoritarian institution. The USMC was “protective” by comparison with Robert’s family.

Robert F Allen (center) greets visitors at the Oct 5, 2013 artist's reception for his one-man show "PLEASE TOUCH THE ART." The exhibit continues until Nov 19, 2013.

Robert F Allen (center) greets visitors at the Oct 5, 2013 artist’s reception for his one-man show “PLEASE TOUCH THE ART.” The exhibit continues until Nov 19, 2013.

Robert has always made beautiful objects. For decades he was a master carpenter and woodworker, making exquisite inlaid, hardwood furniture and floor medallions. He never thought of himself as an artist until we traveled to France with friends, and he saw objects at Versailles like he made at home. I was one of three friends present, in the company of the ghost of Marie Antoinette, when Robert’s eyes grew huge and he slowly turned and said with utter amazement, “I am an artist!” His inlaid hardwood art became even more ornate after that.

Close-up detail from "Neon Dream," 4x8 ft acrylic on canvas, 2013, Robert F Allen

Close-up detail from “Neon Dream,” 4×8 ft acrylic on canvas, 2013, Robert F Allen

A few years later I was laboring over a lousy, tiny painting at the kitchen table on a quiet Sunday. Bored with mindless TV, Robert picked up a blank canvas and a brush and asked me, “How do you do this?” I didn’t even look up. I said, “Oh, it’s easy. You just put some paint on the brush and wipe it on the canvas.” That was the first, last, and only formal art education Robert ever received. He took off like an art bat out of painters’ hell. I couldn’t have gotten a word of instruction in edgewise, even if I had wanted to. Robert started painting in every spare minute. To say that he has painted prolifically ever since, would be a monumental understatement. He has crammed a lifetime of painting experience into five years. He paints with the reckless abandon of a dying man, the exuberance of a drunken sailor, and the honesty of an ecstatic monk. Far from needing any instruction whatsoever, Robert has been my teacher ever since he first picked up that canvas and brush years ago. I am learning from him.

Two weeks after "PLEASE TOUCH THE ART" was installed at Manchester University, 1,600 students, K - 3rd grade, visited Link Gallery and had close encounters with art. In this photo they are touching Robert F Allen's 4x7 ft 2013 acrylic on canvas, "Escape!"  The exhibit continues until Nov 19, 2013.

Two weeks after “PLEASE TOUCH THE ART” was installed at Manchester University, 1,600 students, K – 3rd grade, visited Link Gallery and had close encounters with art. In this photo they are touching Robert F Allen’s 4×7 ft 2013 acrylic on canvas, “Escape!” The exhibit continues until Nov 19, 2013.

Robert and I have had quite a few two-man shows and even ran a big art gallery together for a year and a half, but “PLEASE TOUCH THE ART!” at Manchester University in North Manchester, Indiana, is his very first one-man show, and it is a hit. A few weeks ago 1,600 school children, K – 3rd grade, toured Robert’s exhibit in small groups. They were very excited about being able to touch the paintings. Art Professor Jena Oke asked one group, standing in front of “The Last Supper,” what the artist was trying to say. They yelled, “HE LIKES ANIMALS!” She asked, “What else is he trying to say?” They yelled, “HE LIKES PAINT!” Jo Young Switzer, Manchester University President, asked one child what it was like to touch a painting. The wide-eyed child said, “It was bumpy!”

Detail from the center of "Neon Dream," 4x8 ft acrylic on canvas, 2013, Robert F Allen

Detail from the center of “Neon Dream,” 4×8 ft acrylic on canvas, 2013, Robert F Allen

Equally important was the response of the MU art students to Robert’s one-on-one portfolio review conversations with them. Robert kept saying, “This is amazing. These people ask me questions and listen to me as if I actually know things!” For their part, the students told their professors that Robert was one of their favorite visiting artists ever, because he treated them like “actual artists” and talked with them like “real people.”

"Matter of the Heart," 4x7 ft acrylic on canvas, 2013, Robert F Allen

“Matter of the Heart,” 4×7 ft acrylic on canvas, 2013, Robert F Allen

After a week of gratifying events, including the opening for his first one-man show, Robert was already feeling that he did not want to leave North Manchester. Several art students made his departure even harder a day before he left, when they came to him and asked privately if he would consider making the 1,200 mile round trip to return from South Central PA to attend their senior shows in Indiana next winter. Robert is definitely considering it… if he can get time off from his overtime job as a USPS clerk. Meanwhile, he just finished a majestic new 4×8 ft canvas of a forest — five highly textured trees on a colorful leafy background, and he has plans for at least five other huge, textured canvases burning holes through the screen of his mind.

"Escape!" 4x7 ft acrylic on canvas, 2013, Robert F Allen

“Escape!” 4×7 ft acrylic on canvas, 2013, Robert F Allen

It is understandable, when we consider the life story and work of Robert F Allen, that the art world is becoming more and more fascinated by outsider artists. We all still worship Leonardo and Michelangelo. We idolize Rembrandt, Van Gogh and Picasso, and admire the intellectual depth and innovation of Diebenkorn and Motherwell. But for sheer honesty, joy, energy and a breath of fresh air, nothing beats the sincere creations of an outsider artist like Robert.

Allen MU Sept 26 kids visit 1

“PLEASE TOUCH THE ART! – Texture Is Part of the Experience,” a one-man show of paintings on canvas by Robert F Allen will be on exhibit in Link Gallery, Winger Building (across the street from The Union,) Manchester University, North Manchester, Indiana 46962 until Nov 19, 2013. For gallery information, contact Professor Jena Oke, Coordinator of Galleries, 260-982-5334.

(My thanks to Jena Oke and Alison Stein for their essential support of our MU art exhibits and for contributing photos to this post. — Kevin)

 

AS HUMANS, WE THINK PRETTY HIGHLY OF OURSELVES

By Paul

It is probably not much of a stretch for humans to think of ourselves as pretty wonderful creatures, by and large at least.  After all, look at everything we have accomplished, not only in the present era, but in all of the history of the race.  We have moved rapidly from tiny groups of hunter-gatherers scratching out a living, to highly organized groups of farmers and city dwellers with multiple hierarchies of job specialization, from users of rocks to break open the bones of hunted animals to creators of machines that fly and, very nearly, ones that think, as well.  And these enormous leaps in both cognition and tool-making have taken place in an almost unbelievably short period of time.

As such, we often forget that the first animal that could accurately be associated with “anatomical human beings” emerged only something like 200,000 years ago.  That’s astounding enough, but then imagine that it was only 60,000 years ago that what we might call “true humans” first claimed their place upon the planet.  60,000 years!  That’s even less than the blink of an eye, shorter than the flash of lightning in the summer sky, compared to the 4.5 billion years of the planet’s existence, to say nothing of the 13.8 billion years the universe is known to exist.  In other words, in spite of all the importance we grandly give to ourselves, we are the newest of newcomers.

So, the question remains, what exactly was it that distinguished us from our simian cousins, or from any other creature on the planet for that matter?  And when did that “distinguishing something” emerge?  We won’t even ask the question of how it happened, since no one appears to have the slightest clue when it comes to answering that inscrutable question.  But the replies to the first two queries (i.e. when and what) are simpler to give.  Most scientists agree, as mentioned above, that “true humans” emerged in Africa approximately 60,000 years ago, and then somewhere between that point and 50,000 years ago we began several successive waves of migration from that continent.  Slowly, we drifted from place to place, populating one continent after another, and making homes for ourselves.  In the process, we ran into some earlier cousins of ours, namely Neanderthals (homo Neanderthalensis), the last of whom probably died out about 20,000 years ago, probably as a result of direct interaction with homo Sapiens (that is, with us).  So, what was it that “made us human,” and in the meantime what gave us such an edge over other creatures, including the bigger and stronger Neanderthals?  The answer is simple, if the act of doing so and its consequences are not:  humans were capable of symbolic thinking.  We’ve seen this because we have the archeological record that dates back into the early ages of prehistory, and that shows that humans were able to make not only artifacts, but also art. We know, for example, that our ancestors created pictures (i.e. cave paintings) and they carved statues that, in a sense, “stood for” something else.  No doubt, it was about this time, too, that language, as we think of it today, also first emerged, allowing and encouraging high levels of communication and organization.  And after that, the poor Neanderthals, to say nothing of all the even more mute beasts of the wild world, never had a chance.

In the tiniest of nutshells, that is a very quick overview of the evolving history of humankind.  We emerged from creatures who descended from trees and learned to live and thrive on the savannas and who organized themselves into coherent groupings of thinking, communicative, and self-referential beings, and in the process we have come to utterly dominate planet Earth.  And all this with lightning speed, such that there are now well over 7 billion of us living in every part of the world, even the most inhospitable, which – through our technology – we have made hospitable.  Our big brains have indeed served us well.

But if we are to continue to think highly of ourselves, we had better take a long, hard look at who we are and what we have become.  In terms of evolutionary maturity, as a race, we human beings are probably at best in our rebellious adolescent phase.  I want to emphasize that I am speaking of mass, or collective, consciousness here, not of individual examples of human beings.  Naturally, there have always been, and always will be, some people who are more advanced in terms of consciousness than others.  But again I am talking here about the pooled level of communal thinking that together shows our shared human consciousness.  In these terms, we have to admit, it is hard to think of us as highly mature.  If we were, why would we rely so continually and so insistently on violence as an obviously useless way of solving so many of our problems?  How many decades, how many years, indeed how many weeks or even days pass by on this planet, when somehow, someplace there are not people who are shooting at each other, hurling bombs or missiles at each other, putting others in jail, torturing, mutilating, even killing one another, because they are thought not to belong to the proper race, religion, political party, or sexual identity etc.?   How many of us consistently act with compassion when it comes to others, how many are quick to condemn but slow to forgive, how many dismiss and diminish those who look, sound, or act differently from themselves?   Indeed, as a species we may be highly intelligent, but we have learned little wisdom.

But given all this, the question can be asked, should we expect any more from ourselves?  We are after all, as we have already shown, very young in evolutionary terms.  Perhaps even to claim that we have reached the adolescent phase may be something of a stretch.  Remember how brief 60,000 years is in terms of planetary and cosmic history.  And yet, if we are to survive, it is surely in our own best interest, to say nothing of the interest of the planet as a whole and of all things living upon it, for us to hurry along in this maturation process.

The only way I know of to do so is for each individual to work on herself and himself, to put the time and the energy that it takes into learning, and growing, and developing, first of all in our thinking, and then in our actions.  In the end, there is no “deus ex machina,” no great hero to save us from ourselves.  Or, put another way, each one must become the hero of the story.  We have, in other words, no one to rely on but ourselves, and if we do not do the work, then we can be sure that it will not happen.  You may think that it all sounds too ominous to say that time is running out, but the truth is that it is.  Symbolic thinking is all fine, and it turns out we are quite good at it.  But what is needed now is not so much symbol, as action.  Run-away over population, pollution of the air, continued acidification of the oceans, warming of the globe, loss of biodiversity, extinction of whole species, diminishing land and water resources, growing scarcity of food, increasing disparity between the have and the have-nots, and threat of the use of nuclear weapons, are only some of the problems that come to mind.

But time has not yet run completely out.  We can still make a difference.  Let us honor our clever ancestors, but at the same time do whatever we can today for humanity and for the world we live in.  We know that we have such great potential.  It is the job of each of us to help maximize that potential, while at the same time minimizing the mistakes we have made in the past.  We owe it to ourselves and to our children, and to all life forms on Earth.  We have made a huge difference, and we will continue to do so.  But let that difference not draw from what is lowest and most negative within our human nature, but from whatever is highest, most positive, and most life-affirming.  We know we have the capacity; only now let us muster the energy and the will to make it happen.

CLIMATE CHANGE, YET AGAIN? BUT, IN THE END, WHAT COULD BE MORE IMPORTANT?

By Paul

Some part of me almost feels as though I ought to apologize to readers for writing yet again on the subject of climate change.  After all, how many times have I, or my blog-partner, Kevin, written on this topic?  Ad nauseam, no doubt.  But still, given the stakes at hand, I feel as though I cannot remain silent.

What brings the topic to the fore this time is the latest U. N. report, issued just a few days ago by a group with the bureaucratic, if official sounding, name of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).  This is an organization made up of hundreds of the world’s top climate scientists, and so what they have to say is not mere hearsay.  It’s not the just opinion of the guy in the chair next to you at the barbershop, or of your strange uncle, Charlie, who fancies himself an expert because he has an interest in things weather related.  These are recognized experts from many countries, who have impeccable academic and real-world credentials, and who have been studying global weather patterns for decades.  They have no overt political agenda, but they do know what they are talking about.  And the news they have to share is not good.

Not that anyone who hasn’t been living under a rock for the past couple of decades should expect it to be otherwise.  But scientists are people who deal in numbers, and the latest figures are sobering indeed.  These experts have proposed something called a “carbon budget,” which it behooves all of us to pay attention to.  What it refers to is an upper limit on the amount of greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide specifically, in the earth’s atmosphere.  That upper limit is one trillion metric tons, if planetary warming is to be limited to no more than 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit (2 degrees Celsius).  Once that trillion ton number is exceeded, then the most dangerous effects known to be associated with global warming begin to occur.  One such probable consequence would be the dramatic rising of sea levels which, if we continue burning fossil fuels the way we have been, will increase by at least 3 feet, and possibly by as much as 5 feet, by the end of this century.

Scientists, by and large, are uncomfortable making exact predictions.  That is because there are so many variables in any natural system, making it difficult to say specifically that such and such will definitely happen by this date or that.  Instead, they tend to give ranges of possibilities.  But even given this tendency toward caution and circumspection, the range they now give related to planetary warming is beginning to look astounding.  If carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere double to the 1 trillion ton level, which they are predicted to do by 2040 – and let us remember that another 3 trillion tons of carbon are still left in the ground, as yet unused – the new range of probable planetary warming will be between 2.7 and 8.1 degrees.  These numbers are extremely troubling, especially if we eventually reach the upper limits of the probable range.  Can any of us really imagine what will happen to us, to this planet, and to life on it, if overall temperatures were to increase by as much as 6 or 7 degrees Fahrenheit?  And here we are not talking just about rising sea levels.  We’re also looking at the loss of most, if not all, of the ice in the arctic regions, at extreme desertification in some areas, and hitherto unknown intensity of storms and levels of flooding in others.  And what will all this do to global food production?  How will we feed ourselves?  Where will we get clean drinking water from?  Where will millions of people go who currently live near these rising oceans?  And who will be fighting whom, given out-of-control population growth and dramatically shrinking resources?  These are not the wild predictions of a science fiction writer whose imagination has run amok.  They are, instead, what our future, and that of our children and our grandchildren, could very well look like, if something is not done now to prevent it.

And anyone who still holds to the old bromide that all this dramatic warming of the planet has nothing to do with human activity is sadly kidding himself.  The IPCC has actually come out and said in its report that “it is EXTREMELY LIKELY (the capitals are mine) that human influence has been the dominant cause of observed warming since the mid-twentieth century.”  And remember what we said earlier about how conservative scientists tend to be when it comes to making predictions and sweeping generalizations.  So, for this prestigious group to use an expression like “extremely likely” is as if the rest of us were to say that there can absolutely no longer be any doubt in anyone’s mind.  Indeed, they have put numbers to this likelihood: the report finds a 95 to 100 percent chance that global warming is human caused.

And yet, what are we doing about it?  Amazingly, some even still continue to deny the reality of what is happening.  The conservative Heartland Institute, for example, came out just last week with a statement to the effect that additional global warming would likely be limited to a few tenths of a degree, and that this would not “constitute a crisis.”  The good news, on the other hand, is that the numbers of Americans who say they “believe in global warming” are on the rise.  According to a poll taken last December, 62 percent said they thought the Earth is getting warmer, up from 55 percent a year earlier.  Of course, opinions are still politically driven.  The breakdown of the number of believers in global warming is as follows:  78 percent Democrats, 55 percent Independents, but only 47 percent of Republicans.  Still, another heartening bit of news is that 3 out of 4 Americans now say that they “trust climate scientists as a source of information about global warming.”  Why it has taken this long for us to begin to believe in science is perhaps a topic for another essay.

California, I am happy to say, is taking the lead nationwide in listening to people and in taking the threat seriously.  The most populous state in the Union has set a goal to reduce its greenhouse gases to 1990 levels by 2020 and to 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.  Even so, it is perhaps a sad indication of how slowly we are moving that even the leader in the country in terms of greenhouse gas remission is giving itself 37 years into the future to bring numbers back to more sustainable levels.

There is no doubt that there are things we can all do to help.  Each of us can do his or her part when it comes to recycling, overall conservation of energy, gas and electricity in particular, smarter usage of water, patronage of mass transportation, locally grown foods etc.  And these are all good.  The California Climate Change website (www.climatechange.ca.gov/)‎ has other ideas when it comes not only to conservation, but to adaptation as well.  As it somberly notes: “no matter how quickly we cut our climate polluting emissions, climate impacts will still occur.”

Which leads to the last, and perhaps most important question:  where is the federal government in all this?  The answer appears to be that they are dithering.  We are talking after all about the wellbeing of the planet, and of those who inhabit it, namely, all of us.  And what do we see in Washington these last few days?  Concern about our future?  No!  We witness instead a complete paralysis of action on something as seemingly simple as providing decent levels of healthcare for everyone in the country.

If we cannot even get this right, how will we tackle the much larger and more complex question of what to do to prevent the world from warming to the point where life itself may be threatened?  That is a good question.  Unfortunately, so far there seems to be no good answer.  Let us hope, and if you believe in prayer, let us pray, and at very least let us badger our representatives, so that at some point politicians in our federal capital – and let us be honest, Republicans in particular — will stop their dithering, and make the right choices for the most important healthcare system of all, namely, the long-term health and wholeness of the planet we call home.