Set deep into the foothills of the Blue Ridge mountains, folded into the red brick of Mr. Jefferson’s University, was a small classroom that I wandered into in the spring semester of my sophomore year of college in 1968.
I’m not quite sure what lured me to this room, other than the syllabus title of “Theology and Literature”, along with the reading list of Faulkner, Hemingway, Graham Greene and other 20th century writers. I had wasted a good deal of time on English classes, looking for some voice that could reach me either in the classroom or from the text. I loved English, but the teaching of it had been whittled down to all surface and no substance. It was a literal interpretation of the writer’s meaning, filled with metaphor and symbolism, but oh no feeling, hurt, frustration or any of the seven deadly sins. If any of these emotions was touched upon, it was purely in an academic sense, to be dissected and analyzed. There was no mystery, romance or allure.
So with my usual skepticism, and with the uniform of the day, a coat and tie, I walked into this small class and began to listen to the lecture. Something happened to me in that first 50 minutes. To this day, I don’t know exactly what. But what I do remember is that I was changed. A lightening bolt had struck me and I was no longer aimlessly wandering. I had found a new home to park my troubled and confused feelings.
A serious academic man of letters was speaking to me in the language of nuance, mystery and feeling. There were passages in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, where a small town became a place of solace and peace during a time of great chaos and war. There were passages from Faulkner, that instead of providing me with the answers, only showed me the path forward. Everything tingled and I was alive. My heart was beating faster with wonder and curiosity.
So who was he? He was young, received his BA, PHd and Master of Divinity at Yale, briefly taught at Smith and was then brought in to start a religious studies program at a very secular university. So those are the facts, which have nothing to do with my attachment to him. He was an enigma to me. Mysterious. And though he answered every question I raised to him with great consideration, there was never an answer I expected. They were always confusing and almost like a Zen koan. Although he was a devout Christian, in fact a minister, his responses were like a Buddhist monk. Every response elicited a new question.
With only questions in hand, I introduced myself, and for 2 1/2 years I befriended David Harned, my teacher, who became my mentor. I gardened with him, went to movies with him, spent weekends with him and his family and even spent two summers at his small home in Massachusetts, all in an attempt to understand this man in order to understand myself. He spoke a language that was foreign to me — he might as well have been speaking Swahili.
I loved this. Although nothing was ever resolved, it all felt like it had a purpose and intention. Again, what did he say or do that was so profound? In his fashion, he was leading me on the path of knowledge and self awareness. I had not realized how lost and hungry I was for understanding and wisdom. It is not something as simple as the correct answer, the right pill, the right formula. It is more like the search is the answer. Although everything for three years remained elusive, confusing and at times disheartening, I never once felt I wasn’t on the right road.
So life has a way of repeating itself. As I began to teach in my early 20′s, and up to the present, I have found that students are looking for answers, not questions. This all feels like much of contemporary art, where its all about surface. People are looking for a quick response to a complicated question. Modern art is like what I encountered in the English department. It is soulless, empty, conceptual and lacking any depth. It looks good but it doesn’t wear well.
For the people who write me and ask for answers, or who are looking for the right process to make better pictures, I implore you to realize that there isn’t any ONE right answer. There is only your particular answer to be found and only you can find it. This is no easy task. As you are confronted with obstacles, confusion and diversions, if you are able to learn the right set of questions, then all else will follow in time. Wisdom is like a house. It can be seen from many different perspectives. It has many doors that enter into different spaces. They are all accessible, but many lead nowhere. With the right guide or teacher, one that will help you choose the right door to enter, you may eventually, at the end of your long quest, be able to find the right door out.