[Editor’s note: If you were at Hutchmoot 2013 you’ll almost certainly remember Doug McKelvey’s mesmerizing reading, explanation, and example of the Subjects with Objects project. Many people (I’m one of them) considered it one of their favorite moments of the weekend. So I’ve asked Doug if he would begin a regular series here on the Rabbit Room to continue giving us glimpses into the process that results in the strange magic of Subjects with Objects. Here’s hoping that this is the first of many.]
Subjects With Objects is an ongoing, collaborative art project forever ordered according to the following rules: A shadowy public spaces painter sets up in pubs and bars and executes spontaneous portraits at the rate of one painting per pint. He then hands off those enigmatic little ocular disturbances to a semi-anonymous poet & novelist who lives with them long enough to solicit their otherworldly mumblings and ephemeral whispers, distilling each of their essences into a line or two of poetic prose. The painter is Jonathan Richter. The poet is UNKNOWN & UNKNOWABLE, so it is best NOT TO EVEN ASK! However, for the sake of convenience we may refer to him as DKM.
P. Peterson (Editor, The Rabbit Room) recently extended an invitation for Subjects With Objects to open a window into the creative process that yields the eventual gallery pieces, including those collected in the recent book Subjects With Objects, Vol I. After much deliberation, cajoling, intimidation, and consultation of various charts related to tidal patterns and moon-phases, it was agreed. But on the one condition that a rare, silver sparrow be captured and displayed in a gilded cage hung from the prow of a lost, ghostly schooner in the North Atlantic. Pete assures all concerned that this requirement has now been met. He cowers in a corner, shivering uncontrollably, LOUDLY INSISTING it is true. For the time being, Pete has been taken at his word.* But enough about Pete.
Subjects With Objects Unplugged
Pondering the luminescence that is not our own.
When Richter hands me (DKM) a painting, it’s rare that the meaning and subsequent text surface quickly. It’s more often a meditative process of seeing, of studying the figure, the lines, the colors, the relationship of subject to object, etc. Given enough time, potential meanings begin to surface and to narrow down. Certain relationships become apparent. Certain moods. Certain possibilities. And so I begin chasing various observations, chronicling them on the pages of a standard yellow legal pad. I’m searching for the phrase that feels right, that provides a doorway into a larger world, that taps into the shared human experience in all it’s manifold weariness and brokenness, yet still fraught round the ragged edges with that faded but perceptible glory. I want a phrase that leads without forcing.
Frequently it’s somewhere in the middle of the page that the right trail begins, the one that will ultimately yield the final word choice. Sometimes in going back months later to peruse my original musings, I realize that I settled on the wrong choice altogether, but most often one of the phrases will, given time, emerge unchallenged and stake it’s rightful claim.
What we plan to offer in these “Subjects With Objects Unplugged” columns are the artifacts of the behind-the-scenes journeys to reach those final text choices. We’ll be posting finished pieces, along with the lists of yellow-legal-pad-phrases that led up to that piece. In scanning through them, you can usually work out the game trails my thoughts went hunting along. For whatever reason, several people have remarked that this process intrigues them as much or more than the finished pieces. I can’t say why that would be so, but at the end of the day, who am I to stand in the way of the happiness of others?
In Untitled 26, Richter gave me a lot to work with. The Moon, after all, arrives with a boatload of meaning and associations, spanning human history, myth, and literature. The more immediate questions were, “Why is she now holding an armful of lightbulbs?” and “What is she explaining?” because to me it seemed immediately obvious from the shape of her mouth and the position of her hands that she was in the middle of explaining something important. Something she’s been thinking about for a good, long while.
And then, suddenly, everything just went dark.
And everyone just kept looking at me and I got really self-conscious.
It’s hard not to compare yourself to the girls in the advertisements.
So it was always like, yeah, they write poems about me, but when they actually see the real me, they run.
So it was always like, yeah, they write poems about me, but when they actually see me for who I am, they don’t want anything to do with me.
They want me to be this luminous beauty, but all I can think about is this crater problem.
Yes, I’m aware I’ve got craters. Are you aware you’re stupid?
Yes, I’m aware I’ve got craters. Are you aware you’re a stupid-head?
And I was like, yeah, but for once instead of being the one inspiring the poetry, I’d like to actually be the one getting kissed.
Eventually, I gave up on the idea of ever being kissed, and just made peace with the idea that I would always be the one setting the mood.
I just feel better knowing I’ve got a backup.
And ever since, I’ve been afraid of the dark.
It’s hard not to compare yourself to the moons you see in photographs.
It’s hard not to compare yourself to Jupiter’s moons.
It’s hard not to compare yourself to the Hubble images.
It’s hard not to compare your own brightness to images from the Hubble.
Because, as it turns out, I don’t have any of my own.
Because, as it turns out, what I thought was my light was only reflected from Mister Flameface.
Because, as it turns out, what I thought was my light was only reflected from old mister what’s-his-name.
Because, as it turns out, I don’t have any light of my own.
Because, as it turns out, I was only reflecting the light from somewhere else.
And now they’re telling me it was always reflective.
And now they’re telling me all I was ever doing was reflecting.
Do you have any idea what it’s like, after all those years, to find out the light wasn’t your own?
Do you have any idea what it’s like, after all those years, to find out the light was never your own.
And now they’re telling me it wasn’t actually my own, but just something I was reflecting.
I gave and gave and gave, only to find out all I ever really did was reflect.
The truth is, it felt like I was glowing, but now they tell me I was only reflecting.
In my more honest moments, I suspect I always knew the light wasn’t my own.
There was always that little voice that said perhaps the light wasn’t really my own.
I claimed the light as my own, and eventually I believed it.
But it was they who told me the light was my own. All I did was believe them.
But it was they who told me the light was my own. Was it so wrong to believe them?
The danger of being worshiped is that you so easily begin to believe the light is your own.
The biggest shock was learning that the light was not actually my own.
The biggest shock was learning that all my light was borrowed.
I was afraid that if they ever knew my light was borrowed, they would stop writing poetry about me.
It wasn’t my fault that they believed the light was my own.
It’s not my fault they believed the light was my own.
It’s not my fault they believed it was my light.
In a sense, wasn’t it my own light, though? Because I was the one reflecting it.
I mean, technically it was never my own light, but after a while you just kind of get used to people thinking it is.
After a while you get tired of explaining it’s not your light but just something you’re reflecting and you just start saying “Thanks.”
After a while you get tired of explaining it’s not your own light and you just start saying “Yeah, thanks. Glad you enjoyed it.”
*P. Peterson (Editor) recently returned from a three-week absence with telltale claw-scarring around his knuckles, and a verbal assurance that the mandate had been accomplished (though THE AUTHORITIES are still awaiting photographic proof). In Pete’s defense, as he cowers beneath his bed, downing gallons of “Spanish Lemonade” and scrawling runes of warding in charcoal upon his baseboards, he does indeed bear the glassy stare and “variegated whiskers” most commonly associated with the “soul harrowing” required in the capturing ceremony of any magical sparrow North of the Equator.
Doug participated in the early work of Charlie Peacock’s Art House Foundation, an organization dedicated to a shared exploration of faith and the arts. In the decades since, he has worked as an author, song lyricist, scriptwriter, and video director. He has penned more than 350 lyrics recorded by a variety of artists including Switchfoot, Kenny Rogers, Sanctus Real, and Jason Gray. His newest book is Every Moment Holy (Rabbit Room Press). His other works include The Angel Knew Papa and the Dog (illustrated by Zach Franzen), The Wishes of the Fish King (illustrated by Jamin Still), Subjects with Objects (with Jonathan Richter), and Stories We Shared: A Family Book Journal (with Jamin Still).