Saturday, August 10, 2013

In Between Days

Let me learn from where I have been
Keep my eyes to serve and hands to learn
-from "Below My Feet" by Mumford & Sons on Babel

It doesn't surprise me that most of my friends are teachers or artists of one stripe or another. My family has been graced with educators, musicians, painters, and writers for generations. I find that my own life and work are imbued with the whispers of those ghosts.

My great-great grandfather Fred, with his wife and three children in tow, earned a meager living as an itinerant portrait painter. My uncle still takes out Fred's letters on occasion and reads the scrolling German handwriting. Amid the faded ink, an old family story comes to light. Fred and his father George shared heated correspondence. A violinist and pianist in his youth, my great-great-great grandfather eventually remarried into wealth and pressured his son to accept a stable position as a bank clerk. Apparently dismissing his own love for music in pursuit of a more lucrative lifestyle, George could not fathom his son's unwillingness to abandon his art.

I'm thankful my own parents and extended family are - and always have been - extremely supportive of my artistic endeavors. Over the years, I have been compared to Fred and a handful of other long-dead relatives. While I'm certainly inspired by those dearly departed, I find my contemporaries influence me the most.

Nine years ago, I met one of those heroes. Damon Hood was an unassuming assistant teacher for a community college drawing class. Soft-spoken yet intense, elegant yet down-to-earth, Damon immediately intrigued me. He was too good for that class, that school. (I came to find that was wonderfully true for the entire fine arts faculty of the small college.) He measured every word. He rarely offered an unsolicited suggestion, but I often sought his advice. His critiques were honest but always encouraging. I owe much of my technique and sensibilities to this unique man.

Over the years, Damon has become a dear friend. Thomas Thielemann - the professor of that drawing class and my close confidant - once said of Damon: "Damon is not simply a painter. He is the coolest guy I know. And the only artist I have ever met." While I would add Thomas and a good handful of friends into the 'artist' category, I understand his meaning.

Our Damon is special. Damon is art. He appreciates the unnoticed and overlooked. He somehow absorbs it all and manages to release it in the most exquisite, heart-breaking work.

Both Damon and Thomas have managed to find soul-mates who share their awesome abilities. I recently joked with Amber Watts, Damon's love, about how perfect they are for one another. It's not quite fair when so much talent exists in one couple, but surely, it wouldn't make sense any other way. Lynda Lea Bonkemeyer, Thomas' graceful wife, balances him in every aspect. These men and women - all of them artists and teachers - add so much beauty to my life.

This week, Damon, Amber, and Amber's son packed up and moved away. Amber - truly one of the real artists of our time - is beginning graduate studies. While I'm thrilled for them as they embark on this new adventure, I grieve for our community's loss. 

It seems our artists and teachers aren't fully embraced in western North Carolina. Our area is lousy with artists, musicians, writers, dramatists, educators. While there are pockets of support, budgets for education and the arts are slashed. Teachers scrape by, painters need to be represented out of town before many locals will consider their work, musicians have to be their own promoters, and venues struggle to keep their doors open.

Many of our first heroes were teachers. They made us believe in our own worth. We were told to write our own stories, to follow our dreams. As children, we all loved to create. The souls who escaped the 'keep the colors in between the lines' mentality continue to enrich our lives. 

I wonder how many of our best will feel pressured to leave the beautiful hills of Appalachia. Will our communities come to realize the value these creative spirits add? Will we work together to ensure artists and educators have a place here among us?

Perhaps we're in between days. Maybe we're only now waking up to the grim realities. North Carolina continues to make national news - not only for the unfortunate political decisions coming from Raleigh lawmakers - but for those among us voicing concern. Ordinary citizens are gathering together and discussing important issues like the arts and education. We've been asleep too long. The days of apathy and indifference are behind us. Days of caring and action are ahead.

In Between Days by Damon Hood, 2009. Acrylic on Panel, 42 x 48 inches. 

Wednesday night, as Amber and I took inventory of the many large-scale paintings that needed to find their place in the moving truck, Damon pulled out a striking, emotionally-charged piece. He related the story of its creation. He had attended his father's funeral and had to be back for a painting class that afternoon. In three hours, he completed a 42 x 48" panel. 

To see In Between Days is to almost know Damon. In the most beautiful, unexpected act of generosity and friendship, Damon gave this masterpiece to me. I will treasure it.

More than any brilliant work of art or song or lesson, the life-enriching relationships our area's artists and educators are willing to give us have the potential to transform our communities. As we see ourselves through the eyes of these gifted individuals, we can critique our priorities, motives, and actions. Where we are lacking, they will guide us and offer new insight and ways to make something beautiful out of the mess.

See more of Damon's work at
View Amber's work at
View Thomas and Lynda Lea's work at