Category Archives: war

Artist Richard Notkin

Richard Notkin

Richard Notkin

Artist Richard Notkin recently lectured at the Renwick Gallery (part of the Smithsonian family of museums) on the role of the Artist in Society. He asked us what is the ultimate purpose of art and can the human species live on in a world with out it? Richard cited the Lascaux Cave paintings, early Greek art and architecture as examples of our need to have art and beauty around us.

He believes the artist serves as both a visual and social link, that the best work of an artist ‘stimulates those who view it to ask questions’. Notkin has chosen to embrace the role of an artist as a social critic, that he celebrates new ground and quoted Andre Malraux saying, “All art is a revolt against man’s fate.

All Nations Have Their Moment of Foolishness, by Richard Notkin

All Nations Have Their Moment of Foolishness, by Richard Notkin

Notkin made it clear throughout his lecture that for him the word artist was a broad term, encompassing painters, sculptors, ceramicist as well as musicians, vocalists and composers from different eras.  Notkin cited that for his generation, Dylan’s ‘Blowing in the Wind’ served as an anthem; a call which spurred them action. His need to protest the war and destruction in Viet Nam was a direct result of Dylan’s song.

A protest against war and destruction is a central theme in Notkin’s work. While discussing nuclear weapons he states that nations continuing to seek them, add them to the ranks of the axis of evil. He then asked, “Do we sleep more soundly at night knowing we can incinerate the families of our enemies many times over?” His work has borrowed from Michelangelo (Pieta). One of the themes that he referenced several times in several series was Goya’s revolution etchings along with Picasso’s greatest work Guernica that these works were protests against war.

Detail from All Nations Have Their Moment of Foolishness

Detail from All Nations Have Their Moment of Foolishness

He stated that he has no messianic beliefs about himself, rather he views his work as something similar to the artisan working on a cathedral. The artisan/craftsmen know that their work will not be completed during their lifetime, yet they labor proudly, content to be part of a larger purpose. When he said this I thought about the time I wandered around marveling at the still incomplete Sagrada Familia designed by Gaudi. This cathedral has been under construction since 1882 and still isn’t completed. In this age of instant everything-it’s hard to understand or accept that your role of a social commentator may be to only be that small stone in a larger movement/avalanche.

Creation and Destruction. Notkin returned repeatedly throughout the lecture to his concerns with destruction. He stated that mankind’s issues are far too complex to solve with explosive devices.  Notkin believes the fulcrum of creativity lies midway between creation and destruction. Art is the physical manifestation of our hopes and our dreams. Without art, what can hold our destructive capabilities in check?

Stopping the Godless Aggressors

Stopping the Godless Aggressors

Listening to him speak, I had several quick thoughts that I jotted down which I wanted to ask him about.  If he feels that mankind’s issues are so complex that they can not be solved with the use of weapons of mass destruction, how does he reconcile that they are a necessary part of his creative equation (i.e., the fulcrum of creativity lies between creation and destruction).  I wondered what would happen if you removed the threat of destruction from the equation.  I think he touched on the answer briefly when he joked that if the threat of destruction went away he would happily paint nudes.

Works. While speaking about his work Richard Notkin stated that he has found more questions than answers. The major themes of his work center on art and war.  Notkin wants to understand why an artist continues to create for a seemingly indirect or disinterested audience.  Notkin found a partial answer to this question in these two quotes.

The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man. George Bernard Shaw

Speaking the truth in times of universal deceit is a revolutionary act. George Orwell

Detail from And they Shall Beat Their Swords into  Plowshares

Detail from And they Shall Beat Their Swords into Plowshares

Richard Notkin works small.  If you look at the mural All Nations Have Their Moment of Foolishness you will see a portrait of former President George Bush.  Notkin created this using 3×3 tiles. Each tile was formed and then carved.

Notkin said he can spend 50-60 hours carving on less than one cubic inch. He said he was trying to surpass the type of carving seen in a Japanese netsuke. This can be seen in the both ‘Stopping the Godless Aggressors’ and ‘And They Shall Beat Their Swords into Plowshares.’

Detail from ...Plowshares

Detail from ...Plowshares

The work Stopping the Godless Aggressors is about Viet Nam and Nixon and the horrors of war.  The scale is small but Notkin stated this work was far more about context than scale.

And They Shall Beat Their Swords into Plowshares. This work originally began as a maquette for a larger piece but became the actual piece. There are a multitude of weapons (including civil war cannon) as well as a variety of building materials. At the top of the piece (with grass) is a horse drawn plow going through a fecund clod of earth. He was trying to show the earth’s ability to heal and show us that we have that healing ability as well. To get an idea of scale, the plowshare is carved out of clay and is about two cubic inches.



All Nations Have Their Moments of Foolishness. I liked this piece.  Richard said he made his murals with 3×3″ squares of clay that he formed and then carved.  Frankly each tile is a work of art in itself.  They feature skulls, a horse screaming in mortal agony from Picasso’s Guernica, Jesus’ limp feet from Michangelo’s Pieta, the iconic figure of the hooded figure standing with his arms outstretched from Abu Ghraib.  Murder, torture, war all the heinous acts that have been committed within the last two centuries are memorialized in this work.  Notkins fired these tiles in sawdust, which allowed for the range of light and dark.  He used these tiles with a grided photograph to recreate former President Bush’s portrait.  More specific information can be found at this here which provides the artist’s statement about the piece as well as the specifics of his techniques used to fire the clay.  He said that he struggled for a while to find the title for the piece.  Eventually he felt that the title was a statement that best fit this piece because it explained why the American people voted for President Bush for a second term.

There were many other pieces that he spoke of during his lecture that I haven’t covered.  His heart vessels, his yixing teapots, or his wondrous ‘It’s no Use Shouting (After Goya)’.  I will hopefully cover these in a few weeks.  I also have to state that my pictures were photographs of the 35mm slides Mr. Notkin’s used.  Most had to be cropped to remove other people’s hair, hats etc from the view.


The Iowa Caucus

I recently volunteered for Senator Joe Biden’s Presidential Campaign in Des Moines Iowa. I wanted to see the caucus process first hand and more importantly, I wanted to help this wonderful man in his bid for the White House.

I should also say here that I am an extremely liberal republican (actually I will probably be switching and declaring myself independent because I can no longer stomach the machinations of the far right in my own party, but that is another blog entry); I felt that Joe was the only qualified candidate who could navigate the United States out of Iraq in a way that ensure the stability of the Iraqi government and provide safety for the Iraqi people.

What caused a liberal republican to travel to Iowa to support a democratic candidate?  I’d read Christine Pelosi’s book, Campaign Boot Camp: Basic Training for Future Leaders.  This book urges us to get involved within our communities on issues that concern us.  I figured since I was very worried about pro-choice and even more concerned about a sane pullout or reduction in forces in Iraq I should actually support a candidate who supported the issues I cared about.  So I put my money where my mouth was by donating to Senator Biden’s campaign; but more importantly I flew out to Iowa to help. 

New Year’s day 1 January 2008

I flew out to Des Moines, IA on at 0640 and hit the ground running. 

Joe’s campaign was a grassroots campaign. Its focus was about people connecting with other people and I was lucky enough to witness and to be a part of this process. 

I spent the first day doing ID calls. That means I called about 300-400 registered voters and asked them if they were definitely for Joe, leaning towards supporting him, undecided, leaning towards another candidate or definitely voting for another person.  Once identified, this information was coded into a database and then used to make a list for another volunteer to contact the undecided voters to discuss Joe’s position on various issues, to identify Joe supporters (a follow up call let them know their precinct caucus location) or to remove folks from a call back list.

 2 January 2008 

They volunteer coordinator handed me a stack of papers and asked me to make ‘persuasion’ calls to those who were still undecided.  I was really nervous about this because the voters in Iowa are extremely well informed. I think they are bashley-biden.jpgetter informed than some political  analysts and campaign workers I saw on TV.  Several folks explained (patiently I might add) that they liked Joe but were concerned about the viability of his numbers.  They want their vote to count and want to support “THE” candidate who would win not only the primary and the democratic nomination, but also be able to beat who ever the republicans chose as their candidate. These people knew the issues inside and out and are passionate about politics.

I stated with the script and a 3-page position paper which was provided to all of the precinct captains (i.e., those who said they would support Joe during the actual caucus process).  I was able to talk to many different people  about Senator Biden’s record, experience, position on various issues and several signed on to support him.

The volunteer coordinators for the campaign decided to send all of the out-of-state volunteers to different caucuses.  We would act/serve as Precinct Captains for the Biden Campaign.  At 7pm we attended a conference call where the strategy for the caucus was laid out.  We had several major goals and everyone had to understand them.  Afterwards, we all headed to Caribou Coffee at Ingersoll and 32nd for a meeting of the Des Moines Precinct Captains.  The information came fast and furious; I started to really get nervous. 

3 January 2008 , Caucus Day 

I made calls persuasion calls or calls reminding Biden supporters that it was caucus day and also telling them to location of their caucus. I did this until late afternoon.  In one instance I got a man to commit to supporting Joe through at least the first round to help make Joe viable.  When the man I called asked me to pass on a message to Joe I was able to do even better…I had Joe’s daughter, Ashley, call him and talk to him about his concerns.  At the end of the call he’d committed to supporting and voting for Joe the entire way.  That made my day.

I talked to Ashley about my nervousness in identifying the fact that I was a republican, she was wonderful. She explained that telling folks I was one and giving my personal reasons for supporting her father was a hugely compelling argument for voting for her father.  I had told several folks on the phones that I was a republican and had travelled to Iowa to support Senator Biden but only a  few people at the Biden For President Headquarters knew about this. I believe with all my heart that Senator Biden would have pulled the independent block of voters as well as the man liberal republicans like myself.  In fact, Henry a volunteer from Baltimore is an independent who traveled on his own dime like  many of us did to help with the campaign.

Initially I was asked by three college students to go with them to a town about 40 miles west of Des Moines, IA.  I cleared it with the coordinators and was almost ready to leave when I was asked to go to another precinct with Dan and Tom from New York.  There were 11 delegates at stake and no precinct captain to help the Biden supportors so we headed to Carlisle, IA.

Controlled Chaos.

The Iowa caucus is a study in controlled chaos.  All non-voting caucus folks are observers and the rules governing their activities and behaviours during the actual caucus are at the disgression of the Precinct Chairperson.  Although it might sound like its based on whim this system actually allows the Precinct Chair significant flexibility.  Our Chairperson Mark was responsible for both precincts. He was a great guy but a little overwhelmed since they had no way of identifying the 10+ observers.  He asked us once things got underway to sit on the stage. 


                                The view from the observer’s seats

Mark told me that they weren’t expecting anyone from the Biden campaign, he sent us to the first two rows in the auditorium.  Precinct 1 was on my right and Precinct 2 was on my left. The rows were split down the middle by the flag. They allowed anyone inside the building by 7pm to register to vote. In fact, as long as you qualified, you could register to vote on the day of the caucus and you could also elect/chose to change your party affiliation etc. It was amazing. Add even more confusion with the fact that the republican caucus was in the school’s media center and there was also a wrestling match scheduled too.  Amazing!

The actual caucus got underway around 7:30 when they announced the numbers for Precinct 1 and 2.  The numbers are important because they are used to determine the number of voters needed to make a candidate viable (i.e., give him a delegate). In this case the magic number was 15% of those present.  The Chair in charge of Precinct 1 seemed unable to count and he gave the incorrect number of 26.  Later this number was changed to 24 which I was told should never happen, and the Edwards, Clinton, and Obama camps could have protested in order to get another delegate.  In precinct 1 there were only two Biden supporters. I explained our strategy to them, both ended up moving into another candidate’s groupings fairly quickly.

For the Second Precinct we had more but still not enough for viability (we needed 28 in this one). Again we asked them to stand fast until the last moment (there are 30 minutes between counts and there is a LOT of horse trading on numbers during this time) and then eventually sent most of them to the Obama camp.  This was done in this district because we didn’t have viability and were unable to coordinate an uncommitted candidate.  So, I looked at the numbers and decided that the Clinton camp and the Edwards camp had the largests numbers so they were sent to Obama to even things out.

The only thing that disappointed me was having another candidate’s precinct co-captain lie to me about the some information on CNN.  He claimed the Senator provided guidance on CNN about what to do if he was non-viable. I looked at him like he’d lost his mind, what would he know about our campaign’s strategy, why would we put it on CNN and more importantly, why would he resort to lying just to get a few bodies for his candidate? 

Frankly it was a total turn off. In the event that that candidate wins the democratic nomination I would ensure I voted against them.  Why? Because when I spoke with that candidate’s out of town volunteers they’d told me that only the precinct captains knew their particular strategies. I have to assume that the co-captain had been told to do this. I know all is fair in love and war or in this case, politics but why lie on something that was so easy to verify? It was stupid.

What did I learn about the Iowa Caucus?

Well besides the fact that its a once in a life time experience (unless you live there) it’s all about horse trading and putting your candidate out there during the actual caucus.  Precinct Captains are expected to be able to get up and discuss their candidate and why he/she is the best choice.  And the audience is more informed than almost any you will see.

At a caucus there are a huge group of folks that will mill between candidates, a great deal of non-committed folks as well as folks who just want to be in the largest mob.  So anything is possible; as evidenced by Kerry’s win in 2004.  In 2004 Kerry was trailing at the polls, yet he won the primary.  Also, in both 92 and 96 there were more uncommitted delegates than delegates for specific candidates.  Even in this primary, uncommitted delegates came ahead of at least one candidate.

The Aftermath

Senator Biden needed to beat Govenor Richardson to make it into the New Hampshire debates. He’s such a fine debater that I assumed he would come off extremely well.  Unfortunately our efforts weren’t enough and he came in 5th place.


There  was a party scheduled to begin at 9pm at the Science Center in Des Monies.  We drove from Carlise, IA made a brief stop to visit a friend of mine and then headed to  the party. I knew the initial results at the 70% point due to a friend’s call, when we arrived someone mentioned that the Senator was going to head to New Hampshire anyways, so that made me one happy camper.   

 Sadly, halfway through his speech (I was literally standing right in front of his podium) when I realized his wife was trying hard not to cry that I understood it was a concession speech. The Senator thanked us for the help, love and support.  He then walked through the packed hall to shake hands, sign posters and convey his personal thanks in a wonderfully personal way.  


When he got to me, I hugged him and then he signed my poster. I told him at that point that I was a “Republican for Biden”, he smiled and said, “I love you!” imagine that!  Senator Joe Biden is a great man and the fact that he is no longer running for President is a loss for our country.  I hope that who ever wins the election considers him on their short list for Secretary of State since he’d be phenomenal.


Senator Biden signing a volunteer’s poster

Trying to Process This…

I am still not feeling well, so I decided to stay home and be ill in comfort.

World of Warcraft if off-line for maintenance so I logged in and started hopping around blogs. I saw an interesting post on the wordpress news department and I ended up in a priest’s blog called Glory to God in All Things. I found his post with a link to an article by Fredrica Mathewes-Green. The article, The Wounded Torturer, is shattering.

In her essay, published in the Review of Faith and International Affairs; Summer 2007, Ms. Mathewes-Green talked about the survivors of an experiment in Romania, called the “Pitesti Experiment”—the most intensive program of brainwashing to take place behind the Iron Curtain. In particular she spoke with Father Roman Braga and Fr. George Calciu , both survivors of Pitesti “You had to go somewhere; you had to find an inner perspective,” he said, “because otherwise you would truly go crazy.”

Neither man would describe what they’d endured. “It is secret, intimate,” Fr. Roman said, “I saw saints fall, and I saw the simple rise and become saints.” Fr. George admitted that he gave way under torture. When a victim is out of his mind with pain, he doesn’t know what he is saying. Fr. George told his interviewer, “It was a spiritual fight, between good spirits and evil spirits. And we failed on the field of battle; we failed, many of us, because it was beyond our ability to resist … The limit of the human soul’s resistance was tried there by the devil.”

This emotional and spiritual damage was even worse than the physical pain. Fr. George went on, “When you were tortured, after one or two hours of suffering, the pain would not be so strong. But after denying God and knowing yourself to be a blasphemer—that was the pain that lasted … We forgive the torturers. But it is very difficult to forgive ourselves.” At night a wash of tears would come, and with it, returning prayer. “You knew very well that the next day you would again say something against God. But a few moments in the night, when you started to cry and to pray to God to forgive you and help you, was very good.”

Fr. George once attempted to write a memoir of his Pitesti experience, but found it impossible: “Sometimes I was hammering at one word, timidly, then persistently, then intensely, to madness. The word became nothing other than a sequence of letters or sounds. It had no meaning. It didn’t tell me anything. I would say: ‘beating’ or ‘pain’ or ‘prayer’ or ‘curse’ … and I would substitute one for another without any change; none told me anything! I would say ‘cell’ and the word would not speak. I could say instead ‘lelc’ or ‘clel’ or ‘ellc’ with the same result. Everything was mute and absurd.

When I read this passage it made me think about my sister. She wrote an honors thesis in college, which discussed the role of silence in holocaust literature. I have never read her thesis and now I know I need to.

Fr. George stated that at the point they were required to torture fellow prisoners that many of them attempted or committed suicide. Ms. Mathewes-Green states, “It may sound surprising that being a torturer was so much more painful and soul-destroying than being a victim.” I had to reread that line several times. I am still not sure I’ve processed it.

Where am I going with all of this?

I think most Americans were horrified at the images we saw at Abu Gahriab. I am glad those involved were court martialed. They dishonored their country, themselves, and the US military.

I believe (beyond all of the spiritual implications and considerations), that people who use violence/torture to obtain information from a prisoner are ineffective because most people will say what you want to hear in order to make the pain stop. Perhaps I am naive?

Reading this article made me wonder how will the interrogators involved with GITMO or other similar facilities in Iraq and Afghanistan will fare when they return home. It made me wonder if the government will even realize the damage they’ve inflicted on the interrogators in the current conflicts.

I hope and pray that the Veterans Administration is prepared for them. I believe what they are doing is necessary, but I doubt many people will really understand what they job they’ve been asked to do will cost them in terms of pain, grief, and agony.

Faces of the Fallen

I saw the Faces of the Fallen display of the paintings today. It was very sad.

It’s strange because my coworker is a tough cookie and he told me that he had to leave when he saw it because he’d gotten pretty teary-eyed.

The display shows a painting/artistic rendering of the service member who died, when they were born, the date they died, how old they were and who painted the picture.

I found only one by Robert Liberace, three by Edward (ted) Reed, one by Marjorie and several by artists I’d never heard of, but their paintings were incredible.

I had to explain to my friend why the paintings seemed a little strange. All of the paintings were drawn from photos, except for two which had a design. I am not sure if that meant there were no pictures.

These men and women looked so young. Some were only 19. There was a picture of one Army reservist who was in his 50s and he looked like he was full of piss and vinegar. The kind of guy you knew you could trust to take care of you and your friends.

If they decide to update the display I will volunteer either time and talent or money to support it. I’d donated previously through my bank when they said they were supporting it.

I did see the picture of a friend and coworker on display, it made me very sad. It was a good likeness and the artist nailed his smile.

Yong Sim

I wrote this poem several years ago to describe my sister.

At the time I was a member of the (now called community. The poem was posted there as part of my portfolio.

Yong Sim

Sweet gamine face
black hair shot through
with silver
laugh lines crinkle
eyes disappear into
tiny black slits

Wicked wit
Quick to laugh
about the strangest things

Love, given freely
to those who prove worthy
fighting through
the prize
is worth the war

Heart pierced
and bleeding
rusted shrapnel
won in battles that
never end
Part of her
abandoned and left behind on a lonely African beach

A wild thing at heart
at peace only
alone among
the high hills and streams
flyline dancing
on the roaring wind.

Night falls,
alone she communes with god