My college education began at a conservative Lutheran pre-seminary program at Concordia College in River Forest, Illinois. After a disappointing experience in high school geometry, I abandoned my dream to be an architect, and my singular focus became what we called “the ministry.” From 2nd to 8th grade, I attended a day school of the same conservative branch of the Lutheran church. It was an overall good experience, with a small tight-knit class, a few with whom I remain friends some 45-plus years later. When I matriculated to the local public high school in 1981, I went from a class that averaged about a dozen to one of over 600. I never adjusted. I did not have a positive high school experience – short of my extraordinary English and German teachers – one of whom sexually assaulted me only a month after my 18th birthday on a visit with him before I left town to attend college.
I started my freshman year of college damaged. I was also dragging along the unprocessed baggage of being separated from my family at 7 months old and raised with a false identity in a family of strangers. My first off-campus job was child care for the Coates family, a typical mid-1980’s upwardly mobile, two-child, one-dog family. They lived on the corner of Chicago and East Avenues in Oak Park, Illinois, in a house designed by one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s apprentices, just two doors down from Wright’s commission that would spawn his tragically fated affair with Mamah Borthwick Cheney. Mention of the family dog Molly in the job posting had piqued my interest in applying for the position. I couldn’t have known that it would lead to meeting the first woman who revealed herself to me as a “birthmother,” a term I’d never heard up to that point. I found my mother just four years later, after over twenty years of separation. The Coates would eventually divorce.
My pre-seminary plans fell apart in one fateful moment in the first and only theology class I would take, Old Testament. I don’t remember the question I asked, just the response from the professor, who all but gathered sticks to burn me alive as a heretic on the spot. That was it, this wasn’t for me. Thankfully, I was simultaneously enrolled in both Art History and later Studio Art, taught by Professor Darlene Fahrenkrog, who glided cheerfully through the lower level of Kretzmann Hall with her hands wrapped around a mug of piping hot water, while declaring mantras of positive persistence. This was when art started saving my life.
I remained actively involved in church youth group throughout high school, advancing to a district leadership position. Along with a limited tenure in Marching Band, one of my few extracurricular activities was Art Club, the staff sponsor of which would later jump to his death from the Quincy Memorial Bridge. He was a rotund man. I’ve since imagined what a horrible splash, his lifeless body drifting downstream to Lock and Dam 21. I didn’t take my first art class until the last semester of my senior year. The Viet Nam war veteran turned art teacher unabashedly discouraged me from attending art school. I’m not sure if his unsolicited advice was based on the sheer impracticality of such a commitment or my lack of talent, but nevertheless I would.
The spring of 1986 was spent plotting my escape from Concordia in my single dorm room, where I kept my spirits up with episodes of Late Night with David Letterman. Sandra Bernhard’s guest appearances were my favorite. I met her on three separate occasions years later, graced with an on-stage kiss at a performance in San Francisco. I started my freshman year with a roommate, Michael Schafstall from Columbus, Indiana. Roommates were paired by the college and encouraged to exchange letters prior to the start of school. As dutiful Lutheran boys, we did. When a wallet-sized senior picture of a handsome blonde with an athletic build and dangerous smile fell out of his letter, my heart fluttered. But things didn’t go so well once we were roommates. Michael snored, talked in his sleep, and was bewilderingly contemptuous of me. Years later I received a letter from him, which included my original letter to him. He explained that he was gay and married to a dentist in Carmel, Indiana. He apologized and described what had been a young man afraid of being outed by his association with me, despite the fact that I had not yet come to terms with my sexuality as a freshman, though my dorm room was beginning to show the signs. It was sparsely decorated with anything I could afford from the flagship Crate & Barrel store on Michigan Avenue, and a Bruce Springsteen Born in the USA poster, prominently featuring his rear end. By May, I was accepted to enroll at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, a return to my birthplace. I graduated with honors in May of 1990 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Photography. My first apartment after I graduated from “Wash U (it’s colloquial moniker) was on the corner of Osage and presciently named Iowa Avenue. I later discovered it was only 10 blocks from the apartment on Virginia Avenue where in 1967-68 my mother and grandmother had done their best to care for me, until they no longer could.
My first teacher was also my first best friend. A retired teacher in her 70’s, she lived across the street from my adoptive family in LaGrange, Missouri. In true small-town southern style, we simply referred to her as Miss Vira, and her sister, Miss Grace. I spent countless hours under her tutelage and watchful eye, expanding my vocabulary with flash cards while eating popsicles from the deep freeze on her back porch. I still have the painted red wooden chair where I sat at a TV tray for my lessons with her, a relic from the rural one-room schoolhouse where she’d taught.
God bless all my teachers past and present.
August 10, 2019 with Darlene Fahrenkrog at her home in Chicago. My quilt One Life is seen in the background. I gave it to her as a thank-you gift.
After an intensive year creatively, and personally – it seemed like a good time to take a break and turn back to the roots of what I love most about quilting – color, geometry, and tradition. I am making Recalibration simply for the joy of making it, in hopes that this same joy will be multiplied, transferred through the hands of my quilter, and translated through the eyes of the viewer.
After returning from my exhibit in France, I decided it was time to retire a few quilts out of my collection and from public exhibition. It is such a thrill to be able to gift these quilts to people who’ve played a formative role in my life, creatively or otherwise. One of these people is my Aunt Alice Solter (my Mom’s oldest sister) – who has shown me favor, kindness, and many remembrances since the day my parents brought me into their home in La Grange, Missouri, February of 1968. She had expressed interest in my quilt “Smokehaus Rose” as her favorite piece. I was particularly honored to present it to her as the quilt was inspired by fond memories of my early years in La Grange, where she lived only a few houses away, and where most of my extended adoptive family lived, including my two sets of grandparents. Every quilt finds its right home, this one is no exception.
I am excited to have been invited to have a solo show at the 24th Annual Le Carrefour Européen du Patchwork in Sainte-Marie-aux-Mines, France. I will be exhibiting nine quilts and presenting my video A Piece of Me on Saturday, September 15 at 2pm. It is a great honor and I am looking forward to what will be my first solo show in Europe. Le Carrefour Européen du Patchwork takes place throughout five quaint villages in eastern France very near the German border.
As an adopted child, my inner life was full of fantasy and musing about my origins. I loved the movie Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, especially the scene where Charlie blasts through a glass skylight in flight over terracotta rooftops of a German village. The scene stirred my imagination, interest in my own German heritage, and my desire to someday see those very red rooftops myself. In the subsequent 40 years I never made it to Europe, until now. I can’t help but believe that my solo exhibit at Le Carrefour Européen du Patchwork is my own fantastic flight, a homecoming, and a childhood dream realized.
DAY ONE September 8, 2018 Amtrak Mt Pleasant, Iowa to Chicago > scam taxi ride > hotel strike at the Palmer House > relocated to another hotel > dinner at Italian Villages restaurant
DAY TWO September 9, 2018 Breakfast at Tiera Piano (at the Chicago Art Institute) with my beloved first art professor, Darlene Fahrenkrog (Concordia College, River Forest, Illinois 1985-86) and her husband > Blue Line el(evated) train to O’Hare airport > sleepless overnight flight to Frankfurt, Germany
DAY THREE September 10, 2018 Arrived in Frankfurt, Germany > 3+-hour ride to La Vancelle, France with our driver, Ramone > greeted at Hotel Elisabeth with a handwritten note taped to the open door of the hotel > walked through the village to the town church that’s dedicated to the infant victims of WWI and WWII from La Vancelle > ended the very long day with one (of many) of the best meals of my life at the hotel’s restaurant, where the staff treated us like family
DAY FOUR September 11, 2018 Met Lysianne Held, Exhibit Manager I’ve worked with only by email for a year > drove in villages clearly platted before cars were invented (wonderful!) > hung my show in 8 hours with the help of my partner > came “home” to the hotel dog > had picnic dinner in park just up the hill from the village chapel at 9:00PM with food purchased from what became our favorite grocery store, the Super U, in Sainte-Marie-aux-Mines
DAY FIVE September 12, 2018 Left early and stopped at a boulangerie in Ste-Marie-aux-Mines for the most amazing plum tart en route to Reims (about 4 hours by car, during which we passed through the fields of Verdun and saw many WWI memorials along the roadside) > visited the truly awe-inspiring Reims Cathedral > ate lunch at an outdoor cafe with cathedral facade only yards away > safely back home to the bucolic view out of the hotel window > ended the day with another picnic dinner from the Super U
DAY SIX September 13, 2018 Opening day for of Le Carrefour Européen du Patchwork, my exhibition was hosted in the beautiful town of Sainte-Croix-aux-Mines >only exhibit I’ve ever had with a beer/wine/pretzel tent and other wonderful food vendors > was blown away by the attendance (20,000 people) met folks from France, USA, Netherlands, United Kingdom, Kenya, Italy, Austria, Germany, Hungary, Luxembourg, Finland, and Russia > an enthusiastic, sophisticated, and appreciative audience all-around
DAY SEVEN September 14, 2018 A misty morning in Val d’Argent (Silver Valley) > more throngs of people at the exhibit > took the autobahn, and got to practice my European parking skills on a day trip to Baden Baden, Germany to relax in the waters of the Friedrichsbad Roman/Irish baths > came back to hotel for a delightful dinner (had my first escargot!) with my longtime friend and “Auntie Mame” (Jacquie Rickman) and her friend Suzi who came to see the show from Chicago
DAY EIGHT September 15, 2018 Gave my presentation, “A Piece of Me,” to a small but mighty gathering > reunited with a dear friend from Germany, Dorothee Schwolgin, who I hadn’t seen since 1983, when she was an exchange student at my high school (Quincy, Illinois) > made new friends from Australia (Linda Collins) and Belgium (Martine Poehlman) > ended the day with another wondeful dinner in Colmar, France with Doro, her friend Barbara, Jacquie, and Suzi
photo credit: Dorothee Schwolgin
DAY NINE September 16, 2018 Last day of the exhibit > took some time to wander around Ste-Croix-aux-Mines, meet a few other artists, and see their work > featured in a regional newspaper article > was bid a fond “au revoir” by the lovely volunteer pages who staffed the exhibit hall, all in tourism studies > until next time, beautiful Alsace…
I am so glad to have had this experience. It was one of the best in my life. So many dreams were realized in just this one trip – which was full of surprises and delight. I was so impressed by the French people’s kindness and their laid-back approach to problems. To meet first- and second-generation children of parents who suffered the horrors of WWII was very moving, along with traveling through Verdun and seeing the roadside WWI memorials. War is not the abstraction for Europeans that it is for most Americans. It gave me a deep appreciation for what they suffered, for the strength of their culture as expressed in food and kindness, and for their enduring appreciation of the common good. The food was beyond words and made with so much love and care that I could taste in every bite. I am so thankful to the Le Carrefour Européen du Patchwork staff, and the staff of the Hotel Elisabeth who made us feel like family. I only wish I’d had more time to explore the area…so until next time…
I recently had the pleasure of accepting and completing a commissioned piece for a couple of Kansas City art collectors and friends of mine. I am typically hesitant to accept commissions, but was honored by this one. The piece is titled Monsoon and was inspired by my experience of Arizona monsoon rains while visiting in the summer of 2017 for my 50th birthday.
Monsoon required learning how to complete inside corner miter binding
Only recently have I come to full terms with the church’s role in my spiritual life as well as my life as an artist. Growing up, the church was one of my first and only consistent encounters with aesthetic beauty – the order and seasonal colors of the liturgy, the banners, the stained glass windows, and the rich musical history, dating all the way back to Johann Sebastian Bach and beyond. So it makes sense that as an adult, my creative medium is quilt-making, the elements of which are fabric, piecing, color, and composition.
In 1998, the same year I started my first quilt while living in Yountville, California, I returned to the Midwest after an eight year post-collegiate stint living west of the Missouri River. I landed at my parents’ house in a small college town in west central Illinois. It was a far cry from the Napa Valley, but with the proximity of the college, I succumbed to both internal and external pressures to achieve a full-fledged conventional career. So, based on a personal history of a congenital cleft lip and palate, as well as a former girlfriend’s successful completion of the same, I decided to pursue a Master’s degree in Speech-Language Pathology. I got as far as a post-baccalaureate (read: useless second Bachelor’s degree), but dropped out halfway into the first semester of the graduate program. Throughout all this upheaval and general malcontent, I continued to make quilts. They were my solace and my sanity. In the meantime, I had also volunteered to make two banners for my parents’ church, Immanuel Lutheran. The designs were mine, but inspired by and based on the work of Scottish architect and artist, Charles Rennie Mackintosh. The two banners were each 3 feet wide by 12 feet high, designed to flank the altar.
During this same time, I was meeting one-on-one with the church pastor in preparation for membership in the church – something which seemed redundant and somewhat patronizing in light of my 2nd-8th grade St. James Lutheran Day School education; my Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS) district-level church youth leadership position in high school; and a year of pre-seminary study at Concordia (Lutheran) College in River Forest, Illinois. Wasn’t I already Lutheran enough? One of the pastor’s pre-requisites for full membership, which would include my being welcome to take the sacrament of communion, was that I denounce my sexuality as a self-identified gay man. Of course, there was some level of hair-splitting, like how I could be gay, I just couldn’t act on it. Well, I tried. And I tried a little longer, but quickly realized how absurd such a request was, let alone any attempt to acquiesce to it. Once I shared my conclusion with the pastor, he swiftly informed me that I was not welcome to become a member of the church, nor participate in the sacrament of communion – in this, the denomination, faith, and doctrine deeply rooted in my own as well as my family’s history.
And so the banners…which I’d been working on this whole time. I was faced with a tough decision: abandon the nearly-finished project, or take the high road and complete them. I came to understand that I wasn’t making them for any particular individual, church leader, or denomination. I was making them for a greater purpose, which was to celebrate and honor the Divine, and thereby inspire and speak to the higher self of anyone that might encounter my visual offerings. I am proud to say that after twenty years, the banners still hang at Immanuel Lutheran church. I recently received a call from one of the members of the church’s altar guild (who also happens to be my first cousin once removed, by marriage), asking about how to make a minor repair to one of them. Over the years, she has reported on how much the banners have meant to members of the congregation. I am sure the banners have witnessed numerous baptisms, weddings, and maybe even funerals. Moreover, I have found my true calling, my art.
Note: a few years later, the same pastor that had denied my membership in the church, made an Oral-Roberts-style public confession that he’d had some kind of unholy thoughts about a? some? all of? the young women in the college town he served (Immanuel Lutheran maintains both a town and gown church campus). I think he took some kind of leave-of-absence along with his mea culpa, but according to the church website, he has served and still serves as pastor since 1997, just one year before my encounter with him.
On a bitterly cold day in February of 2013, I had the pleasure of meeting Krisitin Congdon at the Iowa State Museum in Des Moines, Iowa. She was accompanied by Teresa Hollingsworth, my friend and co-curator of the show on view at the museum, The Sum of Many Parts, after it’s year-long tour throughout China. The exhibit had taken Teresa and me, along with four others, to Shanghai only a year earlier. Teresa had mentioned my work to author Kristin Congdon, who later chose me, along with 3 other artists, for ethnographic chapters in her book, The Making of An Artist: Desire, Courage, and Commitment. My chapter is featured as part of Congdon’s exploration of commitment as it plays out in the lives of various artists, and is based on her in-depth interview with me in my Iowa City studio.
The book is a delightful and informative read. It gave me welcome insight into the personal lives and struggles of some of my favorite artists. Congdon’s book transformed many of the quirks I’d formerly considered liabilities into what I now understand as assets. The book helped reveal my very nature as an artist, and clarify traits I share with many other artists who have gone before me, and whose work inspires me. I highly encourage any aspiring artists, or anyone interested in the lives of artists, to read the book. I wish I’d had the luxury of reading it as an art student in the early 1990’s at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri.