The Whole Enchilada: A Conversation with Adam Back

Adam Back is a student in his last semester at Regent College, going out with a bang with a solo exhibition at the Lookout Gallery March 26-April 30. I sat down and chatted with him about enchiladas, flowers, and the art of slowing down.

Generation of Ash by Adam Back.

Generation of Ash | 15 x 20 inches, 2014, Acrylic.

CK: What’s the significance of The Whole Enchilada? It seems a bit of an odd name for an art exhibit.

AB: It is a bit of an odd name, and that’s pretty intentional. It’s a phrase I grew up hearing a lot in Texas. “Give me the whole enchilada,” which means you want it all—you want as much stuff crammed into that tortilla as possible. My show is also the culmination of my time at Regent College, where I am doing a dual concentration in Biblical Studies and Christianity & the Arts, which includes an IPIAT (Integrative Project in Art & Theology). For my IPIAT, I have to write a theological reflection on art alongside a series of paintings I’m making. So calling the show and presentation “the whole enchilada” is my tongue-and-cheek way of summarizing everything that’s gone on for me at Regent in the last five years.

CK: Can we expect to see enchiladas at the show?

AB: It would be a great sell if I could have enchiladas as appies at the opening reception, eh? But that’s the one sad thing about moving to Vancouver—there’s not a whole lot of great Mexican food.

CK: How about any paintings of enchiladas?

AB: Not yet, but I may add one in. After all, I do need to pay homage to my roots.

CK: You mentioned growing up in Texas. Tell me a bit more of your background.

AB: Well, I grew up in Houston and moved to East Texas to do a BFA in Painting. After that, I did an MA in Painting at Stephen F. Austin University in Nacogdoches. Once I graduated, I moved to Colorado to work with kids coming out of youth corrections and got to live the dream every other weekend going fly fishing, backpacking, or skiing. Then I ended up back in Texas a few years later and worked in construction management.

CK: So you weren’t doing art after graduating. Why now?

AB: I think a big part of it is my church & my pastor. I go to Immanuel Vancouver, a church that meets in the Rio Theatre on Commercial and Broadway. I was doing a pastoral internship at the time and one day, while hanging out with the pastor (Simon) at Starbucks, he asked me, “So tell me about your art—why did you stop making it?” I think it had been about six years since I put brush to canvas. I was so burned out after my MA and disillusioned with the rat race of the art world. And a lot of it too was space and time. Without space, it’s really hard to make art. Simon said, “What if we make some of your internship hours studio hours?” He then said he could probably get me space at the church office where I could work. And I said, “That’s a great idea!” We also wanted to try running an arts community group at the church, so those two things coalesced and took off really well.

CK: So if it weren’t for Simon, would you be making art in Vancouver?

AB: Probably not. I think it was a wise and gracious push from Simon that opened up so much life for me. There were a lot of things going on for me at that time, and his nudging me back to the arts gave me a shock to the system that I needed to start integrating all the theology I was learning with my paintings, the arts group, and my other relationships. It was really life giving and still is.

CK: Why is it important that theology and art integrate?

AB: There’s a really long philosophical tradition as to why those things have been separated. Historically, in the West, a human being has been understood simply as a thinking thing—a receptacle for information. Scripturally, that’s not true. There’s that great quote by Saint Irenaeus that says, “The glory of god is a human being fully alive.” What does it look like to be fully alive? That means our emotions, our physicality, and yes, our intellect, but I don’t think that means our intellect at the expense of loving to play Frisbee in the park with your girlfriend, or cooking enchiladas, or making a painting.

CK: Tell me more about how your faith informs your practice as an artist.

AB: Well the other big part of why I’m making art is because of my experience at Regent College. Regent has helped me see and understand where I fit into the story of what God is doing in the world. I am challenged to ask, “What does a human life look like lived in the world before a God who’s creative, who spoke in parables, who came to us as the word made flesh? The story we get in the Bible is of a good God making a good universe—a good creation. Within that universe, he places his images to steward and care for creation. We’ve done some really dark and evil things with that, but we’ve also done some really great things. I think God likes to be surprised in the sense of, “What are my images going to come up with?”

So when it comes to my own personal studio practices, this scriptural story opens up all kinds of possibilities because the stuff I make with is stuff that’s already been made. Most of my work is in mixed media/collage. For example, I’ll take trash found in the streets, old books, record albums, matchboxes, sheet music, and then I glue it all down, paint over top of it, scrape it all off, and glue it all back down again and draw on top of it.

CK: Sounds like an arduous process!

AB: It is, but I love it—I love the material stuff. I think we often get this idea that God doesn’t care about the physical world or our bodies, which plays out in this escapism that is so much a part of Western culture. Christianity feeds off that, and I think it’s a dangerous symbiosis. Look at Rembrandt’s work or the Sistine Chapel or Japanese watercolours—there are so many beautiful things people make. It seems strange that God could call the world he made very good in Genesis 1 and then destroy it. But if the story in Scripture is that he’s redeeming the world and I’m a part of this story, then that starts playing art through how I handle the materials.

CK: How does that scriptural story come across not just in how you paint, but what you paint?

AB: Well, if this is a story about the whole world, then I think ordinary things matter.

CK: So you paint ordinary things?

AB: Yes and no. At least in Western culture, we tend to go from excitement to excitement. I like exciting stuff, but I also like shucking peas or going for walks—the small, ordinary things of life that seemingly don’t matter. One of the paintings in the show is a stack of books. A lot of the other ones are flowers and I’ll leave some surprises for what else is in there. But these “ordinary,” small things that are easy to miss are important things too. Our culture is so fast-paced that we often can’t slow down to look at things and see things well. What I really love about making art is that I get to do it in the first place, and that my artistic practices in the studio force me to slow down and pay attention to what I’m doing. I know when I start rushing and not applying paint well that I’m going to foul everything up and have to start over. If I’m just trying to rush through and crank something out, then I have to question, “Do I really love this?” That question has been important to me because I want to love the things I make and share that with others.

Knowing, You Shall Not Know by Adam Back | 11 x 14 inches, 2014, mixed media on panel.

Knowing, You Shall Not Know | 11 x 14 inches, 2014, mixed media on panel.

CK: So when people come to your exhibit, what do you want them to pay attention to or take away from it?

AB: I throw all this stuff out there about form and attention to detail, but the irony is that it can come back to bite me if I’ve sloughed off. But it’s also a check and accountability for the level that I want to work at. Hopefully when people come to the show, they see that care and attention to detail. The little collage surprises I put in my paintings—like matchbooks or traces of text—what does that communicate? With our iPads, phones, and earbuds, we’re always connected. We can’t slow down and pay attention to one thing, and I think good art slows people down. The main thing I’d want to inspire in people would be for them to have at least one thing that they take time out for in their own lives. And of course if they wanted to take away a painting with them, they’re welcome to do that too.

CK: At a cost, right?

AB: Haha, yes! Please!

CK: Looking at your website, I notice there are a lot of images with flowers. Is there a particular reason you’re drawn to flowers—pardon the pun?

AB: I’m sure there are lots of reasons. I’m always astounded with Vancouver in the spring when the tulips and peonies begin to bloom. People cultivate their gardens really well, and you have these firecrackers of colour all over the city. As I’m walking to the bus stop in the morning, I’ll miss the bus because I’m stopping to look at somebody’s flowers in their front yard, and I think, how boring life would be without flowers! And by extension, how boring life would be without colour! Just think of all the various hues and tints of colours in just one petal of a rose. So yeah, I stop and smell the roses. At the same time, flowers are fragile things and only here for a while before they’re gone. There’s this ephemeral quality to their beauty, just as there is to life.

CK: So you’re essentially capturing something that’s impossible to capture.

AB: Exactly. There’s a beautiful tension between the material and the content.

CK: You mentioned earlier about leading an arts group at your church. What does that look like?

AB: At Immanuel, the demographic is extremely varied. We have folks from the downtown eastside and those that live in West Point Grey; people who work downtown in high-rises and homeless people who wander the streets; people in recovery from addictions and stay-at-home moms. And so I look at pulling together this group of people around art as a way of mentoring and engaging our imaginations. It opens up new avenues to explore where God is in the midst of our lives and our blended community. How do we learn to see God and each other? It’s such a fascinating group because some people have art degrees and then others have never picked up a paintbrush before.

CK: What is the attraction for the person who’s never picked up a paintbrush before?

AB: We advertise the group—if that’s the word—as a group for artists, those interested in the arts, and just the generally curious. Creativity and imagination are so important for what it means to be human, and I think there’s a really strong dignity that plays out in the act of making things, particularly the act of making things together. And so I think folks are interested in exploring their faith from a different angle. It ties in with what I said earlier about the Western conception of humans as just rational beings. We are far more than that, and art is a way of helping our faith take form and not just exist as propositions we agree with.

We meet twice a month to talk about art and then we do a project together that gets displayed at the front of the church for our whole community. I have some people who come just to be part of our discussions, and others who come just to do the art, and either or both is great.

CK: What is a past project you did together?

AB: We’ve done about four or five now, but the one that sticks out most for me is the one for last advent season. I titled it, “Framing Hope.” The previous two projects were on 12”x12” canvases, but I wanted to try something new this time. So I asked everybody to get a frame instead of a canvas. They couldn’t put anything within the frame, but the frame itself would be the piece of art and they could do anything to it. One woman glued hundreds of little flowers to it. Another person put a black light in his piece. Someone else wrote a bunch of prayers and glued them to the edges. And so the frame became a metaphor of waiting to be filled—of framing hope, or hoping for the frames to be filled, which is the expectation of advent. We’re waiting for the Christ child, for Immanuel (God with us) to come.

When I decide on a new project, I try and hit as many different facets as I can. We haven’t done any dancing or music yet, but I hope that’s on the horizon. I’d also love to run a cooking class at the church, because more than anything, I think cooking unites people, especially if it’s barbecue or enchiladas.

CK: And then you could serve good Mexican food in Vancouver.

AB: Exactly.

CK: So what’s next for you after your exhibit?

AB: I’ll be graduating from Regent, sticking around Vancouver, and getting married in May—very excited about that. And I’m starting to look for jobs here in the city.

CK: So last question. You’re a Texan living in Vancouver who loves fly-fishing, camping, and hiking, and you dress rather outdoorsy. Are people ever surprised when they find out you’re an artist?

AB: My fiancé was. She was also surprised I was from Texas when we first met. But I don’t feel the need to dress like an artist or make people know I’m an artist—it just seems like shameless self-promotion to do that. I’ve got my own story and I’d rather wear my cowboy boots.

Join Adam in all his cowboy boot glory at the opening reception March 26, 4:30-7:30pm at the Lookout Gallery in Regent College. Presentation to follow in the chapel. You can also see his work at adamback.com

Paradise Lost

A couple weeks ago, I took a one-week summer course at Regent College. It was on Paradise Lost. I had read this epic once in high school and another time in undergrad, and now I got to read it a third time from one of the top Milton scholars in the world—Dennis Danielson, who wrote this parallel prose edition that goes page-by-page alongside the original 1667 edition.

Paradise LostIf you’ve always wanted to read this classic (and why wouldn’t you? It’s only “the story of all things” as Northrop Frye says!) but you’re intimidated by the language, I’d highly suggest picking up Danielson’s book so you can read it much easier while still getting a feel for the original language.

Since it was a crash course, we could only cover the highlights although I think all of us in  class felt we could have used several more weeks. There’s so much to unpack, and so much that came alive for me, as is often the case for me with fiction. Here I offer some of my own “crash course” takeaways for those interested. (All references are from the parallel prose edition.)

I was struck by how much boldness it takes to write your own version of events in the Bible: the war in heaven, Satan’s fall, the creation of Adam and Eve, and the fall of Adam and Eve. John Milton worked off of what we’re told in the Bible, but he had to exercise a lot of creative license to extend a story that only covers the first few chapters of Genesis into a 12-book epic. (Indeed, his invocations to the muse often tread the line of humility and arrogance). Notice I mentioned not just one Fall, but plural Falls. Three falls actually happen in Paradise Lost: the fall of Satan, the fall of Eve, and the fall of Adam at all separate points in time.

Dennis said one of Milton’s tasks that align with his overarching goal of giving us a theodicy (“a justification of the ways of God to men”), is to increase the narrative plausibility of Genesis 3, which gives us the bare bones of the fall of Adam and Eve (the “what”) but not really the “how” or the “why.” So Milton seeks to provide this. And I think he does a pretty convincing job. For instance, when Satan in the guise of a serpent finds Eve alone to tempt, why was she not with Adam? Well, Milton narrates a “separation scene” as it’s called, based on their differing ideas of how to garden Paradise. Eve proposes the novel idea of dividing the labour so they can get more done. They had previously always worked together and Adam wanted to continue this way. The conversation starts off pleasantly enough, but then Adam grows cautious of Eve wanting to leave, and Eve grows offended at Adam’s protection of her, and before you know it, there is the seed of quarrel planted in their interaction and finally Adam commands her twice to go on then. So they separate, and that’s how Satan finds Eve alone.

Adam and Eve

Adam and Eve by Lucas Cranach the Elder. 1526.

This separation scene was the most heartbreaking for me to read, I think because I knew what this decision was going to lead to. I found myself inwardly shouting at the characters, “No, don’t do that!” or “Don’t listen to him!” We spent the most time discussing this separation in class—if this was actually the beginning of Eve’s fall (as some scholars believe), which got into the larger, stickier question of how do you know when a sin actually begins? In the case of adultery, as was brought up, does the sin first take place in the mind before it’s acted out in the body?

I think a lot of people resonated with this scene because it felt so human. One student said something like, “I think what’s going on in this scene is simply marital miscommunication and misinterpretation. It’s a problem of language. Adam and Eve both read each other wrong, emotions get involved, and egos get injured. It reminds me of arguments I have with my husband.”

There are some pretty funny lines as well. Take Eve’s comment to her husband after they both eat the fruit from the forbidden tree and Adam blames her for her desire to wander: “Was I never to have left your side? I might as well have stayed one of your ribs, with no life of my own!”

Milton tells us a lot by his use of language, or his character’s use of language. For instance, Eve from the Latin “Eva” actually means “life” or “breath.” But after the fall, Adam puns on her name and says, “O Eve, it was an evil hour when you gave ear to that false snake” even though “Eve” and “evil” have no etymological connection. Before the Fall, Adam was tasked with naming all the creatures and God praises him for his ability to attribute the right name to the right thing—implying that language resembles reality (realism vs. nominalism). But after the Fall, this alignment breaks down. There is a fall in Adam and Eve’s language (possibly a 4th fall?), punctuated by the ferocious blame game they play.

Madonna of the Palafrenieri by Caravaggio. 1605-1606.

Madonna of the Palafrenieri by Caravaggio. 1605-1606.

As you can tell, it was the relationship between Adam and Eve that most fascinated me, although the conflict within Satan at the beginning of the book is interesting too, especially from a psychological perspective. Satan comes across so human as well with the self-doubt he has about his mission—doubt that turns to manipulation.

According to Satan, Adam and Eve are created to replace the fallen angels heaven lost when Satan and his renegade army opposed God and were banished to hell. This explains Satan’s justification for punishing Adam and Eve, whose innocence he is initially aware of but whose happiness he can’t bear to see. He eventually convinces himself that they are worthy objects for his revenge. His anger at the Creator unleashes on his creation instead. The phrase “zero-sum game” came up a lot in reference to Satan. If he can’t have Paradise, Adam and Eve aren’t going to have it either. If he can’t have happiness, no way in hell they’re going to have it. He lives in a black and white world. Adam and Eve lose their colourful one, walking out of Eden hand in hand “with slow and wandering steps.” For those of us who have said goodbye to a beloved place we called home for even a short amount of time, there is much empathy in these last lines. Much emotion balanced somewhere between the bitter and the sweet. Much like my feelings at the end of this course.