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What the Polisher Sees:

The Art of James Tughan
Samuel Martin | Issue 98

EAR JAMES: If you ever wondered who burned out the motor on the art
department’s jigsaw, it was me. I hope you weren’t forced to pay for that.
You’ve paid too much for the sins of others.

I was using the jigsaw to cut up the triptych I’d made for my final undergrad art
show. I was halfway through saving the few living bits—the sections of drawing and
collage that were working—when the jigsaw started smoking and died. I flew at the
remaining parts in a fury, slashing months of work to jagged pieces with an industrial
utility knife. Samantha tells me I was crying the whole time. All I knew was that I had
to break the originals to make the kind of breakthrough you had talked about.
Art making often begins with a break, doesn’t it? The snap of bone or will from
repeated abuse. A leaving or a throwing out. Exodus. Exile.

You begin your pivotal Dreaming of Lions series with a break. In What the Polishers
Saw, as a window washer rappels from the absolute peak of a glass temple in a
fantastical inland China, a building shaped like the keel of an upside-down ship, a
pane of glass shatters beneath his mop.

I told you once that he looks like you, that polisher, and I couldn’t tell whether you
were surprised or bemused. You’ve never been an easy read, you or your art.

There are details in your drawings that remain unseen unless I tilt my head and peer.
Like the faint reflection of a hang glider high above the polisher and his coworkers.
One of them looks up to see it overhead; the other sees its reflection in the glass he’s
standing on. But the viewer doesn’t get to see the hang glider directly.

When I think of you, I think of that pilot zipping by, just out of sight.

I think of that because I almost missed you.

I saved this story until I was introducing you in

chapel at the Iowan college where I am now a
professor. You came to talk about Passages,
your new multivolume art and poetry project,
and to present drawings from your new Triage
series, which was showing in our campus
gallery. I told the crowd of twelve hundred
students, “I’d like to introduce you to the
teacher who almost failed me out of his art

PLATE 6. James Trughan. Grace, 2013. Chalk pastel on

Before that class, I’d never failed at anything,
Arches. 8 x 8 inches. From Triage: Remembrance.

and I was furious with you. Do you remember?

There may even have been a letter to the
administration. Even now, I am sorry for my behavior then.
You were patient with me, though. With all of us in that class. You said, handing
back the assignments, that maybe you hadn’t explained yourself well enough, that we
could resubmit. Then, to help us better understand how artistic language could serve
us in telling of our own spiritual journeys, you showed us slides from Dreaming of
Lions, the epic series of pastel drawings you’d made after being pinballed around the
advertising world, where you worked for Esquire, GQ, Rolling Stone, House and
Garden, Saturday Night, Canadian Business, and others. Tired of being paid a lot
“to tell fragments of everyone else’s story,” you left, and embarked on a four-and-a-
half-year project that eventually became Dreaming of Lions, a Tolkien-esque fantasy
told in eighteen pieces.

Of those eighteen drawings, which I first saw projected on the wall in your Intro to
Art class, I kept coming back to the one with the shards of glass exploding beneath
that mop. That piece starts the whole adventure. After breaking the temple roof, the
polisher is arrested and dragged to prison inside labyrinthine gardens. There, he is
met by a light-juggling harlequin hang-glider pilot who helps him and his fellow
prisoners escape, and shows them a way through storms and battles to a place of rest.
The polisher’s journey became my journey as an artist and student.

I kept coming back to that piece because it was impossibly realistic, the broken glass
sharp enough to cut. I wanted to believe that I could draw like that someday. But I
also kept coming back because I felt like you had pressed me too hard with that
failing grade. Fragile as I was, that F shattered me. But I took you up on the redo.

I photocopied your handwritten comments and the grade you gave, reproduced them
dozens of times, cut them up, and collaged them with copies of the bloodiest,
angriest artwork we had discussed in class so far. I created a sequencing of numbers
that seemed to drift across the page and even collaged a photo of a chalk drawing of
the Virgin Mary—cut from that morning’s newspaper—in cruciform position, her
arms ripped from their sockets, her body broken on that numeric grid. It was a riff on
Asher Lev’s painting of his mother from Potok’s famous novel—a childish riff. Angry,
churlish, immature.

But in the time since, that image has left me thinking of my mother and all the
systems that have hurt her over the years—churches and church schools, men in
leadership—and all she sacrificed to build the safe world I grew up in, the evangelical
b bbl I h l i fi i
bubble I have come to lacerate in my fiction.

In your class, I saw myself as the victim. Looking back, I see that I was the one with
the utility knife in my hand. When I handed in that redo, I expected you to be angry.
I think I wanted it. But instead, you gave me an A, and that melted something in

I could have said—as I’d heard classmates say of professors they struggled with—“I
finally got what I deserved from the prick.” But I didn’t. In your comments, your
penmanship barely legible, you wrote: “I didn’t realize you were so angry. But you’ve
found a powerful visual language to communicate that anger—your own hurt. I see
now how my comments broke you. That is not what I want. That is not helpful. Can
we talk?”

You were professorial and helpful during that

talk. I was embarrassed—increasingly so—
because as we talked, I realized I had done
exactly what I had indented to do: I had hurt
you. You never said so, of course. But I saw
you wince as you tried to smile. I remember
this especially: you didn’t shrug me off or
avoid me. Instead, you taught me, patiently,
quietly. And I woke up. I realized I was not
broken glass, but a polisher, like you.
PLATE 7. James Tughan. Lazarus, 1977. Chalk pastel on
illustration board. 36 x 36 inches. From Killarney Brace.
And like the polisher, I was dragged kicking
and terrified into the maze of the modern art
world—into a long discussion of Dali’s bloodless Jesus and Grünewald’s leprous
Iseheim savior, Rouault’s saints and Serrano’s Piss Christ. For a young evangelical like
me, raised in the pious, conservative holiness tradition, the idea of looking at (let
alone discussing) an image of a crucifix submerged in the artist’s own urine was

I’m not sure either you or Sister Wendy Beckett would call Piss Christ a great work of
art, but I think I recall you saying once that greatness isn’t a thing an artwork says.
And that we should pay more attention to what art can say—to us, in its own
aesthetic language—than on whether or not it is great Did you say that? It seems like
aesthetic language than on whether or not it is great. Did you say that? It seems like
something you might have said to young artists learning their craft, discovering and
practicing their own languages. Don’t worry about being great. Find your language.
Say something that matters.

I think that is your legacy: you found a visual language—what you call “cartographic
realism”—to say something that matters. What matters for you is communicating
with people, telling them a story that invites them to find their own place in a
grander narrative: the Gospel story. A story in which it is possible to move from
slavery to freedom, darkness to light, confusion to clarity. From death back into life.

As you know, the beauty of this story is also its horror. After all, none of us makes
this pilgrimage from death to life only once. Every time the glass beneath our feet
cracks—from abuse, trauma, loss, death—we are plunged again into the thick of it.
But your art suggests that though we fall again and again—because of things we’ve
done, because of things done to us—we are not alone. The living Christ is with us.

Of course, though this is always true, we do not always see it.

Art, for you, is about learning to see what is unseen, perceiving realities that are
spiritual, emotional, psychological, and relational. We need such art in times of chaos.
When I am alone and afraid in my own house, worried about immigration paperwork
and what it might mean to raise my children in this country, I look at my print of
What the Polishers Saw. From across the room I have to peer to see the faint
reflection of that hang-glider pilot, who for you is an evocation of God—God who is
both above us and able to swoop into our lives, both transcendent and incarnate in
the person of Jesus.

How is it that you still confess that, after the cold autumn night you heard your son
shot in the street outside your house?

You and your wife Donna sat in your home that night with your pastor, surrounded
by police, listening to officers fail in their attempts to negotiate with Alex, listening to
the swat team take him out when he pointed a gun at them.

“Suicide by cop,” they called it.

You told me that your response to trauma is to
numb, and you called that numbness a gift.
“It’s a merciful anesthetic you emerge from
slowly, later, when you are alone”—after the
PLATE 8. James Tughan. Black, 2013. Chalk pastel on
Arches. 12 x 28 inches. From Triage: Linkages.
logistics of funeral arrangements, after
enduring “the crush of friends and supporters,
none of whom know what to say.”

I am one of those friends. Even this letter, I find, is a stuttering effort to speak of that
moment, to speak of Alex as the flesh-and-blood son he was—the brilliant athlete
weaving his way through your poems—and not merely some abstract personal crisis.
Over the years I have seen something in you that I want to bear witness to here. But
I want the reality of what happened to you—to Alex, to Donna, to your family—to
breathe through, like the Arches ninety-pound hot-press watercolor paper you use
breathes through your drawings. Especially in the white and light of Grace, one of a
series of flower studies you made to console yourself when Alex disappeared from
your home into the world of drug dealing [see Plate 6].

Grace, meant to console, became a flower at Alex’s funeral.

I’m sure you didn’t expect that—how could


You have told me that our wounds come as

PLATE 9. Snagged, 2013. Chalk pastel on Arches. 12 x 28
shocks to us, just as the death of Jesus must inches. From Triage: Linkages.
have shocked his mother, as I imagine Alex’s
death must have shocked you and Donna. I
cried when I read the connection you drew to Mary—to a Pietà drawn by a woman in
your church—in a poem written for your Passages project:

Now here my son lies silent

and scarred by inconceivable raging.
The angel said it, and I put it away,
I buried that sword in a mother’s dreams.
It will take time to comprehend,
to fathom the unimaginable.
Fathoming the unimaginable: That is what you do.

“To fathom” means both to try to understand

an enigma and to measure depth in water. A
fathom is six feet, the depth of a grave.
Sometimes we say that certain people are deep
PLATE 10. James Tughan. Promises, Promises, 2013.
as the grave when we find them hard to
Chalk pastel on Arches. 12 x 28 inches. From Triage:
Linkages. understand. Whether we are fathoming a
relationship or water—as you know from years
of psychoanalysis and canoeing—we are
mapping our surroundings: testing for safety, checking for the possibility of safe

You do this kind of mapping in your art too, in your cartographic realism, which you
define as “a marriage of aerial mapping, scientific realism, natural iconography, and
narrative sequencing.” For you, cartographic realism is far more than an artistic style.
It has saved your life more than once.

When you sat in my living room on your visit to Iowa, my framed copies of What the
Polishers Saw and Raising a Mark in the Storm (both from Dreaming of Lions)
triangulated our conversation. We were talking about our artistic journeys: me
making excuses for moving away from visual art into creative writing (it’s cheaper, for
one) and you filling me in on losing your job at my alma mater and your work with
the Flagship Gallery in downtown Hamilton, a venue for Christian artists. I told you
that Raising a Mark in the Storm, along with your example as a mentor, is constantly
in my mind as I try to navigate what it means to be a Christian writer in this day and
age—a writer who is a Christian and not a pedantic, abusive, or reactionary jerk.

I remember you were a bit taken aback. You got quiet, and I wondered if I had
offended or embarrassed you. I went on to talk about why the black-and-white
images in the Dreaming of Lions story, with their more limited points of view, mean
more to me than the mind-spiraling complexities of the larger, God’s-eye-view
colored panoramas. For example, in The Gates, the story’s ragtag pilgrims, encamped
on an inlet or river, endure an aerial attack, firebombs smoking in from on high [see
Plate 12]. There are hundreds of characters in that scene, each meticulously drafted
with your CarbOthello pastels
with your CarbOthello pastels.

Though The Gates is visually stunning, images like

What the Polishers Saw resonate with me more. In
most contemporary fiction, including mine, a
character rarely gets to see his or her life from
God’s point of view. I’m not one for omniscient
narrators. A limited perspective sharpens my focus:
I can only know as much as this person; I am as
finite and fallible as they are. The more limited the
perspective, the more heightened the reader’s
PLATE 11. Triage, 2015. Chalk pastel on Arches. 24
“But you use a map when you canoe, don’t you?” x 34 inches.

I blinked. “Yes.”

“The larger, color images are like maps,” you said. “They let you know where you are
in the story and where the story is headed.”

“So the viewer doesn’t get lost?”

“It can be terrifying to be lost.”

You would know, having been raised in the chronic depression of a toxic, abusive
family that revolved around your mother, whom you describe as a narcissistic
alcoholic. Navigating such a childhood sharpened your obsession with aerial realism,
you told me, an aesthetic language born of vigilance and the acute need to know
where you are “relative to places of safety and risk.” An hour alone, daydreaming and
drawing, could be an escape from danger into beauty, and such escapes are a means
of survival.

Because you had learned to navigate life with a parent who was an addict, and
because you had mapped that experience through the processes of both
psychoanalysis and art making, you had some tools to work with in surviving a world
blasted by Alex’s death.
It is no surprise to me that your work since then has been a little less aerial, a little
closer to the ground. It has been obsessed with magnified texture and surface. The
scale of the maps is smaller, spanning inches instead of miles. I’m thinking here of
your Triage series, specifically Black, Snagged, and Promises, Promises, and the
brightly colored title piece [see Plates 8 to 10].

Triage, in medicine, is where a doctor assigns a degree of urgency to a patient’s case.

In Black, the patient is you, after seeing a gifted student make a self-damaging
choice. The chasm is the depression into which you fell, as often happens to teachers
and artists. But in this piece, a climber’s rope descends into the darkness: a sign of
hope. A lifeline. A kind word over email or drinks. Christ, entering deeply into our
pain and giving us a way through it. In Snagged, you tell me, the wounded are artists
seeking out “places of vulnerability to damage…tragic but beautiful.” The lure and
line are the artist fishing for truth, the lily pads fragile moments of beauty the artist
uproots and casts aside in his pursuit of that truth. And Promises, Promises is a lament
for the years you poured into teaching, only to have your position cut. I hope hearing
from me, a former student, is some salve.

The subject of the title work, Triage, is the kind of mark a hiker might leave in the
wilderness so he can find his way home [see Plate 11]. The piece recalls a much earlier
drawing called Lazarus, from your first solo exhibition, in 1977  [see Plate 7], but
here the landscape is marked with bright ribbons instead of cuts and gouges. Triage’s
color palette points back to Dreaming of Lions and the great colored mobile erected
in the series’ final vista, a mobile prefigured by the fragile kite in Raising a Mark in
the Storm. Both the cross of Triage and the mobile repeated throughout Dreaming of
Lions point the viewer toward Christ, who, in your experience, uses color, artistry,
and allusion—marked beauty—to orient us back to God in the midst of a disorienting

You have called Triage “a defiant celebration of Christ’s identification with the
brokenness of the world, the empathetic grace of the cross,” grace that can fathom
the darkness surrounding Alex’s death. In doing so, it leaves carefully placed, uniquely
designed marks for those stumbling toward the light.

In your work since that time, I see that stumbling toward the light.
You’ve said of your poetry from this time that a lot of it is angry and brooding, and
that it is taking you a long time to work through Alex’s death. Even now, you don’t
feel you’ve fully arrived. You admit to still feeling lost. Disoriented.

Am I wrong to see Triage as dressing on a wound, as the balm that is the knowledge
of the presence of Christ—the piece’s cross—marking your loss of Alex? And is it
specifically about your loss of Alex, or is it all loss? Are all our losses one in Christ? Or
is each loss unique to him?

I want to know, does God look as closely at us as you look at the living lichens on the
exposed stone bones of the Canadian Shield? Does God see us—attend to us—with
that level of exacting care?

The gigantic mobile in Dreaming of Lions and the tiny hiker’s cross in Triage mark
deep losses for you. I also think both mark ways forward.

The Gates is a map of such hope. From its

complex aerial perspective, we witness a
violent, confusing attack played out on a stone
point carved as the face of a lamb—a lamb we
see, though the players cannot. It’s a
PLATE 12. James Tughan. The Gates,1998. Chalk
dramatically ironic reminder that we exist—
painting on Stonehenge. 26 x 52 inches. From Dreaming of confused and besieged, demoralized and
bombarded, without hope yet loved—before
the very face of Christ. And because of the
reality that Christ is with us, sees us, we can move, as do those in The Gates, as have
you, from fear to love.

You bore witness to that love when you spoke to my students in chapel about how
God reached into your life and Donna’s in specific ways to help you process Alex’s

First, you said, God did not bury you in “super spiritual advice and platitudes from
well-meaning ordinary people in ministry.” What God did—and this is you looking
back on the madness as a hang-glider pilot, giving us the aerial map of that chaotic
time—was to surround you and Donna and your daughter with respectful support, a
bf l t ff d th i it f t h lik h d l d d
superb funeral staff, and the ministry of a pastor who, like you, had already processed
life with an alcoholic parent. God gave you friends who spoke kindly but clearly at the
funeral, not hiding the truth about Alex’s addictions. God made sure that all of
Alex’s friends were there, minus his current dealer: all the friends who had ushered
him into the drug world and persuaded him that you and Donna were not his real
parents. God made sure, you said, “that they were all there to hear it all, and to hear
about the Lord’s overarching grace.”

What else did God do? He brought out of the woodwork a ragtag group of survivors
who had lost children and spouses of their own. Looking back, you can see how these
people—and professional counselors, friends, artists, perfect strangers—together
shared a message of comfort: that God understands sorrow.

God knows what it’s like to be the leper, the one with scars, the one who has known
abuse—physical, emotional, institutional—who has been drowned in piss, spat on,
thrown out, broken down. Forgotten.

Like you and Donna.

Like Alex.

Your drawing Span, made to honor a friend

who fought to “hold on to humanness and
grace” in a brutal academic environment, is
another icon of what Christ did for you and
Donna in the wake of Alex’s death [see Plate
13]. In that piece, a slender blue cord ties
together two rocks separated by water. The
larger one, tied more tightly, seems to anchor
the other. In that cord I see the tenuous yet
certain way God spoke to you both, especially
Donna, through recent news stories about
PLATE 13. James Tughan. Span, 2014. Chalk pastel on
concussions. The more she learned about the Arches. 11 x 11 inches. From Triage: Comrades.

long-term effects of concussions on young

brains, damage compounded in Alex’s case by
drug and alcohol abuse, the more she began to understand that his snowboarding
concussions, coupled with his addictions, created, in your words, “the perfect storm
, p , , y , p
for cognitive oblivion.”

It was not good news, not welcome information, but it exposed a medical truth
behind Alex’s behavior. Knowing all this radically altered the focus of blame for you
both. This was God’s way of helping Donna at the time, speaking to her in her own
language, the language of a social worker.

But God spoke to you differently.

You have always said that God speaks to each of us in our own language. He appears
to us in ways only we might understand: to Joshua as a soldier on the plains of
Jericho; to Abraham as an itinerant traveler; to Shadrach and his friends as a
firewalker; to Joseph, Daniel, and others in vivid, precise dreams.

In the more than seventy journals you’ve kept since you began psychoanalysis in the
1980s, you have recorded the ways in which God speaks to you, including cloud
formations. At Alex’s funeral, you showed a photograph of him two months before
his death, paddling his blue kayak over water still as glass. You were there, too. In the
photo, he is floating off your starboard bow, ripples drifting out from his paddle.

After the funeral, you asked God to show you where Alex was now, not expecting an
answer. But God gave you one, spanning that fearful silence. He gave you a cloud
formation perfectly replicating the position of the two kayaks in that photograph, but
in the shape of a small heron off the starboard quarter of a larger heron. Herons,
you’ve said, are a kind of code God uses with you in significant situations. Out of that
natural icon—that fleeting cloud formation—God spoke to you.

What depths will Christ fathom to find us? What humiliations and trauma will God
endure to know us, and in knowing us, to give us back our own lives, bent and
bruised yet seen from above, understood, and loved?

Did you know that when I was carving up that triptych, the smell of electrical burn
souring the air, Samantha was watching me, hidden in a crawl space above the
basement wall between her dorm and mine? We used the crawl space to prank each
other’s dorms, and she had been edging her way through the tunnel to pay us back
for either the cornflakes in the bed or the cupboard full of water, when she heard the
jigsaw spark out. While I blundered in the smoke and sawdust—angry at you for
saying I hadn’t quite broken through—Samantha watched me make art.

I didn’t realize I was making art. I thought I was destroying what you considered

Later, on the ratty couch in her dorm, she told me what she had seen.

“You spied on me?”

“I wanted to leave you alone, but I couldn’t look away.”

“What all did you see up there?”

She looked at our hands, fingers laced for the first time, and what she told me
brought me back to The Gates. I was on the ground trying to carve my way out of it.
At the time I couldn’t see that all around me were the puzzle pieces I would
eventually bring together to create a new piece of art.

That night Samantha taught me to step back from what I’m doing to really see it—to
see what could be made of the whole mess, what beauty might be created of
brokenness. She spanned the gap for me then. She gave me the God’s-eye view, as
she still does today.

As do you.

You will never know the mustard seeds you have sown in my life—in classes and
shared studio time, in Dreaming of Lions, in the art you have made of your own
scorched life.

You are known of God, James. Every pastel stroke. Every mark.

This morning I spread printouts of your drawings on the kitchen table. My youngest
son, Micah, three years old now, climbed up on a chair and stared down at the
clutter. Then he picked out Lazarus, your drawing of that branch scarred by hatchet
strokes and left to rot, named for a dead man called back to life.
Micah held the picture and smiled at me. He turned it clockwise. Then he bent his
arm to match the crook of the branch and reached out to touch me.

For everything.

James Tughan. What the Polishers Saw and Raising a Mark in the Storm, 2003. Chalk pastel on Arches. 8 x 16 inches each. From Dreaming of Lions:
The Communion.

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