Columbia artists find new direction after 9/11

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Kirkwood High School/St. Louis, Mo.
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Matthew Ballou, an assistant professor of drawing and painting at MU, discusses graduate student Derrick Gwinner's work on Thursday afternoon in the Fine Arts Building. "Art is philosophy because it's so key to our perspective; something like war changes that, shifts that within us," Ballou said.
Photo by Michelle Kanaar/MUJW

Matthew Ballou, an assistant professor of drawing and painting at MU, discusses graduate student Derrick Gwinner's work on Thursday afternoon in the Fine Arts Building. "Art is philosophy because it's so key to our perspective; something like war changes that—shifts that within us," Ballou said.

COLUMBIA — In the months leading up to Sept. 11, 2001, Matthew Ballou struggled to find meaning in his art.

An assistant professor

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of painting and drawing at MU, Ballou looks back on the terror attacks and the U.S military action that followed as a time of sadness and confusion in his life.

As an artist, however, he found clarity.

“9/11 was the catalytic event that created the momentum of what I was feeling,” Ballou said. “I wanted to respond to 9/11 as an artist, as a Christian and as a thinker.”

Before Sept. 11, Ballou focused on abstract concepts in his art and began to lose a sense of purpose in his work.

After witnessing the suffering of the terrorist attacks, and later, the U.S. entry into Afghanistan and Iraq, he developed a realistic style

that included people interacting with the natural world.

“As artists, when situations like this arise, we cry out and react,” Ballou said. “9/11 helped clarify my need to draw the body. I wanted a depictive element in my work.”

After 9/11, people in all artistic fields began expressing feelings of patriotism, confusion and frustration about the changing social and political climate in the United States. Artists like Ballou and former MU art teacher Bob Hartzell were among

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those who experienced a change in focus.

“My work of the last 10 years has been motivated to show the human condition,” Ballou said.

He accomplished this through work he calls the “Omen” series. It consists of four paintings that depict realistic, often nude, bodies observing forms of destruction in their world. To him, the paintings represent how war and violence destroy human lives, ideas and beliefs.

Hartzell, who works with paper, light and silk-screen techniques, always had an interest in airplanes. After 9/11, however, he said couldn’t bring himself to pursue the topic any longer. He turned to the American flag for inspiration.

“I started doing a lot of political work after 9/11 because I didn’t like the way the American flag was being used to promote political agendas,” Hartzell said.

Some of his pieces include a tattered, handmade paper flag and an image of an astronaut holding the American flag on a distorted green moon.

“Most people don’t get it,” Hartzell said. “That goes back to my desire to do art that other artist don’t necessarily see as viable. I’m the one doing it, so I might as well do something that’s important to me.”

Since 9/11, he thinks the flag has been adopted by the right wing as a tool to promote its political agenda. By putting the flag in unusual settings and contexts, he said he attempts to reclaim it for everyone.

“It’s a symbol that belongs to all of us,” Hartzell said.

Lisa Bartlett, artist and owner of Artlandish Gallery in Columbia, understands why Ballou and Hartzell’s work was so affected by 9/11. She said many artists use political and social messages in their work for personal expression rather than public attention or popularity.

“Art is an emotional release,” she said. “It’s like a writer putting down all their feelings or a musician belting out something that means a lot to them.”

Bartlett, who worked on a series of pieces protesting the war in Iraq, has never sold any

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of her politically-themed works but understands the scrutiny an artist may face.

“It’s hard because you’re crossing a line that someone is going to disagree with you,” she said. “When you do something like that, you’re really putting yourself out there.”

Regardless of motivation, Ballou and Hartzell’s artistic careers changed the day the towers fell. Once artists who found meaning in airplanes and abstract painting, the two men discovered a new outlet for their message.

“I’m not trying to change the world with my art,” Hartzell said. “Just little pieces of it.”