Very Old Music: Hurrian Hymn #6
We know music has been around for a long, long time. The Divje Babe flute, named after the excavation site from which it was found, suggests musical instruments were being made as far back as 43,000 years ago. Ranging across pre-history, instruments of various kinds, ranging from rattles to drums to bells have all been found in the archaeological record. What did their music sound like? Would we even consider it “music?” Who knows? Time is not kind to the ephemeral.
But in the 1950’s, excavators of a site at Ugarit, Syria found a group of clay tablets inscribed with cuneiform. Building upon Emmanuel Laroche’s compiling and cataloging, researchers Anne Draffkorn Kilmer and Marcelle Duchesne-Guillemin worked out the musical nature of the tablets. Of all the pieces that were found, only one song is complete, given the title “Hurrian Hymn to Nikkal.” It looks like this:
Hurrian Hymn Tablet
These tablets date to about 1400 BCE, and form the world’s oldest known song. Part of the tablet contains instructions for tuning the instrument, the other part notates the music itself alongside the lyrics of the hymn. Even if it is incomplete, it is a very exciting thing! It is so exciting, even non-musicians get excited about it! You can even perform it! Can you imagine, hearing and playing music written 3,400 years ago? That’s crazy pants!
You can hear a performance of Duchesne-Guillemin’s transcription at the bottom of this page: http://urkesh.org/urkeshpublic/music.htm
It’s right around this point that researchers and lay people diverge. The lay public continues to be chuffed about the whole business, and reasonably so!, while researchers break out their pipes and deerstalkers to go brood in a corner about all the things they still don’t know.
Things like: “We know it’s written for an instrument called a sammûm, but is it a harp or a lyre?” (Probably a lyre? Most likely. Or not?)
Or, “Duchesne-Guillemin’s transcription is really cool, but are there other, valid interpretations of the notation?” (Yes, five, in fact, and they’re all quite different)
And, “What other questions can I think of to ensure I keep getting research funding?”
The transcription issue is especially a downer. The specter of “notation vs. interpretation” floats nearby and dunks doubt over whether we really know what the song is at all. Dr. Richard Dumbrill wrote one of the several other interpretations that exists. You can give a listen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9c-hmFN610g&ab_channel=DamianMusicChannel4
Even a cursory comparison will show the two interpretations are considerably different. But, from a certain perspective, maybe it doesn’t matter all that much whether we’ve gotten the “right” melody. The work of all these researchers is a special achievement in archaeology and musicology regardless of any definitive conclusion. The Hymn to Nikkal’s discovery continues to inspire and impress, as can be heard in pianist Malek Jandali’s adaption for keyboard: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Tn9x-IDYcY&ab_channel=AgaKhanMuseum
Until new evidence comes to light (and it very likely won’t), there is no knowing what the song “actually” is. Where does that leave us? Like remembering an old childhood memory, hazy in its recollection, the Hymn to Nikkal reminds us of a thing we know happened – even if we can’t quite place what it was.
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Interview: Casey Ray Parrott
The following is a transcript of my interview with Casey Ray Parrott on Aug 03, 2020. He is a visual artist, primarily a painter, currently living in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area of Texas. He has been a good friend for quite a long time, has become quite an accomplished painter since I have known him. I encourage you to check out some of his work at his website.
In addition, he and I discuss his time working for My Possibilities, a non-profit dedicated to assisting people with mental and physical disabilities in the North Dallas area. You can learn more about what they do here:
For myself, as much as I love interviewing, providing the video, transcript, and closed captioning is a time consuming process. If you enjoy these interviews and would like to support them financially, consider becoming a Patron at my Patreon site, where you can choose to give a monthly donation. In addition to making future interviews possible, Patrons will receive access to my works in process, including scores, MIDI demos, and revision videos of upcoming compositions and arrangements. You can find my Patreon here:
Adam: Hello everybody. This is Casey Ray Parrot, an old friend of mine going back to good old college days. I guess they weren't all good old college days, depending on which days...
Casey: Some were terrible.
Adam: He is a visual artist mostly you paint, I think. Yeah, is most of what I've seen and I guess the first question, which is on everybody's mind. What do you think of Bob Ross?
Casey: I mean, there's some interesting stuff that he does. He's made the comment, I've created this so that no one has to paint all the little nooks and crannies in the rocks. I get it, but I also love painting the nooks and crannies and rocks.
Casey: Hey, to each their own. I love the guy and when I needed a good nap, I'd watch this show.
Casey - Yeah. It's not because of his work
Adam - His voice.
Casey - Exactly. Puts me to sleep every time.
Adam - Yeah, so for my interviews, I've been starting from, like, literally the very beginning and it seems like a pretty good place to start. Do either of your parents still have any of your drawings that hang on the fridge?
Casey - Oh, yeah.
Adam - Yeah?
Casey - Oh, yeah. I don't know how many my dad and stepmom have right now, because they're cleaning out their house last I heard. But my mom has paintings and drawings since I was 18 months old. She said that's when I started drawing people, like heads and hands with fingers, at 18 months. I don't know that I believe her anymore, but that's what she says and I'm going to just say thanks Mom.
Adam - Yeah, sure sure. So when... like how far back is your memory for like your first things that you remember drawing?
Casey - Oh, man. Pre-K? Yeah, I remember doing stuff in the daycare my sister and I were in. Actually most of my cousins were in, we kind of took over this day care. But I remember distinctly, you know the table where I sat and I would draw houses trees, you know, the typical houses and trees that everyone does add 4 and 5, but that's when I remember it.
Adam - Okay. Do you remember at all, like, what kind of things you were drawing? Was it just sort of what was around you? Monsters?
Casey - Monsters... at that time, predominantly dinosaurs and then Ninja Turtles. I, For the longest time kind of gravitated towards the nonhuman side of things. if I were to ever iterate some superhero version of myself, he was always some kind of animal.
Adam - Yeah. So this may be a bit of a reach. Do you remember at all if you had encountered those stop-motion dinosaur videos?
Casey - Yeah. Absolutely. Those were totally in my visual DNA. I mean, I just love dinosaurs and then I remember having a huge paradigm shift when Jurassic Park came out because I thought "That's not how dinosaurs stand! That's not how they move! But... Wait a minute...
Yeah, that's really cool."
And so you can see the Paradigm Shift be affected even in my artwork where I started thinking about actual anatomy and physiology as far as my figures go. Figurative work was kind of the staple of all my sketchbooks. Because I didn't paint until I was 14?
Adam - Yeah and Jurassic Park was mid-.
Casey - 1993. I was eight. Seven or eight.
Adam - Yeah. Cool, and then so... you didn't paint until 14. I'm trying to think because you went to Booker T Washington School right? For high school.
Casey - Yeah, so I attempted a Bob Ross style painting on the outside of my manila folder to show the teachers during my interview that I could that I could try to paint. I never really pushed outside of Elementary and Junior High art classes. I never sought to get extra education. So it was a challenge and even then I didn't like the way they taught me to paint. Though,now, I look back and think "Dang if only I had listened then I might be better today."
Adam - I can relate.
Casey - Yeah.
Adam - What were classes like at Booker T?
Casey - Awesome. I mean the art class. The normal education we had to do because of national federal and state mandates. I had good teachers. Physics was probably the most enlightening as far as relating to art though. And I think it had everything to do with the instructor. But my art classes were hard because I'd always been allowed to just make my own stuff with no criticism. No interjections. No teacher really.
Even when I was in elementary and Junior High they were like, "You're so good just do whatever," and I think that hurt me. And the preparation. But when I got to high school, I mean they said "No, come on. You can do better." And there were people that were way better than me freshman year and that was… was disheartening.
Yeah, because I thought I was creme de La Creme and I found out I was maybe 1% milk, you know, freshman. And I got much better being in that environment. I mean, what was really cool is that there was no real competition between the artists in my classes that makes a big difference.
Adam - Yeah.
Casey - I mean, you had people that were far superior technically and even in their expressions, than most of the other class and they usually kind of shut away as they didn't talk to a whole lot of people. But for the guys that were really good but still genial it was a huge help because then at that time we could build on each other and only complement and that's again another paradigm shift. It was incredible to have that.
Adam - Do you remember which teachers from that time that stand out to you?
Casey - My painting teacher who actually went to SMU, John Hernandez or Juan Hernandez depending which culture he's in, he’ll change his name. Cool guy. Ava Couchite, who was my printmaking teacher, and just her introduction was really great. And then another painting teacher George Mosley who left after the first semester I had and I think he had some internal drama at the school, but there was... he didn't say much but when he would come in on our still, on my still life, and he would just say "Why do you do that? Try this." The way he approached me. I mean dishevelled everything I was doing and I said, okay. I need to try this.
Yeah, and then I really had to lean on his instruction of... "This is new to me. Where do I go?" "Like just try it."
Adam - Yeah.
Casey - It was great. I was like, sure thing boss. Yeah, but then he disappeared and we had like this litany of substitutes that just you know, they were subs and we're the same so...
Adam - Were they mostly influential in their teaching approach or were there stylistic things that you picked up from them that you can kind of still see today?
Casey - So I would say most of it is technical. However. I think John Hernandez definitely tackled something stylistically when I was painting. He says "Look you have really good colors. I like this, but you need to stop blending." Which is a technique, but stylistically there's something about leaving brushstrokes that just helps magnify the painting and I mean when he said that it really just kind of hacked me off and like, “Dude, just leave me alone.”
But again, that's one of those things looking back like I wish I'd held on to that because it would have... it could have kind of jump-started the way I paint now, maybe a little earlier. And then Nancy Miller and Charlotte Chambliss who were both drawing instructors. Drawing and design really pushed me to work bigger and more loosely.
I had this terrible habit of working super small and super tight almost like a photograph. And I didn't know this but you know, when you do that, it makes everything kind of feel flat. There's no movement within the surface, and they really challenged me that way. Then Charlotte Chambliss really pushed more finding a focus. Like, "What is it? What narrative are you wanting to go at? What are you trying to evoke how can we put emotion and thought?” and I didn't have her until my senior year. So it was just kind of like dang, I wish I had you more in my tenure here, but still I gleaned a lot from her and the short time that I had her she was great.
Adam - 00:10:14 > 00:10:15
What about other students from the time and have you kept up with anybody or...?
Casey - So there are few people that I follow up with on social media and mostly Instagram. Like there's one guy who was one of the cream of the crop, Jeannot Quenson. Born from France. So he just, you know, he came with a heavy portfolio before anyone else. He's now doing like 3D painting with VR technology. And as I think he's in the Pacific Northwest doing a whole bunch of album art music and then when he got into this 3D paint, I mean the stuff he makes is trippy but impressive. A couple of other people that I do keep up with don't make art anymore.
The majority of the people don't make art they're just kind of in the art community and dabble but...
Adam - Heavy attrition rate.
Casey - Yeah, sadly. I am curious if that's in most areas of study or just hours.
Adam - Yeah. I don't know I mean… it seems like a lot of the people I knew from high school who were in Orchestra and were doing really well they kind of stopped in college and I think a lot of it just has to do with, I mean, they weren't going for a music major and college sucks up all your time and energy and it's sad. Like you wish that people had more time to kind of play around with whatever creative endeavors they've got but that seems to be kind of what happens to a lot of people
Casey - That's sad.
Adam - I guess speaking of college then, what drew you to Southern Methodist University?
Casey - I mean… Throughout high school I did the art thing. Predominately, I mean it's what I like to do, but it also got me out of my home high school. So I didn't have to do sports. I didn't want to do sports with anybody just you know a ton of insecurity. But then maybe about junior year started thinking maybe I'll go into the mission field. I'll just be a missionary for the rest of my life. But you know, I'll go to this really cheap local Dallas Mission School and go from there.
And see midway through senior year I had my first kidney transplant. I've suffered from kidney disease my whole life and had a transplant which, I mean, man. When they talk about having brain fog disappear and chemical rebalance, the world changes quite literally overnight. So my outlook physiologically became a lot more open, and my ability to perceive became a lot clearer.
And I thought well, you know and in the recovery time, I was watching a lot of The Lord of the Rings DVDs because they just come out with the third movie had just come out in theaters. And so I was busy watching Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and all of the added DVD stuff all the extra content the design process. They went through all the different galleries they exhibited. I was just so jazzed to see this this fantasy stuff and it just... I went through so many sketch books as I was downing barbecue chicken and gaining so much weight after this surgery. But I felt like that God told me to go to SMU and I had one of those "Hmm moments like wait a minute… Hold on, are these the drugs are these the new meds? You want me to go from the cheapest school in Dallas to the most expensive school in the state and to do what now?” and I just had this unction that it was art, and I thought “What?”
So that's what I did. I did a 180 and I applied maybe the last day that I could apply for SMU, got in, and then decided to major in art. I think going to SMU there was a lot more to learn through the college experience than just art. I think had I known about it I might have gone to an atelier or maybe gone to a different school that really focused on Arts because SMU sends all of their art money to the museum and not to school. So... and that's fine. I mean that's their prerogative, but you can... I think it shows
I think it shows and even one of my professors said you should have gone to you know, Art Institute of Chicago or something, which is a great compliment coming from that particular Professor, but anyway, that's how I got there.
Adam - I landed in SMU almost by accident. So I'm kind of curious, like what is SMU's reputation within Dallas? Like, as a local growing up there.
Casey - I'll put it this way. When I got into SMU, I found out you know, my best friend, Matthew, who you also know very well, was going... and I don't know how we didn't communicate that before we both got accepted, but I started telling people. "Hey, so I'm going to SMU, you know fall 2004." A lot of people say “That's great. What are you gonna do?"
"I'm gonna go for art, you know, like painting."
"Painting like walls?"
I would stop and think wait a minute. You should be smart enough to know what SMU is. Check. But you don't know what an art degree is? So I think most people think very highly of SMU. They look at the Ford Stadium, just the name SMU and everyone's eyes kind of like, oh, wow, "Okay, you must be rich." kind of thing.
Like well, you know... strike two I'm not rich by any means. I'm a poor kid from East Dallas. So I think people like the name but there's not a lot of association with the art school there. I don't know how much that's changed really, and I think that's kind of the drawback that you know, my professor wanted me to go to a school where the art program was an immediate beneficiary of all income to the school. SMU's just... that's just not their priority.
They have it and it's a good program. I learned an exorbitant amount and I had quality professors through and through but you can tell that it's just not...
Adam - A little rough around the edges
Casey - A bit. I mean the maze downstairs was enough to say you don't care about your student body.
Adam - Yeah. It is interesting. Because it's like... for people who don't know the the Meadow School of the Arts is kind of the central arts building that houses all of the arts: music, dance, theater... visual arts. I frequently ran into theater people dancers, obviously other musicians because that's what I was there for. We rarely saw you. Like, the painters, the sculptors.
Casey - No, we were locked away in the old Museum because the old museum is what became the visual arts department. So a majority of our drawing classes and everything took place in the old museum rooms, and then you had one group of studios kind of clustered in the upper mezzanine. And the only way to those were through several locked doors. And then I lucked out on the undergrad studio and it was again behind several locked doors that faced the north side, and then if students weren't in there, then we were just generally locked up in the different studios. So I mean everyone passed through our world to get to music and theater but not so many stop. Not a lot of interaction. We're not particularly friendly on the whole
Adam - So from Booker T, Washington, you had already kind of had your pride bubble popped a little bit.
Casey - Yeah.
Adam - Did you encounter further frustrations with that going into Meadows?
Casey - Absolutely. We had to do a foundations class and I went to the office and said hey,
you know, I'm from the Arts Magnet downtown. Is there any way that I can skip the foundations class? I've already done this for four years and they immediately laughed at me and said no, everyone does it and then that was the end of that conversation.
There was... I said, I can't apply for this? They said no, you have to do foundations first. Period. End of discussion. So that was a blow, that was a big blow but you know... I got sick first semester with you know, bilateral pneumonia and missed, you know, two and a half weeks of class. I'm glad that I had a foundations course and I'm really glad that I went because I met some of our mutual friends who are still very dear to me today through that class, and one of my mentors who is still a dear mentor today through that class and I learned a lot. It was a lot of deeper end knowledge.
There was a lot more exploration into the art world and what it meant to be an artist through that course than I ever received in high school and that's not a knock on my high school teachers. I think that's just the nature of moving up and levels of education. I can say affirmatively that my art education was levels beyond what I went through in high school.
So there was that. I had two professors outright tell me I was lazy. And I was baffled. I thought I was just poor because I couldn't afford... like in printmaking, I couldn't afford a whole bunch of copper plates to keep trying different images. I was always trying to perfect and make the best masterpiece and that wasn't the point so he called me lazy. But when he saw the way I painted he said "Now I know how to help you print," and he led me into a method of printmaking that to this day I wouldn't be a better painter without having gone through that type of printmaking.
And the other was the ceramics professor of all things. I did a bunch of clay stuff in high school, but when I got into ceramics that kind of rocked my world because we didn't have wheels in my sculpture classes in high school that was just for ceramics, but I took ceramics because it pushed me and helped me understand form a lot better and how to conceptualize form and the same professor said you know, “I like where your head is going, but you're very lazy. You need to put more work into this.”
And then the same Professor who told me to go to a better school. Within the same semester, maybe even the same week told me "You're better than I was at your age, but I wanted it more," and that messed with me because I'm like wait, how do I want it more? I don't know how to do that. And then another time during one of our six hour painting classes, he said "If you only realized how asymptotic you were you would no longer be an asymptote."
I thought, “So you want to explain that to me?” And so, you know, he drew out an asymptote and said look you are a parabola that is ever increasing towards the y-axis, but you will never cross it. Well, it's technically impossible, but I get what you're saying. But again, he left... he kind of left me in that spot. And I'm really glad that he did because it pushed me to want to be better and I'm at that place now, you know as I mentioned before we started recording. I'm at the place where I want it more and I'm searching, I'm sojourning for. How can I communicate that on my canvases, on my surfaces.
So yeah, there were a lot of deep life lessons that I learned from my art professors that's like, they still haunt me in the studio sometimes for my benefit, sometimes to my detriment because I get hung up on what was said instead of using that as fuel to go forward.
I hope that answered your question.
Adam - So still kind of going chronologically, you graduated from SMU. The next thing that I personally can remember, I think there's some time in between then and this, is you ended up teaching a kind of... I don't know how to describe it... as a special ed kind of course?
Casey - So that came probably about 3 years after graduation. Three years? Yeah, that sounds about right. And in the interim I stayed at smu as a contract laborer for the art department and got into a company, Glazer's, they're a Wholesale Distributor. I got into that company. With the promise of "Hey do six weeks of stocking liquor for us and then we'll get you in the Art Department making displays for different big liquor companies." They pay artists to create sculptures and I'm like, okay I could do that. It's booze. It's art. Fun.
But the guy that hired me was fired like right after I started, and no one was privy to our conversations of being put in the art department. So all of the sales reps and all the managers just kind of laughed when I mentioned it and they're like, do you even know how to operate a dolly? Like yeah, I've moved multiple hundred pounds sculptures and equipment with dollies, more than liquor. But when I told him I went to SMU they just kind of laughed me up and down. I thought well, this is a dead end. Even if I do get the art department, if I have to work for these guys, I don't think it's going to be worth it at the end.
So I... you know kind of absconded overseas for a little bit. I was dating someone overseas. Came back and I was just looking for something better, still doing a bunch of the contract stuff. Turned to beer and that didn't, it just didn't help further down the road. And didn't do a whole lot of art. I kind of stopped the arts thing. I think my focus was on, you know, having this relationship and thinking I was going to get married to a foreigner and you know, these very romantic ideas that I lost focus big time.
And I started going back towards the art world when I worked for a framing company and was moving up their corporate ladder. When... actually my cousin, who also went to SMU, called me and said "Would you like to teach an art class at my special needs program?"
I said tell me more, this sounds interesting, but I don't know that I'm qualified. So I checked it out and I got in and at first they just kind of needed me to be… I'm like an assistant to the instructors there and it's... the program was for adults who have aged out of high school. So 18 on up. I think our youngest client (we didn't call them students) our youngest client was 18, and our oldest at the time was 66.
Just to give them a place to go but what they wanted from me was to do art classes. And not just like kitschy arts and crafts things just to keep keychains, whatever. Those are fine to keep people busy and to teach some manual dexterity skills, but they really wanted to find out who the artists were in this community. And that was actually a big struggle. Not for the artist, but for parents, for other teachers and programs involved with our community. Because they thought, “Wait. Why are you trying to teach them Fine Art?”
I said because clearly these five individuals are visual artists. You may think of them as only having autism or down syndrome... and their parents don't think they only have autism or down syndrome, cerebral palsy, but they thought surely my child isn't that creative?
And I said, "No not only does art soothe them, but they are incredible visual artists This is how they process.”
And I had one student in particular that… I mean she should have been in museums. She was so gifted. All I did was help her kind of process drawing. I'd have her copy a lot of the old masters and Renaissance paintings just to see where she was and to see where she gravitated in her output. And she had this ability to... and it could have been our printer quality, how everything pixelated, but she took that and she pixelated her images. So it was so much more than pointillism because she would do dots on dots on dots kind of, you know, stipple her values and she just did it.
If I were to introduce to her a new color theory concept she kind of gave me this quizzical look and I thought okay, out the window. I'd step away just to let her paint, you know process. I'd come back, like, holy smokes. You got it. You did it. You took my poor instruction and turned it into incredible artwork, you're every professor’s dream student.
She's so gifted and we had several others. I mean some there was one girl who came in, one young woman, and I was really impressed. Just by the way, she painted this landscape. I mean, it was almost kind of like a Monet but without all the individual strokes. She just had this incredible movement and how she painted and I was very moved by it.
So when her dad came to pick her up, I pulled him aside and said, "Did you know how well your daughter can paint?" and he says, "Oh, I know. She loves art. " I said "No. No, this isn't 'I love art.' This is 'I know how to paint.'" And I showed him what she made and he started to cry. And I thought. All right, I got to go because I'm gonna tear up that this is affecting people this much.
So it was really cool. I mean there had to be varying sides to what I did with my art Department because of the government pay, like, so many hours had to be a day hab based instruction. And so what I did is I use the elements of the arts to teach people hand building skills, manual dexterity, cognitive and memory skills, that kind of thing, and it all had to be tiered per level of understanding or ability
So that was challenging because I'd never written a curriculum and so I had to draft a curriculum that was art based but not about art output, because we just didn't have the time or facilities in my opinion, too. Why get everyone to make bowls? We tried. We did molds, we did ceramics, we did glass slumping. I mean we did and we had the resources to get it done whatever we wanted to get done. But every time they would make an educational shift in the program I'd be the heckler saying that's not going to work for us. Sorry.
What I'm being told to do from the upper. Is it going to work from what you middles want? But then I had complete freedom in the afternoon to do whatever I wanted, so I use that time to train artists, you know, we were going to get into the community, we were going to do portfolio building, have group shows etc. But there were just so many demands coming from every different direction and I was a yes-man, and it was just me so...
You know we... and we had some help with adding on some other teachers, but they always got pulled in. Another SMU Alum came and did music therapy and she and I developed a showcase so our visual artists could showcase their work, but then all of our performers could showcase on stage to a live audience. That was pretty killer to be a part of that, having to be manager and art teacher and facilitator. There's just too many hats. And I was just getting to the point...
I had a guy with CP who had very limited range and control in his dominant hand. But I thought hey, let's try to use painting. I want you to copy this to try to get a little bit more control. So I had to be scientific about it. Just trying different ways and different methods and we finally got to a place where he was able to make some impressive calculated strokes.
They got to the point where he was building scenes and Landscapes just from shapes, kind of Cubism, but not. It was beautiful and I saw, you know, he didn't have this drastic change in motion, but you could tell he was gaining control and because of that was gaining confidence, so he came to Art once or twice a week just to hang out and give me a hard time because we could do that.
But it was it was a... it was a phenomenal season. You know, I wish I hadn't been such a yes-man about everything else and just focused on the art part because I learned a lot,
you know, then the attempts to explain something and the aftermath was like, "That was so abstract. I don't know who would have understood what I said." But to have these students take that, reorganize it like wonkavision and then create something spectacular.
Adam - I remember seeing one of those exhibits. It was pretty awesome. I guess starting to turn a little bit more towards your own artistic output. I can actually... I think I see the map of Middle-earth behind you. Yeah, I'm pretty sure that's it. I know that Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, various fantasy things figure pretty heavily in your life.
And when I say “heavily,” I mean you actually read and remember parts of the Silmarillion kind of.
Casey - Oh, yeah.
Adam - Yeah, right, like that extra step that most don’t make it past the Hobbit right? To learn...
Casey - I had to learn some Elvish terms in different languages.
Adam - And I remember at your senior exhibit there were some scenes there that were kind of more fantasy oriented in terms of what you were painting and I know like that kind of subject matter has come up. How else does this manifest as you paint?
Casey - So it's a really pointed question. You're kind of hitting the eye of my current storm. You know, I did a lot of figurative work and I loved the fantastic. I loved the very romantic scenes that you see in a lot of German and especially French painters. Just you striking a pose. And that kind of goes back to my days of my sketchbooks. I love figurative work, you know, from dinosaurs to Teenage Mutant Turtles to Predator, to… when I finally got into high fantasy, I started drawing elves and Dúnedain and orcs and all that stuff.
I even turned in one of those assignments in my freshman year and I was totally nervous because I thought "This isn't fine art!" but it fit the criteria of the homework and the professors were really stoked about it and I thought "Hmm. Do I bunk this and just go the illustrative route?"
Part of the problem, too, is, as much as I love illustration, I don't want to be known as just a fine arts illustrator, or "was an illustrative fine artist" kind of thing. I don't like isms and titles. They tend to pigeonhole me. I get caught up in the minutiae of isms. But with a fantasy it became this all-encompassing aspect. It wasn't just in my art.
I found… you know, I was healthy in college, and I found that I liked being physical. I really enjoyed being... not necessarily athletic but, I like fighting. And not to beat the crap out of people. I just enjoyed the movement. I enjoyed the art and the science
Adam - We had a couple light saber fights together.
Casey - I had several bruises for a long time. I think our friend Allee still has a welt
Druvhan and Nathan also learned quickly, if I remember. So there was that aspect and I think... wanting to be a good guy, you know wanting to be the Aragorn, Legolas, or Luke Skywalker, I had to find something to fight for. So I couldn't just go pick a fight because that was the thing to do. You know being in the art school, it could have been very easy to lose to a whole bunch of jocks that predominated on campus.
But in appreciation, wanting to have the good fight and you know, even that kind of matching up with my faith. What is the good fight? How do we go about that? How do we endure and press on? That kind of led to more study of armor, architecture, weaponry, that kind of thing. How are these things designed? How does that look in art? What can these shapes and designs and patterns evoke? What can they symbolize?
You know movies particularly. Everything has to be so simplistic and readily recognizable, right? I think a lot of that's kind of transitioned into art in general. Everything has to be immediately recognizable for it to be understood. But what I gained in my painting classes, my art classes at SMU and since then is, I don't want it to be easily recognizable. I don't want this to be a symbol. I'm not painting iconography, but I want something to capture the attention that allures and invites an audience in.
So there are some symbols, there are some designs that are very good at that. And then trying to find out how that could incorporate. Whether it's a surcoat blowing in the wind or a cave or is it the pattern on the samurai's armor. I think I've only done one or two of those. You have one. But trying to think of it as an artist is... okay. What values and what shapes and what colors can I use to invite the audience into my piece?
Because ultimately what I want is to give a sense of atmosphere, a place of belonging, that kind of real intimacy that comes from real spaces. Whether you're indoor, outdoor. And I think that was something that grabbed me about Tolkien is his ability to describe a landscape and to make you feel like you're in an actual landscape while you're reading the book.
I love it. He doesn't give a lot of description about clothes or about the armor. He doesn't, you know pull a George RR Martin with "and the gilding on the hilt of Oathkeeper was..." No. He gives evocative expressions or directions of to what something might look like that's worn or held.
When it comes to landscape, he gives you these very almost billowing descriptions of the world around you, because that's what he was writing about was saving this world. So for me, that's something that even now it's... Landscapes alone don't cut it. Figures alone don't cut it, you know, I might do a figurative painting or landscape paintings, but to me there's still something about the two becoming one, there's something about man and his place on earth that is very profound
Even in our space race, we long to go to Mars. But we were born here, right? And we have the ability to take care of this place and make it better again. I think we should. So how do I evoke that. And I don't do a lot of paintings about, I don't know, contemporary problems as we see it. But invoking contemporary issues into landscapes whether that's just mountains if it's, you know, trees... I like adding the little details of fantasy of a mysterious figure holding a torch.
Why a torch? We have flashlights these days or we have modern lanterns that use LEDs. There's something about fire to me that feels more alive than LED. LED is far brighter and far more efficient than a kerosene soaked torch. But there's something more romantic and alluring to me about fire. It feels more natural. It feels more integral and still distinct to the landscape.
So I'm still working on my narrative. I'm still looking for that one liner that I can give that's just kind of that evocative image of everything else I'm doing. Because I think that will help me in a… in an essence be like a capstone to why I paint. Because it's… I got stuck in the rut that I had to paint one thing. And that drove me crazy. It did! It's like, well if I can only paint this one thing it's like, I don't want to be known for this one thing.
I just I want... would rather be known as a good painter than a good painter of trees. "Oh, yeah, he does trees super well!" it's like. Mazel Tov who cares? That's just one aspect. I want to be known as a good painter. Did I use my colors well? Did I have a strong composition that I present what I was conceptualizing in an effective manner? Did I draw my audience in? That kind of thing. And not everyone buys that stuff, you know, it's like making art for artists.
But yeah, I think for me, that's the greater challenge to rise to.
Adam - Yeah, trying to walk that line.
And then there's… I don't know if this sounds... I guess it's probably not insulting but like… there is some overlap, too, with your faith. Because I know you're a big fan of CS Lewis, who is also a fantasy writer, sci-fi writer, and you go to I guess it's a synagogue?
Casey - Yeah, Messianic synagogue, Jews that believe Jesus is the Messiah and I'm not Jewish but, you know, my wife is and some of my dearest friends are, but it's a place for them to stay culturally Jewish and believe in the Jewish Messiah.
History has not been kind. Anyway, so yeah...
Adam - I think we're seeing some of that pop up again.
Casey - Oh, yes. MmHm, very strongly.
Adam - And I think what's interesting to me about some of the works of yours and the past few years in particular. There are some kind of CS Lewis-like paintings. Like some of them are directly I think inspired. Like a painting of basically Aslan the lion, right? I think there is one that was very popular of a lamppost and the snowscape.
Casey - Yeah that one people really wanted that one. I didn't... I just had fun painting it.
Adam - But I think, In the way that CS Lewis would write with Christianity sort of under the surface, these symbols kind of riding and delivering that message there. There's some of your paintings that seem to operate similarly where you'll see it's a tree and the light. And if you don't as a viewer know anything about Casey Ray Parrot and his faith, you'd be like "It's a pretty tree in the light."
And then, understanding more about your biography, you might go, Oh, there are some symbolisms and layers to this. How much of this is conscious and how much of it is like… Just part of how you operate visually?
Casey - That's a great question. I'll answer your last question first. For me, I look at everything as a painting Right now, I'm looking at my closet doors in the office. And just what I do is, I break it down into shapes and the colors and I think what colors would I make to create this?
What would I need to do just to replicate what I'm seeing?
So just in that first layer of perception and perceiving... that's the same thing… of perception is painterly, I'm thinking of brushstrokes. I'm thinking of you know, big brush versus a little brush, soft edge, hard edge kind of thing and that's all just kind of turning on the surface.
But then when I sit and meditate, you know in that process just think that's really cool. Seeing how powerful light is. And that even you know, even if it's dark outside, I can still see shapes that I can still perceive, I can still move around and it just gets me thinking about not necessarily just principles from scripture but actual verses that talk about light, that talk about space, God as light, you know the beginnings of creation. That kind of thing.
And you know delve into that. What does that look like scientifically with what we know? How does He know? How does that compare? Does it matter, you know all kinds of those questions and so they're all those ramblings. I start kind of building up images and I think “What is it that's so powerful about this to me? What is it that strikes me?”
Conversely, sometimes I think how could I preach this? And I think sometimes those become the weaker images. When I try to get a message across. "Hey! Aha! Look over here!" you know. And those become the most frustrating pieces to make because I'm not really invested in it. It's not my relationship with God. It's not my relationship with my abilities or my perception. So takes me out of the game.
Some commissions are that way, I may be able to give my technical ability, but some commissions still feel flat to me. And that's... that's a personal problem. That's... I don't know how many artists feel that way. So, you know, some people do commissions and like my God, you're just you're so good. How do you do that? Here, take my brushes, you know, just...
But for the pieces where it's a deep churning, you know, I feel like it's part of the narrative of my life. Those are the ones that are usually the longest to paint because I go through it more, it becomes more personal therefore it's more precious. In meaning, not necessarily in output, but I want to convey that I want to render what I'm seeing and experiencing in a memorable and powerful way, technically, creatively all that kind of stuff.
And that's really where putting in the full effort as an artist comes in. How much research are you putting in? How much understanding of composition of shape and mass, value, temperature, color? Most people don't think about that even people that come off of you know, Instagram, "I'm an artist!" and like "Cool, you're drawing."
That's great. That's fundamental. That's not everything. I want to challenge you to keep going, you know, don't stop, keep going because real artists struggle through all the fundamentals.
And so I think in doing that it's led me to look at other artists and how they create. For one to look and make sure that I'm... before I read any blurb about the art on the wall. Like if I'm in a gallery, I want to look at the piece, I want to see how it's made after I've taken a big picture.
Then I'll want to come up and see, Where are your layers? How is your process? How have you crafted this image and then say "I think this is what it means." and then I'll go read the blurb like, aha. Okay I missed it. Or no, I'm right on it. Great. Okay, my cognitive abilities are still a little sharp.
Because then I can take that back to the studio and really start to wonder. Okay, how would this be better layered? Is this a glazing thing? Is this an impasto thing? And where would these techniques fall in the painting that are going to make the focal piece an actual epicenter? I don't want to just be like "hey, that's nice," but I want to be like, "Whoa. I'm feeling everything being affected because of this right here."
So I think doing that and for me, it's kind of like with Tolkien. It's the land and the landscape in which God operates to the scriptures. You had these very powerful images in the Old Testament and the New Testament of God as these different things, you know. We have the typical images that become super trite like a lion, which, when I did Aslan, I thought "I don't want it to feel like hey, it's a lion but a good guy." I want to feel like "hey, this is kind of scary."
You know, there's even a line where he says “Good, yes, but not safe.” He's not safe. You know, there in the Psalms particularly, because that is art within scripture. They are strictly poems that refer back to the scripture that they had at that time. Most of which was just relating back to the creation story of Genesis. Right?
So you have these very beautiful images and then how these writers process that same literature in their time and how it affected them and what they were able to craft. So even mine is still kind of derivative of their derivation of the actual text. But to get back to that and say hey I want to be like these guys, these psalmists. I might not be writing something but I'm creating a virtual poem here for people to experience that depth of relationship with God.
And I think there's some paintings where I've been able to break through, I think, when someone has a positive mostly emotional response. I don't think that we give emotions much credit in our society unless it's negative and... it's a shame but I remember painting one, right after I left my job teaching special needs adults. I left because my wife got pregnant and we were expecting our first baby girl. I needed to stay home.
And so I had a solo show just a month before all that was supposed to happen and I quickly had to scramble and paint some oil paintings for this last minute show and I don't recommend it to anybody. But I painted this piece and I just remember being so impressed by the movie Interstellar. And I just was just thinking what a striking image and it felt like I was being jettisoned out of the known world and to quote Elsa "Into the unknown." Which is very scary.
I remember feeling the same thing at the end of college. Like I don't know up from down. I don't know left from right. I feel like I'm in space. So when I caught that I said no wait, this is similarly known territory, you know… to know not what to expect. Right? Let's move on.
And so I painted this kind of jet stream, you know, the rocket trail leaving the atmosphere and going into space and I had this gradation of blues following that and just got deeper and deeper and darker and darker, you know scarier and scarier as the jet stream went vertical the jet stream went off the canvas which, they tell you never do that. Never have a line go off the canvas and I said, screw you. I'm gonna do it anyway. That's what my painting's about, dang it.
And I loved it for all the pieces that I did for that particular solo show. That was the one that...I think my wife even said, "This is the path you need to follow, this kind of thinking, this kind of processing, this kind of creating.”
And then a fellow musician, fellow artist. I mean, he's one of the most gifted musicians I've ever met in our congregation. I didn't see it but his mom said, "So when he looked at your painting he just cried," and she said "I need to buy it for him so that he can have that just because he said it helped him in his music."
And I thought oh man, I mean that's a blessing that my art could be something that inspires someone that good, you know and his music career. And that came from this, my personal journey of "I need to leave where I'm at and go into the unknown." And that's a beautiful image for anybody, which is really cool that it can be a beautiful image for anybody. But for someone who's in the same faith, they know that the unknown is really God, this great expanse of "we know so little of who He is."
We know His character. We know that He's trustworthy and all that but the older you get, trust becomes scarier and scarier. Or I'll say it this way. It costs more and more. And so to catch that kind of depth I don't know if it's possible, but I want to try. I want to try to catch that.
Exactly and I'm not there yet. I think that's what makes me mad is that I'm not there yet. Go figure Mr. Impatient over here. But that's my aim is to capture, evoke that sense of presence, that sense of atmosphere.
You know, you go back to even like Thoreau and just how poetic he got about God and then really just about nature. But he got poetic about God because of nature at first, the way that he would talk about the deity and everything. It's pretty cool and it's a nice segue for me.
Casey - 00:57:19 > 00:57:20
It's like, that's great. But because of what I believe I believe in an actual person with a name who lived on this planet, it comes a little different than just the ethereal.
and then I think “Okay. Well if Jesus Is God, how to get from that mundane of human to the expanse of Eternal? The fish swims through the ocean, but the ocean also swims through the fish kind of deal.
I'm still exploring how all that works, but there's something about the landscape. There's something about the natural that is so scary to us and that's known but also how to evoke the element of the unknown in that. We don't face cosmic storms and our atmosphere protects us from solar flares, but my God, what would happen if they didn't?
Adam - Yeah. Believe it or not. We're actually coming up on time. So I'm going to end with something that actually worked pretty well in my last interview. On the count of three who's the first artist who jumps to your head three two, one.
Casey - DaVinci.
Adam - Why DaVinci?
Casey - I don't know because I think I was just thinking of him. His draftsmanship is just unmatched. Close to unmatched. There's some other really good draftsmen. But I think it's how he thought of the world and how he imagined things to be. He would observe the human figure and think I think it looks like this on the inside and then would look at a corpse on an examining room table. That is how it looked on the inside. Okay.
But that he would take that to inventions. You know, where there was the submarine or the machine guns, flying machines. Futurama did a great commentary on all that. But at a time when imagination wasn't upheld, you painted what your patrons wanted you to paint and you did it their way, he stuck it to him.
You know, he spent a majority of his time perfecting one image, good for him. But she's this big. But you know, his striving for that for his own personal work, his ability to imagine and craft and for those drawings to remain intact and to be as powerful as they are to the art community, to the science community even, that's just incredible.
I mean the Vitruvian man. Gosh, I mean it's just a beautiful image, but also some of his other paintings, he did paintings of apocryphal scenes, but the brilliance of his that he left unfinished. Yeah, and for that day and age that was taboo. Nowadays, that's a particular kind of genius to be able to say I can't do anything else to this. I'm going to leave it and just let it state its effect.
It's really powerful.
Adam - Yeah. Well, I guess that'll wrap it up. Thanks for sitting down to talk with me and share your thoughts for whoever watches this or reads it because there will be a transcript, closed captions and all the rest of that. Yeah, so, thanks for stopping by.
Casey - Thank you. It's been a pleasure talking with you againBecome a Patron!
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