Taught to Fall

New Drawings by Chris Koelle

November 14, 2018–January 14, 2019


About The show

Kneel down in the grass—your face in cold dirt, palms in clay. With your eyes to the ground, all of life appears. If you trace with fingers the textures between the uninhabitable and belonging, you will learn the poetry of earth: how to trust our heaviness with patience. You will hum the tension inherent in our bones. Where we find life, it is because something has met death. Decay has made a way. And in this microcosm of graphite and star shower, red clay and mist, the harmony of praise and lament is the only chorus fit to sing.

Leaf Institute is open to guests during most business hours, but please call ahead to be sure we are available during the time you would like to visit. Free admission. Works are available for purchase.

Chris Koelle (b. 1982) is an award-winning illustrator whose dramatic, visceral artwork has helped tell compelling stories across multi-disciplinary mediums including graphic novels, documentaries, feature film, animation, illustrated books, and fine art. Koelle has created powerful illustrations for the Oscar-nominated documentary Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience; Splinters, a documentary about surfing history and culture in Papua New Guinea; Battle Surgeon, a fiction graphic novel about a gifted Navy combat surgeon suffering from PTSD; The Book of Revelation graphic novel (Zondervan) that dramatically visualizes the entire New Testament biblical text over nearly 600 illustrations, and A Tale of Delight, a heartbreaking indie film about an illustrator’s experience of loss, grief, and PTSD. Koelle is currently illustrating a motion graphics film about new prosthetic technology for combat amputees. Clients include The National Guard / GX Magazine, The Documentary Group, Oxford University Press, HarperCollins Publishers, and Chronicle Books.

Chris is married to Annie, resident artist at Art & Light Gallery. Their two children may or may not grow up to make pictures for a living. They all live and work under one roof in Greenville, SC.


A Responsive Essay by Christian Shockley

Walk into Chris Koelle’s home, through the kitchen, down the hallway with the chirping birds, and you’ll find a small room filled with blooming flowers six feet tall. This was the state of Koelle’s studio as I stood with him a month ago, surrounded by panels of wood and paper in varying states of growth. Some of the flowers seemed to glow, moving with a background lit by what could be luminescent mold or a snapshot of a nebula NASA will soon find.

I can’t accurately call the pieces “drawings.” Koelle’s work is sculpted. Southeastern red clay tinges many pieces, kneaded into each panel to create a warm, dull hue. Graphite, clay, spit, and paint cake each surface until one expects the two-dimensional flowers to rise up and bloom. Smashed and molded, these works are shaped with hands.

“I want them to feel like they’ve been around,” Koelle says, “which means I have to be around them.” These works are made of exactly what you will see: graphite and paint, red clay and paper. They’re also made of what you’ll miss unless you look closely: veined with old drawings laid to rest under these new lines, mistakes that were meant and those that weren’t. In short, they’re made of time.

To see these pieces well, we must see them as works made with time. Not only Koelle’s time with physical materials, but time spent with the poets that influenced him.

Through their immersive size, the vibrancy of their form, and the distillation of time they attempt capture, these pieces re-navigate the tensions  that writers like David Whyte, Mary Oliver, and Rainer Maria Rilke have mapped through poetry.

• • •

Rilke obsessed over the boundaries of our existence. In particular, he felt the pull toward earth that so often feels like it is keeping us from reaching toward the divine. “How surely gravity’s law, / strong as an ocean current,” he writes, “takes hold of the smallest thing / and pulls it toward the earth.” Gravity (and the death it represents) is an insurmountable force, but it is not a tyrannical one. 

In fact, Rilke marvels that anyone would push against this boundary in search of some “empty freedom.” Accepting the fate of this gravity is our only hope of learning how to rise. This is a paradox with which we each must reckon: if we wish to ascend the path of life, we must first descend into death.

Or, to put it in Rilke’s words,

If we surrendered
to earth’s intelligence
we could rise up rooted, like trees.

Hans urs von Balthassar, one of the great Christian theologians of the 20th century, identifies this paradox in the life of Christ. Christ, Balthassar explains, opens a path to life by first “going to the dead.” Christ descends into the deepest regions of hell in order to achieve triumph for those that must also follow the way of death. Christ’s “exploration of the ultimate depths,” Balthasar says, transforms “what was a prison into a way.” This is precisely “the way” that Rilke shows us. Even seeds, if they are to bloom, must fall into the ground and die. 

Representations of this falling—this death—take several forms in Koelle’s work. Most commonly, we see death in the red, apocalyptic discs, hovering on some distant horizon, unsure whether they’ll scorch what little life remains or provide the nutrients needed to grow. 

One of the most striking representation of the paradox of death in Koelle’s work is found in the Baptism of a Narcissist. The Narcissus plant is potentially lethal, but it also contains life-giving properties. In order to unlock its benefits, the plant must be tempered. So the plant has been plunged into (or is blooming out of) a pool of what must be blood.

If we see life in this image, it is only because of the death that leads to life. Pride has been tempered to make way for life. Rilke continues in the poem, 

This is what the things can teach us: to fall,
patiently to trust our heaviness.
Even a bird has to do that
before he can fly.

If we are to find life, in ourselves and what grows around us, we first must fall into death. But we must also have eyes to see.

• • •

“Let me / keep my mind on what matters, / which is my work,” Mary Oliver writes in her poem, “The Messenger.” We, too, might feel this inclination to train our attention. We focus on the tasks at hand, which are so often the small, tedious bits of existence that make up daily life. But Oliver isn’t referring to that kind of work. Her work, she says as these lines turn into the next stanza, “is mostly standing still and learning to be astonished.” 

Oliver doesn’t see with the eyes of childhood, which don’t yet see that life requires death. Nor does she look with the part of herself that is, as she writes in her essay “Of Power and Time,” “a servant of the hours.” 

This kind of looking in order to be astonished is the task of what Oliver calls “the third self.” The third self, she writes in the same essay, “has a hunger for eternity.” Only this third self has eyes to see the eternal hidden in the transient.

In order to see in this way, we must be immersed in existence. That’s what Oliver suggests as she goes on with her work of being astonished, naming what she sees all around her (“The phoebe, the delphinium. / The sheep in the pasture, and the pasture.”)

This careful process of calling things by their proper names is a difficult task, especially when our newsfeeds give so many reasons to be caught up in the tedium and terror of time. That, I believe, is why Oliver writes that her work is “learning to be astonished.” It is a perpetual task to learn to see and to name. It’s the task of the giant flowers in front of you. Think of them as a way to practice learning to be astonished.

Each flower gives us a zoomed-in vision of the world, as if we’ve knelt in the grass and allowed only a single rose to fill our view. But they are not the flower itself. They don’t have the flowers color or scent, the things that would bind us to a single moment. 

In their monochromatic state, they call our attention to form. Static, hovering, disconnected from the places we would typically find them, they ask us to see their everlasting states. This is particularly true of Trinity.

As its name suggests, this trio of flowers represents the divine. These flowers are not rooted in earth. They hover just above the edge of the canvas as if ascending. Their long stems draw us up toward what we can’t help but see as faces. Trinity is not the scene of death we see in Baptism of a Narcissist. It asks us to believe that we might sing a song beyond what Mary Oliver calls our “body-clothes.”

And the reverie leads to revelry. “[S]ince all the ingredients are here,” Oliver continues in her poem, we cannot help but turn our astonishing into rejoicing. And rejoicing turns to gratitude, a song she sings to all living things around her:

to the moth and the wren,
to the sleepy dug-up clam,
telling them all, over and over, how it is
that we live forever.

This is the paradox of being a body: we are bound with limitations as strong as gravity; because of the limitations, we are able to sing beyond them and to instruct others to sing as well.

• • •

Both the death that leads to life and the arresting of time that reveals eternity lead us to a final tension latent in this work: often, the most profound answers appear in the form of a question. We are arrested—as if in states of death or astonishment—by a single, plaguing question that will not let us go.

Each of these pieces captures life arrested. Each flower may be caught in some ethereal state outside of the constraints of this world. Or each could be growing into fullness or withering in decay. David Whyte describes the power of arrested states in his poem “Sometimes.”

The flowers are “conceived out of nowhere / but in this place / beginning to lead everywhere.” Each flower asks us to view these multiple sides of the argument, the roads that lead everywhere. And as they do, we become aware of our own states of becoming. They are, as Whyte describes, 

that can make
or unmake
a life,

that have patiently
waited for you,

that have no right
to go away.

We can spend our whole life avoiding these questions. It’s comfortable that way. That way is not the way that leads to death. That way is not the way that leads to standing in a field, learning to be astonished. Of course, that means it isn’t the way that leads to life and eternity either.

Stand before these giant beauties and allow them to question you. Allow them to open the way.

Remember they, like you, are made of time. And like these flowers, in order to find life, we must fall and be unmade. Soon we’ll say with Rilke: “I am glad that there is so much greatness and that we have found our way to it through the wide dismayed world.”

—Christian Shockley