The Opposite of Art

The Opposite of Art

by Athol Dickson


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A great artist is cast into the icy Harlem River by a hit-and-run driver. His heart stops, and he sees something that defies description. Presumed dead by all who knew him and obsessed with the desire to paint the inexpressible, he embarks on a pilgrimage to seek help from holy men around the globe. But is it possible to see eternity without becoming lost within it? After a quarter of a century, when the world begins to whisper that he may be alive, two people come looking for the artist: the daughter he never knew existed, and the murderer who hit him on the bridge all those years ago.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781416583486
Publisher: Howard Books
Publication date: 09/13/2011
Edition description: Original
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 1,296,819
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Athol Dickson is the publisher of the popular news website,, and the author of seven novels and the bestselling memoir, The Gospel according to Moses. His novels of suspense and magical realism have been honored with three Christy Awards and an Audie Award, and compared to the work of Octavia Butler (by Publisher’s Weekly) and Flannery O’Connor (by The New York Times). He and his wife live in Southern California.

Read an Excerpt

Excerpt from The Opposite of Art, Chapter 14:

As he had beneath the Sistine ceiling, Ridler paced the sidewalk. Back and forth beside the looming ramparts, he paced. All the years swirled through his mind, the cost of jungles, beaches, filthy alleys and bazaars, tortured and exploded, hungry, parched, lonely and alone, and of course Suzanna. Suzanna lost forever. He had surrendered everything to paint the Glory, trying it a thousand times, a thousand ways, miles of paint, gallons of it flowing across canvas by the acre. What were these imposters’ feeble efforts compared to sacrifice like his?

“I’ll show them,” he muttered, dropping to his knees and opening his backpack. “I’ll show them.”

Removing his kit he spilled his pastels out onto the sidewalk. Still muttering, he selected a piece of chalk and began to sketch. His arm swung broadly over the pavement, a giant motion from the shoulder. Line after sweeping, monumental line arched across the slates around him. He was no mere artist. He was an athlete, a zealot and a warrior. He was no propagandist. He was a partisan, a dogmatist in possession of all truth. He alone could show the Glory to the world, and he alone would do it.

Driven by his rage and his disdain, Ridler lost all consciousness of his surroundings. He did not see the crowd gathering about him as his colors rose from the pavement to the ancient ramparts of the Holy See. He did not hear their whispers, nor their gasps and exclamations as the image swelled and spread. He climbed the wall with only fingertips and the narrow edges of his boots, clinging to the bricks stacked earthy and steadfast for generations. Halfway up he released his hold and drifted. Gripping colored chalk in both of his hands, he drew with unerring beauty and precision on his left and right at once, a whirlwind of pristine intention, filling empty voids as if he was a witch conjuring a portal to a future or a past. He almost had it now. This time he would hold it fast. He would draw back the veil. He would reveal the Glory. He would not let it go. He would master everything.

Ridler drew among a cloud of witnesses. No carabinieri stepped forward from that growing crowd to protest on behalf of public property. On the contrary, the police in their white belts and chest straps stood entranced along with bankers and tourists, priests and beggars. Dozens of them turned to hundreds; hundreds turned to thousands. From the street and sidewalk, from the windows, balconies, and rooftops, all of Rome observed in breathless silence.

It never crossed the artist’s mind that he might run out of colors. Again and again he pulled more pastels from his pack, never realizing it had become a cornucopia, endlessly fertile, providing everything required. Nothing was withheld. The sun itself beyond the angry clouds did not betray him. On the contrary, it remained aloft long past the normal hour, granting the suspension of time. Even gravity and space surrendered, all created things in all directions bowing in submission to his genius.

In the end it seemed the only limit was himself, for when he stopped it was his own decision. Hands and arms and clothing choked with color, Ridler sat back on his haunches. At that very moment the sun began to move again above the clouds, but it took a while to regain its usual velocity. And like the fading of the day, Ridler’s own return was gradual, a slow recognition of the image spread out all around him. Shadows gathering, he gazed upon the work.

It covered half a block along the sidewalk. It climbed forty feet up the wall. It was of course his grandest effort, superior to anything that Rome had ever seen. Thousands knelt around the fringes, hands clasped at their chins, palms turned up toward heaven. Their whispered prayers combined and interlaced in midair, flowing hot across his face. Their adoration of the image plucked him to his feet as if he were a puppet pulled by strings. He disappeared into them, staggering with painful joints, fleeing yet another failure, for he was well aware that this was merely one more flawed beginning. As he had so many times before, he had reached the end of Ridler without capturing the Glory.

Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for The Opposite of Art includes discussion questions and a Q&A with author Athol Dickson. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Topics and Questions for Discussion

1. Why does Ridler so desperately want to paint “the Glory”? Why does he find it so difficult? When does he first begin to truly understand the answer to these questions himself?

2. What is Gemma’s motivation throughout most of the story? How is it similar to Ridler’s motivation? What do the similarities imply about human nature?

3. Given the events that shaped Lacuna in his childhood and the nature of his crimes, what do you think of his situation in the end?

4. Was Suzanna right to break it off with Ridler? Was she right to wait for him so long, and so passively?

5. Who is Esperanza?

6. What does the novel have to say about religion?

7. What does the novel have to say about the nature of God and our relationship with God?

8. What does the novel have to say about the nature of art? The purpose of art? The source of art?

9. What are some of the novel’s most powerful symbols, what gives them their power, what do they stand for, and what do they imply about the things they stand for?

10. What do the words lacuna, esperanza, and graves mean? What does the word reflect in the character and the novel’s symbolism?

A Conversation with Athol Dickson

What inspired you to write The Opposite of Art?

At its most fundamental level, all great art is an attempt to communicate truths beyond words. Even the classic novels are considered great because of something deeper than mere words. God is the most fundamental ineffable truth, yet very few artists have tried to communicate their impression of God directly in their work. We usually address ourselves to God’s glory instead; the evidence and attributes God leaves behind as he moves across the universe. Only a few have addressed themselves to God directly, and they almost universally anthropomorphize their conception of the divine, usually rendering God as an old man with a long beard. It seems strange to me that more artists don’t try to render God himself, directly, and in thinking about that I began to wonder what might happen if a great artist—perhaps the greatest artist of his generation—were to devote a lifetime to capturing the spirit of God in his work.

How was the process of writing this book different from your previous books?

Actually, it was much the same process as all the others. I began with the idea of a great painter who wants to capture God on canvas, and then began to think in terms of settings, characters, and events that might support that idea. I asked questions. What motivates this person? What stands in his way? Why is he the way he is? What are his strengths and weaknesses? What do I like about him? What do I hate about him? As I asked these questions, the decisions I had to make to answer them began to fill in all the blanks, until eventually I had a story.

There are several people that help Ridler along the way and shape his faith and religious experience, including Bob Feldman, al-Wasiti, the rabbi Jonathon Klein, and Esperanza. How have others helped you to develop and further your own faith?

Some have helped me on my spiritual journey by the positive or negative example of how they lived their lives, some by making demands that forced me to look to God for strength or courage or patience or forgiveness, and some by granting those same things to me and, in so doing, giving me a glimpse of God’s own love.

Of the characters you created in The Opposite of Art, who do you sympathize with most?

It’s not possible to pick just one. I am all of them at different times. Sometimes I share Talbot Graves’s greed and lust for what he knows he should not have, and sometimes I share Emil Lacuna’s emotional and spiritual emptiness. I have great sympathy for Abu al-Wasiti, whose religion has been hijacked by evil, because my own has often suffered the same fate. I sometimes long for a different history, as Gemma does, and I sometimes demand access to the secrets of the universe on my own terms, as Ridler does.

Your writing incorporates inspirational themes into plot-driven stories of intrigue, suspense, and mystery. On your website, you write that your bookcase is full of suspense and mystery novels. Which authors have influenced your work the most?

Another difficult answer to narrow down. The list is very long. I learned most of what I know about writing dialogue from Ross Thomas and Elmore Leonard. From Flannery O’Connor I learned not to be afraid to write characters who feel larger than life, and not to try to make sense of everything. Thornton Wilder gave me permission to inject myself into the story now and then. Caleb Carr, E. L. Doctorow, and Umberto Eco taught me to appreciate the power of history in forming mysteries. I gained an appreciation for unexpected miracles from Gabriel García Marquez and Toni Morrison.

As one of the most celebrated artists of his day, Ridler seems to experience the world more intensely than other people: the colors are brighter and an everyday phenomenon like rain can become a transformative event. In your experience as a classically trained artist and architect, do you think artists really do experience the world differently than others?

An artist is different only in his ability to communicate part of his experience in ways that speak to others at a level beyond words. That doesn’t mean he experiences anything more powerfully. In fact, it may be that some people are too deeply involved in the richness of their lives to bother taking time to communicate what they’re living. For example, I think tourists at the Grand Canyon come in three basic types. First, there are those who aren’t really present because they’re too into themselves. We can ignore them. Second, there are those who are present in the moment to some extent, but feel a need to document the experience (usually with a snapshot). Finally, some are so completely present they lose track of themselves within the experience. So who really sees the canyon most intensely? The one who wants to take it in, or the one who’s willing to be taken in? Ridler may be a great artist, but he’s in the snapshot crowd. He would see the Grand Canyon as a challenge, something to be captured. He does see something almost everybody else misses, but what good does that do when he’s too prideful and cowardly to simply let it be?

The Opposite of Art required a very extensive knowledge of Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, and Christianity, and their religious texts. How did you prepare to write about each of these? Did you do your research before writing, or did it happen along the way?

Over the years I’ve read the Bible and Qur’an pretty extensively. I love Rumi’s poetry, I spent several years studying with rabbis at a Reform temple, and I practiced Zen Buddhism before I became a Christian. So I approached this story with all of those experiences in mind.

Ridler searches for the Glory in Turkey and in Israel in the face of hostile situations. With the ongoing conflict in the Middle East, why do you think it is important to continue to grow one’s faith during tumultuous times?

I wouldn’t put it quite that way—“it is important to continue to grow one’s faith during tumultuous times”—because that makes it sound like growing one’s faith is a proper goal in life. I don’t think faith is a goal; I think it’s a side effect. There’s an old Scottish saying: “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.” I believe that’s the true goal, and I believe it’s equally true at all times, regardless of one’s circumstances. Faith grows automatically when we focus on enjoying God, because that focus puts life in proper harmony. Faith grows even faster when we focus on enjoying God in the midst of adversity, because then we value the resulting harmony even more.

Ridler experiences God and finds hope in other people, while Gemma sees God in art. How do you personally find faith in everyday experiences?

I already mentioned several ways people have helped me along in my journey, but art has definitely also played a role. For example, I remember one time I was at the Kimbell Art Museum staring at a landscape by Monet, and I had the most extraordinary sense of being drawn into the scene. I was in a crowded room, and then suddenly I wasn’t. I was completely outside myself, much as Gemma is outside herself in a few scenes in The Opposite of Art. When I returned to self-awareness, the hairs on my neck and arms were standing on end. It was an utterly visceral reaction to the sense of communion I had experienced. Communion with Monet, and communion with Monet’s creation. I remember longing in that moment to enter real landscapes in that way, not just painted reproductions, and a sudden sense of joy that came immediately, because I remembered I could indeed experience the real world like that, in communion with Jesus. It was one of the most spiritually powerful moments I’ve ever experienced.

What are you working on next?

I’m trying to make sense of a crazy story called Digger in a Potter’s Field. It’s about a boy who somehow becomes lost in a world of magic and horror, and a father who refuses to believe his son has gone too far to save.

Customer Reviews

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The Opposite of Art 4.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 10 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I lost interest halfway through the book. Maybe I gave up on it too soon but I found this story to be ridiculous.
StoryLoverXOXO More than 1 year ago
This story is so beautifully written that it actually sparks your own Muse into creating something ... glorious. Athol has a way of painting with words, and the actions in the story become so visual, so alive, you find yourself lost in this story the way the characters get lost in Ridler's paintings. It envelopes all the emotions and passion an artist feels when trying to express the urgency within. It is allegorical and poetic, while at the same time telling a great suspense story!
Danzingfool More than 1 year ago
Wow! This book has already been added to my favorites list. The only question remaining is if it will leap to #1 on that list. Very artistic and spiritual. This was food for my soul. I kept having to pause just to reflect on what I read. Sheridan Ridler's artistic passion and quest for the "glory" truly spoke to me. The journey was incredible and the ending beautiful. I feel so blessed to have read it. Awesome. This book gets my highest possible recommendation.
mrsred49 More than 1 year ago
As I begin to read this book was so interesting. As I like to paint myself I could see where Ridler was going as he got so interesting into his painting that is all he wanted to do. He was interested in Suzanne but didn't want to marry anyone, as she left he ran after her but could not find her as she went down into Harlem. The taxi driver would not take him any futher when he found out Ridler had left his wallet at home. He got out and made Ridler get out right where he was. As he climbed over a fence and got on a bridge that was being worked on a car came alone and knocked him off the bridge and they though he was dead as no one could stand that fall into the cold river. But Ridler did and hurt and sore started down the river. He really didn't know where he was but came upon some young men using spray paint on a wall and he grabed some of the paint and started to paint himself. The youth could not believe the way he was painting the wall so they just stood back and let him paint, He covered the wall and it was so good. This book has a little of everything in it, Some suspence, romance and just an interesting book. I want to thank Glass Roads for sending me this book to review,
VicG More than 1 year ago
Athol Dickson in his new book, "The Opposite Of Art" published by Howard Books brings us into the life of Sheridan Ridler, a master painter. Before Athol Dickson became a master storyteller he was a master architect. It takes great creativity, imagination and "smarts" to design a building that will fit within the specified acreage and have all the required components and still be spectacularly beautiful. Now that Mr. Dickson tells stories he utilizes all the skills he developed in building buildings to build stories for us. Sheridan Ridler, master painter, was also a selfish drug-user until a hit-and-run plunged him into the Harlem River. For several minutes, Ridler's heart stopped beating. While he lay dead, he saw a beauty that for the next twenty-five years he'd wandered the globe trying to capture on canvas. His daughter, Gemma, who he did not know he had, when she heard he might still be alive, begins an active search for him. Gemma is not alone in her search. The man who thought he killed Ridler twenty-five years ago is also looking for him and this time he intends to make sure he succeeds. When Athol Dickson tells a story he builds it like an architect, start with the foundation and then each floor goes up methodically after the previous floor has been built. When we finish an Athol Dickson novel we are left with a hugely satisfying sigh because we have enjoyed ourselves immensely. But "The Opposite Of Art" also has beautiful themes such as can a person change? What is the importance of a father to a daughter? and the wonder of family. "The Opposite Of Art" is an amazingly beautiful story of how God can take our hurts and turn the bad into things that are good. I liked this book and recommend this highly! If you would like to listen to interviews with other authors and business professionals please go to Kingdom Highlights where it is available On Demand. To listen to 24 hours non-stop Christian music please visit our internet radio station Kingdom Airwaves. Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from Glass Road Public Relations. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255 : "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."
ChristysBookBlog More than 1 year ago
The Opposite of Art by Athol Dickson is a thought-provoking look at art, faith, and love. Sheridan Ridler is a great artist, and unfortunately, he knows it. He views the world as created for him and lives only for his art. When his girlfriend Suzanna walks out on him because he refuses to respect her faith, Ridler follows her into the night. During the chase, he is captivated by the image of a building in flames and begins to run to see the image better in order to capture it. But while Ridler chases Suzanna, someone else chases him, and as he crosses the bridge, his pursuer takes the opportunity to hit him with a car, knocking Ridler into the river below. When Ridler emerges from the water, he is desperate to regain the image of Glory he witnessed, and he begins a twenty-year quest chasing it around the globe. He travels from one holy place to another in hopes of capturing this Glory and making it his, but the harder he tries to grasp it, the more elusive it becomes. Finally after twenty-five years, word slips out to the world that Ridler is alive, and his daughter Gemma tries to track him down, but the man who murdered him desires for him to stay dead, so once again while Ridler chases his art, he is pursued. The novel is impossible to classify into genre; it is literary, suspenseful, and romantic. Dickson fills his novel with grotesque characters similar to Flannery O'Connor, and the story is written at times almost like a fairy tale. It feels like a story birthed in the oral tradition of storytelling with a sense of fantasy mixed with realism that makes it impossible to know whether it is true. But it feels true, because Dickson has captured such powerful and real emotions, like the tortured thoughts of a woman first meeting her father. This is a beautifully told story that will captivate readers' senses while making them consider the lesson Ridler finally learns as well.
Melanie-Ski More than 1 year ago
The Opposite of Art Anthol Dickson Howard books Artist Sheridan Ridler expresses himself in faceless art. In love with Suzanna, he is unable to verbalize how much she means to him. As a Christian she comes back to her relationship with Christ and realizes her relationship with "Danny" is unhealthy. He chases after her and ends up in Harlem. Attentive on his mission Danny doesn't not see the car driven by his own agent Talbot, intentionally hit him and throw his lifeless body into the river. Sheridan awakes after being unconscious on the bank of the river, after basically being dead, and see the Glory of God before him. He never realizes he was hit by a car, let alone by Talbot. Pronounced dead by the world, Ridler paintings skyrocket in value. Ridler having seen what he calls "Glory" seeks out on a pilgrimage to find Glory again and paint it. Over the years he ends up in a variety of countries, trying to find it within Buddhism, Islam and Judaism and Christianity. All in search of the Glory he saw that he cannot shake. Excellent descriptions of different religions and how Sheridan was unable to find the Glory in them until he found the True God. It got a little dry for me at times, not as fast paced as I like. Artists will appreciate Sheridan and his internal struggles. Beautiful Ending. I received a copy of this novel from Glass Road in exchange for an honest review
KBHyde More than 1 year ago
This book is both a literary triumph and a deeply moving statement of faith. The main character is Sheridan Ridler, the greatest painter of his age. He is also, to begin with, a total jerk. Promiscuous, substance-abusing, utterly self-centered, he paints almost exclusively nude women but never paints their faces, because the paintings are not about them--they're about him. When he gets knocked into a river early in the book, you can't help but think he deserves it. But then the miracle happens. He survives. Or, more precisely, he comes back to life after being drowned. And in the river he has had a vision--a vision of God, or in his terms, the Glory. Possessed by this vision, which fades almost immediately, Ridler disappears from his former life, leaving everyone to suppose him dead. He begins to travel the world in search of a way to recapture his vision so he can paint it adequately. Meanwhile, he can paint nothing else. I can't give you any more of the plot without spoiling too much. But I promise you will be riveted through all 384 pages, and you will find the ending as deeply satisfying as anything you've ever read. And on top of all this, Dickson writes beautifully. His characters are unique and compelling, from the initially unsympathetic hero to the extraordinary villain to the smallest bit player. His settings, which span the globe, are realized down to the smallest sensory detail. If you can't afford to travel around the world, just read this book. I bought the ebook, which I regret because I'd love to share this book with all my friends.
StephanieGraceWhitson More than 1 year ago
I had the privilege of endorsing this wonderful book, but that was weeks ago. I want to add something to my endorsements. In a sea of books I've read in recent weeks, the imagery and the ideas inspired by The Opposite of Art continue to come to mind. I'm still thinking about this book. That says something about the rare joy it gave me to read it, and I wanted Barnes and Noble customers to know.
YAnderson101 More than 1 year ago
The Opposite of Art. The title intrigues, causing us to think, to wonder. Sirens called him from his dreams. The opening line awakens our imagination. The opening paragraph lets us know on no uncertain terms that we're in the hands of an artist. Perhaps the author is a little like the protagonist, Sheridan Ridler - a genius with oils whose search for the perfection of beauty drives his life. Though only in his twenties, he's already making his mark on the art world. That is, until the winter's night he's thrown into the Harlem River by a hit-and-run driver, and his body is never found. During his near-death experience, he catches a glimpse of an indescribable beauty, and emerges from the river obsessed with the desire to recreate the Glory in whatever medium he can get his hands on. But it's too marvelous; he can't attain it. Just when he thinks he's getting it, he realizes he can't approach it. Not sure what's happened to him, nor even, at first, who he is, he wanders in search of answers. But mostly, in search of the Glory. Ridler leads the reader on a quest around the world as he seeks help from holy men, traveling from New York to the jungles of Thailand, the bazaars of Istanbul, the desert city of Tel Aviv, the Eternal City of Rome, a massive shrine in Mexico, and finally, to a traveling circus in New Mexico. Wherever his foot falls, he reaches for the Glory, to capture and enshrine it in paint; but in every place he seeks it, it's just beyond his grasp. Throughout his quarter-century pilgrimage, he's unaware that he has a daughter-and she's unaware that he, the father she never knew but has always idolized, is alive. When fresh Ridler look-alike paintings start showing up, received in the mail by various people whom the artist had formerly known and wronged, she goes on a quest of her own: to find the source of these mysterious new works. She doesn't know that the man who deliberately knocked Ridler off the bridge twenty-five years ago is pursuing him too. And they're both gaining on him. It's a magnificent tale, rich in symbolism and allegory yet a good story in its own right. If the book weren't so thick (paperbound, 384 pages long), I'd want to frame it.