An unarranged snapshot of a piece of my studio, May 26, 2014. Big Iceland drawings on the wall; Montmorency Falls (Quebec) print at bottom left, two New Zealand acrylic paintings on the drawing table, an oil of Lake Willoughby (Vermont) on the top of the cabinet at right.
When I'm working on a piece of artwork I'm not consciously thinking about much except whatever's going on between my eyes, my hands, the particular medium, and my emotions. Subconsciously, though, I'm entering deeply into the subject, looking at it as if I've never seen it before - which, to be honest, it feels like I haven't, such is the intensity of that concentration. Over the past two weeks, as I've worked on the Ruahines paintings -- the most focussed period of attention to art that I've had since doing the Iceland drawings -- I've stepped back after a long session and looked around at the studio. There are some still lives here, and some portraits, but the overarching theme is landscape. And it's made me think about why I do this: why I keep returning to the landscape as a primary subject.
Artists paint what they love. I guess that's the simple answer. Still, it seems like there must be clues to a deeper dialogue going on. (I like cats, but I don't spend my life painting them!) My friend and fellow artist Natalie d'Arbeloff spoke once about my "deep feeling for the landscape," and although no one had ever put it that way before, I knew she had touched on an essential fact. The land speaks to me, and resonates within me, not just when I first encounter it, but for days and even years afterward: the California coast, the pastoral hills and dales of England, the raw elemental quality of Iceland, the flat plains of Quebec and the St. Lawrence estuary in the Charlevoix, the rocky Maine coast, the agricultural hills of central New York where I grew up -- and so many other places. I love the vibrancy of cities, but I'm not drawn to paint them. There's something about the wildness and solitude of open nature that speaks directly to my spirit, and I think I'm always trying to capture that feeling of being a single eye surrounded by something powerful that quiets me, amazes me, moves me, and somehow mirrors me.
I'd like to say "powerful and eternal," because there has always been that element in the landscape - that it was here before us and will continue after us, changing perhaps but continuous in a way that human beings are not. However, the word brings up another reason to paint, which is to try to say, "Look. Look at the beauty and preciousness of this earth." I am not of the school that believes people will ever change their behavior by being bludgeoned, but I do think people need to be made aware of what's in front of their eyes, and that a relationship with it is not only possible, but somethat that is meant to be. Not only is the natural world endangered, but so are we, by our increasingly fragmentary, individualistic, self-centered lifestyle, driven by consumerism, technology and speed. Most people are more afraid of the natural world than drawn to it; fewer and fewer are at home in solitude, or able to be in natural places without being somehow "entertained" or tethered to their cellphone lifelines, or the screens on which they capture their experiences. It's no wonder we are at a point of environmental no-return.
I am horribly upset about the Artic glaciers and Antarctic ice sheets, but nearly powerless against the economic forces and political-corporate alliances that drive climate change; we do what we can politically and individually but obviously even collective efforts by citizens are not enough. Some of that feeling definitely goes into my art: not as rage, but as witness to what has moved me and mattered to me all my life.
Bean Fields, Paris Hill, NY. 14" x 10", oil on canvas. 1990.
And there is another kind of witness, that of recorder -- in a different way from photography. I did the painting above a long time ago: it's a view across the fields of a very small hilltop town in central New York that I've always loved. I remember standing there that day - the way the heart-shaped bean leaves ruffled in the wind, the call of hawks overhead, the smell of the mown hay. This view no longer exists; the NYS Department of Transportation saw fit to build a highway that bisects this field and cuts to the left of the hill in the distance; the reason I'm sure was that a wide road would be easier and faster for truck traffic and snowplows - this is a place notorious for blowing and drifting lake-effect snow in the winter -- thus avoiding the little town center with its right-angle turn. It's not a change on a big level, and perhaps only a few of us care, but to me it's an example of so much that's wrong with modern society. Painting the vanishing or endangered landscape carries a different kind of weight from photography; it seems less overtly political but perhaps it can speak just as powerfully.
We're shaped by experience, by people, and by memory, as well as by our own particular talents and passions. This past week I've been thinking a lot about my mother, on the anniversary of her death, and how she loved the landscape too. She was a ceramic artist and painter who didn't do much artwork after her twenties, but she continued to see with the same eyes, and to help me see. I owe a great deal of my emotional response to the land to her way of relating to it, as well as her encouragement to me in my own art. I don't paint for her, but she's always there: quietly joyful and fiercely protective of art, landscape, nature, and whoever and whatever she loved.