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Melding geology and art

December 10, 2019

New Mexico desert

If you live in a “wild” area like I do, you can easily tune in to the terrain that surrounds you. I am close to the city but am out in the foothills and arroyos of the desert mountains, mountains a bit more distant. There’s a word that fits here: earthfast. It means “firm or planted in the earth, and difficult to remove.” Basically, fastened to the earth.  My mapping the strata series is about looking for some way to illustrate that sense.

There is the starting place of geological stratification—the visual evidence in erosion, arroyos, collected layers of rocks.  But being able to catalog that and classify what’s happening into timelines, process, residue doesn’t correlate to an emotion.  A gut feeling. A response. What do those views of natural formations trigger? Immensity? Scale? Relationship? It’s as if there is a personality, an intelligence, encompassed in the rocks and dirt…much like with trees in the forest. That’s the feeling I’m after.

Here are some quickie sketches playing around with a simplified view of strata:

Imagining some possibilities for strata paintings in my sketchbook (ink)

Starting with an idea…

December 5, 2019

I started the Mapping the Strata series a couple of years ago when I wanted something portable to work on while painting with a Wednesday painting group. I started small with oil pastels and a sketchbook, thinking I could play around with color and different ideas that I might follow up on when I got back to my studio—much more manageable than hauling paint and canvas.

Several ideas were percolating but I was drawn to the idea of geological formations, not to reproduce them visually, but to play with the ways layers of rocks might present themselves. Different personalities, different thicknesses, different weights. A little bit of squishing, a few glimpses of intrusions. Lots of different colors.

The little sketches (roughly 4×5 inches) were just right for playing with the idea. Oil pastels are a forgiving medium and have a dense finish when smeared or blended. They are similar to painting, but more easily combined and mushed around. The colors are rich and the surface is luscious. Perfect for exploring!

First 4 sketches:

I have a solo show coming up in March of 2020 titled Earthbound: Mapping the Strata at the Albuquerque Open Space Visitors Center Gallery, highlighting the paintings that came out of these early sketches. I want to dig around in the idea a  little deeper…share some notes and quickie drawings  and see what I discover for the next few months before the show goes up.


August 26, 2019

Color pencil sketches, juxtaposed


I love quotations. They seem to capture a concept, a moment in time and invite us to stop there and think about what’s being said. More importantly, to stop and see how that statement can be useful to us. I just found one that sums up my thinking about artmaking, especially abstract art, although it’s a specific comment about collage:

“In the field of art, we find [reference]…to a collage…as being distinguished by a ‘marvelous capacity to grasp two mutually distant realities without going beyond the field of our experience and to draw a spark from the juxtaposition.'”

from “The Associative Basis of the Creative Process,” by Sarnoff  Mednick


That’s an elegant way of saying that collage creates a context for disparate bits of visual information, hopefully interesting. It means that the artist created a unique combination that raised a question, suggested a different way of looking at something, or maybe helped someone recall a memory. It’s not just about collage, but can apply to all artmaking—the act of creating a striking relationship.

I think the association, the spark, can happen in a couple of different ways. Hopefully it’s happening for the artist in creating a piece, and then happening again for someone looking at the finished work. When I’m painting and I find/create an area on the canvas that reminds me of something—a reference to writing, a symbol, a combination of colors, weird shapes next to each other that suggest something else—I have that “spark.” It’s what gives me the pleasure in painting. And I find the same thing when I look at others’ paintings—I make personal associations of what I am seeing.

One of my paintings that started with a wash and ended up in space:

Adrift and unanchored; acrylic on cradled panel; 24x24x1.6

Expiration date?

July 15, 2019

I was thinking about expiration dates and a question popped into my mind—when do ideas expire? Are some ideas always cogent? And even more important, when do images expire? Often art exhibitions/competitions ask that submissions be recent—within the last two years. As if older work has fallen off the edge of meaningful or relevant.

How does time affect ideas and images? Can you be refreshed by a thought about art from 141 years ago? I’m using a specific number because I have a little book, Amiel’s Journal, and here is an entry from November 7, 1878:

A work of art ought to set the poetical faculty in us to work, it ought to stir us to imagine, to complete our perception of a thing. And we can only do this when the artist leads the way….Art lives by appearances, but these appearances are spiritual visions, fixed dreams.

I think the takeaway here is that art is not constrained by calendar time. And we should not be either.

I think we exist in a continuum and we can tap any part of that for meaning. We still evolve, but we remain connected to everything happening previously. As I look at my paintings that span over 40 years, I see a focus on how paint looks on a surface and the story it begins to tell as it is completed. I’m always surprised.

… an argument for the continuum by artist George Stoll:

From the beginning some of us have been artists, and my intention is to contribute to this ongoing and ancient conversation [emphasis mine].

Living and Sustaining a Creative Life, Sharon Louden, ed.

The conversation is not only between artists, but within an individual artist’s work. Here’s a bit of my continuum—paintings from different periods of time, starting with one of my very first, 42 years ago:

untitled, acrylic (1977)  |   Amorphos, diptych, acrylic (2005)   |   Little strata 8, acrylic (2018)

The underpinnings of artmaking

July 8, 2019
Layout sketch for a painting in the Mapping the strata series

Working sketch for large (40 x 90) triptych painting in the Mapping the strata series

I want to repurpose my college geology class. When I took the class a long time ago, I fell in love with the book that was used—the type font that the publisher used, the illustrations (a lot of pastel colors) that delineated geological processes, the description (magic!) of plate tectonics. I still remember the feeling. It amazed me that something so enormous—the earth—could be categorized and catalogued.

So, I’ve been thinking about my series Mapping the strata. I have 29 paintings to date, some bigger, some smaller.  I started the series because I like the layering of rocks and soil I see in the arroyos  where I walk in the morning. “College-geology-feeling” came right back as soon as I got out there in the open space near my house.

These are four of the smaller pieces in the Mapping the strata series:

acrylic on cradled panels, each 8 x 8

The rocks here are wildly diverse; some seem to have come from stream beds, being rounded and smooth; some seem to reflect glacial deposits, with a mix of sandstone, igneous, and metamorphic bits that were gathered up together (I’m imagining here…I don’t really know); and, some seem totally otherworldly and magical—warm caramel colors with satiny surfaces that pop up out of the sandy arroyo. It’s not that I want to represent the scientific and documented geology of the area in my painting series, but rather that I want an awareness of geology to provide a foundation for my artistic meandering.

I think of my drawings and paintings in this series as creating a common denominator, a bridge, between scientific study and artistic interpretation, heavy on the interpretation side.

Witness trees

April 28, 2019

“Garden and lanterns”
tiny drawing (6×2.5) graphite on paper

I was specifically focused for awhile on trees as part of the 100-Day Project—Solstice to Equinox, which ended in March on the spring equinox. Then I stumbled on another project that completely captivated me: the Witness Tree Project. What, I wondered, is this about?

From their website:

Since 2009, Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) and the National Park Service (NPS) have worked to develop a collaborative model for teaching and learning centered on witness trees, long-standing trees that were present for key moments in American history. The Witness Tree Project arranges for fallen witness trees to be shipped from NPS sites to RISD, where, in a joint history seminar and furniture studio, students interpret the history of a given tree’s site and make relevant objects from the tree’s wood.

I’ll keep working with trees—painting and drawing my idea of them, spending my time in and amongst them—but this is an amazing, and new to me, way to recognize a tree’s way of anchoring us in time. Imagine the strength of a whole forest witnessing!

I just finished two small paintings of trees (on the right). I’m sure they are witness trees in their storybook land.



Olmsted elm in health

Side note.  Here’s a witness tree story—the 200 yr. old Olmsted elm, growing next to the office of Frederick Law Olmsted (often called the father of American landscape architecture, d. 1903) eventually succumbed to Dutch Elm disease and was cut down on my birthday in 2011. The area is now a national park. The tree went to RISD.

The middle of the funnel

April 23, 2019

The spring equinox has come and gone…and now we’re headed for the summer solstice. The longest day of the year. Cycling through the seasons begins to look something like the center of the storm—the middle of the funnel for quiet observation—and a hint that there is no end, that everything keeps folding back in on itself. A continuum. (See my “My aha moment” for more about The Storm of Creativity by Kyna Leski.)

When I think of this continuum in making art, I think of  the flat planes of a picture that are juxtaposed; that they are simply one front, one surface, of a deeper space—and behind that cross-section of spaces, whole worlds are gliding, coalescing, dividing, redefining. At least that’s how I imagine it. So painting a 2D surface means defining the front edge of what’s happening, leaving opportunity to picture a whole experience happening right behind that plane. There are possibilities and potential stories right below the visible surface.

And when I’m thinking about trees, I’m capturing the “front”…but imagining the deeper experience. Walking through a forest, being surrounded by trees, feeling the quiet (or sometimes how the wind is moving branches, leaves, even the trunks). I think, for me, trees are a magical gateway. How cool is it that I can have access to that right outside my door? When I draw or paint, I can tap into that feeling.

small oil pastels from my sketchbook…about trees



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