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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



Tree grammar

February 23, 2019

A segue into tree grammar (I promise it’s connected):

“Much as human artists have to know about the things they are depicting, so each of Cohen’s [computer] programs needs an internal model of its subject matter [referring to computer-generated drawings of acrobatic figures  that artist Harold Cohen created—on the left]. This model is not a physical object, like the articulated wooden dolls found in artists’ studios, but a generative system [my emphasis]: what one might call a “body grammar.” It is a set of abstract rules that specify, for instance, not only the anatomy of the human body (two arms, two legs), but also how the various body parts appear from various points of view.”

Margaret Boden, “What Is Creativity?”

Okay, that’s a lot of verbiage…but that concept sparked a question for me—how do artists create and rely upon “generative spaces” as a source library? Each art work I create stems from some stimulus, some base of information–a collection of ideas and images that I can develop as a piece of art. And there are some implied rules that direct my efforts.

Take trees: I’m thinking about trees in this space of time because of my focus for the 100DayProject, Solstice to Equinox, and I wondered what might be the characteristics of a tree generative space and how “body grammar” might translate to “tree grammar,” supposing of course that trees do have a language and a model that I can identify. Trees bring to mind a lot of descriptive words: boundary, linear, solidarity, comfort, elusive, community, indifferent, etc.

All of these words come into play when I create a tree piece. What I do know is that I get a great deal of pleasure and satisfaction from my endless stick drawings of trees. It’s like repeating a code that links me directly to tree-ness. That’s got to be a kind of tree grammar, no?

A perfect ending from “The Life of Trees” by Dorianne Laux:

A quick little tree sketch from memory

“I want to sleep
and dream the life of trees, beings
from the muted world who care `
nothing for Money, Politics, Power,
Will or Right, who want little from the night
but a few dead stars going dim, a white owl
lifting from their limbs, who want only
to sink their roots into the wet ground   
and terrify the worms or shake
their bleary heads like fashion models
or old hippies. If trees could speak,
they wouldn’t, only hum some low
green note, roll their pine cones
down the empty streets and blame it,
with a shrug, on the cold wind.”

My “aha” moment

February 15, 2019

a sketch of trees in the Sandia Mountains

I’m coming back from being sick with the flu for a couple of weeks. Not a fun time, but in the midst of it I had a realization that I was looking at a crossover between making art and observing trees in my 100-day project. And that both are part of a bigger process—the unlearning that connects life experiences and allows new perceptions.

I just finished a book by Kyna Leski: The Storm of Creativity. One of the things she observed in her study of creativity is how important it is to unlearn what we know about something so that we can formulate a new problem statement. I love that idea—a problem statement! That means finding a new way to look at something that interests us or draws our attention. So, when I started the 100-day project, Solstice to Equinox, I immediately gathered details about my lovely trees. Fascinating. I wanted to focus on the period between the winter solstice and the spring equinox and see how that was reflected in the desert trees near me.

Now, however, I’m seeing that my focus on the trees is spilling over into my artmaking process and into how I see the rest of the natural and unnatural world. Hmmm. Unlearning means losing the constraints of how we normally look at everything…all the way from trees to a blank canvas. I think it means resting from interpretation and allowing different influences to surface. Let those muddle around together for awhile and you just might get a different way to do things. Something more creative perhaps by paying attention in a different way.

More little tree panels:

Trees, tangled; Trees, inviting; and Trees, perfectly straight

each cradled panel is 6×6 and coated with epoxy resin

The time in between

February 2, 2019

We’re right at the halfway mark between winter solstice and spring equinox in the 100-Day Project—the perfect vantage point for looking back and looking ahead. Trees are turning towards spring, even though we can’t yet see evidence of that. More than any other time of year, this is a time of contemplation and preparation, and maybe even some rest. Not so much DOING going on.

I’ve been focusing on trees and how they express this change of seasons, but there is another aspect to the period of time between the autumn solstice and the spring equinox, and a wealth of information about celebrating it.

Jon Alswinn and Jenny Belikov say this:

The sun—the source of life and light to every living physical thing—is a unifying force, a blazing fire, and the giver and destroyer of life….a true celebration of the cosmic meaning of the solstices and equinoxes is not mere worship or an enactment of old rituals lacking life; rather, it commemorates the divine plan of life, displayed in the heavens so that it can be enacted in our own lives on earth. It recognizes the divine and creative powers latent in the cosmos, nature and within the individual, waiting to be kindled.

I’ve always felt trees in particular had something special going on, but expanding that to include “the divine and creative powers latent in the cosmos, nature…waiting to be kindled”? Hmm. I’ve always been a little uncomfortable with the idea of nature rituals. They weren’t part of my Iowa farm mentality growing up. But if I can include my trees in that mystical expression…well, that works for me.

Back to my focus—I am still wrapped up with trees. Here are three little panels that I just finished:

Trees, waiting; Trees, morning light; and Trees, evening light

each cradled panel is 6×6 and coated with epoxy resin

An education in tree language

January 26, 2019

“Deep Roots,” powdered graphite and charcoal on paper, 6.5×6.5

When I signed up for the Solstice to Equinox 100-day Project, I thought of trees and what goes on with them in winter. I have since been knee-deep in tree books: Wild Foresting, Forest Bathing, The Hidden Life of Trees, and many more. So much I didn’t know! But the truth is that knowing more about trees has elevated them to the level of some kind of mythical portal for me.

It’s not that I want to interpret tree-ness so literally in my painting and drawing, but that I want to somehow capture how they make me feel. A tough goal. They are mysterious creatures.

From Alan Drengson and Duncan Taylor in Wild Foresting: Practicing Nature’s Wisdom:

It is through contact with the natural world that we connect with other beings, the plants and animals with whom we share our lives on a daily basis. They are in our dreams, they are our inner animals and plants that guide and tell us where we are, who we are, how to be whole and how to know ourselves in authentic ways.

untitled, acrylic on canvas, 36×12

My artist buddy, P. K. Williams, and I are doing a collaborative show of our work in February. One of our focal points has been trees. We call our exhibition One + One = One—Different at the surface, but connected at the roots. One of our ideas was to create paintings entirely separately and then bring  them together to pair them up. For that part of the exhibition, we worked on canvases that are 36×12. Here’s one of my “halves”:

We just finished matching up paintings today. In this portion of our collaboration we have six pairs. We had a great time finding what goes with what! Our trees are prominent as a theme—a shared interest for us. And, for me, a perfect fit with my 100-day project. This “quiet” time of trees in winter is an opportunity to observe them and think about them without the excitement of spring. And to make some paintings about that. That stillness.

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