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I'm back from six weeks in Ireland, to the wintry, frozen landscape that surrounds my home. Though the contrast between this snowy world and that of north Mayo--with its rugged green pastures, rich tapestry of bog plants and ever-changing sea colors--is startling, the Wisconsin countryside has its own wild beauty right now. It is stark, with only subtle color in the fields and woods, and the cold and snow are constant reminders of nature's power--all aspects of nature with which I resonate as a painter.
In this way, winter may be the perfect season for my transition back to my home studio, because although visually very different from Ireland, there is some essence of the landscape around me now that provides continuity. I am intrigued by this quote from the American minimalist painter Agnes Martin:
The artist lives by perception. So that what we make is what we feel. The making of something is not just construction. It’s all about feeling… everything, everything is about feeling…. feeling and recognition!
What an interesting remark from someone whose work is generally perceived as austere and controlled! She did indeed work from joy and an emotional response to the visual world, filtered through her perceptions. During my time in Ireland, I taught two workshops in cold wax medium, during which I encouraged everyone to get out, soak up the textures, colors and forms of the surroundings and bring something of the personal response to that experience back into the studio.This interaction with the landscape is an important aspect of my own work, but asking it of the students led me to examine the process more closely. For me, the
landscape and all that contributes to its unique character have long been powerful sources for painting ideas. While I am drawn to the visual appearance of the landscape, it's the symbolic or poetic aspects of nature that provide personal meaning. I see the ways in which our emotional, spiritual, intellectual and physical selves reflect the processes in nature of erosion, stratification,
growth and collapse. I see its rich textures and colors as metaphor for the complexities of human life and its contrasts as evocative of our own struggles and challenges.
So, what I am after in my work is a distillation or essence of the experience of being in nature as a whole. I may feel at one with nature as a living creature, but I am also set apart by the inner complexities that come with being human...feelings, memories, ideas and thoughts. While observation of the visual reality is the starting point, the work is both an inner response and an outward observation. When I am in landscapes that are rugged, textural, atmospheric and dramatic, I feel a wonderful merging of inner and outer realities...this is what feeds my work.
However, I sometimes question whether this approach makes the work overly ego-centered, too much about myself or humans in general and not enough about what simply IS, without emotional interpretation. I do see such incredible perfection in all visual aspects of nature- the spread of lichen on a rock, the tangle of bare branches against the sky, the shifting clouds. Sometimes I wonder why I even bother to paint. Nothing can approach the beauty of what has already been created in the natural world.
My answer to the dilemma is to take photographs of those perfect aspects. To me, photography comes closest to being an objective eye on what IS, apart from human interpretation (though of course, there is always interpretation, even in the choosing and cropping of images.) So, I take many photos when I am out in nature, for their own sake. Not to work from in the studio, or even to refer to as a regular practice. But they do serve another purpose, because in the moment of choosing the image, focusing on some aspect of nature and clicking, I have also made an inner connection that becomes part of the mix that finds its way onto my panels. There's no escaping--nor desire to escape --the fact that I'm moved to my core by what I see and experience in nature. For me it's about seeking an essence that resonates with my inner self, while responding to and respecting the outward appearances of landscape.
(Fissures #2, 42"x36" oil and mixed media on panel, painted while on residency at Ballinglen Arts Foundation in County Mayo, Ireland.)
ballycastle, mid-wayI'm three weeks into my time at Ballinglen Arts Foundation, and the time has unfolded in ways that encompass all of my favorite aspects of North Mayo. I've enjoyed walks on the bog and along the wild seacoast cliffs, time in my studio, and good craic--seeing friends from last year and making some new ones. My younger brother Hugh is here for a week and a half which has been a lot of fun. He has a car, which has meant some good explorations in the afternoons after I've had my painting time. Tomorrow we leave to spend the weekend in the Burren, a geologically fascinating part of County Clare that I have only had a tantalizing glimpse of driving through a few years ago. The introductory Oil&Wax workshop last week went very well--it included trips out into the land/seascape to gather ideas for abstraction, lots of painting, and good times enjoying the wonderful camaraderie of the international group of artists who came.
If there's any problem here in Irish paradise it is that there is so much I want to be doing that the days all end too soon. I can already see that I won't come away with the number of paintings that I did last year. Teaching two workshops (there is another coming up that begins the 17th) and going exploring most afternoons has cut into my painting time. But I remind myself that sometimes the most important things done on a residency are not the actual paintings but the acquiring of memories and connections to the landscape. I find myself paying attention to different aspects of the surroundings here than I did last year--looking more closely than before at the tapestry of bog plants, the configuration of rocks in the sea, and the way that the earthy colors glow in the damp, dark weather.
Another reason i will have fewer paintings to take home is that I have spent most of my time on two fairly large panels that i will send over to Gormley's Fine Art (my gallery in Dublin) at the end of my time here. They will be featured at Gormley's booth at the Art Fair in London in January. I am pleased with that project and will post the results when the paintings are done (getting close!) It all goes back to my earlier post from Ballinglen--the idea of taking things easy, letting them unfold. Although there have been relatively few times of true quiet and solitude, there have been many other kinds of experiences to savor.
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