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the influence of placeA few days ago I asked my Facebook friends to suggest topics for me to blog about, and I had enough responses to feed my thoughts here for quite some time. Suggestions ranged over many topics, but quite a few focused on the various places where I've traveled, taught and lived, and how the influence of these locations comes through. Artist Jeff Erickson hit exactly on a current question of mine:
With all of the travelling you have done recently, and painting at both homes, while soaking in the visual landscapes, how do you approach working on a body of work influenced by only one place. You must have visual information overload right now!!
I need to put this question aside for a while,because I'm still working it out. For now I will just say that these days, I'm interested in the unifying and universal aspects of the places I love, rather than seeing my time in them as distinctly different experiences. But I do have general thoughts about the influence of place on my work, ideas that have evolved over many years of artist residencies and other travel to the kind of rugged, wild landscapes that I most respond to.
A black sand beach, New Zealand
Cathy Byrne asked how I translate visual inspiration to my work. For me the visual is only one source--my process also involves emotion, thought, and memory. Looking back, I can see that over time, I've gone from a fairly literal and conscious depiction of landscape to working fluidly with what stays with me as an essence--a sort of distilling process. I also work in response to my painting materials and methods so I'm not focused on the end result but more on seeing what evolves.
Black Beach #1, 10"x10" 2017, oil/cold wax and pigments on panel
Back in 2008, as the result of a 3-week residency in Spain, I realized that tapping into intuition, emotion and memory were the keys to letting an experience come through me and into my work. I began to let go of the idea that I "should" depict certain characteristic or scenic aspects of a place, and to allow myself to be caught up in anything that spoke to me. There are usually just a few moments in a place that truly feed my ongoing work, and they may be quite ordinary on the surface. I don't know which memories will be significant until I am gone--it's kind of a mysterious process, but it's one that I trust to provide an essence of the experience as a whole. Of course, I also come away with lots of memories that surround and support the core few, and bring variation and depth to the work. But the core memories tap into something deeper--a sense of longing or an emotional connection to a place. Nancy Natale wondered what I take to my residencies in Ireland and whether I make small pieces that I use as the basis for larger ones when I get home.
small work on paper from residency in Ballycastle, Ireland, ink and gouache
I'm lucky at Ballinglen, because the staff there lets me store some supplies there from year to year, so I always have plenty to work with. But in other situations, I do struggle and have never been good at packing lightly. Over time, I'm gradually learning that once I'm away from home, I work with what I have and rarely miss what I've left behind. Yes, scale is generally small--limited to what will fir into my suitcase. As for the role of this smaller work, it is most importantly an aspect of exploring a place, and not necessarily a step leading to larger work. When I'm on a residency, I consider being out in the landscape as important as the time in my studio. So that means going out to walk alone, explore, take photos (which I use as a way of focusing, not as literal reference), draw, or just to sit quietly someplace. At times I feel a very strong connection to what is around me. There is a sense of play to it all..,my inner 10-year old is very happy to be out wandering around, climbing over gates, picking up stones, looking at clouds.
In the residency studio I often do some quick, small works on paper, using various media after returning from a walk. I feel a similar sense of play as I do when I'm out exploring. I also spend plenty of time on developed work, usually on paper or multimedia artboard. Although the more developed work has more layers and detail, I try to maintain the same open and intuitive attitude as I do with quicker work. My studio time on a residency is when I process and think, absorb my surroundings like a sponge, and then squeeze a good deal of it back out on paper or panel.
n A Quiet Light, each 24x20", painted at Ballinglen Arts Foundation, Ballycastle, CO Mayo, Ireland 2017
When I come home again, I don't usually reference the work I've done while away, or my photos, or anything else. I just aim for a clear mind and see what the residual effects of my experiences have to tell me. But of course, everything I've done is part of the process as a whole, and certain aspects of the smaller works definitely come through. Also, a few times, I have deliberately worked on a large scale based on ideas that came out in some pivotal smaller work.
Fissures #3, 48x36", painted with memories of Irish stones..and stones everywhere
And finally, a question from Kai Harper Leah: "What is it like painting in NM vs. the other places you have been teaching lately?" Since I am now living half of each year in New Mexico, I can see that my process is a bit different. I'm surrounded by the landscape for long stretches, rather than accessing it through memory. That distillation process is not much in play. I noticed that this spring I was more involved with memories of New Zealand, where I spent the month of February, than with what I was seeing around me. I wonder if in the end, the glorious NM landscape-- as much as I love it-- will have less impact than those places I visit more briefly. On the other hand, the more time I spend there, the more nuances of color, texture and shape I see. Maybe in the end the influence of New Mexico will be a subtle one. Or maybe it will come through more strongly during my summers in Wisconsin. An open question, so far!
Near Dixon, NM
Thanks again to my Facebook friends for these thought-provoking questions and comments. I will be taking on a few others in future posts, and welcome the thoughts of other readers, as well.