A year ago today I was in residence at Ballinglen Arts Foundation in Ballycastle, Ireland, trying to take in the news about the spread of Covid 19. My workshop there, scheduled for the end of March, involved an international group of students and I needed to make a decision about canceling. At the time, it was hard to know what to do. Advice ranged from going ahead and teaching those who could still make it, to packing everything up and booking the first flight I could. A doctor friend at home advised me to wait in Ireland until the threat passed rather than risk air travel. He figured it might be a couple of weeks until things were safe.
I took a long walk in the bog to sort things out.
March 13, 2020, Ballycastle, Ireland
Today I think back to those panicked but far more innocent days with astonishment. Of course, I did leave Ireland rather than wait it out. I flew back to New Mexico on St. Patrick's Day, feeling the urgent need to get home. And home is where I have been, along with most everyone else on the planet.
Many of us are taking this week to look back at the unfolding events a year ago, and to reflect on how we have struggled, but also gained in personal ways. As I have mentioned in previous posts, I've had some sad and anxious days. But the freedom I felt in the studio with no deadlines or demands was a positive effect of the pandemic. It was my refuge, and overall I was productive, experimental, and focused when I was there.
As I take stock of my work from 2020 and early 2021, I see a range of directions, with some cross-over of ideas. At the same time, I worked in so many ways that connections are mostly unclear. I do assume intuition is at work, and that in time, I'll understand the work from this year in a more cohesive way.
But within the variety of my output, there are two main bodies of work I can identify: works on paper and paintings done with oil and cold wax. The oil paintings have been mostly explorations of bright, saturate color without distinct large shapes or edges, but some have evolved in an earthier or very pale palette, and a few do have definite shapes.
These are a couple of recent ones in the colorful category.
In painting, I'm surrounded day after day with color, shape, and texture, building up the surface. It is a slow, tactile evolution, an immersion into feeling and memory, and the joy of the paint's materiality.
The works on paper are a very different experience. Almost all are done quickly, in one setting, and range from small images in my daily sketchbook to images on larger sheets of around 22x30 inches. Media have included charcoal, ink, gouache, acrylic, pencil, and pigment stick. I love exploring how the different materials interact. Many of these pieces share a compositional similarity-- a dominant cliff-like shape--and marks and small shapes appear in almost all.
My approach with these is impulsive, direct, simple, sometimes playful. Certain shapes and types of lines keep appearing, and it pleases me to find ways to bring these to the paintings. In the recent painting below the small ovals come directly from my sketchbooks and works on paper, and symbolize footsteps, or stones in the path. I am gratified by this cross-over of ideas, and I want more of this to happen.
Although these two bodies of work, on panel and paper, are very different at first glance, I do see other connections. Each is an interpretation of landscape--the experience of walking almost daily in the arroyos and mesas around my New Mexico home. This area of New Mexico is vast, rugged and rocky, with volcanic boulders, petroglyphs, dead trees, twisted roots, and cacti. The climate is arid and at times the orange and gold colors of the mesas and cliffs seem unreal. I feel this dreamlike atmosphere in all the work, along with the influences of color and line.
But other than that, pointing to specific similarities and connections eludes me. I wonder if the overall variety in this work comes from the uncertainties of 2020. In day to day life, inside and outside the studio, my normally steady, basically optimistic outlook often broke. The shifting realities of the times demanded flexibility and balance and when that failed my emotions often took over. To cope, some days I gravitated to self-reflection, and retreat in the studio, and on others to physical activity--hiking, wandering, and encounterng the rough edges of nature. Some days I wanted only solitude, others I craved social life. These up and down days are all mixed into the work, and in the end, maybe is all that needs to be said. Like many artists, I suspect I will look back at the work from 2020 as being as perplexing, challenging, and unexpected as the year itself.
"How did 2020 impact your work?" Recently I asked listeners of The Messy Studio (the podcast I produce with my son) to comment on this question, and I received some very heartfelt and introspective replies. Artists who had felt paralyzed and blocked shared their feelings, as did others who found new directions and insights in their work, and who appreciated the extra studio time that opened up.
All of the replies were efforts to focus on answering this complex question in a few sentences. But in fact most of us could talk for hours about the changes we've experienced and the range of emotions associated with them. As I read through what people wrote, I realized that I could relate to almost everything they said, applied to different stages of my own journey through 2020. My own experience in the studio has been positive overall, but like so many others I've also struggled with the hard emotional impact of this year.
When the pandemic descended in mid-March, I left my artist residency in Ireland abruptly and flew home in a bit of a daze. It was a shattering and scary time, but a new studio was waiting for me in New Mexico with only a few finishing touches still needed to be fully functioning. Like many of the artists who replied to my online question, I appreciated the extra studio time of quarantine, and was especially grateful to have this beautiful, light-filled space which made sheltering in place seem less like a hardship and more like an opportunity.
|in the new studio|
With galleries going into lockdown and nothing much on my calendar, I started work in the new studio feeling unencumbered, free and experimental. Along with painting, I did lots of work on paper with drawing materials and water-based paint. Mark-making and drawing--those very direct expressions of the moment--took on more meaning for me, and I began making a sketchbook drawing as a spontaneous record each day. I also experimented with figurative work and painting on Venetian plaster. In the spirit of expansion, my painting also changed. Although land forms and local color still play a part, I have become interested in expressing a more inner landscape with intense color and less referential imagery. I've continued in all these directions and there are a few more waiting. I don't think I've ever had as many different things going at once, but each has a role in processing these crazy times.
Some recent paintings:
|Red Earth 30"x24" oil/cold wax on panel|
|Chroma #5, 36"x36" oil/cold wax on panel|
The biggest change in my lifestyle has been no travel; three international trips had to be canceled and we did not go back as usual to spend summer in Wisconsin. But the time to really focus on my surroundings here seemed fortunate. I started walking almost every day on trails within about a twenty mile radius, but mostly close to my house. Being out on foot grew my appreciation of the stark beauty of the arroyos, canyons, and mesas along with their plant and animal life, history, and geography All of this, along with the long stretch of uninterrupted studio time, has fed my work.
A scene this October along my road:
Another big change has been the launch of Cold Wax Academy with Jerry McLaughlin, with whom I've been collaborating as Squeegee Press since 2015. Our new format includes a carefully designed program of online instruction and has been very well received. Now that I've made it through the initial tech challenges, I'm really enjoying the challenges and rewards of this very different way of teaching. We have lots of excited and engaged students and are fired up to start a new quarter of lessons this week.
So for the most part, it has been a good year for me in the studio and with my business. But times of doubt and loss of motivation and direction have also hit hard. Like many artists, I wrestled with existential questions of why to make art in such catastrophic times. And also like many, ultimately I see that it's part of being human-- important as a basically optimistic and trusting process. Or maybe I've just realized there is nothing else I do that means as much to me, and I am not about to give it up.
I also went through some difficult periods when paintings went nowhere, when my mind was confused and anxious. After decades of painting, I know and accept that these downtimes happen, but this year they felt more dire. But just as always, they eventually revealed themselves as progress in disguise, incubation periods when ideas were evolving beneath the surface.
My most recent painting, after a lull:
|The Beauty of Arid Places 68"x40" oil/cold wax on panel (diptych)|
Although the end of the year is the traditional time to take stock, we are still in the midst of the pandemic and other distressing news. While we can all find ups and downs in the past year, we really can't see the big picture of how 2020 impacted us until we can truly look back on it.
In my journal this summer I wrote: We're affected in ways we can't really know or describe when we're in the midst of it. How am I shaped by this time of staying in place, in this particular landscape, in this emotional atmosphere of fear and hope?
Hope seems to be the word for 2021. All my best to all of you as we step into the new year, and may we all find clarity and purpose in our work.
This afternoon I took a walk among the cottonwood trees along an arroyo here in Northern New Mexico. This is the first time I've been here at the right time of year to experience their glorious golden luminosity.
|Figure study, pencil and clear gesso on mineral paper|
|oil/cold wax and pigment stick on Venetian plaster, 16x16"|
|Work in progress, 23x26" oil/cold wax on panel|
|Rocky cliff near my New Mexico home|
|Cholla cactus in bloom in the arroyo|
|Untitled, 16"x16", oil/cold wax on panel.|
|Untitled, about 12"x18", gouache, ink on paper|
|near my house in New Mexico|
|from the Arroyo series, 16"x12" oil/cold wax on panel|
|approx. 8x10" pigment stick, powdered pigment and cold wax on paper|
|Goodbye to Ireland, 14"x11" oil/cold wax on panel|
|Untitled, 20"x16" cold wax/oil on panel|