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.