How We Know the World Is Round

My father had a friend who was heard to say that the way he knew the world is round was that every so-and-so who ever left Kentucky came back. And I’m about to prove that theory by returning to Louisville next month for an exhibition at Moremen Gallery.

I’ve written before about my fascination with low watery places. Bogs, bottomlands, and marshes are magical. I come by that fascination honestly through my Strode ancestors, Strode being a name that signifies a low watery place. So when I’ve returned to Kentucky in the past, I’ve explored the mysteries of bottomlands. This one in Shelby County, Kentucky, with its rusting cattle gate, shows evidence of recent historical use. The reflections, the colors of the earth along the creek margins, the overhang of the trees, each is also a record of seasonal changes.

Shelby County Bottomland, Oil on Linen, 22 x 36 Inches

Shelby County Bottomland, Oil on Linen, 22 x 36 Inches

Bottomlands, often flooded in the Spring, are naturally fertile grounds. The bottomland on my grandfather’s tobacco farm in Mason County, Kentucky, on the Ohio River, was such a place. This painting is of Strode’s Run, the small creek that flows through the farm on its way to the Licking River and then the muddy Ohio.

Bottomland, Oil on Linen, 16 x 20 Inches

Bottomland, Oil on Linen, 16 x 20 Inches

Pulling back for a longer view of the family farm, I remember my mother's nostalgia for the Ohio River. After she married and moved to Lexington, she continued to describe herself affectionately as a” river rat.” And so I am honored to have been invited to exhibit my work as part of AFLOAT: An Ohio River Way of Life.  a city-wide celebration of life along the Ohio. The exhibition, Landscapes, Vessels and Jars, takes place from June 7 - July 6, at Moremen Gallery in Louisville.

Farm, Oil on Linen, 20 x 48 Inches

Farm, Oil on Linen, 20 x 48 Inches

Nature's Low Watery Places

The month of May finds me as much in the garden as in the studio, and one of the absolute pleasures of being in two places at once has been returning to work on a painting that I made in 1993. It's sparked a conversation entirely in my head, about low watery places and my need to paint them. Even the names - bottomland and bog - are mysterious. They belong to Nature as personified in the ancient Greek concept of Physis. Here is how Philostratus the Younger, a Greek philosopher and teacher who lived in the 3rd century A.D., described a painting he'd seen. He wrote "No doubt you see the grove around the spring, the work of wise Nature (Physis), I believe; for Nature is sufficient for all she desires, and has no need of art; indeed it is she who is the origin of arts themselves."

For Nature is sufficient for all she desires, and has no need of art . . . . I stand before a canvas humbled by this thought, but ready to give form to what I've seen. Because it's a fact that a painting transmits information, and I paint to share my experience with you. A landscape painting about our lived experience, brings order to the raw materials of sight, sound, taste, touch and smell. I sense, therefore I paint.

The painting I've been working on with such pleasure is Bog Portrait. It was inspired by my frequent hikes in Washington County back when I was just getting to know Maine. Though the face of the painting was finished long ago, I've now extended the image around the edges for a more complete immersion in the bog. My memories of the black bog water, the accumulations of iron in the water. and the intense greens of foliage at the margins, found their way into the painting, and I'm pretty pleased that even though the oil paints I mix now are different from the ones I used in 1993, I was able to match the color and carry the brush marks around the edges, thus completing the painting and the experience it mirrors.

Bog Portrait, Oil on Canvas, 50 x 40 Inches, 1993. Private Collection.

Bog Portrait, Oil on Canvas, 50 x 40 Inches, 1993. Private Collection.

A recent photo of my wetland here in Lincolnville, was not the source for, but reflects the painting above, and that, in turn, records my first experience walking the boardwalk across a bog at Quoddy Head State Park. Seeing the painting flat on the sawhorses as I painted the edges, makes it pretty clear that here is a bog painting - and that stepping on it would damage it, just as stepping onto a peat bog will damage the layers of sphagnum moss that have taken centuries to build.

Wetland Reeds Lane.jpg
BogPortraitEdge2.JPG

Conversations Across Time: Early Work

Seeing chives greening up and buds getting ready to leaf out has me thinking about past springs, when I first came to Maine, and that spring after I moved from Belfast to Lincolnville. Time -- as they say -- marches on, and since it's been more than 30 years that I first walked Lincolnville Beach and really doubled down on painting, I've decided to devote this newsletter to a look at where I was back then, as well as what I think about now when I start a new painting.

Owls Head 5, photo and paper collage on mat board, 8 x 10 inches

Owls Head 5, photo and paper collage on mat board, 8 x 10 inches

In my first years in Maine, I did a lot of hiking and a lot of photographing. According to the maxim "Go where you're thrown and dig in deep," I wanted to learn as much as I could about this new landscape to which I seemed to be arriving home. By 1997, I was living here year-round and had enough installations and photographs accumulated that I could combine bits of each in collages that said something about a particular place and time.

Text has always played a major role in my installations. In those early days, I was fascinated by the calligraphy of rock formations. I filled long rolls of paper with paint marks and texts from my hiking journals. The papers I used in the collage above came from an installation of drawings at Blue Grass Airport in Lexington, Kentucky, variously reviewed as "flyby art" and "read the landscapes on the wall." I reconfigured the drawings for "Reading the Landscape" at the University of Maine/Farmington, and much later recycled some of them as collage materials.

Hills 9, watercolo r,  7.5 x 9.5 inches

Hills 9, watercolor, 7.5 x 9.5 inches

These imagined hills date from 1994, though if you look closely you'll see that six years later, I added a signature along the ridge lines. Is that an early selfie, or a recognition of the existential task of creating a painting? I think as artists we're meant to enjoy the experience of creating. If the rock stays balanced at the top of the hill, the painting is finished. If not - well then, like Sisyphus, we have to start again.

Barrens #10 , acrylic, charcoal, pastel, 10 x 14.5 inches. $500.

Barrens #10, acrylic, charcoal, pastel, 10 x 14.5 inches. $500.

On my way to and from Hancock and Washington Counties where I used to hike, I'd pass blueberry barrens. I always felt there was something there that I needed to paint, something more than the rock piles, but never could quite put my finger on it until I came to Maine in October 1994. And then, quite suddenly, I knew. The stunning color of the barrens pulled it all together and I spent my time on that trip up near Stockton Springs. Against the red of the blueberries, the gold birch leaves trembled like coins in the wind, and the clusters of stones were in conversation with each other.

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Current and Upcoming Exhibitions

Upcoming:

Man-Made: A State of Nature, Greenhut Galleries, Portland, Maine, February 7 - March 2, 2019

Twenty-three artists and the Anthropocene. I’ll install a selection of the Walking in Time Geologics paintings, about which I wrote: The hidden geology beneath our feet is a reminder that what lies on the surface evolved without our intervention and will continue to evolve when we are gone.

 

 

Walking in Time, detail, oil on canvas

Walking in Time, detail, oil on canvas

My YIMBY Project: Habitat and Painting Practice

Here in Lincolnville, the back field’s been mowed and the front meadows await their turn, awash in goldenrod and asters. It’s a visual confusion of color and texture that provides habitat and opportunity for new paintings.

back-field.JPG

I'm not much of a gardener in the traditional sense, so this time of year, the meadows and stream banks between my house and the road are overrun with fading goldenrod and still-blooming asters. It's a visual confusion of color and texture that provides food and shelter for many small mammals, birds, and butterflies, both local and migratory. I'll leave the center meadows unmowed for a while longer. But the back field's been bush-hogged, and it's possible to walk to the far property line to check out the low bush blueberry patch and bayberry shrubs that grow there.

As I walk, I daydream. I envision a path around the perimeter, with stopping points. Just behind the house, two boulders sit one on top of the other. They came out of the rain garden when it was dug. The blueberry patch near the back west corner of my property is a secluded place that exudes a particular energy. Along the northwest line, a single tamarack rises against the sky. Returning in the opposite direction to the front meadows, the habitat changes. Pine, spruce and cedar are followed by red oak, already massive, and red maples resprout from trees long gone. Across the orchard, and on up toward the lower southwest side below a seasonal waterfall, a grey dogwood has tripled in size over the years I've been here.

A few years ago, when I was developing materials for a class in drawing the landscape, Kristen Lindquist was kind enough to offer her impressions of this place.  She wrote that it is "a natural oasis humming with life and beauty—beyond dragonflies poised on pondside cattails, the perfection of floating water lilies, goldfinch’s chatter, vireo’s endless warbling, waving constellations of Queen Anne’s Lace, scent of sun-soaked sweet fern, and that distant glimpse of the sea— [we] fully understand the underlying structure, geology, and essential personality of a place. By opening our creative selves to connect, through images and words, with the larger, unified world around us, we can inhabit our dual roles as both creators and caretakers."

So here's my plan. As I maintain this habitat for wildlife, I want to make it easier for visitors to enjoy walking. I want to provide a Maine version of Japanese forest-bathing.

For as much as this landscape gives me, in subject matter and inspiration for paintings, I will give back to it, preserving it as habitat and ensuring that the annual succession from swelling buds and March mud, to fall bay and winterberry, to Christmas balsam and spruce, continue on.

This blog was originally published in my newsletter. More text and images here.

Archived Newsletters February 2018 - February 2017

 

 Spring, Chocolate Soufflés and Studio Visits. Carol Eisenberg's images of my studio caused one musician friend to comment that the studio walls are full of counterpoint with "the myriad lifelike effect that counterpoint actually reaches for. Or comes out of." I like that. Read more.

Sliding into the New Year, and a look back at 2017 — 2017 was a year of exploration. New territory, new mediums, new answers to old questions. Here are my reviews and previews - an exhibition at the University of Louisville, a museum acquisition, brand new paintings and more. Read more.

Artist Plus Residency Equals Change — This one was written as I was on the way to Santa Fe, and now that I’m back home, I can report that the time I spent there was mind-blowing. I’m starting a new group of paintings based on that experience, and will share them on social media and in future newsletters as they progress. Read more.

The Importance of a Mentor is my tribute to a teacher who was one of the best. I'd known Red Garner since, as he liked to say, I was "a bump on the horizon." Read more.

A Painting Start to Finish - Painting can seem a big mystery to painters and non-painters alike, so I thought I'd share a little of how I approach my practice. Every day, before I head into the studio, I go outside for a walk to see what's changed, and who's newly arrived in the neighborhood. Read more.

Earth Day: Is There Something We Can Do? - As Earth Day approaches, I'm remembering that a few years back, I was invited to participate in an exhibition called Turning in Your Hand: The Blue Marble Project.Each artist who participated was given the gift of a blue marble and asked to respond by creating a piece that reflects our place on the planet we call home. As I thought about what it means to live mindfully on the earth, I began a daily ritual of working with my blue marble. Each day I erased an old charcoal drawing. . . .Read more.

Painting: An Act of Reciprocity - Not long ago a good friend recommended I read Robin Wall Kimmerer's Braiding Sweetgrass. Kimmerer, trained as a botanist, is a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, and understands the natural world as a living presence. For her, writing is an act of reciprocity and a way to give back.I feel the same way about painting. Read more.

The Latest Erratics - Happy Spring 2017, the Year of the Rooster! You may ask what that has to do with glacial erratics, and I answer that the rooster celebrates another event in the cycle of my Erratics installations, articulated sculptures that refer to geological history. The first was twenty years ago, all the way back in 1997, at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art in Rockport. There have been five sightings since then, the two most recent at Beech Hill in Rockport in 2015 and in Farmington in 2016. So the glacier is picking up speed. Read more.