Wendell Berry writes:
"The digital devices are recommended or required in order to prepare for 'the world of the future.' The cost of this expensive preparation is virtual exile from the present world that is available at no cost outside their front doors. And so they spend their liveliest years mostly sitting and looking at screens."
I am, as most folks are, living into this lifestyle. The allure of the screen is a constant. I'm typing this little post from my phone, in fact, because apparently for my work to have a fighting chance as a business, I must be active in this world through a blog, a Facebook page, a website, a Twitter feed, an Instagram account...
...but I want to engage what's REAL. I'm growing weary of trying to keep up with the world of the future.
Berry writes further, "when people begin to replace stories from local memory with stories from television screens, another vital part of life is lost." I propose we take the time today to touch something real and linger and consider the irreplaceable gift of life. Get dirty, skin your knee, play.
Much like the painting "Substance of Redemption" I wrote about on February 22, my painting "Driftwood: Time" was painted around the same time (exactly the year, again, I'm not sure). I had found a piece of driftwood near Lake Michigan and kept it around the house for quite a while. Like many artists, I had been working on numerous works at the same time. In my case, this particular work didn't start out as a painting of a piece of driftwood at all. Far from it. I was painting landscapes, trees, and the like. But I was looking to step out of my norm a bit and do something different involving multiple human figures in motion on this 8'x2' sheet of OSB or particle board (scrap material from a construction job site). It was planned to be a dramatic figurative study seeking to reflect both spontaneity (like the energy found in a sketch) and realistic figures.
I began planning to use only a blue hue to create a monochromatic piece. For whatever reason it didn't work. So before the oil paint dried I took a cloth and dampened it with linseed oil and some thinner and wiped down the surface. The effect turned out to be a glorious sky-blue "wash" that can be difficult to achieve with oils. I let it sit and dry. My hope was to preserve that wash and then use it as the underpainting for another image. However, what that image was to be I had no clue.
While working on other paintings, I noticed that piece of driftwood in my workspace. In real life it was only about a foot long and 4 inches wide in it's cylindrical form. It had this incredible hole to look through. I kept looking at it, did a couple charcoal drawings and decided that was the subject meant to be painted on that blue wash.
The result is what you can see in the accompanying image. Ironically, the imagery "feels" like those figures I had originally envisioned. I sought to keep a spontaneous feel full of contrast. What one might notice is the minimal "use" of that blue wash. I'm still struck by the fact that when I look at this painting I first think of that underpainting. Some might ask, "Why, then, if you loved that blue so much did you cover most of it up?"
The vibrant orange is certainly a compliment to the blue and so I began there; covering the entire background it seems to dominate. In fact, the orange does seem to take over. However, looking a bit longer you begin to focus on the hole in the driftwood and then the eye is drawn in two directions flowing along with the grain in the wood. In those grains are the slight dashes of blue, and if it isn't clear yet, that's my favorite part. The title, "Driftwood: Time," tells of my fascination with the amount of time it must take to shape a piece of wood into this gloriously smooth relic. The elements of wind, water, and sun patiently (albeit sometimes violently) sculpting something so intricate is a great mystery.
So through the seemingly infinite decisions made while producing work of art, I decided that that blue would be more powerful if it were understated. It's kind of like a scene of a movie or a section of a song that is so profound that you wish it would go on and on. At first I wish it would be longer, but then it occurs to me that the profundity would be dampened if the scene had lingered too long. The coming and going to that feeling is enhanced by it's understatement.
The painting was stored in Michigan with my friends Mike and Brooke Anderson for over a decade. They love art so much they put up with a heavy and awkwardly long piece of wood (driftwood?) while my family and I lived in Washington and for few years after we moved back to Michigan. They never complained, but Mike would remind me from time to time that it was there. Last fall I finally retrieved it and brought it home. It still hasn't found a good home or a place to be displayed.
The more I write about it, I'm struck by the fact that this painting tells my own story. I've learned enough to realize that we're always "waiting" for something, that life is constantly at play in the times of drifting. I feel most times like I'm drifting. However, true to the ever-popular Gandalfian wisdom, "Not all who wander are lost." It can feel like being lost at times, but there's motion and play and laughter and tears that are ever present. Perhaps it's true what I heard Andrew Wyeth say once in a documentary that we ultimately always paint ourselves. I suppose in one sense that is true: if we're true to out calling we will paint "ourselves," our unique vision for the world; much like a self-portrait. On the other side of that idea is the prospect of self-absorption. This is why we must share our work so that it doesn't just become a relic of "me." We share because we are nothing without others. The sharing is risky, of course, because some won't "get" it, or in the case of more abstract art some will get lost in trying to "figure it out." It's a risk worth taking, though, as we wander together in the various directions and delight in the things we discover.
My life and this painting have been cared for by numerous folks intent on enabling me to thrive in and through the drifting. The particle board has been minimally scuffed and bumped, it shows some wear but the life is still in it. I'm actually contemplating carefully cutting the painting into several smaller pieces. I'm not sure of the symbolism of this act, I think it would be intriguing to allow diverse people and homes to be able to encounter a piece of this old painting.
For a piece of driftwood, time is both a medium and a tool for clarity and beauty.
I painted "Substance of Redemption" (see below) years ago, I would say sometime between 1998 and 2001, my father-in-law, Jim, and I were hired to do a unique project near Hamlin Lake (Ludington, MI). We were going to plant trees!
I don't recall what type of trees, and I don't know how the plot of land was cleared before hand. However, we planted saplings around which we wrapped translucent plastic tubes to aid in the gathering of sunlight and in order to protect the little trees from the deer.
Looking back now it may have been some of the most fascinating work I've had the privilege of doing (it tapped into what would eventually become my future agrarian interests as well). The site was secluded not far from a bridge Jim and I would later replace connecting two two-track "roads" for Hamlin's seasonal residents. [as an aside, that bridge project was where we were when the 911 attacks took place] However, our tree-planting work was meant to bring vitality back to a bare piece of land. To this day, and perhaps in part because of 911, that time, that work, and that place linger as a place of rejuvenating, concrete practice.
But the painting is also part of that story and that place. While we were working, I noticed another mature tree in the corner of the plot. A walnut, I think. It had the most unusually distorted form. It wasn't straight, but instead had what was a 90 degree jog from which it then went straight up into the canopy. The tree wasn't a runt, it seemed to be thriving, but it was not typical.
I decided to take my sketchbook to the site the next day and did some drawings during breaks in our work (Jim was always supportive of my artistic pursuits). What emerged was this painting. Further still, what I realized was what I think happened to that tree sometime in its history.
That walnut was wounded. It had been struck down or fallen upon by another tree. It may have been struck by lightening. Who knows for sure. It occurred me that the tree had overcome what, for some trees would have been a fatal blow, but it somehow grew back up and looked just fine other than the obvious "jog" in its form. Although abstract in color and feel, what is depicted in the painting is true to the form and dimension of the actual tree.
It is a symbol of redemption.
"This thing of soil conservation involves more than laying out a few terraces and diversion ditches and sowing to grass and legumes, it also involves the heart of the man managing the land. If he loves his soil he will save it."
- Henry Besuden; quoted by Wendell Berry in his essay "A Talent for Necessity"
"Galal" detail. A redemptive gesture in a world of waste.
ArtPrize piece coming along.
"Galal" means "to roll" or "roll away" in Hebrew. More on that soon.
"Bright grains of generative dust"
- Wendell Berry
These are pieces my brother Mike (in Denver) still hangs in his home. It's a rather surreal experience to see them again. Almost forgot about them, to be honest.
So good to see them again and remember.
This painting is a piece based on my reflections uon Pentecost. So many words are spent on subjects like these...this visual window is an opportunity to meaningfully reflect.
"And, what is more, in Christianity God appears to [humanity] right in the midst of worldly reality. The centre of this act of encounter must, therefore lie where the profane human senses, making possible the act of faith, become 'spiritual', and where faith becomes 'sensory' in order to be human."
- Hans Urs Von Balthasar
Visited the farm that my dad has run for our family for many years now. My boys and I enjoyed walking parts of it, and have been reminded of our roots. I've not been a farmer by any stretch, but in the coming months my "art" will include some work at this place. Here are some shots of our day.
Glad to share artwork in my friend's homes. Here is "Lake Effect" in a perfect spot.
P.S. it's still for sale, just on "consignment."
"I've learned to understand human words over the years, but understanding human speech is not the same as understanding humans."