Artist talk - 9/23/18
What’s important to say about this work-
I want to thank Awbury Arboretum for giving me the opportunity to have this show and paint on their trees. I’d like to thank my wife Cecilia for all her support during this show and the many I’ve had in the past.
For a long time, since I was a teenager, I’ve been very moved being in nature. I created landscape paintings and figurative works when I was younger. And For the past 9 years I’ve been painting directly on trees in different woods around the country. Instead of painting landscape paintings, I like that I’m creating the figurative images I like, in dialog with nature. I got the idea just looking out my studio window when I was on sabbatical living with my family up in Maine, using some pigments that Abby Shahn, a teacher of mine, had given me. For the last 10 years, I’ve also been filling up sketchbooks with leaves, seed heads, nature studies, and making paintings and prints based on plant forms- Using my imagination to see characters that I can recognize in the shapes of plants and seed heads. It’s been very rewarding to me to see these figures reveal themselves.
But I’ve also been searching for a kind of magic, a kind of wish fulfillment, the kind where you can just imagine what that buzzing and whirring in the forest at night is. and- imagine what- that’s the question I come up against. What could be here or there? That feeling of the great mystery, that so many artists and writers have tried to envision. I want to see it, and if I can’t exactly, I paint those dreams and fantasies of what could be out there.
So these paintings are attempts to dream -to imagine. One curator used the term -Genus Loci- about my tree paintings- A Spirit of place. This can be taken as a metaphor- an intellectual story that closely relates to a particular place, and that’s fine. But I wondered to if places really have spirits, and what would they look like. That’s a direction I have been focused on. Another friend suggested the image of the Greenman in Celtic culture- that’s a sculpted old mans face with plants growing out of his head and mouth, that’s found on many old English cathedrals. The more I looked into this image that represented a closeness between man and nature- the more it became a door into a huge field of a Pagan nature religion. While the religion idea is sort of foreign to me, I liked that the closeness to nature had been visualized by the morphing of the man and plants together.
I’ve read and looked at many ideas of nature spirits, forest spirit masks and figures by tribal artists, Fairies, and crypto -zoology, parallel universe theory- strange made up creatures from stories all over this country and the world. It’s exciting and there are so many possibilities - the stories- the legends, the history of mythological creatures -that starts with indigenous tribes before the Mesopotamians and Egyptians and transfers to the Greeks and down through time. North American has a strong crypto- zoology movement with Sasquatches, prairie creatures, and sea monsters in lakes. The 1910 book- the Fearsome creatures of the Lumberwoods by William Cox, and the book of Imaginary Beings by Borges have been very helpful to me. There’s even a Moth-man museum in West Virginia now that kind of inspired me, though I haven’t visited yet. Magic seems to be a very old idea. I don’t know if it’s real or not. So I create visual stories - for us to wonder about-
I’ve also been reading more about the perception of nature and reality. In Becoming Animal by David Abram, he talks about an enhanced perception of nature, a deep sensitivity that overwhelms him, and the intelligence of nature looking back at him. There’s a poetry, almost a magic in just seeing deeply. He seems to suggest that the supernatural is really just there for us to feel. In The Cosmic Serpent by Jeremy Narby talks about Shamans and how they understand an intelligence in nature that is usually beyond our awareness.
Living at the End of Time by John Hanson Mitchell talks about the rich experience of getting the know the woods of Massachusetts, inspired by Thoreau. The books by Peter Handke, also talk about wandering and learning about the land. Something about that is very appealing to me.
I do suspect that that my perception- perhaps I could say ordinary human perception of nature, is and has been pretty limited. These paintings are my continued attempts to suggest something deeper.
I’ve been working on trees with natural non-toxic pigments for about 9 years. I like how this process includes my growing environmental awareness. I’ve been fortunate enough to be selected to do artist residencies around the country. What I like about this installation - the mythic moth menagerie is that I am for only the second time, creating a more deliberate installation- in that all the paintings create a more unified world. After seeing the wooded area with one character in it, I change my original idea- which was to create tall guardian figures - like the minotaur and centaur paintings - and all of a sudden had the briefest glimmer of all these flying moth figures. I had some very good advice from my wife Cecilia Dougherty on the placement of the figures on various trees, to encourage the feeling of walking through a space.
One of the reasons that I do environmentally focused art work is that Im afraid for the wilderness. More and more forests are being cut down every day. I’m afraid for the loss of animal habitats, for the loss of all the beauty that the natural world is. That fear extends to the impact of the loss of forests on the climate and the lives of my children. So I hope you all appreciate nature just a little more after being with my work. And maybe fight for it.
The works of trees are painted with natural pigments and eggs, and wear away completely in a few years. I wanted to have some of my works in nature, living and dying with the trees and shrubs and creatures. It seemed like a consistent idea - to be a part of that process. Besides, it’s just so exciting to be working on actual trees, with the limitations of size and color and the rawness of the surface. I like that the process is very anti-high tech- in that I mix my own paints, and they’re just rocks and plants and wood, all things I sort of understand. Part of this direction also began when my wife and I were on a sustainability kick, and making lots of things ourselves.
I wrote some lines last summer about walking into a dark forest and hearing and seeing magical things. These ideas didn’t fit on trees themselves, so I began some small gouache paintings. Some were started with an image I took from Awbury Arboretum as I was walking around it for the first time. I used that forest image, as a kind of stage for some magical happenings.
I feel like the tree paintings and the gouache paintings are still only the edge of what I really want. But I suppose that’s always been the case, and leads me to continue working.