Several years ago, after having painted plein aire landscapes for a few years, I received a grant from the Genesee Valley Council on the Arts, to paddle the Genesee River from Pennsylvania to Lake Ontario. I spent seventeen days on the river, and another four hiking and doing relief prints with a naturalist and 4th grade students, at Letchworth State Park. While on the river, I paddled, sketched, fished, camped, read, thought........ and got more and more frustrated. Not with the paddling, fishing, camping and reading. Just the sketching and thinking.
I worked as an illustrator for years, working in several different mediums, in several different styles, never really worrying about too much consistency or what I was saying. I was saying what the client needed said. Or often just being a smart-ass, a genetic predisposition. Illustration is solving a problem for someone else. Give me some input, I give it some thought, define the problem, draw up a solution, deliver it, get paid. Hey, what's not to like?
I can make a problem out of anything, or nothing. I enjoyed parts of the process - brainstorming, working with a variety of people, playing around with different mediums. But, ultimately, it just wasn't satisfying to me. I felt like I was going through the motions.
Art versus illustration- an ongoing debate with many (mostly illustrators, I think). Art is about solving your own problems, or realizing you have one.
So there I am, paddling, fishing, sketching along. I'm having a blast, right? Well, OK, I was paddling and fishing, and I have to admit, I always have fun on the water, especially moving water. But gnawing away at me was this feeling of wasting my time while I was sketching. What was I going to do with the sketches? Paint from them? Do larger versions of them? Would I care anymore about them than I did the sketches themselves? And the whole time I'm sketching, I'm realizing I'm not making any headway down the river, and I'm never going to get to the lake.
The problem I've always had with plein aire painting - when I'm outside, I'm not compelled to paint. I want to go see stuff. Explore. Hike, paddle, fish, stalk, camp. Discipline - that's what I need - stick with the painting. Yeah, and cleanliness is next to Godliness.
What a load of crap. I paint way better in the studio when I'm not distracted by everything else I like to do. And I work too much. I need to be more disciplined about goofing off once in a while. Don't get me wrong- I love to paint, but it's not the only thing I love to do.
But there is another aspect to all of this, the part that is most fundamental to being an artist. It is the chance to get to know yourself, what makes you tick, what are your strengths and weakness, where do you fit in the world. My real intention in paddling the Genesee was not to fill a sketchbook. I was trying to fall in love with the place I live. Western New York, the Finger Lakes, there are many beautiful places here, and I've lived here since high school. There are places to hike, fish, paddle, ride horses. And I've never loved it. And I live here, and need to for now, and I really wanted to love it. So I hoped if I spent a concentrated length of time outside, doing some of the things I love, maybe I'd begin to appreciate the area on a more subtle, personal, intuitive level.
And it didn't work. It is beautiful here, and I find things to paint all the time now, but I don't love where I live. I may never. I am forever a child of the west. But it gave me the chance to figure myself out, on a deeper, maybe even primitive level. What is the process we go through growing up, imprinting on your family, and for some, maybe on a place? Why do those memories, of growing up, remain so strong when I have long periods of time from which I remember so little?
We celebrated my folks fiftieth anniversary last year- a wonderful celebration of a great event. Amidst all the family and friends, my folks played a dvd they had put together of several home movies. Once we watched the first half chronicling the life of my older sister Ann Marie, the other six of us were squeezed in from clips of home life, vacations, and family adventures. And I was stunned to see so many rivers and barns- the bulk of my subject matter. Many of the clips I had no immediate recollection of, but when you see your self running around with all your best friends, in a wonderful place, it's hard to see how that wouldn't set in pretty deeply.
But then why am I the one in the family that is maybe not quite domesticated? Why do I carry landscape in my head - moments, places? Why are we so similar, but so different?
I have ideas about it, but hey, this is a blog, not a therapist's couch. I'll figure out my life, you can have fun figuring out yours.
But it was while paddling the Genesee I realized I was more interested in the memory of landscape, rather than recording it. How much do I need in an image to convey what I remember from a place, from an event, a slice of time? I've just recently started painting the Genesee, some from older sketches, some from more recent.