Settling in.

This is always the toughest stretch of my working life. Getting back to the habit and structure of working, of labor. Oh sure, art is about inspiration, muses, fun.... all the stereotypical things that art is about. But it's mostly about work. Showing up, every day. After the disruption of the show season, just settling back into regular habits is tough enough, but this year I have the added distraction of an upcoming show at SUNY Geneseo. I plan to try and get my landscape work to unify in a new direction. Well, not so much new, as a fuller manifestation of the ideas that have been drumming around in my head, slowly evolving towards what I hope is a bigger, more unified idea, expressing the relationship we have, or maybe had, with the land. The land we live in, on, around. Home.

That may not sound like much, but it's making my head hurt. Most all the things I have been interested in over my life to date seem to be coming together. Now I want to see if I can make something more from them. And I'm feeling the pressure of that desire.

So what to do? I went fishing yesterday. Skunked, but a great day spey casting, getting to know a river that I am not too familiar with. Cold drizzle most of the day. Perfect

Just to cool out. Now back to work.

To get me focused, a little glimpse into a diary of sorts. Yellowstone sketchbooks from the summer.

Hell Roaring Overlook

Lamar Valley in Morning Haze

Lamar Valley Eratics

Slough Creek Eratic

View from Mt. Washburn

Animal Dreams

Six bear sketches, pencil on paper.

Planning/thinking sketches for a piece I'm working on. You wouldn't guess that I don't have any interest in being a wildlife artist. I always enjoy looking at good wildlife art, but as with the rest of my work, it is the memory of experience that I am interested in. Memory of the natural world, and how that shapes us as human beings. What things fill my mind and imagination, inform who I am and how I relate to the world.

Jim Harrison has written of his dreams of animals and how he thinks they are somehow representative of himself and how his psyche is trying to work things out symbolicly that he can't figure out in his waking life. I'm sure that's a terrible interpretation of what he said, but that's why I paint and don't write novels. It doesn't mean I agree with him any less.

Bears, dogs, horses, birds, fish. And pretty much every other animal. All interesting to me. All in my head after I see them. It's funny to me, but I dream of animals frequently, and while I can easily see how many/most of the animals I dream of could be representative of something else, Molly and Finn are always there as themselves.

Always themselves

Horse by Jim Harrison What if it were our privilege
to sculpt our dreams of animals?
But those shapes in the night
come and go too quickly to be held
in stone: but not to avoid these shapes
as if dreams were only a nighttime
pocket to be remembered and avoided.
Who can say in the depths of
his life and heart what beast
most stopped life, the animals
he watched, the animals he only touched
in dreams? Even our hearts don’t beat
the way we want them to. What
can we know in the waking,
sleeping edge? We put down
my daughter’s old horse, old and
arthritic, a home burial. By dawn with eye
half open, I said to myself, is
he still running, is he still running
around, under the ground? from The Theory and Practice of Rivers, Winn Books, 1985
Lifted from poetry dispatch & other notes from the underground


I started paddling white water at Letchworth State Park. The Genesee River runs north through the park, over a series of waterfalls, then through a couple miles of class II rapids - at the right water levels maybe even light III's - as it winds through a spectacular gorge. It's a great place to start paddling, both kayak and canoe. I taught canoeing and kayaking classes there with my friends at Pack, Paddle Ski, canoed with my kids, and took my wife on our second paddling date, (that's Darby in the bow; it may have been bit more than she was expecting). We have hiked in the park, snowshoed and skied. But other than a few sketches I've never done any serious painting of the landscape there, despite the fact that I've spent far more time there than the rest of the river combined, (hey, it has the only stretch of whitewater).

So last fall I called my paddling buddies and we had a couple fossil floats, (we're not kids anymore). We paddled and surfed til we were ready to drop, and on the way out of the park, as I looked over the edge into the gorge, I thought, Why haven't I ever painted this? That's when I made my big drawing board.

I had already been thinking maybe I needed to do some work on location again. That maybe I needed more information from my sketches, more than I've been putting down in my quick thumbnail sketches. And somewhere in the last several years, something has shifted in my mind - the way I see, or think about, or think about seeing, (all very different), the landscape. How much of the landscape is observed and remembered, or is in my head and becomes something more than a memory, a remembered landscape. I've had the good fortune to travel to and through some amazing wilderness landscapes, and I am often too overwhelmed by the spectacular beauty of the land to find any painting in it.

So, I headed back to the park with my board and a nail apron full of charcoal. I use to hate being spotted by people and confronted. But that's when I thought rendering was art. That depiciting something just the way it looked was the goal. People would stop for a quick look, it would turn into a critique, and I would quit. I felt like I wasn't - what, delivering what was expected?

But again, things had changed. I grew up? Became .......... more confident? Confident isn't right. Something. More sure of what I was doing and why. Anyway, when people would see me along the gorge and stop and say, Oh, an artist, can I see what you're doing? I'd step back and say, Sure. And they's look and say, Ohhhhh.......... yes. Thank you. And they'd be off and I'd be back to work. Letchworth is a big fall tourist location. I got my picture taken with two busloads of tourists. And they weren't impressed, and I didn't care. I was happily left to my drawing.

The drawings are about 34 x 44 inches. More information than I get in my quick thumbnail sketches- is that good or bad? We'll see. I am juggling a number of paintings right now- we'll see if I can juggle another one. Or two.

Landscape and Memory

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.