Creeping along an overgrown trail, beside a river that lives in my mind as much as in the world. Branches slapping, leaves dripping morning dew. Stumbling over mossy, downed limbs, tree trunks and boulders, the smell of it earthy and rich. Seeing and hearing everything from birds to bears. There are blessed few biting bugs here in Oregon, but I love this just as much while being chewed alive hauling a canoe through the back country of Canada, pulling oars on an Alaskan river, paddling in the Adirondacks in NY, or slipping through the mangroves in Florida.
Contact. The tactile experience of the world. Wind and water, the pressure while wading, the movement while paddling or hiking. The pulse of the earth. My mind is quiet, but wide open. Listen, smell, touch, see- all parts of the whole. All parts of me feeling most alive.
That feeling is important. Vital, I think, to humanity. And I fear we’re loosing it, swept up in the bright, shiny and new. Entertainment.
That’s what I try to paint, to put onto canvas. That connection with the earth, the environment, with life. Learning the language- my language- of paint has been an ongoing process for over thirty years. Influenced by artists from Thomas Moran and Winslow Homer, to Marc Rothko and Gerhart Richter. And now, I feel like I’m at the beginning, my mind wide open, so much to see and learn. So much to share.
I don’t know if I can ever be fully successful in conveying that feeling, but it’s what I’m most compelled to do.
At family picnics, they’d stand together in a quiet group, their slow-talking stories bringing chuckles and snorts amongst themselves. To my young eyes, they always seemed like stern, but friendly giants, fingers like sausages, leather-hard hands and corded arms. I was surprised once I reached adulthood to find they didn’t tower over me, though they’d still make me wince at a handshake, their eyes sparkling. My grandma’s little brothers, they were ranchers and lumbermen, and a carpenter in-law, in eastern Oregon.
My aunts were the more outgoing ones, grabbing us all up into smothering hugs that made the uncles’ handshakes seem gentle. Eyes twinkling, they were always moving, putting together meals, or some other chore, while catching up with family, doing anything that needed done. My Aunt Marilyn, gone just last year, was on horseback every chance she got, well into her 90’s.
They are what the barns are about.
I swore I’d never paint a barn, but that was before I took Darby out to meet them, from our then home in western New York. She was welcomed and swept up in the love they offered the same way I always was, and after four days, before leaving we wandered out into the original hay barn. It’s gone now, burned as so many go, but on that day I stood there, wondering how my life had gone so wrong I wasn’t a cowboy. Darby said, Why don’t you paint barns, they’re beautiful. I said, Yes, but they’re kitschy as a subject. She laughed, and giving me a thump, said, They don’t have to be.
And that’s where it began, a new body of work, trying to take a common subject and make it something new. To turn a subject of sweet nostalgia and American pie into something contemporary and iconic, representational to an extent, but imbued with the energy and surface of expressionism.
For me they are monuments to people like my aunts and uncles, men and women who greeted the day the same way they did their nephew, with smothering hugs, bone crushing handshakes, and enthusiasm for the life at hand.
Well, that and my love of color field painting, abstract expressionism, and color and form in general.