“It’s a rough mountain pathway of boulders and roots,
Where the greatest of joys is a good pair of boots.”
I’m writing to you from the Tonquin Valley Trail near Jasper, Alberta, Canada. Three days walking, two nights tenting, in and out. Sara, Richard, Emily and Dorothy are up ahead. We’re in high spirits.
Our eyes are on our footsteps. It’s boot-slogging, crossing swollen streams, bear-bells and mosquitology — not exactly rocket science. While there’s lots of evidence to the contrary, I’m thinking that if you’re highly realized as a human being, you’re likely to be highly realized as an artist. It’s my view, and I’m sticking to it. Yep, we’re at our best when we’re in our “zones.”
We all have a daily march — working, care-giving, reading, painting. We might include driving in traffic, washing socks, balancing books, taking notes in Sociology 201. Or lounging at the window, gazing into space, traveling paths not yet traveled. Fact is, when our hearts and minds are engaged, our imagination becomes a magic carpet that floats us over flints and shales.
And yet, all of it is a saw-off. We pay a price for an emerald lake, a peak, a scoop of light on high snows.
It’s in the name of “getting material.” The flipside of “using material.” Our goal as human beings, as artists, is to be as much in the zone as possible. Humbled as I am by an environment, I know pretty well for sure the key to high realization: It is wonder, love, creativity, study, knowledge, efficiency, imagination, order, process, productivity.
Every step on this path, on this earth, is a privilege. I think I’m losing a toe.
PS: “It isn’t the mountain ahead that wears you out; it’s the grain of sand in your shoe.” (Robert W. Service)
Esoterica: It’s easy to be drunk on mountains. As well as inhale, feel and analyze, an artist might look for metaphors and patterns not commonly met. In all ways an artist ought to overshoot in the mountains. The lesson, the feeling, is the sense of order, the fullness, the hum of earth-energy. It’s necessary. Totally.
In the Tonquin Valley, near Jasper, Alberta, Canada
Love in the mountains
Cecilia Echeverría, Buenos Aires, Argentina
The human race survives thanks to love. Love is the main force of any creative or business impulse. “All giving is asking, and all asking is an asking for love.” These words belong to Freud. I agree with all you express, we have to become better persons in order to be better artists. Doing art, great or mediocre, doesn’t matter, it is about giving the best of yourself. And how can you give, happy and proud, something you are ashamed of? If you don’t like yourself, chances are you are going to hide parts of yourself. Can a diver dive with only one part of the body? As always, going to basics, I repeat John Lennon: “All we need is love.” And this includes the mountains, the pathway, the company, the craft, the canvas, the computer, and especially yourself. But artists, beware: don’t turn into egomaniacs!
Geology of the Rockies
Murray Roed, BC, Canada
The Tonquin Valley has a series of impressive U-shaped valleys carved by glaciers. Tonquin is perhaps the grandest. The peculiar thing about them is that they cut right across the Continental Divide opening into the Rocky Mountain Trench. I mapped the surficial geology (glacial history) of the Edson-Hinton area in 1965 and 1966 for my PhD at the University of Alberta. While mapping around Hinton we noticed a lot of high-grade metamorphic pebbles and boulders (garnet schist, quartz-biotite gneiss) in the glacial deposits. These unusual erratics were restricted to what is now known as the Obed Glacier which was the last major advance of the ice out of the Athabasca Valley about 12,000 years ago. After several weeks of study pouring over topographic and geology maps and other field work, it was determined that the Obed Glacier was fed from an accumulation area west of the Rocky Mountain Trench where there are similar metamorphic rocks in the Monashee Mountains. The conducting valleys through which tongues of ice carrying these Monashee Mountain erratics were valleys like the Tonquin. The published results of this discovery is now known as the “Athabasca Valley Erratics Train.” To my knowledge, it is the only such phenomenon ever discovered in the world. These landforms are particularly unique.
Jane Champagne, ON, Canada
When you say, “Fact is, when our hearts and minds are engaged, our imagination becomes a magic carpet that floats us over flints and shales,” it brings to mind a word that describes to me exactly what you’re saying: Moodling, a combination of musing and mental doodling, which can lead to floating over any number of obstacles to a solution to your current challenge. Artists do it all the time — hiking, (sauntering is particularly conducive), on the subway, in the car, in front of your easel, or a landscape that calls to be painted. Wherever artists go, they moodle. I’ve been doing a lot of it lately, testing water-miscible oils with a master teacher, Douglas Purdon, whose course on indoor-outdoor oil painting at the Southampton Art School taught me, the inveterate watercolourist, more about using oils than I ever would have dreamed. Or moodled. Changing mediums is a wonder. As a former oil painter who developed a severe allergy to regular oils years ago, the water-miscibles — or mixables — are marvelous. They work just as well as the regular oils if you use a combination of the special medium plus water; not too well if you use water alone as a thinner. And the Winsor and Newton fast-drying medium is great for traveling painters.
Russell W. McCrackin, OR, USA
Before I started painting I took thousands of slides while hiking in the Sierras and other mountains of the West. Then I bruised my heels which ended my two or three hundred mile jaunts. Then a flood wiped out all of those slides. Now that I paint I wish I had those slides to refresh my memory of the places I fell in love with. Yes, sometimes I paint from slides or pictures. I look at them often for a week, put them aside for a few days, and then paint without ever looking at them again. Paintings from memories. Paintings that are memories.
Linda Saccoccio, CA, USA
“Tadasana” or mountain pose in yoga is such a significant and simple pose, the foundation for all of the standing poses. I see the mountains and I am immediately taken away, that is from the distractions that separate me from my true self. In Tadasana I’m both grounded and lifted upward toward the heavens. I’m fascinated by the energy I sense from the mountains and how I can see to their tops and feel that space, that atmosphere, feeling lifted up there, suspended far above my physical limitations as well as firmly rooted in the earth. It’s an energy of many dimensions. I believe the wisdom of the mountains can bring a person into that zone of oneness where creativity flows freely. They are endless, the nuances that mountains evoke each time I rest my vision on them. Love is awakened by them. Perhaps the embrace of mother earth is in the nature of mountains. To maintain the state of love, of oneness the mountains embody, as we create, could lead to liberation.
Heart’s in the mountains
Julie Sawyer, New Port Richey, FL, USA
My memories of Jasper, Alberta, Canada will never leave me. I was 10 years old, it was my first vacation ever and with my Dad, two younger brothers, in a tent, with canoe in tow. I will never forget the intoxicating beauty and heart pounding views of the snow-covered mountains and lake filled valleys! That feeling never left me and still today, I yearn to live in the mountains, even if it is the Smokey Mountains here in the Eastern U. S. I’m 47 and still dream of that day. I lived in Ohio half my life and now in Florida the second half, with a few years spent in California. They all have their special beauty too. But my heart is still calling for the mountains!
(RG note) Another Rocky Mountain trip is discussed in the letter Yoho park
You write so beautifully! It is a joy to start my day reading one of your letters. And the picture of Emily and Dorothy wearing saddlebags made me laugh out loud. I just can’t imagine our pampered Tessa, our Airedale (could be your Emily’s half-sister) wearing a saddlebag.
(RG note) It’s the first time we have tried saddlebags for an extended hike. The dogs cooperate without complaint. Dorothy, shown relaxing in the picture below, chases squirrels with her bags on. Thank you to everyone who wrote inquiring about the dogs. And the toe.
Airedales at Surprise Lake, Tonquin Valley, Alberta.
Logistics of travel art
As you are trekking do you haul your paints or just your camera? I have done daytrips in frame pack loaded with oil painting gear only to find uncooperative weather. Wondering how you pack to get the weight down. I am going to stretch canvas to foam core for the next trip to eliminate the weight of boards. My pack weighed in at 30 lbs and that included the necessary emergency fleece, lunch, extra water, sunscreen, bug repellent, etc. We hike the High Uintahs in Utah. Would like to take paints for the coming and first back pack of the season, duration a couple of days, but will need to add food, sleeping bag and tent and change of clothes and I can’t carry it all. Any recommendations would be greatly appreciated!
(RG note) I don’t believe in locking into one single method of getting material. Part of my mental and physical health schtick is to build portable easels — generally of a lighter and lighter nature. When I get back I’m going to build a “Portapooch Mark 3″ which Emily can carry in her saddlebag. Sometimes I take small sized stretched canvases (lately 11″ x 14”), other times just my camera. Previous travelling solution letters and artist input are at:
The daily march
The workshop I run virtually most Mondays, working with my lovely wife most Tuesdays, the art group on Wednesdays and Spanish classes term time on Thursdays which is also garbage day. On most Fridays, we have Sunday lunch, leaving Saturdays and Sundays free to go with the flow. A slight nudge, it’s off to a workshop, a plein air session, to London or Birmingham or elsewhere for an Exhibition, an Art Show or Convention. It’s a great life. Am I an artist? If Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin are ‘Artists’, I do not want to be. But then I believe real artists have talents and skills, and above all, a charismatic individuality that ordinary mortals do not possess.
Painting after marching
Jan Verhulst, Belgium
(RG note) Never underestimate the value of Advil.
Driving somewhere in the visual cortex
Outlining… hmm… not a bad tickle if done with appropriation of form and space in mind. Redemption however, though still in the theatre of the besottedly beheld canvas canines, has much in the way of redeeming the redeemable else would qualify the use of Genn’s former suggestion of smokin’ the things. Better than tasting as was my proportional cosmic spiritual connector suggestive. Please do not try this as personal outline may be permanently silhouetted against blank canvas. On the other hand, perhaps there is more to this halation thing than meets the eye. To be effective it must simplify the use of form and composition and force of colour… and drive the image into the visual cortex. But that’s only a beginning. Otherwise redemption (halation) evolves into some great thing of complexity… well… sort of… depending on what’s tickling the dabblers’ bank manager.
PS: Anybody notice how RG allofasudden got real technical after a stint in Toronto? Jeez, stick around pal, we could use a guy like you. Nobody here knows what they’re doin’…
(RG note) I try to balance my letters between following my nose, artists’ current concerns, useful technical input, and the wonderful world of woo-woo.
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2003. This includes Debbie Shell who wrote, “Just a note to say how much your inspirational letters mean to me. I am a fiber artist and at first I thought your letters wouldn’t relate to me… they would be too painterly… but no, they are great for any type of artist or maybe even person.” And Teddi who wrote, “Your writings are so thought provoking. I find myself just sitting and reading and pondering and wondering how I can transpose it to my painting. I love your choice of words as they are so visual.” And Phyllis Albone who wrote, “Some years ago we visited Jasper and environs and walked by the Maligne Canyon as well as up to the “Tea house” from the Chateau at Lake Louise. Grizzlies were in the area up ahead and by the time we got back, I was definitely swivel-headed!” And Alice Larsen who wrote, “My husband Robert says that one of us should be extremely happy at what we do and I guess it’s me. He’s happy enough doing his thing but I am blessed!” And Diana Boyd who quoted Donovan Leach: “…first there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is…” And Liz Carter who quoted from her husband’s tee-shirt: “If you’re not living on the Edge, you’re taking up too much space.