I’m looking toward Omey — a small island viewed from an unimportant place called Claddagduff on the Connemara shore. In the foreground, designer rocks step down toward the weedy tide. Beyond, in patchwork fields, whitewashed houses huddle against the weather. Donkeys stand like grey statues in the fields and blue peat-smoke furls from chimneys. I’m trying to get my brush around a 16 x 20. I’m trying to make a “landscape” of the landscape.
Why do some of us persist in this habit? What’s the purpose? Why does this convention endure?
First, it has something to do with the way we honour and have a sense of place. The way something tells us that our earth and her variations are worth looking at and perhaps preserving. Like bricks and mortar, there’s permanence in land. Still, it’s the most sentimental subject of all: I’m humming “My Little Gray Home in the West.”
We persist with landscape because of the ready availability of common forms: trees, rocks, fields, mountains, water, sky, homes, a variety of familiar elements which an artist may bless with a style and in so doing claim for his own. A critic might call it trivial. I rationalize I could be bowling, or golfing, or on that heath over there with those gun-carrying fellows who appear to be unsuccessfully stalking grouse. But I get my thrill stalking the little knowledge I’ve accumulated when making previous paintings, learning something new from this one, and though I’m exposed and shaking with the cold Atlantic chill, the time flies and all’s well with the land.
PS: “Land of Heart’s Desire, Where beauty has no ebb, Decay no flood, But joy is wisdom, And time’s an endless song.” (W. B. Yeats)
Esoterica: Some artists report on the human capacity to simply collect. This may be why photography is the world’s most popular hobby. “Been there, done that, got the picture.” A painting is perhaps the ultimate collectible — the end result of a personal and private toil for treasure.
This letter was originally published as “Land of Heart’s Desire” on May 29, 2001.
Featured Workshop: Michael Chesley Johnson