Miracle one: In this overcrowded world there’s an empty landscape where a vast river winds to the horizon in a land where the sun never sets. Here, there’s the lush growth of a short, exuberant summer under an ever-changing sky. We are the only humans for many miles — our boat a small speck crossing here and there or drifting with the stream to minor landfalls and discoveries.
Miracle two: It’s possible to gather some of the thoughts and motifs that a place like this brings. In the painting station before the rain, floating through subjects of mix and match — I’m making acrylics on 11 x 14 canvasses. My format is a bit too small — the Mackenzie River is in need of a panorama. Right now there’s a gray mist; the distant Carcajou range appears and disappears between glances. On the water-surface light is caught and then discarded. It’s simple and yet monumental — the thin viridian and gray lines of the islands, jagged erosion of the shore, delicacy and impossibility of the foreground detail. I keep asking myself how do I convey this northern wind — the same that early explorers felt? What is the brush you use for “storm?” In my heart I know that these experiences are transferable to others. It’s called “art,” it’s difficult, and it’s timeless.
Miracle three: Together with Emily the Airedale I’m now sitting in the tiny cabin of the “Alexander Mackenzie” tapping this letter on my laptop. From this computer there’s a short connector to a satellite telephone — a little larger than a cell-phone. It’s antenna points to the sky. Here, anchored in the Mackenzie current beside an unnamed island where Sandhill cranes strut in the rain, I’m able to send and receive language with all of the world.
PS: “The age of miracles is here.” (Thomas Carlyle, 1841)
“Painting seems like some kind of peculiar miracle that I need to have again and again.” (Philip Guston)
Esoterica: Perhaps “flow” is a river word — but it’s also a way of working. I’ve noticed it in all environments. When simplicity prevails one wanders to the work-station and things occur somewhat like the river which flows to anywhere lower.
The following are selected responses to the above letter. Thanks for writing.
Must have peace
Nigel Wells, Ashbourne, Derbyshire, UK
It is amazing and miraculous that there are still places where you can breathe fresh air and be alone. Here where I live in Northern England we have a large population and mills and factories all over the landscape and yet there are heaths and moors nearby where I can get to easily by motor. Except for the occasional jet passing overhead there is peace in which to concentrate. An artist must have peace.
Right brain miracles
Lynne Connell, Collingwood Ontario, Canada
Jack Lemmon whispered “Magic Time” to himself each time he went out to act… painting is magic time too… we all have to remember how lucky we are to do it. And I thought the other day… when watching a nine month baby fixate on a tiny wee piece of fluff on the floor… we are BORN with our RIGHT SIDE OF THE BRAIN fully developed…NOT the left… the right, filled with awe, imagination, doesn’t name… just accepts and marvels… we love intricate little things… we are open… free… creative… for the sheer JOY of it… Such is the child when they paint… without judgement… Until the LEFT SIDE OF THE BRAIN kicks in… at what age??… the logical, the judge… the one that has to label… the one that skips over the small stuff who is impatient… the doer… the critic… the perfectionist… leaving so many of us paralyzed to let our creative side free. I teach Drawing from the Right Side of the Brain.
Miracle of human imagination
Viktor M Nielsen, Oslo, Norway
It’s the spirit of the place and what the artist does with it that makes the art, Robert. The most exotic place will not make great art unless it is processed through the artistic temperament. Some people need only their own garden patch or loft. The real miracle is the miracle of the human imagination.
Watercolor on a boat
Jane Champagne, Ontario, Canada
Your thoughts from the Mackenzie reminded me of my days painting from a canoe in Killarney Provincial Park. There’s nothing quite like it; I found watercolour more portable — and better than acrylic for sweeping panoramas. The results were astonishing. If you sit in the bow, facing the stern, rest a 22×30 board on the gunwale, you can do a full sheet. No way can you capture the spirit of such a landscape (waterscape) in a studio.
Don’t ignore your passion
Sherry J. Purvis, Georgia, USA
The very depth of passion can only be achieved
When moving forward into life unbelieved.
Forgetting to remember what is known to exist
Can only raise doubt and fear of what has been missed.
Possibilities of foreign and ancients reborn
Pass through the mind in alternate forms.
Following the paths of being led
Always produces feelings of dread.
To know, to feel, to exalt the thoughts
Goes beyond all the worldly meaning that’s sought.
Oh, for a moment of defining glimmer
Envelopes the being like a cold deadly shimmer.
Once passed through, never to return
The heart bends and twists with a fiery burn.
The fear and anticipation of the creative process is outweighed by pure passion. There is not a possibility that one can ignore what is deep in their soul.
Bumper cars in her head
Bonnie Hamlin, Manitoba, Canada
For a number of years I was raising, four daughters, 800 head of sheep and cattle, doing freelance illustrating, and cartooning for a national agriculture newspaper. Time to paint was impossible. So I painted in my head. When I did dishes, put out feed, sat up at night waiting for new lambs, drove the tractor, whenever I didn’t have to use my mind fully to do what I was doing, I designed compositions, mixed paints, created atmosphere, etc. etc. in my head. When I did get back to painting, it took 3 frustrating months to get my eye hand co-ordination back, but then I found my art had improved probably as much or possibly more than if I had been painting for the previous 10 years. I can’t break the habit of painting in my head, which might be the reason I have never had painter’s block; in fact I have ideas playing bumper cars in my head.
Environment of the miracle
Stewart Turcotte, Kelowna, B. C., Canada
You and Sara and Richard may be within the environment of the miracle as you see it but those of us who read your notes that have some idea of the vastness of the Canadian north can feel the electricity of the moment and experience the wonder of the discovery through your writings. I’m sure I speak for many who wait for each transmission from the Alexander Mackenzie; have fun, paint lots, revel in the instant gratification of the large moment and in the quiet times, try to grasp how this experience is significant in your development as an artist and as a person.
One thing that baffles me is, because your letters contain such vivid scenes and observations about the lay of the land and your place in it, I can never be sure if you are actually where you say you are, or is it your colourful imagination portraying this landscape and projecting these images for us to interpret as we may. Anyway, I do enjoy reading these letters and do keep them coming. Hope springs eternal and come September, I have a feeling will be a time that it all comes together and my paintbrush will really make tracks.
(RG note) Sometimes I write using notes from previous trips. Today I’m putting these clickbacks together on my laptop in the mozzie infested cabin of the boat, near Arctic Red River, NWT. With the Satellite telephone hooked up to the computer things are pretty much in the here and now. Unfortunately, it’s fairly expensive so I appreciate getting short emails with no attachments.
Live is cool
Jerry Coloredpencilguy Baker
That has been one of the most interesting aspects of what I like to read in your letters. To be places that other artists may not get to and write practically live from the site is cool. I for one appreciate that since I’ll be pretty much stuck here wherever I am setting/standing and working for quite a while yet and it’s good to read someone else’s experiences doing the type of things that a lot of us would really rather be doing.
Ripples of influence
Joy Cooper, Valley Head, West Virginia
I have a friend, teacher, and mentor here who has the gift of sharing. She has steadily encouraged me – sometimes kicking and screaming – to take workshops (“But there will be ARTISTS there!”) and to enter exhibits (I’m not ready, yet”). As a result, I’ve developed confidence and skill, won some awards, become part of a growing body of artists in our area, and have also begun to reach out to share and encourage others. It’s good to toss in a stone and begin our own ripples of influence.
On the treadmill
Jane Morgan, Louisville, KY, USA
I purchased your book last year and took it on an art trip to Italy this year (Riva del Garda, Verona, Venice, and Padova). We returned home the end of June. I started reading the book going over and had to put it aside. I am now reading it everyday as I walk on the treadmill. I am finding it very interesting and wish I could take the time to sit down and finish it. I thought it was ironic on this newsletter that it fell within the “time issue” we all have to deal with. I especially like some of the comments — like setting aside on your calendar a time to either read about art or do art! When I finish the book I will let you know.