It’s over. Running the boat up onto the waiting trailer — it’s as over as it’s going to get. I’ve always noticed a sense of finality when a boat’s no longer wet.
It hasn’t been your average painting trip. As Richard pointed out, the main thing you can say about this river is that it’s “big.” One sweeping bay merging into another, and another around the bend. One big sky after the other. Not even a lot of subject matter. I’ve seen more in a single kilometer in a place like Brittany.
This river, in all its greatness, has been an opportunity to confront shortage with an attempt at personal abundance. There have been lots of places here to ransack the mindscape. I have the feeling that’s what these sorts of trips are for. Focus is thin; within and without you make what you can with what you find. A twisted stick, a fossil trilobite, a creeping buttercup, becomes treasure. Running out of yellow ochre turned into a re-evaluation of raw sienna. A brush left stiff from the previous summer was made into a new tool. The idea of an art shop around the bend was unthinkable. Under the cathedral of the sky you tend to work with and pay attention to what’s available. Cumulous, Stratus and Cirrus were often the principal actors of our paintings. A lot of vapor.
Over two summers Sara and I have been a thousand miles on this river. Her fiance? Richard joined us for the last lap and added a margin of safety and more joy. Like Noah, we have a boat full of living things. Before the canvas staples rust — many of these 11 x 14s will actually be finished. Emily and Dorothy kept the bears away. Emily received an award as the first Airedale down the Mackenzie. In the sky-kennel in the 737, I’m not sure she knows what she’s accomplished. Who does?
PS: “Everything is a subject; the subject is yourself. It is within yourself that you must look. The greatest happiness is to reveal it to others, to study oneself, to paint oneself continually in [one’s] work.” (Eugene Delacroix)
Esoterica: After this I crave the opposite. I want the soft eiderdown of society, my studio space, the opportunity to hang out with lots of artists. I’ll have the chance too — a two-week workshop starting September 24. Funny about the human mind.
The following are selected responses to the above letter. Thanks for writing.
by Jason B Hines
On trips I have frequently been confronted with a shortage of subject matter — when I had expectations that there would be lots. Also, what I found was not as inspiring as I had expected. For realistic painters particularly, the subject matter can be a crutch and it’s easy to get dependent on it. I have gone a long way, however, when I have not expected anything. As you mention — perhaps the best part of those sorts of trips is just getting in touch with yourself. “Content is more than ‘subject matter.’ It is all the feelings and ideas you bring to your painting.” (Rene Huyghe)
by Mary Jean Mailloux, Oakville, Ontario, Canada
We have a cottage on the tip of the Bruce Peninsula in Northern Ontario. Though not as remote as the Mackenzie River, it might as well be when it comes to buying art supplies. Nada. Also it is very wild and one wonders how many times one can paint the canoe and what to do when the wild columbine are finished for the year. So I can identify when you say that the wild buttercup was manna as subject matter. I also agree that each painting is of oneself, at least it exposes our sight. I also agree heartily with the comment about lightening up on plagiarism. How can you put paint to canvas and think that what you are doing is not going to look like someone else’s style. Isn’t copying the sincerest form of flattery?
Time to feel
by Beryl Bainbridge, West Central Alberta, Canada
Mosquitoes and black flies duly appreciated, was your trip really long enough in terms of being quiet and listening? Were you moving with the river each day and speaking your painting language to yourself and communicating with the cyber crowd? In one of my emigrations, to Australia, it was exactly when I could see or feel no variety and contrast in the ‘bush’, the flies and heat seemed intolerable, the isolation of having removed to the Southern hemisphere and its strange night-time constellations gave such sense of apartness — it was then that I began to notice the play of steely light on the black-boy shrubs, on the prickly grasses and sands; the beauty of widely spaced wild plants/flowers, and the solace that came with drawing and painting in wide, seemingly empty spaces. When it came time to emigrate yet again (to Canada) the richness of these places had granted me new ways of seeing and feeling. Canada, especially in the West, was like a Garden of Eden by comparison!!
by Sherry J. Purvis, Kennesaw, GA, USA
Alice Smith in “Loosen Up” (last responses) pretty much summed it up. Where do we as a society draw the line? Do we listen to the whiners who think they have cornered the market on creativity or do we continue to go to museum, galleries, exhibitions, books and expand our own creative process. I guess I just don’t understand. For years I have thought that there truly was a pinnacle to reach. Not. I now know that to continue trying different styles and techniques makes me reach and reach for whatever is out there. Guess what, I have a style, but it is ever changing and evolving. When we look at those who use massive amounts of color, who are bold in there paintings, who seem to have it figured out, do they or are they simply experimenting in areas that have already been delved into? I think yes. I think it would be a travesty for all of us as artists to have any individual, critic or not, decide that we copied someone’s work. To copy a painting stroke for stroke is not at all what I am talking about, but to try and master or emulate a style is worthy of the learning process. I do find it hard to believe that some artists are so insecure that they think they can have it all and no one can come near what they have produced. I beg your pardon — there should be no censorship of the possibilities. If you truly know how to handle a medium and convey your thought process as art then who among us can judge us. I am constantly amazed that “Political Correctness” is now filtering down into even the art world. Amazing. I just wonder how many of you will buy into it.
Vacancy of vision
by Leonard Druce
In “The subject is in yourself” we have the crux of the imitation matter. Some artists are totally incapable of looking within themselves. This may be because there is not much in there, or it may be that they lack the skills of artistic introspection. They must forever be dependent on someone else’s vision for their own inspiration because they themselves are vacant of it. They must constantly ransack the work of the truly skilled and innovative until a bundle of second hand recipe cards gives a feeling of security and the optimism for possible success. Unfortunately, many high profile artists are in this camp.
Yin and Yang
by W. P. Hansen, Copenhagen, Denmark
What you’re experiencing (in your desire to do the opposite) is the natural yin and yang of creativity. We all do this. When an artist fills his soul with one environment and its contingent artistic problems, he then yearns for something different. It is these mixes, the cutting from frame to frame that an artist needs to enrich his vision. Whether it’s done internally with the mind, or by physical travel — the result is the same. Something to guard against, however, is too much running around for its own sake.
The choices we make
by Radha Saccoccio NYC, USA
I got back photographs from my trip to Ireland a week after returning. Although there are some beauties among them that I will cherish when trying to conjure up specificity of beauty, compared to the space inside me created by my experience, the pictures were incomplete. My spirit expanded with the heart of Ireland. The land, history, the animals, the sea, the lightness and hospitality of the people… all opened up a space within me. There seemed to be a wonderful simplicity in attitude toward life that I admire. When asking directions one night to a pier in Wexford, a man gave some specifics and then said, “Just follow your nose.” This could be regarded as perfectly useless, but I see it as great advice to stay on track, know that it’s really very simple so don’t question the simplicity just go with it. In the big picture, don’t complicate life and you’ll arrive where you need to be. There’s nothing like direct off-the-cuff wisdom. This rings for me also, because it’s something in life that takes me directly to the core if I am brave enough to embrace it. It’s a choice.
East and west
by Jurate Macnoriute, Vilnius, Lithuania
Russian artists are at a high level, have a strong academic basis and sometimes look crookedly at Western art. When I studied in Vilnius (Lithuania) Art Institute in 1975-83, some of our teachers visited similar schools in UK etc. and came to the conclusion that our work was many more times stronger. In our country schools of classical drawing and painting survived, when in West at most they faded away. In our country the profession of artist was prestige and the best pupils entered art schools. Now things are changed — what was good has disappeared, what was bad has grown.
Wonder of clouds
by Anne Preston, UK
If we were to become brilliant with the rendition of vapor, that would be enough. In clouds and all of their nuances there is enough for a lifetime of study and joy. Do not be disheartened when clouds are all there is. Clouds are the spirit and vapor is the mystery that makes many a painting successful — perhaps because clouds are up there next to heaven. Also, they engage because of the challenge. The more I paint clouds the more “I really don’t know clouds at all.”
Art will cure the souls
by Yaroslaw, Olga Knyaz, Russia
You send your letters via satellite phone from shipboard and I read these in my Moscow flat. That is OK, it is civilization. Of course, Tuktoyaktuk people must have to eat in winter. Of course, it is anachronism to kill the whales to have food. But who can help those people have job and other food. Where are the fantastic beings calling as sponsors or more correct it must be the government program to give the job for those people and save the whales? One missile costs enough to have food for all Tuktoyaktuk. Are you not agree? Are existing the peaceful ways to regulate the Yugoslavian and Iraq problem? The Yugoslavia is not far from Moscow, to bomb Europe because of criminal leaders it is crazy enough. To kill unguilted people in the Yugoslavia is the crime accordingly to laws of the USA and Canada. It is so crazy as to bomb Montreal in order to stop criminality in the Canada. But this absurdity is reality, who could believe; the good and polite gentleman can do it? The Hiroshima was not necessity, the Belgrade now is not necessity, the Moscow tomorrow will be not necessity. Of course, such crazy people are existing even by us. The art must cure the souls of these crazy men to become normal people. It is our mission to help even these people to understand the World via art influence.
(RG note) The workshop I was referring to in the above letter is at Painter’s Lodge on Vancouver Island, British Columbia. It runs from September 24th to October 8th 2001. It’s sponsored by International Artist Magazine and it’s a pretty high-end affair. Painter’s Lodge and surroundings have some of the most beautiful places I’ve ever painted — I’m really looking forward to sharing this experience. I’ll be there to help everybody in all ways I can to the best of my ability. My fellow instructor will be Stephen Quiller — an artist who is really at the top of his form doing workshops these days. It’s a bit of a new thing for me — I’ve never done one this extensive before. If you’re interested there may be some openings still available.
I also thought it might be fun to enlist a volunteer or two to help with the four Twice-Weekly letters which will be written while at Painter’s Lodge, and also to help in the choosing and editing of the responses. Let me know if you’re interested. Thanks.