I’m laptopping you from M.V. Mareva, near Chatterbox Falls at the head of Princess Louisa Inlet on Canada’s west coast. Surrounded by the glaciated walls of sky-scraping mountains, it’s a wonder that we’re getting satellite service in here. The rocky defiles are vertically lined with narrow rivulets and cascading waterfalls, some of them hundreds of metres in height. Today, Chatterbox is swollen and thundering from the melting snowcaps above, producing a mist that hangs out over the glass-smooth inlet like a shroud. At the base of the falls there’s a lush ecosystem of startling abundance. Through the glowing mist, lichen-covered rocks sparkle and shine. Below, at water’s edge, multiple rainbows arch above leaping salmon as in a fantasized mural. Salmonberry, bunchberry, wild rose, maidenhair fern and buttercups dance under the moist forest canopy. Hermit thrushes, unseen, defend their privacy, chickadees kibitz in the cedars, and sleek black slugs take their time along the mossy trails.
For realists as well as poets, this is the kind of environment that asks for decisions: There’s the overall wonder of the place, and then there’s the charm of the details. It’s a choice between a wide-angle and a close-up lens, between spirit and specificity.
What is the meaning of a place? Is it power, majesty, mystery, tranquility? Is it the light — or is it some unknowable thing? Why do we delight in unspoiled places? Is it possible that we simply impress ourselves with the effort we make to get to such places? Is it necessary to ask these sorts of questions?
While we artists may not have all the answers, we are in the business of looking for them. Out and about in the making of our art, we become a part of nature. “To be alone with nature is to be one with nature,” my late friend, the painter Peter Ewart, used to say. Then he would look wistfully at the sky and say, “I can’t complain.”
I’m thinking that being alive in this thundering cathedral is about as close to the divine spirit as I’m going to get. I’m thinking all of this is a cosmic privilege that some of us have been gracefully granted. And making this little item that I dare to call my art is the highest attempt at praise and prayer that slugs like me are likely to emit in this lifetime.
PS: “I don’t dig beneath the surface for things that don’t appear before my own eyes.” (John Singer Sargent)
Esoterica: Sargent claimed never to paint “scenes.” He painted what was in front of him, without asking for meaning or significance — the corner of a tent, the remains of a campfire, other painters painting. Anything that challenged his virtuosity or aroused his interest. Everything was there to be worked out, studied, scraped off, repainted, until he hit the desired effect. And just to make it look easy, he finished with a flourish. Over several days in 1916 he laboured on a large oil of Yoho Falls in Canada’s Rocky Mountains. He grumbled only about the incessant roar of the falls and the discomfort of snow falling on his bottom during morning ablutions.
This letter was originally published as “Spirit and specificity” on June 13, 2006.
“The big artist… keeps an eye on nature and steals her tools.” (Thomas Eakins)
Do Your Art! Join Ellie Harold (7 Habits of Deeply Fulfilled Artists) for an art immersion experience 4 blocks from Lake Michigan, near beautiful Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Two sessions offered: 3-day June 27-29 ($375) and 4-Day August 28 – 31 ($450).
Energize Your Art Life. The Open Studio format promotes the unfolding of your creative process. Each day you’ll enjoy content and demos related to authentic mark-making, painting as process, and intuitive color along with guided prompts and mentoring topics. New painters as well as more experienced artists desiring a deeper involvement with their art will find the Open Studio Workshops invaluable.
All levels and media welcome. Some oil painting experience is desirable, although complete beginners have also benefited from the workshops. If you’d like to try oil painting for the first time or want to refresh, basic color mixing will be reviewed on the first day of each session. Optional materials/equipment provision available Off-site lodging within walking distance.
For more information and testimonials, visit Ellie’s website.