Bird Songs at the Acequia
When I go outside to draw and paint I sit for a while to take an inventory of the place. I’m an experienced viewer, so I shut my eyes to give my less trained senses a chance. First, I listen and I often hear birds, insects, wind and planes. Then I pay attention to what my skin is telling me, such as the temperature and the texture of the surface on which I’m sitting, which is too often hard and damp. Next, I pull air through my nose to smell what is near, whether it is sweet, dusty, loamy or spoiled. Finally, I open my eyes to take in the visual array. After registering what I can, I make marks, create shapes and mix colors in response. Drawing from non-visual cues is not as arbitrary as it sounds. Bird song, for example, breaks down into pitch, rhythm and texture, which is translatable to visual imagery. For example, high and low notes are placed accordingly on the page; rhythmic sounds become a sequence of marks that denote the beat; aural textures like raspy or round correspond to jagged or smooth movements of the hand across the page. Color also plays a part. What colors, for example come to mind when the sound is low, round and warm? Or the odor is spicy and sweet? Bird Songs at the Acequia, a suite of paintings, drawings and a print about the landscape of New Mexico, was made with this miraculous kit of perceptual tools that humans enjoy.
This series embraces stylistic variety. “The Sound of Wind in Its Ears” for example, is composed of flat planes of overlapping shapes that come from imagination. In contrast “Crow Talk in Tesuque Canyon: New Mexico”, is primarily representational and drawn from direct observation. Since the underlying principles of design are the same for abstraction as they are for representation, stylistic conformity to one style or the other no longer means much. Stylistic variety, however, has the potential to express the diversity of human experience and as such is a more compelling strategy for contemporary art making.
When drawing and painting out of doors, there isn’t a break between thinking and doing. In the best moments there is no lag between the movement of the sun and the wind and the response of the pencil and the brush. Stimulus and response becomes one thing and the experience is one of feeling very connected with the subject. It’s a delightful state of being in which what is inside gets thoroughly mixed up with what is outside. This loss of consciousness during moments of deep engagement is common and familiar to anyone who has taken a deep dive into reading a book, or cooking a meal, or making love, only to be surprised at just how far away one has been, when swimming back to consciousness, breaking the surface with a shake of the head, to say “Oh, my goodness, where was I? I lost track of time”. These paintings are a record of those kinds of moments and a demonstration of the human potential for a deep kind of empathy.
People rarely appear in my paintings of late, and I’m wondering why. This absence might be the result of an outdated, romantic vision in which nature is sublime and independent. Or the result of painting with blinkers in place to create a fantasy of pristine land. Or more positively, a desire to express the beauty I see and the pleasure I feel when I stand in uninhabited places. But there is something else afoot, less recognized, but no less affective, and it’s a fatalistic belief that humankind will soon fail due to the inability to sustain an ecosystem that supports life for large mammals like ourselves. It’s not a thought that comes to consciousness often, since I am by day optimistic. But repressed thoughts manifest themselves and mine have been driving some aesthetic decisions about how to represent the human relationship with land. As a result, I am painting pictures in which the human trace is scarce and other living things are given pride of place. It’s a useful trend, I think, in this ecologically challenged time, to de-center the human image from art in order to shift the focus to other living things.