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A Complex Geology

Nova Scotia’s geology rivals it’s political history in complexity: the land itself is a hybrid of disparate formations from across the Atlantic. The northern region was a part of, in geology speak, Avalonia, a shifting microcontinent that was torn between Gondwana and Laurasia during the re-shuffling of the earths’ crust. The southwest region, where I am staying, is called Meguma, and was a shard of North Africa that clung to America during the break-up of Pangea. Like a telltale paint chip on an offending hit-and-run car, the rocks I look over as I gaze at the bay match those found in Morocco. If the Acadians had been around then, they could have just clung to this shifting rock instead of immigrating in the wretched boats that initially brought them here.

Walking along the rocky shore, this tangled geology can be read in the rainbow of colors and textures underfoot. Sometimes the stones are perfectly ordered, like at Belliveau Cove, where it is hard to believe that the beach was not trucked in and mechanically raked like the shores of New Jersey. In other places, small rocks and large boulders compete for space in the tidal zone between the mats of rubbery seaweed and the jutting cliffs of tilted layers of what was once soft shale, which forms the bedrock here. It is not like the loose layered stone of my homeland in the Finger Lakes, whose horizontally stacked flat layers form an easy reading of the past 300 million years or so. The grey rock here has been through some hard times: cracked, bent and heated under pressure. Long straight fissures—familiar sights in the gorges back home–are all filled with white quartz, so that it looks as if someone ran back and forth with a leaking bucket of white paint. A cave at Smugglers Cove Park, used to hide booze during prohibition, is the result of a ten foot wide intrusive dike of black lava being eroded as the surf pounded away at it. The park signage refers only to the colorful recent history and makes no mention of the much more interesting black stripe that crosses the cove. Across the bay, a long finger of land intervenes between the Bay of Fundy. Its basalt lava cliffs, which gleam orange in the afternoon sun, mark the edge of another geologic region. To complicate (or enrich) things further, the glaciers brought granites, gabbros, conglomerates and other rocks from the North as they spilled over the land, dropping them here before melting and retreating. The pounding surf and flowing meltwater polished the stones and arranged them on the beach for tourist to gather and take back to their homes. Eventually, these house bound collections will spill out into the gardens of foreign landscapes; certain to confound future geologists.

Despite this complicated history, there is an underlying order here, where the ocean meets the land. Even the range of hues in the seaweed seems informed by the multicolored rocks. I try to refrain from photographing every other stone, or worse, collecting them all, and keep my work focused on the more didactic, with an eye towards the aesthetic. I turn over stones and probe crevices in an attempt to understand the Gestalt of the big picture: that which binds the animate to the inanimate, the mundane with the extraordinary and me to everything else.

work shot at Baie St MArie, Nova Scotia         nova scotia.060914.a.0205

work shot at Baie St Marie, Nova Scotia    work shot at Baie St MArie, Nova Scotia          

IMG_2438    work shot at Baie St MArie, Nova Scotiawork shot at Baie St MArie, Nova Scotia

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Process

Once I’ve determined my process, I challenge myself to stick with it. Unraveling wet, stinky beach rope that I pull out from the nooks and crannies on the rocky beach has it’s discouraging moments. As both taskmaster and worker, I force myself to completion with the same kind of discipline that got me through marathons in what, now, seems like a past life. Hunkered down in the midst of flotsam covered with rotting tidal muck I become lost in the process and fall into a meditative rhythm. Slipping into the scene, I notice things that the hurried approach of our modern lives tends to sidestep. Yesterday, right about the time I was daydreaming about all the disgusting things I might find in the tangle of grossness, I heard a rustle from under the rocks. A minute later, the brown, furry face of a mink was poking out, curious as to what I was up to. I began to notice other wildlife: grey seals with their raspy breathing as they surfaced for air, and loons, whose yodeling reminded me of the Adirondacks. Watching the ocean requires the patience of a monk but is rewarding not just for what you might see, but for the state of mind that ensues.

My mindless labor leads me to all sorts of fruitful thinking. I’ve worked all sorts of jobs–from teaching college to digging ditches; it’s the menial jobs I’ve had doing things like house painting, mowing lawns or sanding floors that have coincided with my most productive periods of creative thought. I’m not very good at sitting still, so I might as well be productive while I ruminate about life.

Process oriented art lends itself to emotional outcomes. I’m reminded of Jackie Winsor, a post minimalist sculptor who was a native of Newfoundland. She created a series of sculptures–mostly cubes–that were meticulously built of layers and layers. Once completed, she would make gut decisions that often resulted in the degradation of the work and then a final resurrection (Burnt Piece, Exploded piece, Dragged Piece). I was fortunate enough to be her escort for a day in 1985, when I was a grad student at Cornell. Our long conversations made me aware of a way of working where the repetitive actions of making could become an act of self-revelation and that expression wasn’t necessarily predictable. At the airport, we were so engrossed in conversation, she almost missed her flight. My working process here is like getting lost in a really good conversation, except that the dialogue is internal.

Eventually, my steady work leads to small triumphs: a knot untied, a freed loop of rope, then, finally, after three or four hours: from a wet lump of flotsam, I have extracted 450 feet of good rope!

work shot at Baie St MArie, Nova Scotia work shot at Baie St MArie, Nova Scotia work shot at Baie St MArie, Nova Scotia work shot at Baie St MArie, Nova Scotia work shot at Baie St MArie, Nova Scotia work shot at Baie St MArie, Nova Scotia

Beach Rope

Like a tourist reaching the ocean for the first time, my first mission upon arriving here at Baie Ste. Marie was to explore the beach. Not finding the rope-lined paths down the rocky bluff that I was given direction to, I took a gamble and headed straight over the guard rail. After negotiating boulders and dense undergrowth I landed on the rocky shore and was immediately confronted with a dense tangle of fishing rope caught up in the driftwood skeleton of a tree. Instantly I saw the potential for metaphor: the entropic mass representing the chaotic force of nature, the ebb and flow of the tides pushing and pulling on the ropes, eventually twisting them free from their utilitarian purpose and turning them into flotsam; rejected by the ocean as a plastic intrusion. The conflict was ubiquitous: everywhere I looked I saw tangled masses of rope caught on the rocks. The chaos somehow relates to my current state: here I am, four weeks from home, alone and with only a vague sense of purpose. Sorting the mess out seems like the natural thing to do.

I  began with the all-too-familiar exercise of untangling: un-twisting, pulling, and separating the organic from the inorganic. Rope has memory: on the deck of a boat, rope is carefully coiled so that is can easily slip into the water. The diameter of the coil relates to the natural motions of the arm swinging in arcs as one layer is laid on the next. The next time it is coiled it will remember this arc and fall easily into a similar circle. Poorly coiled rope easily tangles, and worse, can grab at ankles or hands as the weighted lobster trap pulls it’s tethers into the deep. The violence of the tidal currants pushes and pulls on these ropes, spinning the traps, twisting and binding the rope until it forgets the gentle circling of the fisherman’s arm. Eventually it breaks free and is ejected onto the rocky shore, sometimes, dragging the traps and buoy with it. Most of the rope is plastic polypropylene, which does not bend easily. Some of it has been so twisted that it forms freakishly deformed nodules of knots, like cancerous growths, that splay out from the main trunk. Some rope is cotton, which is softer and more flexible, with fibers that have a softer touch to the hand. This rope easily forgets the violence of the tides and falls easily back into coils. The softer rope will sink whereas the plastic rope will float. In some cases, the Lobstermen want the advantages of both: the buoy end to sink so as not foul the approaching boat, and the lower end to rise up as the traps are pulled. In this case, the two ropes are woven together, end to end, to form one length. The weave intrigues me as does the variety of colors in the bits of plastic rope that peek out from the rocks. The more I think about it, the more I see more layers of meaning waiting for my interpretation.

In the next few weeks will try to untangle the ropes and weave together all of the colored bits of rope I find, putting the rope back on the beach with a kind of absurd logic,  and documenting my process as I proceed.

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work shot at Baie St MArie, Nova Scotia untagling flotsam 3 untangling flotsam 2 untangling rope # 5 Untitled-1

Baie Sainte-Marie

I am on the west side of Nova Scotia, on Baie Sainte-Marie, for a four week artist’s residency. I have been awarded use of second home, over looking the bay, generously offered up for artists-alumni of Maine College of Art who wish, or need, a respite from the hassles of daily life so that they can focus on their work.

My work, as of late, deals with developing a dialogue with specific places. Having only a vague notion of what I’d find here, my mission is to explore and learn about the landscape and the people who call this home. The region defines itself as Acadian, a culture defined by a people that originated from France, but who, historically, have been shoved back and forth between French and English Rule. After a while they just didn’t care any more and had no interest in the politics or wars that were dictated from thousands of miles away. “Arcadie,” the name used on early maps, means a land of beauty and tranquility; the Acadian way of life has come to mean a peaceful and free-spirited existence. Despite their neutrality, Acadians became the scapegoats in many of the French and English conflicts; they suffered deportations and worse for not claiming allegiance to the ruling party du jour. A map of the Acadian diaspora hanging in the over sized, open kitchen that is quickly becoming my seat of operations, looks like a tangle of yellow lines with arrows going back and forth across the Atlantic, between France and the Americas.

Although only about twenty percent of the people here make a living harvesting the natural resources of the land and sea, the culture is inextricably tied to the water. The ebb and flow of the tide–which varies by tens of feet—is evident miles inland as rivers reverse direction twice daily and bridges alternately kiss the water and then stand on spindly legs. A road map of Nova Scotia is simply a lasso of one or two lines that follow the shore. Tendrils of roads reach into the blank interior, fading as they leave the coast; life here is wedded to the coast. In my time here I will focus on this relationship and keep my eyes to the sea.

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waiting for the ferry in St. John

IMG_1572 work shot at Baie St MArie, Nova Scotia

Sunsets may be a worn cliche- but they do inspire a creative mood.

Sunsets may be a worn cliche- but they do inspire a creative mood.

The Glacier’s Receding

series from university sand and gravel

For the past year or so, I have been photographing in the gravel pit in Brooktondale where I live. Geologically speaking, the site is a hanging delta, one of the many remnants of the ice age that define the topography of the region. It is a place where rushing melt waters met an enormous post-glacial lake and laid down deposits of sand, gravel, clay and the occasional erratic boulder, oddballs from places to the north. During the Pleistocene epoch, flowing sheets of ice inundated the landscape and bull dozed deep valleys. As each wave of ice retreated, torrents of melt water finished the work: rounding hills, filling valleys and moving material. Water has a way of separating materials: coarse from fine, rocks from sand; this is visible in modern rivers and deltas. The sand and gravel operation simply takes nature’s process one step further and uses machinery to sort the stones by size and clean the sand, providing an essential commodity for the region.

Having spent so much time in the western landscape of rock and sand, it is only natural that I am drawn to this barren landscape, devoid of vegetation, and full of rough textures and muted colors. The sky is wide open here, making it good place for star-gazing. The relative seclusion allows me to do my work without having to explain myself. My favorite time to explore is on a bleak winter day, with a thin layer of snow and late in the afternoon, under slate gray skies. Then, the pit feels like the glacial remnant that it is. Piles of rock mingle with the shores of vast ponds, pathways meander and the workings of the machinery are confused with the workings of nature. At first it seems like chaotic destruction, but then an orderly process of collaboration with the forces of nature becomes apparent. From certain angles, the piles mimic the surrounding hills, carved by the glaciers, and the frozen ponds look like rivers of ice. Glimpses of machinery, each assigned a primary color, reel everything back into scale.
Some might consider such an excavation as an insult to the landscape; certainly the extractive process of mining is often open to criticism. But, here, I am only reminded that the biggest mover of earth has been nature herself, and that she probably isn’t done yet. By peeling back the layers of the earth and exposing the geologic history, the scale of our impact on the history of the planet, becomes clear. We are probably more insignificant than we think. A future wave of ice will surely come and erase all of this effort and rework the landscape once more.

 gravel pit university sand and gravel

series from university sand and gravel

 gravel pit university sand and gravel

gravel pit university sand and gravel

series from university sand and gravel

gravel pit university sand and gravel

The Life of an Artist

The paintings of Donald Roy Thompson, who has been consistently creating work for  fifty-five years, fall loosely into the category of color-field abstraction.  Although Don is married to my aunt, Mary Dudley, who is also an artist, I don’t call him “Uncle Don”; we treat each other more as peers, fellow artists trying to make sense out of the direction we took as artists. Mary, however, is clearly my aunt and always looking out for me and supporting my career whenever possible. Don and Mary have chosen to move from the cultural hinterlands of Lynden, Washington, five miles from the Canadian border, to the creative hotspot of Santa Fe, New Mexico. One of my day jobs is being an art preparator at a college art gallery so it seems only fitting that they enlisted me to handle and transport all of Dons art.

Like most artists who are not “established”, Don finds himself near the end of his career yet, still, somehow “emerging”. He retired ten years ago from thirty years of teaching Art at a California College. Now, when not dealing the complications of life after 70, he dedicates himself fully to his art. Many teaching artist are moderately successful, building a résumé of shows to fulfill the academic expectation of professional activity, but most never achieve the real success of having gallery shows that sell at a level that makes the work self-sustaining. Unless there is spousal support or a trust fund involved, teaching and other day jobs are a necessity of life for artists who often don’t flourish until their later years when the financial safety nets are rewoven by returns on investments or inheritances, allowing a total immersion into the creative process. Many less fortunate simply give up.

Their new house is in a development called El Dorado (literally: a fictitious city abounding in gold), which is either completely sarcastic or uplifting depending on your views of new age spirituality. Building codes religiously dictates style: the flat-roofed adobe houses all give nod to the aesthetic traditions of the region that served to inspire artists like Georgia O’keefe.  Here, Don hopes to create new paintings and find solid gallery representation, hopefully receiving a return on the decades of hard work he has put into his career.  The new work will be augmented by a cache of work representing years of thematically connected bodies of work, each a fresh investigation into the relationship between color, pattern, and shape; often with an experimental approach to the underlying structure of the painting: stretched canvas, loose canvas, wooden panel or  shaped construction.  All of the work is  executed with a care, precision and planning that is foreign to most of today’s hot young artists.

I lost count, but it was easily over a thousand paintings we loaded into the back of a twenty-six foot Penske rental truck. Each piece was neatly wrapped in bubble wrap and plastic and loaded in an orderly fashion until there was only enough space for a folded table before closing the gate. When the truck was opened in Santa Fe it would serve as a bulkhead to hold back the tide of all of that work.

It took three thirteen-hour days to drive the 1800 miles from Lynden to Santa Fe. Don followed behind in his car anxiously staring at the yellow rear gate of the truck as if at any moment it could spring open and spew the entire corpus of his work all over the western landscape. The truck labored over countless mountain passes at 35 mile per hour with flashers on to warn other drivers of our slow and arduous progress. We crossed the never-ending series of mountain passes and broad flat expanses of Idaho, Utah, Wyoming and Colorado. As on each of my western journeys, the landscape had me completely mesmerized and enthralled but with out the air-ride suspension of a big rig, both load and driver suffered the heaves and bumps of the decaying interstate highway system. When we reached my cousin Ann’s house a few miles from Mary and Don’s new house, Don literally passed out from exhaustion and required a night in the local emergency room.

After a day’s recovery we loaded all of it into a storage unit, leaning stacks and stacks of art against the corrugated metal walls with barely enough room to walk between them. The irony of the moniker “self storage” was not lost on me as we tried to fit the entire body of his life’s work into the rectangular box of a space. I could not help but think that this could be a conceptual gallery show: The space being barely accessible, the viewer would have to imagine the work like one of Christo’s wrapped pieces.

In the moment it mattered not what the art looked like. Veiled behind translucent sheets of plastic, only titles and dates, carefully marked on each package, revealed a steady chronology that predates my existence. The shapes of the packages gave clues to an investigation of form and process: rectangular canvases, framed panels, rolled canvases, modular framed structures, flat panels and traditionally framed and matted works. The works I handled were only the beauties: Don alluded to piles of failed works that were tossed to the landfill; seemingly tragic, but to the artist, a necessary part of the constant renewal and objective self critique. The mark of a true artist may be measured by not what he keeps, but by what he rejects. The ability to adapt and evolve are crucial to survival.

The work awaits an uncertain future. Will it remain wrapped in a storage unit indefinitely?  Will it be selectively pulled out and reviewed by curators and collectors? Will it be catalogued and documented in a book format?  Will it be given away in a steady trickle to friends and relatives? Or will it be forgotten and end up on an episode of Treasure Hunters, the reality show where bidders guess the value of abandoned storage units. This is the unspoken question of any artist: what will become of what I make?  Which leads to next the question: why make anything at all? or: why bother being an artist?

As the big yellow truck filled with art rolled across the formidable landscape, it mirrored the voyage of the artist. Facing obstacles, constant self-affirmation and courage is needed to keep investing in a process that reaps shallow financial returns year after year.  Hopefully the new environment will be transformative for Don and like the butterfly escaping the cocoon, he will soon become emergent.

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The West, from Above

flight to Californai may  2013Recently, I took a plane to California.  I am not a big a fan of air travel; the idea of walking into a tin can in on one side of the country and stepping out on the other seems all wrong to me.  However, the chance to look out over the land – the same landscape that I drove across one year earlier – from 30,000 feet, is an enticement.
Perfectly patterned 1 mile squares and corresponding pivot irrigation circles extend across the flat plains like some infinite game board.  Entire drainage systems play out in one glance: gullies lead to streams which lead to rivers like the roots of a tree or the veins beneath our skin. Wrinkles and folds evolve into chains of mountains, which rise and fall like the waves on the ocean; which, I will see by the end of the day.  From the air one sees that the Rockies are not just one long chain of mountains, but many, cradling broad basins between ridges.  If the pioneers could have seen this, it is doubtful they would have ever left St. Louis. The west is vast and unforgiving, full of dark emptiness at night, and lacking the usual detritus of civilization.  At least that is my memory of it .

 flight to Californai may  2013      flight to Californai may  2013

Now, I see a new kind of pattern: lines and blotches like some skin disease, the scars of some parasite. Regularly spaced rectangular flags connected by straight and winding lines, crazy, every which way, on hills, valleys, near towns, and in the dark patches of wilderness.  These are the well pads, pipelines and service roads of the oil and gas industry.  Once recognized, you see them everywhere.
Whereas the circles and squares of agriculture seem benignly purposeful, the work of an architect; the new patterns seem random and senseless, the work of some cockroach who has wandered through wet paint.  They irk me because I know what they are and they violate my memory of the open land  that I have crossed many times since childhood.  Around me in the plane, all shades are drawn and eyes are glued to flickering screens. Am I the only one seeing this?

flight to Californai may  2013                 flight to Californai may  2013

Nearing San Francisco, a singular recognizable form emerges: Half Dome of Yosemite Park.  It was here that the controversy over Hetch Hetchy Dam gave birth to the environmental movement (a controversy still unresolved). I could not resist tapping the kid in front of me, whose shade was up, exclaiming, “look, there’s Half Dome!”
We are a nation becoming ignorant of the beauty we need to save. The wilderness of the west has been equated with freedom, ultimate beauty and even God. Now, that same freedom has devolved into a license to destroy for personal gain. Perhaps, in accordance with the views of the 19th Century American Romantic painters, it is nature that will prevail, healing herself with time, and we who are transient.

flight to Californai may  2013

Creekline

It’s been a long time since I left Oregon in April and I apologize for leaving readers hanging. I’ve been back here in the greenery of the Finger Lakes for 6 months and only now do I feel like I have the time and focus to digest all that transpired in the high desert and to translate those feelings into new work.

The trip home was not as pleasant as the trip west. I booked it back in five days so I could deal with the impending uncertainties awaiting me; I had nowhere to live, a relationship had unraveled, I needed to make money and my hand was still injured and possibly needing surgery. 12 hour days of over-caffeinated road vibration coupled with the magnetic allure of the open plains had me clinging to the steering wheel at times as if the car was literally sliding off of the road. It was like the landscape was trying to swallow me and could consume me with out a trace. I felt like Harry Dean Stanton’s character in Wim Wender’s Paris Texas, wandering out of the desert without any memory of who he was before. Relieving myself by the side of the road, staring into an endless expanse of sagebrush, it seemed like I could piss my entire existence out right there onto the gravel, leaving nothing but a stain that would soon evaporate. Save for the mysteriously abandoned car, no one would know I ever existed. As an artist, I think this is the sort of anxiety we carry with us throughout our careers; the thought that we will most likely remain unknown and that for all the work that we do, our mark on the world may become nothing more than a stain on a sidewalk, noticeable perhaps in the moment of it’s making, but otherwise quietly stepped over and avoided.

Standing on top of the ridge above Paisley caves, one of America’s oldest established sites of human habitation, on my last full day at Playa, I scoured the eastern horizon with my eyes. Nothing but sagebrush for hundreds of miles. The sight of a wild horse, the embodiment of the notion of western freedom, would have elated me, but instead I was left with a gripping tightness in my gut, a fear of the complete emptiness. 14,000 years ago someone probably stood in the exact spot and took in the same view. What were they thinking? Did they fear the open space or see it as a vast resource? Were the rock paintings they left behind simply a calling card, like a modern graffiti tag, to say “I was here”, or, are they a more complex response to the wide open landscape, perhaps probing un-namable feelings of existential isolation as the solitary artist trekked from camp to camp?

Once home I found a great apartment in the little hamlet of Brooktondale. There’s a little store down the street with the perfect combination of creaking wooden floors and wifi. A community center hosts a Saturday farmer’s market and has community gardens. My apartment hovers over a creek with wonderful waterfall and swim hole. I go to sleep at night soothed by the rushing gurgle of the water. On really hot days this summer, cars would line the street as the swim hole was filled with bathers from every walk of life. I love the simple purity of it, the mix of kids and adults, the egalitarian camaraderie. Now that summer is over I go there just to sit or photograph the water. I’ve always been drawn to creeks as a place to become absorbed in nature and step away from life. The sound of the water drowns out worries and the tight little gorge takes you below the level of life above, into a place of quiet reflection. It is similar to but sort of antithetical to being in the wide open desert. It has become my daily cure for the stresses of returning to normal life.

One day while enjoying a beer by the water my neighbor stopped me and decided to enforce her authority over the creek she claims the rights to. I politely engaged her and we talked about the difficult situation of legally owning a swim hole that had been in public use for generations. We acknowledged the problem of accumulating trash and noisy late night parties and the improbability of enforcing her frequently defaced no trespassing signs. I quietly thought it absurd to even claim ownership to something as ephemeral as moving water but I also know that property lines can be tied to archaic agreements, and certainly, the history of the hole as a former mill site meant that there was, at one time, commercial value tied to the control of the water. I thought about this quite a lot over the summer, especially in relation the way lines are drawn even in the vast open of the spaces of the west. Out there, barbed wire fences extend hundreds of miles through seemingly barren sage brush plains, across ravines and up the sides of mesas. Sometimes they denote ownership, sometimes they just keep cattle from wandering too far on public land. Our entire country is built upon ideas of private ownership and the right to protection against encroachment. What is good for the individual is paramount over the good of the community; sharing is an afterthought, limited by contractual agreements and terms of liability. Mistrust is the default.

I looked up the tax map for the swim hole and discovered that it is indeed crisscrossed by a series of boundary lines as complex as the history suggested by the brick, concrete and steel remnants of the former mill structures that cling to the rock faces. One neighbor owns one side of the creek, another, the waterfall itself and the town owns a good chunk of the rest. I decided I had to make another piece, another intervention in the landscape, that addresses this improbability of ownership, this unnatural division. A simple line of stones marking an invisible boundary, a line of tension.

It emulates the first work I did at Playa: a straight line of stones, set by laser, extending hundreds of feet. But the context, among the artificial lines of man-made structures and the underlying geometry of the faulted shale, is completely different. Here, everything is compressed and layered upon something else that existed before. Meaning is derived from this complexity of relationships and nothing or nobody, can be taken as an isolated event. This connection to place, to others and to events that took place before is what feeds the themes in my work; memory, longing, and the search for personal meaning. For me, the wide open vistas of the west are a seductive siren call to letting go of the past, dissolving connections and reinventing oneself; a romantic but failed idea like the Harry Dean Stanton character. For now, I prefer to remember where I came from, who my connections are and be true to who I am.

Creekline: a line of stones set in the creek bed, Six mile creek, Brooktondale, NY

View of Creekline from an overhead bridge

Horizon,Obscured

Lately the weather has continued its shifty assault. A rotating barrage of wind, rain and snow has threatened to undo my sanity. The other night I learned how it must feel to be assigned to the weather station atop Mount Washington in New Hampshire, home the highest recorded wind speed on earth. My bed shook all night like a vibrating bed in a cheap motel that had gone berserk.

Today the horizon has disappeared behind a grey curtain of mist over the lake. The wide open greeting of blue sky and endless vista when I arrived has turned into a cold shoulder, refusing my need to explore the land with my shifting gaze.

I have been working on images of the horizon obscured by dust or smoke, images where the sharp line of earth meeting sky is erased and left vague. Perhaps the weather is trying to help me turn my focus inward rather than out. To stop me from gazing at distant views of unreachable places and to shift my view to what is close at hand and attainable. Perhaps that is the lesson in all of this: to survive in this landscape one must keep focus on things nearby, pay attention to the ground at your feet. Keep the cowboy hat tilted down so that the distant horizon and visions of things that aren’t attainable, not yet, at least, are kept above the shadow of the brim. There are too many tasks that demand immediate attention: cows giving birth, irrigation systems needing mending, alfalfa bales needing loading and unloading. There are things I wanted to see and do here, places beyond the rim of Winter Ridge or the unknown lands to the east I wanted to explore. You can get lost on the sea of the horizon. The tasks that I need to attend to are close by, in the studio with no view.

Wednesday I installed Horizon, Obscured outside on the far edge of the pond where a bench sits, offering a view of the lake. On an eight foot by sixteen inch plywood sheet I painted camouflage, so that the panel would blend in with the sage brush and yellow grass and obscure the view. It is the negative of a blind like those at the far north end of the lake, where hunters will sit in a camouflaged plywood box, guns poking out of a long horizontal slot, waiting to kill the birds that others will drive for days just to see. I was happy with installation although I’ve had no chance to revisit it and sit with it; the minute I finished a whiteout of snow obscured it from view. A brief remission in the weather did allow me to document it but that night hurricane force winds shredded it. Perhaps the weather is not just a teacher but an art critic as well.

Verticality

Playa is stuck in a broad flat basin bounded by the shallow lake on one side and a 3000 foot vertical rise on the other. Since I haven’t figured out a way to egress across the lake, on Thursday I decided to explore the trails which lead to the rim behind us. Several years ago a devastating fire destroyed the forest beneath the shadow of the ridge leaving a tangle of burned pick-up sticks in its wake. Most of the Ponderosa Pines had been weakened or killed by beetles leaving a tinderbox that burned so hot and that it left little to regenerate. The Forest Service roads I tried to follow up towards the ridge were a maze of fallen logs and new growth of Mountain Laurel, which has a peculiar sweet smell slightly reminiscent of burnt plastic. Despite 5 hours of effort, the ridge remained high above me, a vertical fortress topped by curling waves of drifted snow which threatened to thwart any final ascent.

In landscape painting, or landscape photography, there is a dialogue between the horizontal and the vertical. One complements the other. Architecture, formal design, and abstract painting all include a conversation between the two. The constructed world we live in is built on this relationship: posts hold up lintels, lines of prose form columns on the page, designs fit neatly into rectangles. A vertical element is like an erect figure; a horizontal line, the landscape that the figure moves through. A diagonal implies either the spatial rendering of perspective, motion like a leaning runner, or informality, like a slouching teenager half-sliding out of his chair. For a structure to feel whole we assume a system of horizontals and verticals working together to distribute loads uniformly. For a composition to feel whole we listen for this conversation between the parts, the bits and pieces all forming a larger gestalt.

The landscape here lacks a certain verticality. The bushy willows near my cabin which throw their arms about wildly in the wind are a poor excuse for a vertical. Aside from the cliffs of the ridge, the burned out remnants of the pines are the only relief from the incessant horizon and to view those one has to climb halfway up the ridge. While the horizontal view suggests the serenity of a figure lying on the beach, compositionally, it lacks the vitality of a more complex scene.

Yesterday, on my way back from a visit to Eugene, I stopped in the Cascades to snowshoe for several hours through the big trees. The landscape is the opposite of Playa: verticality reigns supreme. The old growth trees soar up beyond the field of view. The growth is so dense that nowhere can you see out. Just as I find it impossible to express the vastness of the open basins, the dense closeness of this forest is impossible to convey. First hand experience is required to understand these trees.

On the way back to Playa I stopped under a high voltage power line to photograph the procession of steel towers across the landscape. The cackle of electricity overhead sounded like a flock of electronic birds. There was something profoundly disturbing and aggressive about the intrusion to the serenity of the broad vista. Heavy insulators hanging from the arms gave them the look of metal aliens reaching for their six-shooters. But there was also something visually gratifying about the towers, their side by side arrangement in two orderly rows, leading your eye to the distant horizon. The visual order was defining the vast space but also implying a larger world beyond the containment of the broad basin; a world of people living in vertical buildings on a horizontal grid of streets. A world of dense closeness that exist in part because of what the wide open spaces of this country have to offer.