In a moment of weakness a couple of months ago, I responded positively to my longtime friend Yolande Fejes' invitation to be included in a group exhibition she's hosting of artwork about the aurora--the "Northern Lights"-- at her Alaska House Gallery this March. Friends were surprised and amused to hear that I'd accepted that invitation. For many years, I taught a graduate Northern Studies course at the University of Alaska called "Visual Images of the North." In this course about the art of Alaska, Canada, Scandinavia, and northern Russia, one of the lectures I gave each semester was titled "Trying to Paint the Aurora." I showed more than 100 paintings, drawings, and prints of or about the aurora, from medieval times to the present, concluding that no one had ever done an entirely successful one. I always told my students that if the great 19th Century American landscape painter Frederic Church couldn't do it, we probably couldn't either, and perhaps we should leave the aurora to God.
As the time for the exhibition neared, I dithered with increasing anxiety about how I might respond to the challenge I'd accepted, and it wasn't until one day a couple of weeks ago, on one of our regular morning runs through the birch forest, that an idea came to me. Aurora Betula is the result.
Betula, of course, is the scientific name for birches, and my initial thought was that it might be nice to make a little fun of my own obsession with birches and the boreal forest as a subject. Some of my favorite auroral images date back to medieval times, long before scientists learned the real cause of these beautiful, ghostly lights in the night sky. Early artist-observers imagined them as the light from celestial battles, Valkyrie maidens escorting fallen warriors to Valhalla, mythical celestial foxes with their tails on fire, and other wonderful, fanciful explanations. Why, I thought, couldn't they be supernatural birches, sheltering the earth and the more earthbound spruces below in a heavenly arc?
I had no idea what fun it would be making such a painting, and I'm grateful to Yolande and Alaska House Gallery for the challenge that prompted this big, fanciful, celestial scene.
Unlike auroras, portraits of friends are something I have done before, but not for a long while. More than a decade ago, I had a solo show of a dozen or more large (more than four-times life-size) oil pastel portraits, but I've only done a handful since--one every few years. In that first batch of portraits was one of my longtime friend, extraordinary writer Frank Soos, and it hangs on the wall in the living room of the beautiful home he shares with his equally extraordinary artist wife Margo Klass. Every time we've gone to dinner there, I've looked at it and thought I should do one of Margo, too, so in December I finally did.
The same size and medium as the one of Frank, it's handled in exactly the same way--very abstract up close, and somewhat expressionist in color, but quite realistic, from far away. I don't know whether they will hang the two together, but I'll enjoy knowing I've tried to bring not just one, but both of their images to life in my own way.