We began the new year by visiting family. My son Eli, his partner Becca, and my granddaughter Sage live in Snohomish, Washington, and Dorli and I flew to visit them early on the morning of New Year's Day. When we came home, the first painting I did in the studio was this one. As I've explained here before, I very seldom know what my paintings are about until they're done. I go to my studio and paint what I feel ready to paint, and it's only when I'm done that I sit back, look at it, and ask, "Now what was that about?"
Painting birches is not a default for me. I know by now that when I paint a new "birch portrait," with a group of highly individual birch trunks, it's because I'm pondering something--that the trees, as always in my work, stand in for people, and that through them I'm processing thoughts and feelings. I didn't realize, when I was working on it, that I was painting a portrait of a strong young family like my son's, but when I'd finished, I could see it. Close but individual, strong but vulnerable, beautiful...
Like family, "place"--where I am home--is important to me, so it's not surprising that it's a constant focus of my work. Nearly every day, Dorli and I take a brief afternoon break to walk our dog together, and most days we make the short stroll with her down to an overlook in our subdivision, Taiga Woodlands, that affords a panoramic view of the city of Fairbanks in the foreground and a huge swath of the Alaska Range in the background, including Denali--Mt. McKinley.
It's more than 120 miles, by line-of-sight, from our hillside in Fairbanks to the mountain itself, but especially on the many crisp, clear days of winter, Denali looms above the Chena Ridge hillside on the southwest horizon. Like the auroras at night, which we can see in Fairbanks on average 120 nights a year, the sight of Denali at sunset is something we never tire of admiring.
I visited Denali for two decades before I ever painted it, waiting until I felt I had something personal to say about it in my work. By now, however, I've painted it from as close as six miles from its summit and as far away as Fairbanks, in all seasons, times of day, and weathers, for another two decades. I've painted it enough that I often wonder whether it's possible to paint it again personally, freshly, from a differently evocative perspective. Just this month I've realized that this view--the giant mountain tiny on the horizon, only visible at all because it stands so tall--is yet another way to pay homage to its grandeur.
I'm excited, too, to be collaborating once again with Peggy Shumaker, our dear friend and a former Alaska Poet Laureate, on a new body of work that will be a "conversation" between her poems and my paintings. I was invited last fall by the Alaska Humanities Forum to have an exhibition of my work in the gallery at their Anchorage offices, and I asked Peggy if she'd like to collaborate with me on this venture. I asked her to write a poem, to which I'd respond with a painting, to which she'd respond with a poem, which I'd reply to with another painting, and so on...
I don't like to talk too much about works in progress, even a year-long, many-part work in progress like this new collaboration, so I won't share now the wonderful poem of Peggy's that inspired Three Blues: Mt. Dickey from the Sheldon Hut. This conversation between poet and painter will have many twists and turns in the coming months, and one of the most exciting things about it for me is that I don't know what it will look like when complete. All I'm comfortable telling you now is that the "Three Blues" part of this painting's title is the title of Peggy's initiating poem, and that a passage in her poem "Geology of Wonder," written in response to this painting, helped open my eyes to a way to paint Denali from my home in Taiga Woodlands.
This is the way, I hope and believe, our collaboration will unfold. Each of us will make work not unlike that which we normally make, but our works' conversation will help each of us get outside ourselves enough to see new possibilities, explore new sensibilities, and see ourselves and our work in new ways.