Through my studio window, I'm watching snow fall on a late September morning. Five inches on the ground and more coming down steadily. We've gone from early autumn, to late autumn, to winter in a couple of weeks. I like that it's so inexorable.
That inexorable rush from season to season, in the boreal forest and in life, is one of the major subjects of a yearlong conversation I've been having with my friend, former Alaska Poet Laureate Peggy Shumaker, through her poems and my paintings. On September 11 we were able to see all the products of that discourse together for the first time, on the walls of the Alaska Humanities Forum in Anchorage. We are both so grateful to the Forum, its director Nina Kemppel, and its curator Christina Barber for providing this impetus to engage in another collaboration and a beautiful space to show its results.
The opening reception was a wonderful opportunity to share the full scope of the conversation with others, from Peggy's husband Joe and my wife Dorli to scores of writers, artists, and other friends who came out on a Second Friday to help us celebrate. The Humanities Forum encourages exhibiting artists to do a talk about their work at the opening, and we took full advantage of it. We walked the substantial crowd through an almost hourlong tour of the conversation from its outset--my asking Peggy a year ago to write a poem to get it started--through the many twists and turns the conversation took as I painted in response to each poem and she wrote in response to each painting.
As we told those in attendance that evening, by the end we each were responding not just to the immediately preceding work, but to the entire conversation, and to all sorts of things that were happening in our lives and in those of our families and friends.
There is no way in a blog post to even summarize, much less fully discuss, the thread of that conversation, so we are extraordinarily grateful to Ron Spatz, founder and Executive Editor of Alaska Quarterly Review, that AQR will reproduce all the poems and paintings, as well as our commentary about them, in its 2016 spring issue. The New York Review of Books has called AQR "one of our best, and most imaginative, literary magazines," and the Washington Post Book World has said, "That one of the nation's best literary magazines comes out of Alaska may seem surprising, but so it is." We are deeply honored that our collaboration will not only be featured, but given so much space, in this fine publication, and we are happy that it will enable us to share it with many who won't have an opportunity to see the exhibition.
In the meantime, you can get a little more sense of how we went about this collaboration, and what it meant to us, from the excerpt in the Alaska Humanities Forum's online newsletter of an excellent interview that Forum intern Lillian Maassen conducted with us a few weeks before the opening: "A Conversation with Peggy Shumaker and Kesler Woodward"
And finally, for now, below are images of and brief commentary on my final two paintings in the exhibition.
I was in my studio, working on the painting that became Darkness in the Path, when I got a call from Peggy saying that she had been diagnosed with cancer. Both her poems and my paintings, up to that point in the conversation, had several times reflected concerns for friends and family who had been ill or injured in various ways, the challenges of growing older, and the uncertainty of life, but this terrible news was much more direct, much more present. We now know that Peggy's cancer was caught early, that the operation to remove it was successful, and that even as she's undergoing followup treatment, her prognosis is excellent. But that day, all we knew was that terrifying diagnosis.
Shocked, utterly dismayed, and feeling totally helpless, I cleaned my brushes and drove straight across town to Peggy and Joe's condo, just to give them both hugs and to let them know that Dorli and I would be there for them in every way we could. That evening, I returned to this painting, on which, in response to some lines in Peggy's preceding poem, I had begun to create an image of looking down an inviting path in the forest. But in yet another instance of one of my paintings' taking on a life of its own--veering in a different direction without my conscious control--over the next week a big, dark spruce grew up in the path, my gaze shifted upward, away from the path and toward, then beyond, the dark spruce, and the season in the forest changed from fall to winter.
Though Dorli says that as each season comes around in turn, I declare it my favorite, fall really is the season that makes me most grateful, for its bright beauty, and most thoughtful. It has always struck me that the leaves are most beautiful in their last weeks, most brilliant just before dying.
I'd been especially taken this year with the gorgeous fireweed leaves, as they turned red in August, and I had been collecting them on afternoon walks and bringing them back to the studio, admiring not only their brilliance, but the way their torn, battered, stained and broken parts just added to their richness and their beauty. I had been ruminating on how to use them in a painted response to several of Peggy's poems, and to numerous conversations about our mutual friend Eva Saulitis, a gifted writer in Homer, Alaska who has been battling metastatic breast cancer for several years, and is in the final stages of that battle.
Eva has written extensively and exquisitely about that struggle, and just recently about her hard-won acceptance of the fact that it's nearly over. Peggy referenced Eva's travail more than once in her poems, wrote a poem to her and shared it with both Eva and with me, and we acknowledged in several conversations that Eva had entered this conversation. Firefall is about the beauty of Eva's words and spirit as she acknowledges pain and loss, but continues to find and celebrate wonder, delight, and love all around her. It's about how much beauty is possible on the autumn path that we will all all travel, and how glorious even that last fall can be.