I have been hard at work in my new studio, which looks out on beautiful birch forest from the second floor of our home. This view, however, is not from that vantage point, but one of my favorite spots on the West Ridge of the University of Alaska Campus, on a steep south-facing slope just below the University of Alaska Museum of the North.
As the light in the North fails steadily with the approach of the winter solstice, now less than a month away, I find myself, as I have so often in the past ten years, painting bright canvases with not only heightened, but dense and eerie color. As I said on this site about my last large canvas of that sort, Denali in Winter Dreams of Summer, the natural, readily perceptible color and light of the landscape seem to give way in my mind's eye in winter to a wistful, not-quite-real memory of spring. These are the hardest paintings for me, in all sorts of ways, but they are the ones I best remember, looking back over time at my own work, and are in many ways the most satisfying--despite or in part because of the fact that I still don't understand myself everything they are about.
And so...with months of winter's short days still ahead, I give way to that impulse and explore the surreal light of memory and longing. Layer after layer of color goes down, is partially scraped away, scumbled over, and cross-hatched until the surface becomes craggy, and what look like broad bands of almost single color from a distance become, when seen up close, grounds pocked with contrasting hues. I never know exactly where these paintings are going, and finally stop when I realize that the painting and I have arrived where, for now, we need to be.
This painting, slightly larger than the last, is also more abstract, but like all of these scenes, it is a real time and place--in this instance a twilit sky in Denali Park, the spruces near the Park Headquarters silhouetted against a riot of sunset color.
In the midst of these winter reveries, I find myself once again in the thrall of the trees themselves. I paint birch trees and paint birch trees and paint birch trees, until I grow tired of painting them and say that I'll never paint one again. Then, one day, skiing through woods on narrow trails at Creamers Field, a 1750-acre migratory waterfowl refuge between downtown Fairbanks and the University, I find myself staring at the trunk of a slender birch, thinking "This is one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen," and before I know it, I'm back in the studio painting its portrait.