It's a new year, and so far it's a cold one in the far North. Though we're on the right side of winter solstice and gaining ground in terms of daylight every day, four hours of wan sunlight through the ice fog doesn't do much warming. It's been 40º below zero or colder every day for the last week. (No need to add Celsius or Fahrenheit to that temperature. -40º is where the two scales overlap.) So it is cold, and it is dark, but each winter solstice, especially when it's this frigid and there's dense ice fog, I'm stunned by the eerie, ethereal quality of the brief hours of light. I've been driving around town and out to the Chena and Tanana rivers in the daylight all week long, ogling the low winter sun and wondering how on earth I might capture some fraction of its mystery. We'll see.
In the meantime, I go to the studio and work, and what I find myself working on is, as often in winter, memories of summer. This is one of the magpies that hung around the East Fork Cabin in Denali Park when Missy and I were there last summer, often pecking at the wooden shingles on the roof in search of insects. In the same way that I find myself constantly wondering at the myriad colors in the bark of young birches, I was amazed at the brilliant hues--both pigments and tricks of diffracted light--in this gorgeous bird's plumage. Painting it several times life-size enables me to explore those colors more fully, immersing myself in the magic of avian finery.
And I don't seem to have run out of fascination with looking into the sun. I keep thinking that this series of what I still think of as "epiphanies" is going to run its course, but this winter, as last, I'm still in awe of the power of that wan globe of light and its ability to blast its way through the densest forest, turning the spruces every color of the rainbow before geysering through to freedom.
People often ask me how I know when a series is finished, when it's time to move on to another subject or theme. I never know in advance how long any series will run. For a long time, the possibilities seem endless, and I can't wait to get to them all. As I'm working on one painting, I find myself thinking, "Well, what if I did it this way, or that way?" or "I wonder if I could do something with the memory of that?" One day, though, sooner or later, I go to the studio to work, and I catch myself thinking, "Well, I wonder what else I could do with this idea?" When that happens, I know the series is done. It may come back to life in a different form, one day, with new memories or insights, but there's no point in my trying to come up with a new variation for the sake of variety.
It's very, very important to me that I catch myself in that thought, and that I pay attention to its message. The most difficult challenge for any artist, I think, is to avoid making copies, and eventually parodies, of his or her own work. It's almost impossible, and it seems important to be as ruthless with myself as I can about listening to that internal dialogue and acting on it.
How's this for a totally different kind of image? I worked on this piece in mid-December for inclusion in an invitational exhibition of "masks," called "Countenance," that opened the first Friday in January. I don't usually accept invitations to theme exhibitions, unless the themes are already aligned conceptually with what I normally do in my work. I can't just go to my studio, jump the rails of my inner train, and do something entirely different to match a given theme. I respect and even envy those who can, but it doesn't seem to be within my power.
The invitation to participate in this exhibit, though, came many months in advance, it seemed intriguing, and in a moment of weakness I agreed to participate. I worked through all the end of November and the first couple of weeks of December on a commissioned painting I had promised for some time. By the time I finished it, I only had a couple of weeks until work for this invitational exhibition was due. I almost backed out--almost called the curator and explained that I shouldn't have agreed to do something like this, and that I was sure she would have plenty of other work. But my pride and sense of responsibility got the better of me, and I decided I'd at least try.
It was a lot of fun. The most difficult part was harvesting the birch bark. I used to have pieces of actual bark pinned all over one wall of my studio, for inspiration and as models, but I've long since gotten rid of them, and so I had to harvest birch bark in the middle of winter. I discovered that it was impossible to strip the bark from even the oldest standing dead trees in the forest around my house, in their frozen state. I ended up cutting lengths of trunk and bringing them in to thaw beside the furnace in the garage for several days, then stripping large sections, cutting them up, scraping their undersides down, and finally gluing and nailing them with copper nails, in a pattern, onto the solid board backing. Finally, I cut and peeled away sections of the surface, revealing darker underlayers of the bark, to create a stylized self-portrait. Not exactly a mask, but close enough, I think, and very much about me and my work. I don't think I'm going to take up making images out of actual birch bark, but it was fun to step completely outside my normal way of working, respond to the theme, and still do something that felt personal and "real."