I began work on this large painting in the dead of winter, shortly after I wrote my January 2 post about how I really wanted to paint Fairbanks in the eerie light of 40 below zero and ice fog. It had been in the -40s for a week at that time, and it continued just as cold for another week. Finally, I began this painting of downtown Fairbanks from the north side of the Chena River, looking directly into the low winter sun through dense ice fog at nearly 50 below zero.
I'd never included in my many winter paintings downtown buildings, utility poles and street lights, transformers and electrical lines, or anything like the iron railing along the river, and had never tried seriously to paint sunlight blossoming through dense ice fog. I was traveling off and on throughout January and February, but worked on this painting all the time I was home for two months, finishing it just a few days after returning from Germany in early March.
It's exciting for me, slowly incorporating more and more human presence, built environment, acknowledgement of people and their activities in my paintings. I can't imagine that they will ever not be about light, landscape, weather, and place, but I'm eager to explore in my work the ways that people of the North, and what we do, are a big part what this place means.
I think sometimes that the only way I really know what's on my mind is to look around my studio and see what I've painted. Clearly, in the midst of living through yet another winter and grappling with how to represent it at its most severe, I've been dreaming about Denali Park in summer. Missy and I will go there again this summer, stay in the East Fork Cabin in the middle of the Park, and roam territory that we've come to know very well, but still surprises and amazes us. I think I do more paintings of the Park during the winter than I do in the summer. They are dreams of warmth in the midst of winter, recollections of light that I long for in January, February, and March. I think I must store inside the memories and images of those brief, intense summers, and access them for sustenance in the short days of December.
This little painting is all about the bright, bright white of an overnight snowfall in the Park, freshly covering the tundra down to a certain elevation. It's early enough in the day that the snow line is almost perfectly straight, but that will give way to a receding, jagged contour in sunlight and shadow in a matter of hours, over the course of the brilliant, sunny day.
I visited the Park for 25 years before I painted Mt. McKinley, but in the last few years I've painted it many times, often from this same vantage point--looking west from Stony Hill. What interests me is how different the same scene looks, not so much from year to year, but from month to month in the summer and from hour to hour in the nearly continuous daylight.
It's a bittersweet time of year--evening in August, when it's still very light out of doors, but the light is soft, muted, foreshadowing the long nights that are fast approaching.
This is a view of the East Fork of the Toklat River, descending toward the river from Polychrome Pass, traveling east. It's not literally this bright, but this is how it appears in my memory, especially in January. Winter dream paintings like this one are, for me, not so much about the way the Park looks, but how I remember feeling when I've stood in this place; how I feel when I think about heading back again.
This is very near the cabin where I stay in the Park, so it's a place I know particularly well. Nearly every morning when I'm there, I walk up the hill from the cabin, down to the bridge across the East Fork,and part of the way up the winding way toward Polychrome Pass. I look for animals on the gravel bar of the river, watch the clouds and light move across the mountains to the south. The really simple, but fundamental lesson that birders, hunters, and artists learn as time goes along--the more you look, the more you see--has nowhere been more evident to me than here.
It's such a relief, after struggling with a big, complex, multilayered canvas for weeks or even months, to paint very small oils and acrylics on paper that are done in a day, or days. The challenge for me is, as in many aspects of my work, double-edged, two-sided. I don't want, just because they're small, these little paintings to be inconsequential. I want them to be about something--memory, phenomena, anticipation, longing...not just pretty views. But I have to remind myself that they don't have to be complicated, and can't be labored. It's hard for me to just put the image down and leave it alone, trust to my instincts, suppress detail and go for essence. It's hard not to think that because it goes (relatively) quickly, it can't be right,...can't be enough.
These days, I seldom throw away a large painting and start over. I know a big canvas is going to be a struggle, and I know that if I can maintain my focus, energy, and faith--not panic and do something dreadful and irredeemable to it when it's looking awful--I can almost almost always bring it around, often discovering in the process something I'd never have found, if it hadn't been such a fight. But these little paintings don't work that way, for me. They have to be crisp, light, full of certainty I don't always feel. They go more quickly, but a lot of them get trashed. The four here survived from nine. All nine were probably necessary to get these four, but it's important to me that I'm the only one who ever sees the ones that were thrown away.