Five years ago, I did a number of large--several times life size--oil pastel portraits of friends and family. As usual, I didn't set out to do a series at the time. I just took a notion one day to do a large portrait of our son Eli, and was shocked by how much presence it had, and how much of him there was in it when I completed it. Similar portraits of our niece and goddaughter Patricia and a number of longtime friends followed. I ended up showing the entire group of them in an exhibition at Well Street Art Gallery here in Fairbanks, and everyone seemed surprised and delighted by them. The Anchorage Museum purchased the one of Jean Flanagan Carlo, and the University of Alaska Museum acquired my self-portrait. Most of the rest went to the people depicted, purchased by themselves or, more often, their spouses.
I did a portrait of my wife Missy at the time. It was, I still think, a wonderful picture, as a work of art, but it was all-too-accurate in what it captured. It was done within weeks of the unexpected death of her youngest, much beloved sister Cornelia, and though Missy smiled gamely from the 4 times life size oil pastel image, it was ineffably sad. When our dear friend Dale Fairbanks saw it the first time, she burst into tears. It has been put away ever since. Periodically, I get it back out and look at it, and each time it nearly breaks my heart.
I've wanted to do another ever since then, to try to catch her in a happier state, and as our 38th wedding anniversary approached this year, I finally did. Doing it and seeing her reaction to it made this an exceptionally meaningful anniversary.
I do these portraits in exactly the same way I do my much more frequent "birch portraits" of individual trees. From a distance, and especially in reproduction, they are very realistic. Up close, at the proximity from which I work on them, they are completely abstract--a welter of color, surface, painterly materials. As always, I want to have it both ways. As I've noted before, of course, likenesses of people are much less forgiving than portraits of trees. All kinds of liberties can be taken with the proportions, placement of features, and all else in images of tree trunks, and they still look like birch trees. The challenge with the people portraits is to maintain that same kind of tension between representation and abstraction, while working much more slowly and carefully to put all those abstract marks in exactly the right place. It continues to shock me, how vividly the personalities of the individuals inhabit these pictures. There's no way I could even try to paint their "personalities." I just have to observe very, very closely everything in their faces, and try to record it all as faithfully as I can, all the while focusing an equal amount of attention on the materials with which I'm working. If the sitters "inhabit" these pictures, it's because who they are shows in their faces, and as I've told people a number of times, I've learned something new about every person I've painted, in the course of doing their portraits.
Next month, a couple from Anchorage who are both celebrating milestone birthdays this year are going to come to Fairbanks so I can meet them, spend a little time with them, take photos of them in my studio, and work on portraits like this one, or even larger. It will be the first time I've painted people I don't know, and I'm very curious to see what that will be like. And another challenge that I'm especially looking forward to, eventually, is working on a double portrait for a friend in Denver. His wife is a twin. I know her, and have met her sister, though in a different city, and have never seen them together at the same time. Seen separately, I can't tell them apart. We haven't found a time yet to all get together in the same place, so I can look hard and make some studies, but that is a prospect that I'm eagerly looking forward to tackling.
This year, my Aiken (South Carolina) High School graduating class will celebrate its 40th reunion. I've never been to a reunion, of a high school or college class, and I hadn't anticipated going to this one. But one of my classmates, a very talented artist named Linda Prior Hunley, has organized an exhibition of my paintings, her drawings, and wonderful sculptures by our classmate Esther Randall, to be shown at the Aiken Center for the Arts, where the reunion will be held. So I've been thinking about images of the South. I had a large solo show in 2002 at the Morris Museum of Art in Augusta, Georgia, titled Kesler Woodward North and South, that featured equal numbers of Southern and Alaska landscapes, and I have done a few Southern paintings since, but I'm looking forward to working on new ones for this exhibition.
Just last month we made a quick trip to South Carolina, and I spent a lot of our brief time there looking at the trees and walking in the woods. As usual, these new images are based not on what I saw so recently, but on a trip two autumns ago, to Congaree National Park. Just a half hour drive from my dad's home on Lake Murray, near Columbia, Congaree preserves the largest remnant of old-growth, floodplain forest in North America. It is a magical place, and it was extraordinary to see record-size old growth longleaf pines, hardwoods, and cypress trees at the height of brilliant, fall color. These two new little pieces are just a warmup for what I hope will be a strong new body of Southern images. I'm excited to get to work and see what happens.