It has been a busy spring, including travel to extraordinary places that will eventually lead to new paintings. Dorli and I walked the spectacular 95-mile West Highland Way in Scotland in May, from near Glasgow to Fort William, and we hiked up Ben Nevis--the highest peak in the British Isles. I know that some of that experience will appear in my work, months or even years from now, when it's had a chance to settle deeply enough in my consciousness that I have something personal to say about it. Meanwhile, before and since our travels, I've been as busy in the studio as ever.
In the weeks before we left for Scotland, I completed and delivered Eminence, a commission for a prominent Alaskan law firm with offices in Fairbanks and Anchorage. When a Managing Partner in the firm contacted me late this winter, he wrote, "I know from your blog that you hate doing commissions, but..." I do much prefer selling existing work to doing commissions (see my latest discussion on that topic in my October 30, 2012 post), but I was intrigued by what he wanted, and so made an exception.
As always in my work, Eminence not only depicts a specific place, but grew out of my effort to portray not so much what that place looks like, but what it felt like to me to be there at a very specific time of day and season. A very few viewers of this painting may recognize the mountains (and others will undoubtedly be convinced that they recognize them, and be wrong), but I don't want to say where this is. Though every peak and ridge is in its proper place, what I hoped for this painting is that it would be less about that specific locale, and more about what it feels like to be in the high, clear air of the mountains in Alaska--something that is important not only to me, but to the Managing Partner of the firm that commissioned it and to some of his colleagues.
Some of the most rewarding artwork I've done in the last decade has involved collaboration with writers and graphic designers. Letterpress broadsides have combined my images with poems by both Alaska State Writer Peggy Shumaker and U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Hass. Those beautiful broadsides were made possible by the inspired work of designers Heather Kasvinsky of Fairbanks and Jennifer Viviano of Portland, Oregon, respectively. Each of them made of our words and images a whole that was greater than the sum of its parts.
The same was true of the gem of a volume that designer Wanda Chin made from my images and my friend Frank Soos' essays in Bamboo Fly Rod Suite, published beautifully by University of Georgia Press in 1999 and still available in softcover and Kindle e-book editions. I am currently at work with Alaska poet John Morgan on two more books, each combining my images with his poetry, one coming soon from University of Alaska Press and the other, we hope, from Alaska Geographic. I will have more on those in a later post.
My latest collaboration to come to full fruition is this image for the poster and catalog for this year's Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival. It was a delight once again to work with dear friend and recent Alaska State Writer Laureate Peggy Shumaker. In 2003, Red Hen Press of Los Angeles published our volume Blaze, juxtaposing three decades of my paintings of birches and the boreal forest with Peggy's extraordinary poetry. In this year's Festival poster, my recent painting Aubade--the title itself refers to a poem of praise to the dawn--tries to capture some of the magic of Peggy's words, which celebrate the first joys of creating works of art, in any medium.
I have been honored to have my artwork featured on the widely collected Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival posters twice before, in 1995 and 2002, but this year's poster is the Festival's first combining poetry and art, and it was especially fun and rewarding for me. Once again, the collaboration includes not only my image and Peggy's words, but the great design work of another friend, a gifted poet herself as well as a designer, Erin Hollowell of Homer, Alaska.
My influences have long come more from writers than directly from other artists, and I think that more recently, music has begun to have an increasing influence on the way I think about my work. My nephew Charles, now a music major at UAF, began my belated, remedial education in classical music when he came to stay with us for parts of four summers to attend Summer Music Academy and lived with us during his senior year of high school. Dorli, who is principal flutist for the Fairbanks Symphony and has been a member of the music faculty at UAF for more than thirty years, has taken over that daunting task. I still know little, but am continually intrigued by what I'm slowly learning about how music works, and I think that the very incomplete nature of my understanding may even make stronger its influence on my thinking about new ways to make paintings.
For years I have thought of my birch paintings as "portraits" of individual trees, occasionally double- or more rarely triple-portraits. But as I talked about in my February post, I have lately been not only complicating and elaborating those compositions, but thinking of them in almost musical terms. I was so intrigued by the idea of melisma--the musical stretching of a single syllable over a run of many notes, as sometimes in Gregorian chant--that as soon as wonderful collector friends in Anchorage told me they wanted to purchase my first big Chant, I couldn't wait to begin another composition of a similar complexity and size.
A month later, Chant II sings sonorously to me from my studio wall. I sometimes think of my studio almost as a kind of monastery, and the woods around it as its grounds. I'd like to think that I turn to my work each day much as a monk does, engaged in devotions and hoping for a bit of enlightenment by simply working through the Hours. As we ran through the forest one day last week, I asked Dorli to explain another musical concept new to me--overtones, or partials. I think most days of how lucky I am, at this stage in my life, to have a guide and a whole new world as big as music to explore.