It seems as if almost every year about this time--nearing the end of a long, white, interior Alaska winter--I'm surprised to find myself completing a painting full of brilliant color. It's never premeditated. I just look with some surprise at the almost-finished, bright canvas I've been working on for days or weeks and say to myself, "Aha! I must be starved for color!"
Sometimes the images are fantasies. I imagine the great mountain Denali's dreaming of riotous color in the depths of its long, white winter sleep. Or I picture the steep, south-facing ground of the woods below the West Ridge on the University of Alaska campus flowing with bright hues, instead of still-white snow.
Others years, like this one, I must be musing subconsciously on the remembered brilliance of late summer and early fall in the interior Alaska forest as I pick up my brush and start a new painting. I'm not certain, beyond that, where these paintings come from, but even though March is my favorite time of year in the North--the snow still deep and pristine and the light burgeoning in strength and length--I'm always bemused and delighted to find a bright new canvas coming to life in the studio.
I shuttle back and forth between making quite large and quite small paintings, between working in oils and in acrylics, between thick, juicy paint and thin veils of transparent color. When I finish a big, complicated painting like last month's Illumination, its glowing hues painstakingly built from layer after layer of delicate acrylic washes, I so often want to do something small, immediate, direct, and I want to revel in the sensuous textures of oils. At times like these, I often turn to smaller birch portraits, which provide me not only those pleasures, but the opportunity and challenge of making yet another portrait of yet another tree without copying my own work.
The hardest thing for any serious artist to do, I think, is to avoid making copies--and eventually parodies--of his or her own work. The task for me in every new birch portrait is to respond to the individual tree, to paint it in individual light, as if I were looking closely at a birch tree for the first time. If I'm not in a frame of mind that allows me to do that, I paint something else. There are individual trees in my yard (as these), on the trails we run, and in other parts of the forest I love, that I have painted many times, but I hope, and would like to think, that each new portrait is just that--a portrait of an individual, and never a generic birch.
Last but not least this month, I want to share with you my excitement about a new collaboration. My friend and distinguished Alaskan writer John Morgan's book-length poem, River of Light: A Conversation with Kabir, is just out in a beautiful volume that is the latest in the Alaska Literary Series, an imprint of the University of Alaska Press.
The cover of River of Light features my 36" x 48" painting River Sky, and a dozen of my other images in a variety of media punctuate John's deeply reflective 68-page poem. It is the ruminative tale of a long raft trip he and I and a small group of other artists and writers took in 2003, down Alaska's mighty Copper River from Chitina in the Interior to Cordova on the coast, and about the internal conversation that John carried on with a mystic, 15th century Muslim/Hindu poet along the way.
Reading this beautiful, thoughtful, and thought-provoking poem today as it courses its way through the pages of this volume is as close as you can get to having been with us on that voyage, and to being inside John's head as he ruminates on his memory of it more than a decade later. I am honored to have been able to add my images to that journey.