I always seem to be at least a season behind in terms of what I'm painting. It was 27º below zero last night in Fairbanks, two weeks before the winter solstice, and I'm still painting fall leaves. I'm not wishing it were still September. I love this time of year, with its crystalline air and peach-colored light. But in my studio, I'm clearly still ruminating on the meaning of the bright fall leaves I so admired three months ago.
I've been thinking a lot about the fact that the leaves are most beautiful and brilliant as they are about to fall and crumble into dust. That and other, related things were much on my mind as I visited nearly daily this September a fascinating field of young birches in a research plot within the 2000-acre University of Alaska Fairbanks campus arboretum. There, my friend Dr. Jan Dawe, a research professor at UAF, is conducting in cooperation with other UAF researchers and classes from K-12 Fairbanks schools a long-term study on the effects of Fairbanks' lengthening growing season on growth characteristics of Alaska birches. Jan has repeatedly invited me to spend time in the research plot, to help characterize the visual changes in the young birch saplings as they grow and to respond to what I'm seeing there in my work.
This fall I took up that offer in earnest. As the leaves changed color in preparation for the coming winter, I began looking much harder at individual parts of the young birches than I ever have before. I peppered Jan with questions about what I was seeing throughout the plot, but I also "adopted," as a focus of my looking, a particular sapling which I'll visit as often as I can throughout the coming year and beyond. The large canvas Dancing into the Dark, which I've worked on for nearly a month, is my first painterly response to those visits. It's not only a collection of observations about parts of that tree and its falling leaves, but as so often in my work, a personal rumination on life, growth, beauty, strength, vulnerability, and change.
More fall leaves. I'm almost the antithesis of a plein-air painter. It takes a long time for what I see to settle into my consciousness deeply enough to decide I have something personal to say about it--something more than, "Isn't this pretty?" I relate strongly, in this respect, to the great Norwegian painter Edvard Munch's famous comment, "I paint not what I see, but what I saw."
This is actually a leaf that I saw three years ago, alongside the rough, slow road that leads from Chitina to McCarthy. It had rained the night before, but the fall morning Dorli and I drove the road was cold, crisp, and clear, and everything was bright--from the fallen autumn leaves to the rocks on which they fell.
I knew then that this leaf, and the raindrops on it, were beautiful, but I didn't know until very recently what I wanted to say about it. It took three years of living before I had a real inkling of what that image meant to me.
This fall, as Dorli and I ran the trails through the forest and along the ridgetops near our home, equally brilliant leaves from aspens and birches brightened our path. When I brought some of those leaves back to the studio to paint, I found their torn places, their mottled skins, and their final gasps of glory more poignant and more beautiful than ever before.
And finally, for this time, something entirely different...a new kind of collaboration... I have been talking for some time with my friend Nancy Hausle-Johnson, an extraordinary maker of artwork in ceramic tiles, about the possibility of our collaborating on a public art project. I have admired her work for years, and when I raised the possibility of having her make a work in tile based on one of my images, to propose for a public art commission, she was enthusiastic about the prospect.
We decided to do a couple of test pieces together, and the results were even more rewarding than either of us had imagined. Nancy made one larger and one smaller tile based on existing images of mine--not reproducing them, but interpreting them in her own medium. The tiles she produced are one-of-a-kind interpretations, not in any way reproductions.
We'd thought that we might sell these test pieces, if they turned out well. It's a sign of how delighted we were by what she produced that I purchased the larger one from her to keep, and she purchased the smaller one from me to keep as well. We are excited to find a public art competition to which we can apply, in the hope that we can make a really large-scale work of this sort. Wish us luck!