I have had the pleasure for some time now of working with University of Alaska Fairbanks scientists Jan Dawe and Nicole Dunham, as they conduct research and programs around the impact of climate change on the birches and boreal forest of Interior Alaska. They were kind enough not only to give me access to their research plot of young birches in a fenced compound in the middle of the "T-Field" in the 2000-acre Arboretum that adjoins campus, but to even create a little "Artist-in-Residence" desk and work area within their spacious OneTreeAlaska lab in the former Tilly Commons building on campus. There, I've been examining and learning about the hundreds of very young birch saplings that they're studying by controlling their exposure to various kinds of light and manipulating their entry and exit from dormancy in coolers and freezers.
I pepper them with questions about what I'm seeing in the little saplings in the lab, and over the last month, I've been looking hard at the variety of the shapes and colors of their leaves as the plants enter and exit dormancy, photosynthesize or don't, and grow. As in the past, I have found the stressed, damaged, even dying leaves especially beautiful, and have marveled at how varied they are in shape and character. I began gathering leaves themselves, and images of them, and taking them back to my studio to paint.
I've wanted for some time, for reasons I haven't really understood, to paint an image of leaves arranged in a growing spiral, so for this newest painting, I laid out a perfect spiral on the canvas, starting just above and to the right of center to avoid exactly centering the spiral in the canvas' rectangle, and one by one for more than a month, I've painted individual leaves along that spiral. By the time I filled the space, there were 114 of them.
When I started, all I was really interested in was how the real leaves differ so greatly from any kind of textbook image of a birch leaf. Wrinkled, torn, curling, remarkably diverse in color and shape, I wanted to explore and to show their individuality. But as I worked my way out from the center of the spiral, I found myself thinking of these beautiful little leaves almost as beads on a rosary, and each morning when I went to my studio, I'd begin work by looking at each in turn, starting in the center of the spiral, and even saying my morning prayers as my attention moved from one to the next. I am not Catholic, and have never used a rosary, but as the spiral of leaves grew, I found it meditative and calming to regard them methodically, in turn. One morning, doing the brief reflective reading with which I begin each day in the studio, I was surprised to read about even longer and more elaborate strings of 108 prayer beads called mala beads, used by Hindus, Buddhists, and some Sikhs, and similar beads used as an aid to prayer and contemplation in other religions.
I think that's what I love most about both art and the natural world--the way you wander into the forest of either and find something entirely different than what you were looking for.
In every painting I've done lately, I've made choices early on that sentenced me to an absurd amount of work in order to bring it all together. I didn't think about, when I started Rosary, how long it would take to fill 12 square feet of canvas with tiny leaves in a compact spiral. In Stonework of the Sky, it was the handling of the sky itself--minutely articulating the gradation from dark to light in the early evening heavens--that kept me busy for many days on end. I hadn't intended to turn the darkening sky into tessellations, almost a mosaic of bits of changing and darkening color from horizon to zenith, but in the course of mining the structure of the branches of the dark trees, I realized I'd need to apply that same kind of excavation in the sky to make it all work together.
Stonework of the Sky is a very different painting from the one I set out to make, and it took three or four times as long as I'd anticipated, but I was excited, when done, with what was for me a new way of structuring a broad field of color, and of saying something about the night sky. The name, suggested to me by my friend Robert Hannon, comes from the title of a book of poetry by late Fairbanks poet Joe Enzweiler. I wasn't familiar with the book when Robert mentioned it, but the name seemed perfect for this image, and when I read some of Enzweiler's poetry and his reference to stonework of the sky, I liked it even better.
Feedback about my paintings from friends often teaches me things about my own work and helps me see and understand what I've done in new ways. My friend Simon Hamm, who with his wife Jenna purchased this painting, brought it even more to life for me when he told me about having met years ago in Maine an elder in the Wolf clan of the Mohawk nation, whose name in Mohawk meant "the color of the evening sky between sunset and night." That's not something we have a word for in our language, but it defines exactly what I was after in this painting.
And one more new painting... When I posted in mid-January an image of and brief commentary on A Small Epiphany, my latest painting of looking through the winter forest into the sun, a collector of my work in New Mexico called within hours to say he wanted it. Another collector, in St. Louis, wrote just after to say she had wanted it, but had waited to measure an area of wall, and was disappointed to find it already sold. She said if I ever did something similar, but ideally a bit larger, she'd be very interested. I am normally very reluctant to do commissions, but I was at that point very much on fire with this kind of mid-winter light, and was already planning to do at least one more of the sort, so I made Incandescence specifically for her. She sent me a photo of it on her wall a week later. I always love seeing photos of my paintings in their new homes!