I've just returned from a weeklong artist residency on Orcas Island, Washington. My stay in the beautiful Kangaroo House Bed and Breakfast there was the prize for being chosen 2012 Artist of the Year by Artsmith, an Eastsound, Washington-based arts organization that provides residencies, literary events, and exhibition, performance, and publishing opportunities for artists and writers.
The week exploring relatively remote, sprawling, lake- and mountain-filled Orcas Island from this peaceful, comfortable base was both restful and energizing, and will lead, in time, to new work. I am deeply grateful to Jill McCabe Johnson, Director of Artsmith, and to her and her husband Charles for their great breakfasts, warm welcome, and care during the week on Orcas.
As always when I travel, especially to new locales, I tried on Orcas to focus on being in the place, getting to know it, rather than making images of it. I try as hard as I can not to even think about what kind of images I might make, but instead give the place itself my full attention, explore it as fully as possible. I sometimes do sketches, and I do take photographs for future reference, so that when the time comes I will get the shape of things exactly right, but I don't try to do work about the place while I'm there.
I know from past experience that if I work from life, I will spend a lot of time responding to the landscape's prettiest, most superficially attractive aspects, and that it is much better for me to give all my attention to the place itself. I pay attention to what it looks like, of course--its weather, its light, its topography--but just as much or more to what it makes me think about, how it relates to what I've been reading, how it feels to be there. I am ultimately, always, trying to make work about what it felt like to be in a place, more than what that place looked like.
Weeks or months, perhaps as much as a year from now, I'll go up to my studio one morning, and I'll realize that the experience of being on Orcas Island has trickled down into my consciousness deeply enough that I have something more personal to say about it than, "Isn't this a pretty place?" Then I'll marshall my images, and more importantly my memories, and I'll try to distill on canvas or paper something that gets at that feeling. I have no idea what those images will be. The only thing I know is that they won't look anything like the photos I took this month of that pretty place.
I tend to think that unless I'm in my studio, painting, then I'm not at work, so it's important to remind myself that both getting out every day into the great boreal forest that surrounds my home and traveling to new places are parts of my work as well. In the last year, I've spent time in many other parts of Alaska, and in North Carolina, South Carolina, Washington, and Arizona, and images have come from or will come from all of them.
On my studio wall, in drawers and sketchbooks and elsewhere, are lots of images from past travels--oil pastels and paintings on paper from riverbanks near Fairbanks to Denali National Park in Alaska, Congaree National Park in South Carolina, a bridled titmouse at Patagonia Lake in Arizona, and many more. These are not currently framed and hanging in galleries, and most don't even appear on the "Available Works" section of this website, but they are an essential part of the weird, idiosyncratic way in which I seem to need to work.
So, for example, I have made two trips to Juneau in the last year--more than 600 miles from Fairbanks and a world away in climate and ecosytem. I taught a weeklong workshop there last June, and I went back down in November for the opening of our Boreal Birch exhibit at the Alaska State Museum.
The June trip afforded me the opportunity to get out with artists from the Plein Rein group of plein-air painters into some of my favorite landscapes anywhere. I didn't paint while I was there, but focused on my teaching and on being in that wonderful place with those terrific people. Many months later, well into winter, I made images based on that experience--not the images I would have guessed I would make, when I was there, but of moments and places that seemed to need to be painted when the time came.
Three of those images--a raven sitting on rocks below the tidal waterfall at Amalga Harbor, silvery light off the water filtering through the Southeast Alaska rainforest, and Mendenhall Glacier, which I hadn't painted since I lived there more than 30 years ago--have just this month migrated from my studio wall to my framer, on their way to the Juneau City Museum.
Paintings will almost certainly come from the November trip, as well, but I don't know when. All I can do is go to my studio and work. What happens there, what I need to paint, only reveals itself to me in its own time.