Unoriented: Day 29, Nov. 29, 2009

I told Jer this morning that I should be able to “finish” these canvases in another two days. Tonight I’m not so sure. But I’m not going to show any more photos of them until I’m fairly confident that I’ve done as much as I can see to do. The panorama set does have a name, which means it’s close to being done. I’m calling it “Unoriented: The Amargosa Desert.”

I spent an hour this afternoon (when my eyes and brain could no longer deal with painting itself) reflecting on what I had wanted to achieve and what factors were involved in getting me to this stage of the work. I wrote these “reflections” down in my notebook, knowing that by this evening I’d be totally clueless as to what I was thinking at 2:30 PM.

It’s very nice to have a good notebook, even though when I read back through this month’s entries, I often haven’t a clue what I was talking about.

Recently I wrote: “The (dis/un) orientation of shadows.”¬† I know what that phrasing refers to. I have a large shadow advancing across the desert basin in one direction, while on the bluff that intersects it, the foliage has shadows going the other way.

One of my goals was to un-orient the landscape, to prevent it from being readily understood (hence readily dismissed). At the same time, I’m painting “representationally” so the shadows are definitely shadows, even if dis/un oriented.

But in a way, I am well oriented. A huge factor in being able to accomplish as much as I have is the set-up in which I am working.

The Red Barn, while only 4 miles from the 1000-population town of Beatty, is over the Bullfrog Hills from the hamlet. You look west and see the mountains that line Death Valley. East from the Barn you¬† see the Bare Mountains that terminate at Beatty, but not Beatty itself. I didn’t know how important the clear unstructured view of the Basin was until a group of vacationers set up camp across from the Barn. They were only there a few days, but suddenly my sense of space was totally disrupted. I waved them good-by this morning.

The Barn doors have been open every day I’ve worked here (I think I missed about five days in the Barn out of the 29 I’ve been in Beatty.)¬† This openness is miraculous:¬† for the most part, it adds to the comfort; the north wind doth blow, but the sun comes in the doors from the south and heats the place. But more than that, it allows me to feel myself part of the desert, yet sheltered from the worst of wind and sun and dryness. Maybe that’s cheating, but it has made painting these canvases relatively comfortable, even possible, given their sizes.

Another factor is the isolation and consistency with which I can work. I don’t drive, so Jer drops me off at 9 and picks me up at 4. We have no way to communicate, so if I’m brain-dead at 2, I still have two hours to fill (and no bed to nap in) before he’ll arrive to pick me up. My days are all pretty much the same. I do have the occasional visitor, and half a mile or so away is the road to the ghost town, so I see distant vehicles going by, too far to hear unless they are a cavalcade of motorcycles. There are volunteers at the Museum building, who sometimes come by, and an occasional Beatty friend shows up. But mostly I have days like today, when the greatest excitement arrives when a crow gives me a shout-out and a big RV turns around in front of the Barn.

I am not entirely isolated, yet I have hours and hours of total insulation in which to work and think. I can’t stop without being confronted with the canvases, which stare at me as I drink my diet soda. They always draw me back to painting. Now I have my new pentatonic flute to occupy me, but it gets mucked up with spit and starts to sound dreary after a little, so back I go to the canvases. The canvases are always there, waiting, patiently, but needing more work.

One observation I hadn’t expected is that mostly all I have to work with here is color. Shape and form are simple and small. All the rest is moved and directed and oriented (or dis/un-oriented) by color. This isn’t usually the case for me, and it’s really made me see and work on color. I still have one last big color problem to sort out — tomorrow if possible.

This insistence on color means that everything I look at now has specific meaning for me in its color — the lavenders, the pinks, the red ochres, the grays that are undercoated with red ochre, the rhyolites and slates; moreover, the sun imposes itself on every surface and facet that it can touch and changes the color with its rays, but those colors get shifted with the ever-present wind, bending a new facet into view and sweeping the old one away just when I think I understand it. Even the mist and haze shift with the winds and the sun and change the distant colors of mountains. The only stable element is the earth itself, the cut-out shapes of the mountains and the blank distance of the sage basin.

Even the sounds here in the barn are un-oriented, if happily familiar. The tin roof keeps up a continual jangle and chatter, and the wind blows through the holes in the roof, not whistling but whooing. Sometimes it sounds like a car driving up the tarmac; sometimes it sounds like a jeep coming down the gravel road. And sometimes the drone and ring and rattle of the roof disguises the real vehicles so I am startled when a visitor appears at the Barn doors, even though the parking space for vehicles is directly in front of them.

I am not unoriented in my space — the four walls of the barn, with its high roof and rafter structures and open doors surround me; I know intimately how far it is from the furthest canvas to the barn door where I check the shape of a mountain in the distance. The sense of time — pick-up at 4 PM, leave Beatty for Portland by December 12th — these elements also orient me, giving me a sense of goal and urgency that an unoriented reality wouldn’t have.

I began the process knowing what I was facing. I came with lots of good materials with which to do the work. I came with Jer, who structures our Beatty life. I have had help from good friends here in town, and Suzanne and Charles lent out their eyes, helping me with the insights I need to finish the work adequately. I read about the desert in W.L. Fox’s books and about “Space and Place” in Yi-Fu Tuan. I had words of wisdom from Jef Gunn and fellow critique members. I painted the Oregon high desert to practice and the Oregon Coast to practice some more. It has been a journey, which tried to suss out how not to paint a goal. I’m almost there. Another day — or two. It’s a conundrum as well as an adventure.

Here’s a view south from the Red Barn on November 14, 2009; I would guess this was taken about 10:30 AM, which I know because that’s the way things south sometimes look at¬† 10:30 AM.

And below is a Maynard Dixon painting:

Maynard Dixon, Edge of the Amargosa Desert, 1927

There’s always company on this path, deserted, unoriented as it may seem.

Reporting from The Goldwell House in Beatty Nevada, four miles and 3 hours (today) from the Red Barn.

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