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.

It Was A Dark and Stormy Day: Day 28, Nov 28, 2009

Well, it wasn’t exactly dark — just amazingly, wondrously, hideously, wildly stormy. I’d add more adjectives, but Jer won’t let me. It was also teeth chattering cold, but I couldn’t resist having the big barn doors open to watch the sky and desert as the storms came and went.

I was at the Barn at the usual time today. There were tourists everywhere, including a couple of trailer-campers on the other side of the road. I guess these were holiday-seekers who didn’t want to pay to park their rigs. People kept dropping in to see the art — Riley McCoy, the museum volunteer, was sending them along. He stopped by while a couple from the LA area were being chatted up by David Lancaster and I was chatting up the other David (Berg), a board member who was helping David L. work on the cistern. Riley handed me a bagful of fresh strawberries and the wind and rain started.

So when people weren’t pulling up out front, I played my new flute (more on that another time) and thought about painting. I didn’t actually think much; I mostly thought about thinking. And I played my flute. And someone else would pull up to get in out of the rain, which wasn’t actually hitting the ground, only the roof. Between the talk, the flute and the jingling of the tin roof, it was fairly exciting.

About 2 PM things settled down, so I decided to work on some easy stuff — the plein air panels I did a few days ago.

Here’s the back of the McCoy’s house, which was the Episcopalian Church. It’s the back of the house because I was painting in the afternoon and the house faces east. All glare and deep shadow on that side. Besides, looming over the back of the house is a honking big sign for Motel 6, next to the Casino up the road aways, and that tickled my sense of wacky hamlet-scapes. So this is today’s version, a second draft:

The McCoy’s House, Beatty Nevada, 16 x 12″, Oil on masonite 2009

I also updated the Beatty Library a bit:

Beatty, Nevada, Public Library, 16 x 12″, Oil on masonite, 2009

It’s absolutely typical of my wacky hamlet-scapes, perhaps because I’ve been painting landscapes too long. They get wackier as I get further out of practice.

That didn’t take long, so I decided to take on another painting I did outside in the warmth (now dissipated entirely, it seems) of last week.

The Phoenix Motel (missing its trees), draft 2, 16 x 12″, oil on masonite, 2009

This one needs the mountain to glow more; it was painted about 4 PM and the motel was in shadow while the mountain was playing on my eyeballs. But it’s coming along.

I couldn’t bring myself to upgrade the Chamber of Commerce Building (another view of the Beatty Mountain included); the wheeled vehicle seemed too hard. So I started in on a semi-abstract (think Maynard Dixon with no horses or humans) that I had been working on last week. I’m liking the change of pace –less detail:

Salt Flats¬† near Beatty Nevada, 16 x 12″, Oil on masonite, 2009

I had just begun on the far mountains when Jer appeared, so this too will get a bit more attention.

I couldn’t face the big canvases today, but tomorrow I will be brave and valiant and true-hearted and strong. Besides they must be painted so they can dry before they get carried home. And Charles fixed the spot lights so I can see to paint more better as well as to photograph better (probably more, too). With any luck (send good vibes this way) I’ll have them done within a day or two.

On the way home, I made Jer stop so I could take this photo of the continuing storm.

I thought all those painters who showed the sunlight streaming from the clouds were making it up <snort>

Reporting from Goldwell House, which is much warmer and cozier than the Red Barn, even if the scenery is less spectacular.

Turkey Days: Day 26 & 27, Nov. 26 & 27, 2009

After 25 days of intense daily painting, I took two days off — for the feting and the feasting provided by Suzanne and Charles Hackett-Morgan, Goldwell Board Directors, and Suzy and Riley McCoy, Goldwell volunteers. Sammie, the eight year old, came along with Suzanne and Charles, and provided us all with joyful, well-mannered kidling times. It was glorious.

I have to show a few photos before I admit to what Suzanne and Charles’ eyes saw in the paintings I’ve been laboring over.

The day started when Jer and I took a walk along the Amargosa, which had running water in it, as well as guppies. This is the ford where the street behind Valley goes across the river, all two inches of it. It was a beautiful fall day, with the cottonwoods glowing golden. Then our hosts arrived, bringing the dinner and Sammie with them.

Here’s Sammie in the great climbing tree outside the Goldwell House. He brought DVDs of Ratatouille and Night at the Museum to watch, and because I hadn’t seen Night at the Museum, after Thanksgiving dinner he insisted we watch it, even though he had already seen it once during the day (and many times at home, I’m sure). What a charmer. He also beat Jer at a variety of board games, including chess, and had some card tricks that I’m not sure I understood. Which might have been the point.

Suzanne had pre-prepared an herbed brined turkey for the grill (and pies and cranberries and sparkling drinks etc); Charles spent a lot of time blowing on the coals to get them to the proper glowing status:

That’s Riley behind Charles’ head, telling Suzanne some talk or some joke

And here’s Suzanne, holding the grill up so Charles can add more charcoal.

The turkey was superb. The dressing divine. The pies exquisite. The chocolate dipped strawberries astonishing. There was more food than twenty of us could have eaten and more stories and good conversation than a host of poet laureates could have provided. We talked about Goldwell and where it might go, now that it’s so well established. Lots of ideas got tossed around, and Jer and I got to express our appreciation of what we’ve had available here.

Jer, Suzanne, Suzy, Riley and Charles (Sammie was at the kid’s table — ie the coffee table — as this table wouldn’t hold another person.

This may be my best photo. This shows last night’s remains of one of two large platters, provided by Suzie, of these fresh California strawberries¬† dipped in chocolate. Jer and I ate the last two for today’s mid-afternoon snacks.

This morning, we chatted more, divvied up the left-overs (we didn’t squabble over the turkey, as Suzanne was really generous, and I not only had pie for breakfast, but she left some behind so I could have it for dinner too). Then Suzanne, Charles, and I went out to the Barn, where we looked at my paintings, they showed me how to work the lights and then set them up so they shone on the art properly, we got to a cup of coffee from Suzie and Riley at the Museum building and admired the desert from their vista, and then the Hackett-Morgans loaded the Jeep and went back home, to do some art for an exhibit they are in next weekend. Jer and I delivered some goodies to Suzie and Riley, with a stop-off at the town dump. We came back home, I took a nap, and then we went back to the Barn to see if the expected rain might come through the roof onto the paintings. We decided it would not, but I got to take a couple of glorious sunset photos.

I’m thinking of this as my Turkey After-glow.

Oh, and about the painting critique — well, I’ll describe it tomorrow. It was right on the mark, with both Suzanne and Charles describing areas that I had been working on at the end and thinking might need a bit more work. Only one small surprise. So Turkey-glow, indeed.

Reporting from the Goldwell House, at the Goldwell Open Air Museum’s Residency Program, full of contentment and wonder at the graciousness of the people here.