Petrified Forest Residency: A concluding remark or two, in Context

I have been shilly-shallying about writing this conclusion for close to a month now. And it’s not because I don’t know what I want to say. I think it’s because I can summarize or I can expostulate, and while the first is almost too brief, the latter is too turgid.

So here are some silly opening thoughts:

1. I could never live for long in the desert. Hat- qua- Desert Hair is a serious problem.

June, in desert hat, in Portland Oregon. Note she is not displaying what happens to her hair after she wears the hat.

2. The artist-in-the-park is considered picturesque and scenic, even while grimacing over her inability to get the reds just right. Tourists will take photos, openly and surreptitiously. Some pretend they are photographing elsewhere, but the artist knows. Many will ask permission, and then the standard answer is¬† “my best side is from behind.” Which is merely the truth.

3. The Petrified Forest views, indeed most “landscape” views, are not what they appear, even when one reads the Park Service signs. The unconformities, depriving one of easy impressions, are everywhere.

(Note the now-closed outhouse at the left end of the old Puebloan walls: the Park Service changed its mind about this building’s use. This is a painting that will be revised slightly but the outhouse will remain. This view is Draft 1 of the Puerco Pueblo Ruins, Oil on masonite, 12 x 16, 2010

3. Places are seldom without human presence, although that presence may have gone away long ago:

Route 66 and Interstate 40, 12 x 16″, oil on masonite, 2010. The Park Service pull-over where this car is located is just over the hill from the Puerco Puebloan ruins. They date to about 1100 AD.

4. Parks are full of people who want something, but it’s a bit unclear what they want — mostly to get back into their cars and see if what they want is over the hill.

The last remark is unfair to most of the folks I met in the park. Mostly they seem to want to know and to see, and they do their best, given the limits that time, energy, life, and travel by motor vehicle provide.

But it’s that thought, that people want more but don’t know what “more” might consist of, that leads me to what I came to realize about my own approach to land-and-urban-scapes.¬† To summarize: what excites me most about the painting I do is knowing — physically and mentally — the context of what I’m painting. And then trying to find ways to incorporate that “context” into the painting — or, barring that, into the presentation of the painting.

This isn’t a new approach for me — it’s just a new recognition of my own desires (like the tourist who wants more, I want more than just an oil rendition of an astonishing geological/geographical/city scene spectacle). To prove that I have been working on what I will call “context” for some years, here are a few old paintings from the files:

Mine Shaft, Basin, Montana, 7 x 9″, oil on masonite, 2007

Circling, SE Alder and 6th, 30 x 40″, Oil on canvas, 2008

Bloomtime, 12 x 16″, oil on masonite, 2008

Gold Point Playa, 12 x 16″, oil on masonite, 2009

But most of Context, even the immediate sort, is impossible in the strictly visual arts. Even more so in a single painting. I can’t figure out how to get the smell of dusty sagebrush and blooming rabbitbush into my paintings no matter how often the wind blows bits into the oils. The sounds might be recovered by a tape recorder — and I’m seriously thinking about investigating digital tape recorders for my future efforts. Taping the sounds of a seemingly pure landscape might be one context worth considering — truck traffic,¬† valley-girl gossip of the nearby viewers, the ravens scolding and begging, the crunch of gravelled paths.

So that’s one context consideration — perhaps a tape of the entire painting time — boring but only needing to be encountered in segments by the viewer might add the context and enrich the experience of the viewer.

But the larger context — historical, geological — unconformities, pit houses, the Colorado Plateau Uplift — these are somewhat larger and harder to convey. And yet, and yet, I want to convey them.

So that’s what I learned at the Petrified Forest — that while I am painting, I am considering not just the scene in front of me but all the context around it that I can take in: that the area is at the edge of the Colorado Plateau, features three basic areas (low grass prairie, Painted Desert badlands, and petrified wood), has had the feet of humans crossing it and possibly living in it since 2000 years before Christ (BCE), has public displays of ruins of structures that date from 1100 AD, has a wash that was used as a trail by surveyors in 1853 and acted as a trail for many thereafter, features Route 66 memorabilia, has Interstate 40 running through it, has two petrified wood structures (one built by Puebloan Peoples in 1100, one built by a local hotelier in the 1920’s), both modified in the 1930’s by CCC guys who were from Philadelphia which is in my home state), and so on and on.

The Painted Desert from Pintado Point, 12 x 24″, oil on masonite, 2010

The difference between walking through a gorgeous landscape, sitting and looking at a marvelous view, and applying paint to canvas to simulate the gorgeous, marvelous landscape in order to make a plein air “landscape” is monumental. Sitting and walking have certain similarities. Sitting and painting have other similarities. But actually, each is a different experience. And then one adds in all the hours and years and millenia that that landscape has experienced, and one might very well simply throw in the towel.

But egoist that I am, I believe that my art is worth doing only if I try to incorporate even the teeniest bit of my experience and knowledge into it, giving it a different context from what the tourist next to me experienced. I do this for myself, and then I hope that it becomes part of others’ “landscape” and allows them to linger a bit longer than they might otherwise.

Pintado Point, above, is not only the landscape I saw often, driving north along the Petrified Forest’s highway, where you come around a corner and over a bit of a hill and Bam! there it is. It is also the tail end of a large set of badlands called The Painted Desert in this area of Arizona, most of which is outside the park. It also contains fossils that are 225 million years old — “Triassic Park” as Jer and others like to call it because an early dinosaur fossil¬† has been found in these formations. The badlands are also the last remains of geological features,¬† about 215 million years of them, which have disappeared. This is the Park’s great unconformity, where the dark basaltic area in the forefront is about 10 million years old and the drop-off goes immediately to the 225 million-year-old territory.

I could go on and on about the Painted Desert, and this painting (as yet I haven’t mentioned the raven, nor the Park Service employees, nor the way the wind blew nor the cold that was starting to creep into these early morning escapades). Most of what I could go on about, as well as what I just mentioned, can’t be seen in the painting.

But I’m hoping that when taken together with other paintings from the Petrified Forest, if presented carefully and with nuances made available, that this single painting will take on something other than mere bright oil on canvas.

This is perhaps heretical and certainly hubristic — that a small bit of painted masonite could ever be other than just that. It’s only something I want, not something I think other painters should want to do or try to do or even be interested in doing. Yet I continue to want to share what I know of the place and the space and the time, insofar as it is possible, however limited that possibility might be.

That’s what I learned at the Petrified Forest (as well as the history of Route 66, the 1930’s CCC rules, and the ravens’ disgust when the artist has no treats for them.) And that’s why I am playing around with ways to present the paintings that I did there, so as to expand and enrich the way each means and is seen.

[A possible plan for presentation of PEFO paintings, Oct 3, 2010. Laid on the back patio of our apartment because there was no way to check it out in an upright position.] As I continue to work on the paintings I did at the Petrified Forest in my Portland studio, I will update this blog, both with finished and decently photographed work and with the presentation(s) that I am ruminating on. So this conclusion is only the idea of a conclusion: the real conclusion, in Context, is yet to come.

Petrified Forest Residency, Almost Finished: Oct. 16, 2010

October 16, 2010: Last painting finished in the Petrified Forest.

Yesterday we toured Holbrook, where we “did” Jim Gray’s Rock Shop, a serious classic of its kind, checked out the Museum Courthouse, walked through and photographed the Centennial Historic Register District, and got home by 1 PM. Oh and we had a Dairy Queen.

Then I laid out my paintings to see if the scheme I had come up with earlier had been fulfilled:

These are by no means all the paintings, nor is this the final arrangement. I was just checking to see if I had filled in the gaps. Which I had.

A bit closer look at the top and bottom of the set. There are some paintings that I’m fond of that aren’t here, so the final grouping will probably be different. And I might just decide to frame and exhibit them in a nice measured row so that the 30-second lookers can have a bit of time with each painting.

Anyway, this putative presentation is something about context, and something about time, both of which have occupied me (along with the dratted question of perception) for some years. More about that in my final summary, which I haven’t tackled yet.

However, this morning I went out to do one last painting, in order to make¬† 21 pieces for the 21 days we have had access to the Park. I didn’t paint on some of those days, but on some I painted twice. And I’m not counting the three bad paintings that have been discarded, turned back to the wall until they can be sanded to oblivion.

I thought for the last painting I would do the Neutra Plaza (in the Visitor’s Center), but when I woke up I knew I wanted to do the Painted Desert, the best view of it, from Pintado Point. It wasn’t the right time of day, but I had a choice between painting in the AM and having dinner with friends in the PM, or skipping dinner. I have my priorities, so at 7:30 AM there I was.

The colors of the area are much different in the morning.¬† When we would drive home from the south part of the Park, just before dusk, sun in the west, we would come over a little rise and there it would be — the desert blazing with color. In the morning, the colors are cooler and drabber. So I painted the shapes and forms I saw, but ignored the color, put every red I had on my palette, and used most of them on the board. The smooth, less colorful areas of the painting are the “washes” (which might be big muddy rivers sometimes.) The big one is Lithodendron Wash, which was the way most surveyors, trackers, Native Americans, and early pioneers came through.

The colors appear all wrong on this monitor, but hopefully, back in  Portland, I can control the light and check the colors against the painting, which is now packed away in the Honda, waiting transport. The next blog will be the last, and may have some conclusions.

Which will undoubtedly be revised as I consider this experience over the next few months. –June

Petrified Forest Residency, Day 14, Oct 9, 2010

Blue Mesa Badlands, Petrified National Forest, 2010.

Having survived the demos, I am taking the day off from painting. Which didn’t exactly mean sleeping in. We got up at our usual time, but this morning, instead of pulling myself up and pulling things together and pulling myself to the car to get to the painting place before the light changed, I made a cup of coffee and meandered around the deserted, cool complex of Visitor Center, Science Center, visiting VIP apartments and some real living quarters.

The tourists who climbed out of their cars all looked a bit grim at 7:43. I sympathized, silently. No one wanted a cheery greeting.

The birds were noisy enough to drown out the noise of the freeway, and far more pleasant too. I stood on a human-made hillock¬† hill that separates the Visitor’s Plaza from the living quarters until my ankles started to itch (ants? desert stick-to-ums?) and then meandered through the Plaza, around the parking lot (eyeing the few cars that grumpily were entering) and back to the back of the maintenance area, where the birds were carrying on and no one at all was in sight.

I am fascinated by human activity within spaces, although I know nothing about the science or research of such. But artists are observers, and I find myself observing what happens when humans are observing or partaking¬† in “nature” — although what we think of as natural is often just over grown human artifacts. I think I may have to start painting “real” landscapes, not just wacky cityscapes, where people are impossible to avoid, but landscapes that include people and their artifacts.

It would be easy to be caustic about the tourists (I have been so, even as I am one myself). But that’s not what I want. What I want is to examine, with paint, what people do faced with the Painted Desert or Petrified Wood. Or Mt Tabor or Colonel Summers Park. How they use the natural stuff around them, what they avoid, where they make paths, when they flee it and when they embrace it. “Landscapes” that include telephone poles and signs and humans as well as the natural elements that normally define the genre.

[Deserted Park building, possibly an old outhouse.]

All this maundering has been engendered by a thoroughly academic article that I only understand about a quarter of that I am reading on my Kindle,  a panel discussion, led by James Elkins, that included a host of folks from all kinds of disciplines. I shall include the name of it later (Jer wants to go get some ice cream right now).

This photo, taken from the Blue Mesa Trail, includes, if you look closely, a train crossing the short prairie grass of the upper Bidahochi mesa as well as a couple of trucks (sorry, you can’t see them at this resolution) beyond the trains, traveling down I-40. We were standing on a steep asphalt trail (obviously made in part by machine) in the midst of wicked badlands (see the first photo). Below us were braided dry washes and conglomerate stuck in bentonite clay as well as steep washes filled with petrified wood. In the far distance is my own personal landmark, painted as an icon of natural landscape, Pilot Rock. But it too takes on human meaning, as a way of defining where the surveyor/explorer/pioneer/gold seeker was in the undifferentiated Colorado Plateau area.

So following are a number of human/natural interface photos, ones I took this morning, while thinking about what we landscape painters ignore as we imitate the Impressionists. My memory of the Impressionists is, of course, that they included the human as well as the natural, but to us, now, those scenes seem fairly romantic, a time passed for which we can wax nostalgic. They are “landscape” to us, as telephone poles are not.

[The Puerco Kiva with sign and folks]

This last photo reminds me of scenes from western movies, all fake, of course, of horsemen riding across ridges (sitting ducks for attacking Native Americans, methinks). These folks are more benign and in little danger of anything but sunburn. You might also notice that everyone has cameras.

Tomorrow we are on the road, to Gallup, on the way to de Maria’s Lightning Field. –June