The John Day Fossil Beds, Further Explorations

In 2006, I spent a month at the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. At the time I was a long-time textile artist but a newbie painter.  My intent was to do studies in oils and watercolor and then transform these into textile art when I returned home.

It was an exciting adventure, providing an enormous lore of artistic ideas and intellectual understanding of eastern Oregon’s geology and landscape. I spent the following year, painting and stitching, and exhibited many of the textiles regionally and nationally. The paintings were mostly thrown out; larger and more ambitious ones got stored.

This month, in August 2011, needing some large canvases on which to paint, I pulled out failed fossil bed paintings, intending to sand off the paintings and re-use the canvas.

This was one I took out to be reused:

It’s a “dream-scape”, an attempt to convey something of the world I experienced during the month at the Fossil Beds. The piece references elements from the geography and geology of the region. It is also a bad painting.

I needed first to get rid of the irritating sky.¬† At a recent art opening I had been discussing the featured artist’s use of hexagons and was reminded by a friend that the basalt pillars that are a visually striking part of the Fossil Beds area are generally hexagonal in shape. With that nudge, I saw a way to transform the sky. And of course I had new¬† compositional strategies¬† (reported in an earlier post here) which could make use of verticals to move the eye around.

I was off. And this is the result:

JOU, Paleosoles, 30 x 40″, Oil on canvas, 2007, 2011

In this new version, the fracturing of the space with the hexagons and the use of the verticals is accompanied by motifs which appear at the Monument.

Being satisfied with that result, I thought I should tackle another canvas from 2007, a rendition of a badlands scene called the Blue Basin. This painting was less bad but more boring (if this distinction is valid, which I’m not sure it is).

Here’s the painting as it was “finished” in 2007:

And here it is as it appears currently:

JOU, Blue Basin, John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, 30 x 40″, Oil on canvas, 2007, 2011.

Again, I inserted hexagonal motifs. I turned the canvas vertically, and in removing the sky (I may be giving up on ordinary skies) found a vertical against which to push the other elements. Here the dream-scape has none of the object motifs of the first, but it retains some of the  weirdness of  Paleosoles. The space in this painting presents very much the mouth-drying sense one has as one advances along the Foree trail in the monument.

In both these paintings, I think I have achieved something of the “feel” of my month-long experience of the¬† landscape. The weirdness of the actual badlands, both the iron oxides of the paleosoles and the blue ash outcrops, seem best realized in weird paintings.

I have another canvas from the Fossil Beds to play with as well as an almost finished painting from the Oregon coast experience. In this latter coastal rendition, I play again with ambiguous space and vertical compositional strategy. Stay tuned.

June

Wonky-Scapes, a truncated history

I was prevented from hanging my upcoming exhibit Wednesday afternoon by construction issues, so I decided my spare time could be spent rummaging around in my brain, thinking about how I got to doing wonky plein air and studio city-scapes.

The exhibit is Wonky PDX: City-Scapes by Yours Truly, showing at the Full Circle Gallery, 640 SE Stark Street, Portland, OR, opening reception 6–9 on Friday May 6 (just in case you are the one human being whom I know who hasn’t gotten the message yet.)

[Although instead of “Yours Truly” I used my own name. I like “Yours Truly” better and maybe next time….]

I have been painting towns, hamlets, villages, near-ghost towns, and the city of Portland since 2007, when I spent two months painting from a studio in an old bank building that fronted the hamlet (450 persons) of Basin, Montana. The months were December and January; I was (am) a plein air painter, but painting outside, except for a gag photo shot, was not an option. But painting the town in front of me, once the windows cleared of ice was.

Here’s the very first painting I did in Basin:

Brad’s Place, Basin Montana, 12 x 16″, oil on canvas, 2006

Brad’s place was directly across from the Montana Artists Refuge studio where I had my residency. Brad’s place required painting, in more ways than one.

I think I painted most of the houses in Basin (I could see most of them from my windows), as well as attempting to paint a geologic map of a timeline of the world. The latter had real problems and eventually got cut up into some nifty abstracts which were subsequently rolled and buried for the ages to admire.  But the paintings of the town were many and varied and a delight to work on. One of the last paintings that I did, however, was the beginning of, not necessarily a wonky style, but a considered concern for connections and context.

It began with a map:

Basin, Montana, Winter 2006-07,¬† about 20 x 60″, Oil on canvas, 2007.

And then I began surrounding the map with specific structures and elements from the village, much wonkier than the structures and scenes I had been painting in the previous weeks:

Basin in Winter, Oil on canvas, about 7′ x 5′, 2007

Anyone who has been looking at my wonky cityscapes will recognize some pre-history here. This is a connected set of paintings, like the Petrified Forest Set. Moreover, the Brick building that is so prominently featured (the Montana Artist’s Refuge, the bank-turned-art-studio out of whose windows I stared) is facing east in one painting; west in another. A third version(top center) allows the viewer to look through it to the town itself, although the town is apparently inside the building.

Context, all context and connections and relationships, among the streets and buildings, the dogs that ruled the town, the schoolhouse where the kids who gathered to peer into the studio windows spent their days, the little stream that ran under the ice down to the Boulder River — lots and lots of parts of Basin, even the Buddha and Shiva that hovered around the Artists Refuge — all jumbled into this set of nine paintings.

So here’s the leap — from that village, in 2007, to a set of paintings in 2010, when I found myself working the St. Johns Bridge in Portland Oregon. First there were “studies,” the equivalent of the paintings of buildings in Basin. I call these paintings studies because that’s a good art term. Actually, I thought of them as paintings, real, honest to goodness paintings, stand-alones, because who knew if I’d ever go back again and do more.

 

 

 

Except for the last, these are all about 12 x 16″, done plein air. A couple have bit the dust (or more literally, been sanded down to dust). A couple will be in the upcoming exhibit. And there are some others so bad I didn’t photograph them.

But that itch about the St. Johns Bridge couldn’t be satisfied. So I went back to the bridge every day for a couple of weeks and completed the eight panels, 16 x 12″ that comprise the panorama that the bridge presents:

St. Johns Bridge, Portland Oregon, Panels 1,2,3,&4, each 16 x 12″, 2010

 

St. Johns Bridge, Portland, Oregon, Panels 5,6,7,&8, each 16 x 12″, 2010

St. Johns Bridge, Portland, Oregon, 12 x 96″, Oil on masonite, 2010

But that itch, that bee in my bonnet about time, space, place, connections and relationships still bugged me. I hadn’t really done Cathedral Park, that sprawls right under the Bridge. I hadn’t painted the bridge as you can see it from the old town that sits on the hills above Cathedral Park. I hadn’t painted the funny little side park on the Willamette Greenway, an extension of Cathedral Park, that sits beside the Portland Water Pollution Control building. And somehow, I hadn’t captured the sense of being there, painting, for hours, and coming back the next day and painting for more hours.

So this spring I painted the bridge from one of the streets that fronts the River:

And I painted the Water Pollution Control Lab Park, with its own artwork by Don Merkt, whose Sculptures, Raindrop, are enclosed in meditative paths.

And I took a studio painting that I had been struggling with off-and-on for months, painted over it with titanium white, and, after reading about Thomas Hart Benton, Jackson Pollock and a bunch of old masters, I finally got what I wanted.

Our Bridge, 30 x 40″, Oil on canvas, 2011

So is this the exhibit? Heavens, no. Nothing from Basin, Montana, will appear in it. The St. Johns stuff has been seriously culled (as I said, sanded over). But these last sets from the St. Johns “studies” resulted my conscious-brain breakthrough, my recognition, slow in coming, of what I have been doing since 2007. What I do is this:

I find a place to paint, I paint a bunch of scenes that are relatively comprehensible, only sort-of-wonky, I absorb the place by returning again and again, and finally, if I’m lucky, the stars are aligned, and I’ve held my tongue correctly, I can produce a contextual painting or set of paintings that satisfy me. And now I even understand a bit about composing these composites, these collectives, these wonky-but-true visions that had been unconsciously appearing in my art for the last four years.

In the exhibit in addition to Our Bridge, I have composite paintings of the Fremont Bridge, of McLoughlin Boulevard, and of that street corner at 6th and Alder. And in my head, I have others, just waiting for the right time to spill onto the canvas.¬† I also will have, in the exhibit, “studies” which are sometimes just as wonky as the collective artifacts are. Onward and upward with the arts, and thank heavens, I’ve finally figured out what I’m doing. Four years — not too long, considering….

And by Thursday, with any luck, I’ll even get to hang the exhibit that opens on Friday.

–June