The Plank Paintings: Playa, September 2013 — January 2014

Plank2The “Plank Paintings”, more formally known as Summer Lake from Winter Ridge, has long been finished. I wrote about it earlier, under the rubric of The Project from Hell.

I finished the last coats a bit more than a year ago, and I recorded much of the process along the way. Then life intervened and I never got the panels photographed. Finally, however, I finally got the finished paintings lined up for photography is my new studio.

The panorama is 1 foot high by 16 feet long, oil on cedar planks, painted in 2013, 1014. More specifically, the substrate consists of eight 12 x 24 inch planks, harvested, with the help of the talented Rachel Streeter, from old building that sat on the land where the Playa Foundation was built. Playa, the Foundation, is located on Summer Lake, near Paisley, Oregon, in the far southeastern quarter of the state.

AcrossThePlayaFromRidgeWLA “playa”, as a geologic feature, is a lake which has no outlet to the ocean. The most famous one in the U.S. is perhaps Death Valley. The Amargosa, across a mountain range from Death Valley, where I painted in 2009, is a playa. Summer Lake sits at the northern edge of basin and range country, and forms its own playa, with Winter Ridge rearing above it.

The paintings were something of a challenge, beginning with raw wood that needed to be sanded and primed with an oil medium.

PlanksRawWlThen the planks were lined up on the wall, with various versions of the Summer Lake Playa, photographed panoramically, above and below:

PlanksAndPhotosRawWLOnce the horizon was established on the paintings, according to my physical sense of that sky and earth, I could start painting. Each painting was lined up with the previous one (although I started from the center, of course).

planksProcess2WLThe red line on the plank above was my original idea of the horizon. It got adjusted as I painted.

My desire was to capture something of the sweep of the playa as seen from above, on Winter Ridge, during a bright September day.

Here’s a photo of the finished panorama:

PlayaPlankPanoFullWLSummer Lake from Winter Ridge from the left, 1 foot by 16 feet, oil on cedar planks, 2013/2014.


Summer Lake from Winter Ridge, the Panorama, 1 foot by 16 feet, oil on cedar plank, 2013/2014

Below are photos of the individual planks:

#1PlayaPlankPanoWLPlank 1, Summer Lake to the south.

#2PlayaPlankPanoWLPlank 2, Summer lake to the southeast.

#3PlayaPlankWLPlank 3, Summer Lake to the southeast

#4PlayaPlankPanoWLPlank 4, Summer Lake to the east.

#5PlayaPlankPanoWLPlank 5, Summer Lake to the east.

#6PlayaPlankPanoWLPlank 6, Summer Lake to the northwest.

#7PlayaPlankPanoWLPlank 7, Summer Lake to the northwest

#8PlayaPlankPanoWLPlank 8, Summer Lake to the northwest.  To state the obvious, I was painting from the west side of Summer Lake, on the eastfacing side of Winter Ridge itself.

Below are the two center panels, 4 & 5, plus bits of the ones beside them:

PlayaPano4,5PlusWLThese panels were the culminating work from a short residency at the Playa Foundation, during the fall of 2013. The planks were courtesy of the Foundation, and it was actually Rachel, musician, tile setter, and finder of wood and energy, who provided the ambition and tools to move me along on this rather ambitious project. I used the grain of the raw wood to guide the earth images, allowing any imperfections in the boards to remain. The challenge of finding the nuances within the playa, sand and sky, was almost equal to the challenge of preparing the wood. And of course, I feel in the panorama a kinship with that glorious land of southern Oregon, a place of blazing beauty and tough conditions.

Written in January 2015, from NE 86th Ave,



Bits and Bytes: Day 33, Dec. 3, 09

Yesterday, I took the day off and was playing at painting the Beatty Community Center when the silver Honda pulled up with David Lancaster and all his photo equipment. So I got to exploit the photographer. Actually he had set up and done some phtography before he found me, but at the Barn, after some mugs with the big pano, I decided to take off the tape from the panels.

You can see the beginning of the process — that’s me on the step stool.

And here are the panels, without the tape. Oh wondrous-much!

Un-oriented Amargosa, 5′ x 28′, Oil on linen, 2009

After more mugs with the panos (ho-hum — the panels are better by themselves), I further exploited the photographer by making him take mug shots of me and the desert. I understand that the competition is scarcely fair — one can’t compete with the desert. But David did his best and we had a jolly time of not being formal about the process, nor the product.

Ultimately David got serious and photographed the real subject with the incidental one standing in front:

I’m astonished at what he could capture in the bright desert sun. There’s my scene, although I’m not looking in the right direction. I kept telling him my best side was the other one, but he ignored me.

Thank you, David Lancaster, superb photographer, raconteur, and friend.

Reporting from Beatty, Nevada, at the Goldwell House, part of the Goldwell Open Air Museum.

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.