Petrified Forest Residency, Day 5, September 30, 2010

Sept 30, 2010

6 AM:

This (early) morning we went to southern entrance of park, where a stabilizedĀ  petrified-wood building, dated around 1250 AD, is located. It’s about a mile up an easy walking trail and represents something of the Puebloan culture that inhabited this area. Officially called Agate House, the structure has been stabilized and restabilized over the years. The petrified wood pieces have been mortared, originally with local soils, but later remortared, probably at times with Portland cement, in the 20th century.

It is unclear how authentic the construction is; the ranger said it was stabilized, not reconstructed, after being excavated in the 1930’s (although she wasn’t quite clear about the dating. The CCC guys were working in this area in the 30’s so that seems like a possibly accurate time period. ) It has been restabilized a number of times since.Ā  The Agate House is said to have been part of a large walled compound, although my eyes could detect nothing else human-made in the surrounding landscape. The ranger said the walls of the large compound are quite obvious when seenĀ  from above, but since the remaining building sits on a high point, well above the surrounding landscape, I suppose I can be forgiven for my inability to detect any further building. In fact, I find it amazing that these structures can be found at all, although I understand that pot shards were wide-spread until “gleaned” early in the century. And perhaps a bit of training in archaeology would enable me to improve my eye for lost habitations.

The southern part of the Park is particularly known for its petrified logs, which are everywhere, all sizes and shapes, with beautiful minerals showing in the fractured pieces. The logs were apparently fractured from earth movements over the millions of years that they laid there, and are now in evidence because of the erosion of the softer soils around them.

The landscape is fascinating ā€“ soft prairie grasses surrounding multi-colored logs, mostly red, but some in various other mineralized colors. This is also perhaps the area most heavily gathered from prior to protection from the government beginning as early as 1906 (and perhaps still heavily stolen from in spite of the precautions, warnings, signs, and heavy-duty finger shaking from all sides.) The rocks are indeed almost irresistible (I am resisting!); luckily (I guess) immediately outside the park as well as in the town of Holbrook, large commercial outfits sell the rocks that have, so we are told, been legitimately gleaned from private lands. There are also small shops inside the park where vendors sell artifacts made from the gorgeous stone, paperweights, beads, sculptures, etc.

My aim this morning was to paint Agate House, as a companion to the painting of the Painted Desert Inn. I wanted to include it in its landscape, giving it context.

Agate House, 12 x 16″, oil on masonite, 2010

This photo is particularly bad: the hues, on this computer, look wildly off from the way they look in the painting –this is not a snow scene, regardless of how it looks on the computer screen. I am actually rather pleased with this painting, although it will, as usual, need a bit of tweaking. The pleasure in part comes from survived having walked 3 miles before I could begin painting (up and back to scout and up again to paint) and from having started the painting at 9:30, when the heat had already begun to have a bit of a bite. So my pleasure comes from a variety of sources.

I realized during this bit of exercise that I might have an idea about how these paintings might be presented so they can be seen singly but also in context. This “notion” will probably change, but it helps focus my next choices of painting places a bit.

Iā€™m envisioning a rectangular set of paintings (think quilt blocks presented singly in a rectangular shape), with 4 or more in the center, surrounded by four longer landscapes plus four corner blocks.

I am imagining keeping the natural elements, landscape and landforms, on the outside edges, while the interior paintingsĀ  will be of the human cultural manifestations. There are plenty of human elements to be painted, both in context as well as without context but with clear readable scenes.

Here’s one human context that bemused Jer and me; apparently the trail to Agate House and a longer trail through ravines of petrified wood called the Long Log Trail was once a two-lane road:

This is the trail, with the center stripe of the old road still holding its own. The buildings in the background are of the south Park Compound, including a museum which we haven’t explored much yet. It’s on the list….

Of course, plans about presentation are all speculation. We are on Day 5 of our visit, so in 9 days, the plein air painting will be completed. After that, photographs will have to suffice. I am asking Jer, who has the best camera, to take photos of elements that I might not get to or that might need to be redone. But he is an editor to his very core, so unless he gets specific instructions, all but his very best photos are deleted before I have a chance to snatch them. Another reason to have a plan ā€“ asking politely for a set of photos is easier than trying to snatch them from him before he tidies his files.

We couldnā€™t bear to drive back the 22 miles to the Park’s southern end to paint more of that territory this afternoon,Ā  so I painted at Pintado Point, five or so miles away from our northern-end apartment. Because I have a presentation scheme in mind, I decided I should start in on the bigger horizontal boards, 12″ x 24″. I started painting this big board a bit late, after 4 PM. Jer reappeared at 5:30 (the park closes and the sun disappears at 6).Ā  I had forgotten how much time it takes merely to get some paint all over the board, let alone get the paint to do what you want it to do. So this painting is rough. The northern part of the Park is of the wildly colored rocks and soils, like those I did earlier this week, although this painting also includes Pilot Rock, an isolated eroded butte that can be seen for miles around.

Pilot Rock from Pintado Point, 12 x 24″, oil on masonite, 2010

I’m discovering that the tourists in the late afternoons are not only much more numerous than at 6 AM (this I can understand) but they are also far more talkative. I think the long day of driving and stopping and driving and stopping finally breaks down their reserve; they yearn for a bit of humanity against the landscape. So the artist gets to chat away, which is fun, but also difficult to paint around. This particular painting needs more work, but it shouldn’t be difficult to manage.

Four of the ten paintings on the back patio (all in varying states of completion) are now dry to the touch, which means they can be readily reworked. The desert definitely has some advantages over humid Portland. And thereā€™s a 30% chance of rain tomorrow; the clouds this evening were glorious. Who ever would have imagined that a Portlander could be excited at the thought of rain?

Reported from Apt. K, Petrified Forest National Park, September 30,2010. –June

Working the Center: Day 22, Nov 22, 2009

A shortish day today. Lots of visitors, including old friends Fred and Betty, from last February, when they kept an eye on me fromĀ  Rhyolite, where they were caretakers. It was good to see them again; we spent aĀ  couple hours just catching up. It was Fred and Betty with whom we traveled down Titus Canyon in March, a memorable trip.

But I did do some work: here are the tools of the day — palette knife and ancient brush.

I discovered with canvas that I could smear paint with the palette knife — very gooey paint, not meant to stand in nice ridges and icing-like curves, but just to slightly randomly lay down a streak of paint:

This streak then got brushed with the ancient tatted brush which no longer can hold paint — hence all it does is brush out what’s there.

Using the palette knife and old brush gives a very different look to the paint layer than brushing it on conventionally or laying it on so it dripped, as I did yesterday. The variety in layered looks enhances the variations that I hope will keep people looking further.

What I didn’t say yesterday, in that description of the frantic ten minutes trying to capture theĀ  mountain forms, was that I spent most of the day working the center panel, and when I finished it was covered, layered, thickly saturated with a very light mottled pinkish beige. Jer’s honest opinion, pulled out of him reluctantly, was also mine, although I was hoping he’d contradict it. It was too much, too light, too out of character, too, too, too excessive.

So here’s yesterday’s center panel, followed by today’s. More Must Be Done:

Center Panel, November 21.

Center Panel, Nov 22.

It’s hard to evaluate these panels separately, although my fond hope is that each will stand on its own in the end. But to see how the center one looked with its companion on either side yesterday and today, here are a couple of photos.

Panels 3, 4, and 5, Nov. 21

Panels 3, 4, and 5, Nov 22

Granting the difference in lighting conditions (depends on where the sun is at any given photo opp), I am definitely happier with November 22.Ā  Seen with the other four panels, the toning down of the center was essential, and it will probably get more.

I wrote down what I hoped for in this six week painting excursion. 1. That the whole would fit together harmonously — that the panels would form a unity; 2. That each panel would make a statement by itself, would be a painting that could stand on its own; and 3. that the panels would balance out, that none would push the others out of sight or diminish itself into nothingness.

I have (had?) other goals — that it would take more than a single 30 second look to get through this scene and that the casual observer would be tempted to walk along the panels and look at them more closely; that I could manage quirky light so that the close observer would understand it but the casual observer wouldn’t be daunted by the quirks; and that it wouldn’t be so boringly conventional as to give the attentive art observer the yawns.

The only thing I think I have at the moment for sure is balance —Ā  the seven panels feel precisely the right weight to me. I hope that feeling continues. Some of the panels are pretty good paintings; some are not. The whole is definitely not achieved yet.

As for how others will react, well, all I can do is my best and then let the viewers decide, individually, as they take a look. The reaction thus far has been mixed, but then, the paintings thus far have been mixed.

Tomorrow is Monday and I will begin again.

Reporting from the Goldwell House in Beatty, Nevada, where the Sutter’s Home wine is just fine after a day of painting and socializing.

Sometimes a Great Notion: Day 21, Nov. 21, 2009

This was a hard-working day at the Studio. I didn’t mean it to be — I just kept seeingĀ  More To Be Done.

I worked the center panels, particularly the central one, very hard today, using Liquin as if it were water. I also got to use my spatula-like tool, of which I’m very fond, and which makes specific kinds of marks on canvas. It doesn’t work on masonite board at all.

The “spatula” (actually I found it with clay shaping tools) is on the left and the goo is what my palette looked like. There’s a palette knife in there, also, which came in handy.

I worked with those tools and then put them aside and started what I can only describe as a kind of drip process: load the brush with lots of Liquin medium and some indefinite paint and lay a line down the canvas:

I didn’t get photos of the really good gooey places, but this is an example. After I laid down a bunch of medium and paint, I went back over the lines with a big brush, dispersing the materials. This method actually worked better than just brushing the paint on the canvas.

This is after the goo has been distributed. I had both violet and paynes gray on my brushes, so they came out varying themselves nicely.

The Great Notion occurred about 3:30. I had been at it since 9 and was more than a little tired. So I thought I’d clean up and wait for Jer at 4. I was standing at the door of the barn and I saw one set of mountains more clearly than I had ever seen them before. The sun was just right for the shadows to pull out the forms individually. They were beautiful. I admired them for minute, took out my camera and bemoaned its inability to photograph what I could see so clearly. I was standing there wishing there were some way I could record the mountains as they were at that moment, when it suddenly dawned on me — I had been fussing at painting them for weeks and never could see them clearly. I dashed back to the palette (a version of the one above), scrambled for color and started making marks all over the dull blue shapes that I had thought were the best I was going to get for those particular forms.

Here’s aĀ  before shot, when I thought I was finished for the day (this was cropped from a much larger photograph, so it’s fuzzy. But you’ll get the idea.)

And here’s what I left the studio with this evening, having thrown paint at those forms, running from open door to the painting wall, back and forth, trying to make do with the paint on my palette so I could catch the shapes before they became mere silhouettes in front of the setting sun:

What made me laugh at myself was that moment before I thought of trying to capture the forms, when I was wishing there were some way to show what these mountains look like on November 21 at 3:37 until 3:59 PM. The moment just before the Great Notion — paint them, dummy! Duh.