detail, Edgeland of the Sora Rail
detail, Specimens (with Long-Billed Curlew)
My current body of work, Avian Witness, has developed as part of my ongoing response to the growing divide between the natural world and the manmade environment. As our natural areas are shrinking, and climate is changing, I’m thinking about primeval forces such as animal migration, magnetic pull, and wind. As an abstract painter, I’m alert to powerful natural patterns as they intersect with the built landscape. Birds do migrate, yet often over vast built-up expanses of large cities. Herds of elk and deer move through the landscape in the fall, intersecting more frequently with fences and roads. As I travel regularly between California and Montana, I notice more game-crossing overpasses along well-travelled highways. That kind of human engineering for the sake of preserving natural patterns is compelling to me as an artist.
I took up the pursuit of bird hunting several years ago with my partner and our dog, really as a way to better understand the woods and the mountains, and to broaden my horizons. Indirectly but significantly, this experience has changed my thinking about art. Walking in the Big Belt Mountains of Montana, I stare down, so as not to trip, at the Pollock-like forest floor texture thick with kinnikinnick berries, moss, leaves and branches, with just a skiff of snow. I’m constantly on alert for the unmistakable, out-of-nowhere wingbeat of grouse. I’m not looking at landscape: I’m a part of it, looking up, down, near and far, with the movement of birds constantly on my mind. In the bigger picture, bird population numbers and habitat are part of my growing awareness.
Back in the studio, between painting sessions, I make quick ink drawings of Western birds with a steel-nibbed pen—the type used since the 1850s to write with. Reading books such as Aldo Leopold’s Sandhill County Almanac, Richard Power’s The Overstory, J.A. Baker’s The Peregrine, Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire, and David Abram’s The Spell of the Sensuous have fueled my growing need to incorporate something from the natural world into my painting. Like many of us, I feel a great sense of loss regarding the natural environment. So how to move forward, how not to be “at a loss” as an artist?
Making a painting in this series begins with a ground built up with layers of silkscreened handwriting fragments and gestural swooshes of color. I think of these initial layers as the literal “ground,” as of the earth, the landscape. Yet the layers are partially comprised of letterforms, which signal culture and human history. The angular patterns on upper surfaces evoke street grids, agriculture fields, and other manmade interventions. Skittering marks here and there elicit tire treads or heavy machinery.
My drawings of birds are the basis for the large curvilinear swoops on top of the rectilinear compositions. Slowly painted with translucent inky black, bird forms are not immediately obvious once transposed onto the paintings, but something of the movement of a bird in flight is transmitted. These black lines are not legible in any literal sense but instead evoke rhythms of nature.
By overlaying the geometric, color-filled slivers with flowing translucent strokes, a complex, polyrhythmic patterning emerges. The eye darts between the contrasting layers, which intersect almost randomly in an unplanned spontaneity. In making these paintings, I envision how such opposing systems of human development and natural forces might coexist in a harmonious ecosystem.
Approaches to Imagery and Abstraction
Source materials for my work, some embedded beneath layers, are wide ranging, from the gestures of penmanship, to pen-and-ink drawings of birds, to avian migration patterns, to maps of the earth’s magnetic field, to aerial landscape views, and to scores of artists who have come before me.
Many years ago, I came across some handwritten correspondence that changed the way I look at the world. The manuscript archives of libraries and historical societies are where I’ve pored through linear feet of boxes of family papers, bank ledgers, business journals from the 19th century. Looking at one particular handwritten letter, I was suddenly awestruck by how a single penstroke can conjure an era so keenly. Can the shape of an alphabet convey meaning? Can we “see” words without reading them? Indeed, the shape and ornamentation of letterforms reveals things.
In the 19th century, good penmanship demonstrated that the writer was disciplined, self-restrained, and virtuous. For me, this phenomenon of line gets to the heart of visual expression. Even though handwriting style was rigidly dictated, it’s still a form of drawing.
In much of my work, I explore what happens to letters in the context of composition, color and space and the materiality of paint.
A note on my technique: I digitize the text samples I come across, and burn the image of the text into a photo silkscreen. I can then print onto a stretched canvas. What is important to know about this technique is that the bits of text that appear in my paintings are exact facsimilies of historical artifacts. But I’m not necessarily interested in the content of the words, because I’m using language as imagery in my paintings.
How did I become so captivated by the shape of language? My high school was in Tangier, Morocco. The “look” of Arabic signage was perhaps my first awakening to the abstract power of line.
My fascination with the power of line, either as printed artifact or hand-drawn, has propelled my work forward for many yers. A closer look at the natural world has uncovered new pathways and approaches to gesture and line, color, texture, composition—the language of painting.