Sarra monument

monument, 56″x 72″, oil on canvas, 2014

Tonight we are expecting to receive between 5 and 8 inches of snow, and it is in the context of this unusually long and cold winter that I have finished this long and cold painting, monument.  But the painting started under different circumstances two years ago when we had a rather warm and snowless winter.  In February of 2012 we had a single significant snowfall, and a day or so later the temperatures rose sufficiently to melt it away.  As I drove past Metcalfe Park on the day of the melt I saw a large snowball slumped in the middle of a muddy field.  Grass and leaves protruded from the snowy mass.  It was a striking image, and I kept thinking about it for the next few days.  At some point this meditation on the memory became a call to action, and I made this sketch of the scene as I remembered it:

snowball study (memory), 8.25" x 11.5", pencil on paper, 2012

snowball study (memory), 8.25″ x 11.5″, pencil on paper, 2012

Having made the sketch, I began to rework the composition directly on the canvas.  As the snowball began to take shape as a stark contrast to the muddy field of dormant grass, I became painfully aware of the painting’s limitations when it came to expressing important aspects of the context that had qualified my initial experience.  The object appeared so strongly dislocated from its season that it took on what seemed to me as an inseparable association with Andy Goldsworthy’s Midsummer Snowballs.  I added a few patches of snow to reclaim a more plausible scene.  Eventually more snow fell in the world that I was creating, and although it pulled the image farther from my actual experience it had the ultimate effect of establishing a more credible stage upon which other events might unfold.  Here’s an image of the painting in September, before so many of the characters were removed from the scene:

studio view of monument, September 2013

studio view of monument, September 2013

For many people, even many artists, it may seem strange to start making a picture without a clear vision of what the final image (and meaning) will be.  In my process this is a relatively normal thing.  I rely upon an inspiration to get things started, but it is the unanswered questions and unforeseen problems that drive the work.  The finished painting is as much a product of surprise and discovery as anything else.  It requires that I be willing to experiment by adding and removing elements.  The process is inefficient but rewarding.  The painting begins to accumulate histories, and the surface becomes a tangle of what was and what is.  Some of these events leave marks of discernible character, others become inscrutable.  This piece required a lot of “un-painting”.  I was cutting down trees, knocking down buildings, rolling in clouds, and dropping snow in order to find that moment where the painting fully contained the justification for its own existence.

glove study, 11" x 15", pastel on paper, 2013

glove study, 11″ x 15″, pastel on paper, 2013.  This was one of the objects that I thought might be incorporated into the painting, but it never made the cut.

It was at this point that the object of my painting shifted from subject to stage and orchestrated the completion of the piece.  As the atmospheric silence overtook the painting, it brought me back to a childhood memory.  It was winter in Maryland, and my parents had taken me out to shop for boots.  I was probably about nine years old.  It was snowing furiously, and on the way home our vehicle stalled in the left lane on a busy road.  Before long we were struck, by another vehicle, and then that vehicle, too, was struck due to the poor visibility and accumulation of snow on the ground.  It was late at night by the time my older brother was able to walk from our house to the accident scene in order to escort me home.  As we set off, the transition was magical and immediate.  We crossed over into the ball field between the high school and the elementary school, and the light/noise/stress of the road was replaced by muffled stillness and by calm.  The world seemed lit from within as we high-stepped through the snow and across that field.  It was snowing hard enough that as we gained the middle of the field it became a world without edges, a room defined by its thick floor and the soft collapse of its ceiling.  Perhaps it was this semblance of privacy, this feeling of being lost in a  little piece of wilderness while still in the midst of the metropolis. Perhaps the scene presented a blank canvas so compelling, so self-evident that it demanded action even from a child.  Perhaps we were just suffering from full bladders.  Whatever the reason, we took that opportunity to draw with streams of our steaming medium in the snow.

It would have been impossible for me to interpret that act as anything but necessary at the time.  It was visceral and unpremeditated.  But as I now reflect upon that moment I see it as characterizing much of my life’s experience with the landscape, with family, and with the action of creation that I define today as “art making”.  In this painting a signature appears with a vandal’s brazen delight.  It claims the land like a flag planted in soil already bearing evidence of another’s passage.  It is an expression of desire and of necessity, acutely aware of its ethical dilemmas.   Philip Guston described this problem during a conversation with Joseph Ablow in 1966 while describing what he saw as the revolutionary impulse of the New York School.  He said, “…you felt as if you were driven into a corner, against the wall with no place to stand, just the place you occupied, as if the act of painting itself was not making a picture– there are plenty of pictures in the world, why clutter up the world with pictures– it was as if you had to prove to yourself that truly the act of creation was still possible.”