Tag Archives: ink

recent paintings

smoke-shaped forest, 22x 30, ink, shellac, and oil on paper, 2012

Last week I finished smoke-shaped forest, which continues a series reflecting on the simultaneous gains and losses associated with 200 acres of land being cleared adjacent to my parent’s property outside of Charleston, SC.  In such cases waste wood and plowed stumps are often stacked up and burned, and they create an eerily beautiful sight at dusk in that thick southern air.  Anyone who has ever sat around a campfire knows the seduction of staring into the coals, a kind of primal reverie of thought and thoughtlessness, comfort and fear, and the clear insistence of a light in the darkness.

broadleaf plantain with clover, 10 1/4" x 13 7/8", oil on panel, 2012

broadleaf plantain with clover is the first in what I believe will be a series of edible wild plant paintings, most of which can be quickly located in urban environments.  These are works about the act of foraging, which is another way of seeking a depth of experience outside of the dominant culture.  But they also raise questions regarding patterns of recognition and the problems associated with the indirect transfer of knowledge.  One of the classic problems of depicting plants is the method of depicting a “representative sample”.  That is, the collection or photographic documentation of a single plant does not account for the inevitability of variation, and this creates a reservoir of doubt.  Paintings are effective in communicating some types of specificity, but often at the expense of others.  The payoff of this more “scenic” method, in my mind, is that it describes more fully a set of relationships within a given habitat.  And just as my front lawn establishes criteria for fruitfulness, so does the limited context of my panel.

grackle with smartweed and clover, 14 1/4" x 17 1/4", oil on panel, 2012

grackle with smartweed and clover keeps up the thematic approach to ground-cover, and the act of looking down as a move out of the demands of the body and into the life of the mind.  Because the bird’s eye is denied to the viewer as a point of reference, the grackle straddles a space between life and death.

For months, I’ve been lathey

silver maple with natural edge, 8 1/2" x 4", 2012 (unfinished)

On this side of the bowl you can see the bark inclusion that penetrates the piece. It creates a great cloud/wave form in the transition from heartwood to sapwood.

ink bowl, sycamore with spalting, 4" x 1", 2011

black oak root, 4" x 2 1/2", 2011

ink bowl, ornamental cherry, 3 1/2" x 3 1/2", 2012

It’s hard to believe that it has been four months since my last post.  I’ll blame it on a very busy fall semester, but my teaching responsibilities were only part of the equation– I also purchased a lathe, and have been working furiously to learn the art and craft of turning bowls.  I never had much interest in the strict symmetries that lathes produce, but a friend introduced me to the possibilities of green-wood turning and I’ve been at it ever since.  As the wood dries it distorts in various ways depending on the species of wood, orientation of the grain, shape, thickness, and the balance of sap and heart woods.  It is complicated enough to keep things interesting, and introduces a welcome element of surprise.  Turning is a great way to make use of woods otherwise destined for the landfill or the fire pit.  The “undesirable” aspects of the wood are often the very things that set them apart as turnings.  In the silver maple bowl, above, it is the bark inclusion that caused such wild grain, and it is notable that the visual interest increases even as the “usefulness” of the bowl decreases.  The last bowl pictured came from an ornamental cherry tree that had been cut down after being hit by a car.  This bowl was taken from a section where as many as seven branches were converging, causing a wild swirl of tensions that create lumps and distortions throughout the piece.  I’m not sure if this species will gain more pink color as it ages or not.

Many of these bowls go from the shop to the studio, where they hold ink and water while I am making paintings.  When put to work like this, the bowls take on a patina of use which amounts to a type of finish work.  It is a wonderful moment where the tools of making are themselves transformed, by their use, into the very form of their purpose.  Much of my recent thought has revolved around the roles of craft, beauty, and usefulness in my own work, and this process makes manifest every aspect of that thought.  The bowl, and the craft by which the bowl is both made and transformed, function at first as a supplement to the painting.  But the opportunity for autonomy or repurposing is strong enough to allow a shift from “supplement” to “complement”, and it is these complimentary works which are holding so much of my attention.


Catching up on some reading is one of the great pleasures of winter break.  I’ve almost managed to consolidate my “open” books onto my bedside table, and although it is a little difficult to turn on the lamp, there is only a small pile of books still relegated to the floor nearby.  It is a habit of mine to read a number of books simultaneously, but a clear favorite emerged in  Andrew Lee March’s Landscape in the Thought of Su Shih (1036-1101), and I couldn’t put it aside until I was finished. It is actually his dissertation for the Doctor of Philosophy in Geography at the University of Washington in 1964, and I know that doesn’t sound like your typical page-turner.  But it is an eloquent investigation of Su Shih’s creative practice and the way that the experience of the landscape was for him a means by which to mediate between his creative individuality and his sense of civic/social responsibility.  This is some of what his reading committee had to say about the text:

“This is an unusual, and unusually valuable, dissertation.  Its central theme, landscape, is clearly and demonstrably geographic, and Mr. March effectively relates his treatment to the relevant body of disciplinary literature and argument.  But the dissertation also deals, at a high level of effectiveness and sophistication, with important concepts in literature and the arts, philosophy, and psychology, and rests as well on an understanding of Chinese intellectual history.  The skill with which Mr. March has woven modern psychological concepts into his analysis may warrant particular mention; he has produced a genuinely new approach, not only to the study of landscape or to the thought of Su Shih as an important figure, but to a host of similar problems in what has been referred to elsewhere as “idealist analysis”, a matter common to many disciplines, including geography.”

The book has helped much of my thinking about the role of the garden in an urban setting, and the role of nature in contemporary life.

Another recent read was Ink Stone,  a small book of poems by Jamie McKendrick.  It was amusing to discover a book of poems while searching for information about ink stones.  And although I did enjoy most of the poems, what has stayed in my mind are these two quotes, which McKendrick used as a preface:

“In China and Japan, the use of bottled ink is frowned upon and generally considered to be a concession to barbarians…The older the stone that is used to make an ink stone, the better it will perform.  Because the geological formations in China are much older than those in Japan, the best stones came from China… The Japanese term for the best grades of slate used in the manufacture of ink stones is tankai.  There are several grades of tankai just as there are grades of diamonds.  The very best tankai was found under rivers.  Today it can only be found in private collections and museums.  Since China has a long history, all the stones of this quality have already been found.”

Steven L. Saitzyk,  Art Hardware

So he vanish’d from my sight,

And I pluck’d a hollow reed,

And I made a rural pen,

And I stain’d the water clear

William Blake

As a preface to poetry this might be interpreted as an apology, a reluctant admission that all good poems, like the stones, have already been found.  But McKendrick’s point is clarified by Blake’s “rural pen”– that humble means need not result in humble ends, and that one should not confuse the spirit with the flesh.

…like the tide

untitled (feather), ink and tempera on paper, 12x 14, 2009

blew (feather), ink and tempera on paper, 12x 17.5, 2009

Last week I spent a morning in the Study Room at the Saint Louis Art Museum soaking up a few of the accomplishments of Zha Shibiao, Dai Xi, and Lu Yanshao.  Lu’s album of landscapes was particularly significant to me, and provided a serendipitous escape from the frustrations that I have been facing in my own ink paintings.  The paintings in the album alternate between monochromatic and colored works.  And while there is an element of consistency, each piece manages to shift mood and focus in an unexpected way.  By the time I had worked my way through the painting of Dai Xi and the calligraphy of Zha Shibiao I was convinced that the energy and precision of the painted line was the critical ingredient missing from my own work.  As much as I love the flowing washes, they are air with no stone and flesh with no bone.  So I decided to get back to that line, and to clarity.

The previous weekend I had spent some time in Forest Park with my daughter.  While sketching by the water, I saw a feather that had gotten caught in a spider web among the reeds.  It became a natural weather-vane, pointing out the wind’s direction but never following along.  Although I made a short video of the event, I prefer the natural stillness of the painting.  In describing the feather’s arrested motion over time, the video describes the presence of the otherwise invisible web.  The still image locks the feather into the center of its gaze where scrutiny of the object precedes explanation of the scene.  I transported the feather (by way of imagination) to the South Carolina marsh that I love so much, where the pulse of the tide takes the place of the shifting wind– known best by its presence or absence, not by the activity of transition.