Last month the Dana Gallery in Missoula held their annual Paintout. Several local writers were invited to accompany the artists into the field and write in response to the scene. I was fortunate to join Robert Moore in the Lavelle Creek valley. The paintings and writings are on display at the gallery through August.
Begin with an underpainting. Great gravelly shores of a lake tens of thousands of years gone. Dusky grey with thin soils that lie heaped to the horizon line. Begin to sketch in the grasses whose network of roots hold that soil from gathering up into the winds that rake this slope.
Pull the individual stems from the plain brown hillside. Mix words on your palette to give definition to those grasses. Timothy and fescue, tawney and ecru, tufted hairgrass and sedge, raffia and buff. Struggle to give the right shape to your words so feathery seed heads come alive and dance on the page as they are shimmying now in the breeze. Look closer and see the greens that are woven into the tapestry. Sagey lupine heavy with furred pods and dusty verdigris balsam root drying in the searing sun. Try to capture the rustle of leaves and stems as some unseen creature darts among the safe cover of grasses, while overhead a feathered form sails across the clear blue sky.
Upslope, the burnt umber shadow of the single pine pools from its base and crawls uphill. How to render the ponderosa? Not spired like spruce or leggy like lodgepole. Words must spread in great boles and boughs, tufted with long needles. Pull the vanilla scent from the puzzled bark onto the page. Try to find the right values for your words. Suddenly the rock nestled at the foot of the ponderosa resolves itself into the hunched form of a wild turkey, escaping the midday sun.
Let the image of the turkey pull you into your own cool shade. Hunker yourself into the shadow of the serviceberry bush that softens the roadcut where you sit, dabbing letter into word into image.
You read the scene you have painted on the page. You like the way the colors mix and blend, the shading that has given it depth, and pulled you into the picture.
A branch dangles just above your eyes, heavy with small hard berries. Know they will ripen with time into something that will nourish you, the way all this foliage is transforming sunlight into life.
on the flyway north
through their windpipes’ nautilus curls
the swans herald spring
Basho, the 15th century Japanese Haiku artist’s first journal begins:
on my mind, the wind pierces
my body to the heart
Our bones not only give structure to our bodies and permit movement, they contain our very life blood. Bone marrow produces more than a trillion red blood cells every day.
Throughout history bones have been sacred in many cultures. They are venerated, used in rituals and divination. There was a belief in 16th century Europe that bones revealed the relative nature of things, and the hidden affinities between all living creatures. The Chinese congi for bones also means deep truth.
Bones tell the stories of the lives they once supported.
And for many cultures, they contain the spirit of the dead and can therefore be reanimated. This belief was especially common among people in northern Eurasia, as well as parts of Asia and can also be found in the myths of Germany, Africa, South America, Oceania and Australia as well as ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia.
I often come upon bones on my rambles through the woods and it always inspires a deep sense of curiosity of wonder. Who was this? How did they die? How did they live? Piecing these scattering of bones together, they come alive again in my imagination. Examined closely and isolated, it’s as if the individual bones, with their vast array of shapes and textures come to life under the eye of my camera as well.
My Bone Spirits are part of my show currently on display at The Montana Natural History Center through the end of March.
spring begins its’ call
whole trees vibrate with song
these tweets mean something.
Wunderkammer (Cabinet of Wonders)
Modern day museums evolved from the Cabinets of Curiosity that originated as far back as the 1500’s and reached their peak of popularity in the Victorian Era. They were collections of extraordinary objects that categorized and told stories about the wonders and oddities of the natural world.
I have always been a collector. As Georgia O’Keefe said, “ I have picked flowers where I found them—have picked up sea shells and rocks and pieces of wood …When I found the beautiful white bones on the desert I picked them up and took them home too…I have used these things to say what is to me the wideness and wonder of the world as I live in it.”
Working in the Morton J. Elrod Collection at the University of Montana I had the rare opportunity to work with specimens that dated back to Elrod’s original collections. At the same time I was reading George Dennison’s biography of Elrod and his scientific curiosity and sense of wonder in nature became a part of my own vision. I hope the three curiosity cabinets I created from my experiences as Artist in Residence at the Montana Natural History Center inspire that same sense of wonder in you.
Articulating a Story
Leslie Marmon Silko’s story Skeleton Fixer has been the guiding myth through my career as a writer, photographer and book artist. Gathering ideas, experiences and insights I strive to fit them all together to tell a story, a story that may intrigue, inspire and resonate with my “readers.”
Haunted by Owls
Last January I came across an owl that had just been hit by a car. I brought it to the museum at the University and was thrilled when Libby Beckman, the curator allowed me to be present as she prepared it as a speciman. Before she began she carefully checked it for molting, then separated the feathers on its abdomen to find the patch of bare skin where birds use their body heat to incubate their eggs. Opening up the owl’s stomach we discovered the half digested remains of a dove, whose own stomach contained the seeds it had just eaten. Removing the eye, I was amazed to see the long bony tube that encased it which protects the long rods they use to see in the dark.
The articulation of bones to create a skeleton has always held a fascination for me, so I was very excited when I had the opportunity to watch Larry DePute work on the trumpeter swan. The first time I met Larry he was making a magic wand from a bone for a baby shower, and I knew I had found a soul mate. Seeing the hollow structure of the bones that allows these birds such grace in flight and looking into the elliptical curve of it’s windpipe that gives it it’s distinctive call was a revelation.
All are on view at the Montana Natural History Center, along with my Bone Spirit series through the end of March.
this land is your land
this land was always my land
where’s our common ground?
This winter I had the incredible opportunity to be the Artist in Residence at the Montana Natural History Center. It was truly an adventure in curiosity and wonder. The collections, both at the center and at the Philip L. Wright Zoological Museum at the University of Montana opened up the natural world in new ways, with the diversity and complexity of the life contained in those cabinets and boxes
Being able to hold specimens in my hand was a completely different experience from glimpsing the creatures in the wild, or reading about them in books. It filled me with a sense of discovery. I could slip my finger into the razor sharp talon grip of an owl, see the way the edge of their wing feathers formed to allow for their silent flight, be surprised by the fine fur like feathering of their legs, or how their chest feathers parted to reveal bare skin where their body heat could warm their eggs. The sense of discovery was very different from learning “about” something. And I made those discoveries because I could spend time with the specimens and allow them to slowly reveal their secrets.
These natural history collections are a tangible accumulation of generations of scientists and naturalists working and interacting with the world. I was able to hold a finch specimen from 1898 , some of the bones I worked with had been donated decades ago by Gene Miller, my hiking buddy. Seeing those skeletons revealed another time in his life long before I knew him and connected us on another level by our shared fascination with natural history.
Drawer after drawer revealed it’s wonders and excited and inspired my imagination. They challenged me to capture those feelings in my photography. In 1833, on a visit to the Cabinet of Natural History in the Garden of Plants in Paris, Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Here we are impressed with the inexhaustible riches of nature. The universe is a more amazing puzzle than ever, as you glance along this bewildering series of animated forms…the upheaving principle of life everywhere incipient, in the very rock aping organized forms…I feel the centipede in me, –cayman, carp, eagle, and fox. I am moved by strange sympathies; I say continually ‘I will be a naturalist.’”
Curiosity and Wonder
For the month of March the results of my artistic explorations will be on display at the Montana Natural History Center, 120 Hickory Street, Suite A, Missoula.
“It is important to attend to the outer world and your responsibilities in it, but sometimes it is just as important to attend to the inner, spiritual world.” words from a tarot card
These last couple of months have thrown me into the outer world–the daily news, the obsessive tweets by our new leader, everyone talking of their outrage, incredulity, calls to action. And we must respond and resist. We cannot let things go unprotested.
But in the midst of all this, Ted and I found refuge in a place where there were no TVs, no radios, no newspapers, no cell phone or internet. We silenced the cacophony for 5 days, attending instead to the earth whose heart beat just a few miles below our feet, whose life blood boiled to the surface in hot pools which melted the heavy snow and ice clogging open water and offered forage to hungry bison and elk and refuge to trumpeter swans and geese. For five glorious days the only thing spouting off were the geysers. We could take a breath, take in the wonder of the snowy woods where the imagination stirring snow ghosts lurked. An angel hovering in the pines, or a snow snail crawling upstream against the current of the pewter river reminding me that it is always slow going against the current, but like a snail, we must just keep plugging along. The forces of nature–snow falling in gale force winds–drifts blocking the trails–steam billowing in the frosted air obscuring the sights, but giving the woods an etherial other-worldly quality were all there to remind us that beyond the walls of civilization were forces far more powerful and fierce than our own greed and self-centeredness.
Of course, we had to return home to the turmoil of the latest news, but our experience was a strong reminder to take time every day to stop obsessing over the latest outrage, the latest tweet and go to the woods –pay attention to the real tweets and songs of the birds. To reflect rather than react. And most importantly, to not get distracted from what we really care about. Focusing on the reality show going on in Washington means we might take our eye off of the crucial issues here at home. And so I have limited myself to giving my attention to what’s happening in the state legislature and making sure that our representatives don’t forget that they represent all of us. And with Montana’s representative Ryan Zinke up for Interior Secretary, it is incredibly important that we let him know how crucial these wild refuges are for all our souls.
A chill has descended
revealing dangers lurking