Sometimes the desecration of a landscape is so ancient that we accept it as part of nature, whereas the most conscientiously designed purists can reject improvements of recent years indignantly. All serve as symbols; symbols of what we have done, that is wrong or of what is appropriate and right.
J.B. Jackson, A Sense of Place, A Sense of Time.
Growing up in the Saint John River Valley, in the small town of Grand Isle, in Northern Maine, I never thought much about the vernacular landscape and how it was stripped bare of its vegetation more than 13,000 years ago by the glaciers, leaving behind traces in its route. As a result, the St. John River, which flows 418 miles from Northern Maine into Canada, acts as a border between Maine and Canada for several miles. I do recall the stench of sulfur caused by the local paper mills in the towns of Madawaska, on the American side of the river, and Edmundston, on the Canadian side, a constant reminder of the stripping of forests. Most of the men in my community were employed by the mills, so we accepted it as normal.
Oddly enough, whenever I set out to do my multi-disciplinary work of painting, printmaking, and installation, I often think about that upbringing. Hence the iconography of isolation, rural roads leading to abandoned settlements, blue highways, potato and buckwheat fields, and living a bicultural life with our Canadian friends away from the mainstream. Logging trucks going through our town were constant reminders of the Allagash Wilderness being stripped of its forests to help feed the mills. Since then, the mills have made amends, leading to cleaner water and air, but the memories and vivid iconography remain and continue to influence my work.
I also recall my youth, taking Sunday drives with my father to visit logging camps and listening to his stories of early New England and his life as a young lumberjack, a common trade in those environs in the early 20th century. The memory of abandoned worker shacks, logging roads grown over, and sawmill machinery detritus remain vivid. They seem to have had a profound impact on my current work of loss, memory, and abandonment. In such recollections, I cannot help but wonder how some parts of bucolic Maine remained immune to the initial advances of 20th-century industry. In Finding Katahdin: An Exploration of Maine’s Past, Amy Hasslinger notes that when naturalist Henry David Thoreau came through Bangor, on his way to climb Mount Katahdin in 1847, he observed, “Bangor was fed by the wooded howling wilderness north of it” (he was referring to the lumbering industry, still a major force in Maine).
As I look back on my early painting, I have moved away from the symbolism and the detail I had become accustomed to. I should take a moment to note that in her book Nature and Culture: American Landscape Painting, 1825–1875, Barbara Novak writes:
The axe represented subtraction, and left behind the vestigial trace of action—the stump. The [railroad] tracks are an addition, spanning the space with shockingly regular geometry, stamping man’s ordinary control on the wilderness as much as if he had laid down a rule.
In my investigation of landscape, I mourn the ongoing loss of trees, farms scorched in the name of culture, and realities of socio-political development. Here in MidCoast Maine, I am at a loss, seeing encroachment on Maine’s coast by a growing tourism industry. The marks and blurred symbols in my work often represent the traces that are left behind, of land moved, leaving scars of gravel pits, (above) of farms stripped of their vegetation, and of zinc and lead mining towns (as in Gilman, Colorado) forced to close due to prodigious amounts of toxic waste. So many tragedies we have caused.
In summary, my intent is to examine landscape, and to utilize various physicalities of materials—organic mediums of earth and marble dust in my painting, and marine debris in my printmaking and installation work—to help record place and time. Mostly, I am trying to blur the myth of wilderness and gently provoke and portray how quickly we have become accustomed to man-made landscapes, no longer pristine or wild.
Hasslinger, Amy. Finding Katahdin: An Exploration of Maine’s Past. Orono: The University of Maine Press, 2001. 192.
Jackson, John Brinckerhof. A Sense of Place, A Sense of Time. New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 1994. viii.
Novak, Barbara. Nature and Culture: American Landscape and Painting, 1825–1875. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. 182–83.
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Image at top: Joël LeVasseur, Owls Head Harbor, gelatin monoprint on fawn Stonehenge paper, 30 x 24 in., 2019.