“Landscape” is a concept, a genre, and a tradition in art, but long before I knew what those words even meant, landscape was simply the world I lived in. There was nothing else! I grew up and have always lived in rural or remote places, interacting with weather and insects more often than people. A dreamy loner of a kid, it was the fishbowl in which I swam, with which I had an intimate and mystical connection. My favorite field was populated by the Grass Queen, an imaginary character with an elaborate backstory. Milkweed pods became coin purses. A hollow stem of bamboo was the pea-shooter weapon I used to pelt the shack of an old man I suspected had shot my cat. I poked at roadkill with sticks to find out what was inside. I used my sewing machine to make turquoise vinyl snowshoes woven over metal coat hangers for my imagined life as a wildlife tracker. There existed no thing called art.
Fast forward, I am a young adult, very curious and wanting to do something of use. I decide it is animal and veterinary science. I wallow in physiology, entomology, biochemistry (a religious epiphany for me), genetics, soils, geology, all of what is known about how the world works!
Years pass. During those years I once worked as a soil mapper in Alaska, but my mental map is no longer flat; it is a multidimensional matrix of understanding. I now picture the landscape as multiple overlays of information, reference, and response. I can no longer gaze at a landscape and see only its optical facade. A spiderweb recalls a study on spiders given hallucinogens, causing a disordered web, recalling the genetics embedded in all of our genomes which, if all goes well, function properly.
Order and disorder become a theme. I call them the Apollonian and the Dionysian impulses, vacillating between elegant and minimalist images and freedom of gesture with multiple veils of pattern. The surface of the sea recalls a water column, imagining the vertical rather than the horizontal, and soon I am in the muck with the ancient creatures in my mind. Then, the immensity of the sea turns my thoughts to the significance of blue-green algae in creating the oxygenated atmosphere I am breathing–and the potential for fire, and human evolution accelerated by the use of fire, and human stories told around the fire. Myths intermingle with the long view of the history of life on earth. The flowering apple tree is beautiful, and is also a flowering plant, appearing on earth after an ice age left behind the temperate seasons. The horsetail in the roadside, shrunken from its prehistoric gigantism, was used as a pot scrubber due to its silica. The periodic table is a bible. You get the idea.
You cannot put the genie of knowledge back in the bottle! Pandora is released. All of it, all of it, has to come out in the art, in the form of overlapping pattern upon pattern, lines of movement, repetition like generations. Everything I now know is combining with that childlike mysticism and the world both outside and inside me and you and everything else. Of course the result would be a “landscape”! The landscape is a spread of time, big history. The landscape is the oceanic swell of emotion. The landscape is a metaphor. And the best part is that the landscape is real and we are its children.
Seeing Landscape Is Land Shape
When visitors tour my yard, which is divided by several gardens, I stop them at certain points and say, “Look along that line.” If nothing’s blooming, I say, “Not a single flower but see those colors? Every leaf along there is a different shape.”
Sometimes they say, “I’m sure you see more than I do.” Maybe. Yet it took me over a year of searching and months of experimenting to approach what I saw. Gardens and flowers are the primary subjects in landscape and still-life paintings and even stimulate a good part of abstract work. Yet, while I adore Joan Mitchell’s garden paintings, I had to dismiss almost every artist I had carefully researched to find my own path. Because I had previously painted sports enhanced by geometric design, I saw gardens as overlapping shapes with increased intricacy.
Since I felt loss at moving from my old style and subjects, I formed my confusion into questions posed to David Estey’s Midcoast Salon in Belfast. Have any of those artists changed their style, materials, subjects, or other aspects of their work, and what did they consider as factors in making those changes? This topic led to six months of intense dialogues and presentations, stimulating lively discussions.
Where I had used acrylic, occasionally with mediums, my new work uses stencils, stamps, hand cut potato printing, open and regular acrylics, inks and water-soluble pencils and pastels, all requiring that I learn new techniques and ways of thinking. Luckily I experiment on paper, allowing for easy throw-aways.
Eventually I want my work to include my farming days, the roadside stand and fields that rolled to the base of Hogback Mountain. For now I begin with my flower gardens and leaves that point, bend, and feather. Yet central to my new ideas, I keep the line, shape, pattern, and rhythm that have remained crucial to my art thinking and help me resist realism.
Across the road from my house, I created an interactive sculpture site with objects that bid passersby to build their own art. A morning work may be disassembled into new work in the afternoon. This structure is sited on a wild corner and invites others to express their own interior landscapes.
Over the years I have used paper collage, often combined with passages of acrylic paint, for many sorts of images. Here we have extensions of plein air drawings using collage to create imagery that may be seen as a translation of the source into a different visual presence. Whereas my drawings were quick and emotional responses to observed reality, the collages are calculated structures built in the studio. Nevertheless, both the drawing and the collage that follows it remain clearly and intrinsically related. I always give “onsite” drawings titles that identify the place and date, and I carry that data over to collage variations that might result later.
Since each sequence began as a response to observed nature, I’ve wanted it made clear that the collage, the drawing, and the original landscape source should be seen as a continuum. And yes, the collages are themselves of a different medium and character in their new “beyond.” Various papers, cut into shapes or torn by hand, and bearing fragments of other printed material or merely stating colors, have become the building blocks for a new entity. And clearly, the movement has been away from representation toward abstraction or even the entirely non-objective. You can turn these upside-down and often find that while the representational sense nearly disappears, the piece can still read as a strong formal structure complete in itself. That’s what happened with Kandinsky—the upside-down thing.
Image at top: Kelly Desrosiers, Sturgeon River, watercolor, 30 x 22 in., 2021.