My understanding of place comes from the intricacies of every nook and cranny I discover there. Instead of a panoramic perspective, I delve into the details, get up close, and investigate beneath the surface. I see the land as an accumulation of forms and strata amassed together into one beautiful, chaotic jumble that typifies living, dying, and everything in between.
The history of the land reveals itself in its layers of rotting leaves, fallen trees, and last year’s grass turned a mustard yellow. Every single crack or wound denotes an event and contributes to what we see in front of us. And I want to paint them all and experience each one. It’s how I understand the world I live in.
Immersing myself in the most untouched areas of the natural world, I discover indicators of struggle and survival—in the fallen rotting tree that has bred a new sapling, the roots of a shallow birch that has a stronghold on a granite ledge, or the way the moss disseminates its own path. Yet, amongst the layers of growth and decay one gets a sense that a cooperative cohabitation exists here.
On the canvas, I paint an amalgamation of shapes, hues, and patterns discovered in the natural world and built upon in the studio. My process is one of layering—one series of marks upon another, slowly building up the surface until I get something that comes close to that multi-sensory experience of lying down on the earth and just being.
There’s a point where the painting moves beyond its earthly roots and develops into something else. Each brushstroke and layer builds up enough that the painting becomes its own version of itself, unencumbered by what inspired it.
Sometimes it takes awhile to “find the painting.” The only way in is to keep going and make sure I don’t smother the painting in the process. So I keep at it, building upon what’s already there, removing and rebuilding.
There’s a moment when I’ve let go and given in that the painting comes together. A series of strokes and movements are working cohesively. Nothing ruins a painting faster than overthinking it, and the hardest thing to do is to stop hoping it will turn out okay. I find I have to trust in the mark-making and the collaborative dance I’m playing with the canvas.
It started with the skin. My attempt to understand the people closest to me in the only way I knew how: drawing the crevices, nuances, and history of the people I knew best. I lay next to my partner of many years only to know his exterior surface and always asking how I could know him more deeply. I would only ever know the physicality of his outer layer.
So I began to excavate by drawing the surface layer of the people I know. The markings of living embed themselves into the skin, indications of a life being experienced. Each wrinkle, mole, and crevice an exterior barometer of a layered existence.
The natural world is much the same and where my current focus lies in my work. Upon moving to this remote stretch of land off the coast of Maine, I’ve come to understand landscape as a visceral experience. What I see with my eyes amounts to an accumulation of forms shaped by legacy and worn by living, much the same as a person’s skin. Landscape for me is not the panned back view, but an up close, put your hands through the moss experience. I want my paintings to evoke a similar encounter where one can get lost in the movement of colors, shapes, and marks, embedding themselves into the composition of the painting.
Since I’ve moved here, I’ve noticed an extensive amount of human garbage washing up on the shores of our island. Like other islanders, I would dutifully pick up this waste bringing it to our town dump to become part of another place. One day, when walking in the woods, I noticed garbage that had been there for many years. It had moss growing fervently in and around it; this plastic and styrofoam became part of the land.
I began to document these integrated landscapes and bring newer garbage I found back to the studio instead of to the dump. If the landscape could accommodate these man-made objects, then so could I in my work.
We have a long history of marking up the land and reconfiguring it. This detritus was just another signifier of that, an unintentional layer changing what was there. My paintings have always combined societal interactions with natural world templates. It seemed only logical to incorporate this new type of mark, the shape of human garbage, as an element in the paintings and sculptures.
I’ve come to accept these new additions to the land. They are signals of humanity continually trying to make its mark. A sneaker washes up, lodging itself in the seaweed, or a plastic water bottle becomes the structure that a new sapling roots itself on. Recently, I’ve been embedding these objects into new sculptural works that I’m currently making. Humans have wriggled their way into the natural world and left their mark. In my paintings and sculptures, I’m leaving mine.
Image at top: Lisa Kellner, Ensconced, oil on canvas, 40 x 40 in., 2020.