I often spend winters walking and painting in New Mexico. But during this time, I have remained in my old house in MidCoast Maine. No one is coming over anytime soon, so I leave things stacked on the kitchen counters, books and papers on the dining table, and dust balls in the corner. This simply doesn’t matter. Getting to the important things does—following the arc of history through great journalism, conversing on the phone with friends to get to some deep points of new thought on art and politics. As I am following the small and vital signs of nature on my walks and in the backyard, mostly alone, on the shores and in the woods, I call this observing “the Emily Dickinson effect.” Standing in one place to see the dynamic dark changes in our environment, and what that means to how we think about ourselves, seems even more crucial now. I take those thoughts into explorations in the studio.
The barometric pressure, bird migration, soil erosion, and water temperature may seem banal, but these overlapping stories make a deeper narrative that weighs on our basic assumptions about time. Nothing will ever be the same. The grief and loss wrought by this pandemic, and the rife social inequity that it has exposed, are caught in another maelstrom of climate crisis. I bring this mess into the studio every day, and wonder what concoction of overlapping images I can foster to voice these issues. Let me give dissonance its sprawl.
I am shaking hands with doubt. That and self-doubt are a sandwich I have for lunch. I try to make fierce, and hopefully beautiful, works that have some resonance with these weighings. If I feel particularly isolated and alone, I choose from the thousands and thousands of images of other people’s art that I have seen in a lifetime of looking at art to accompany me into the studio. One is always in some dialogue with someone in this way: today Amy Sillman, yesterday Per Kirkeby. Change seems to be the watchword at the moment when all seems to be stuck in non-change.
This is a time of deep reflection, thinking as a journey. Work in the studio has been changing as I read and see the perils of our time, the time of shifting systems, of reckoning with one’s neighbor. Our personal fragility and the fragility of our culture, resonates in decisions to act more boldly in the studio. I have been here on and off on this peninsula for nearly 60 years. What seems stable in the natural world is, in fact, evolving into a more perilous place. The rising tides, the eroding shores, the warming waters, the species that disappear in an ever more populated land, pull us towards change that’s hard to see sometimes. This nearly invisible change is also part of our collective dread. The beauty and the terror are side by side. I mine this conflicting vision for new work, eschewing pure abstraction. I have pivoted to more direct references in representation. The works are getting larger and moving to other surfaces from paper to canvas and wood. Change. This seems to harken back to my earlier sculptural work, in the most direct way I’ve experienced in a number of years.
In this suspended time, of course, I miss the gestures of affection that a peopled world brings. But from my place of privilege, I look out into the world of inequality and grief and wonder what it is that an artist can give in her studio in this tremendously perilous time. What can I offer? A gratitude for the solace nature brings, an urgency to make.
Image at top: Phoebe Adams, Elements, acrylic and gouache on paper, 30 x 40 in., 2021.