My trip to New Hampshire was energizing and inspiring! The “West of Washington” exhibit includes some outstanding paintings. I spent much of Friday in the gallery talking with students and other visitors about the artwork. I was among the people interviewed for a radio piece that will air on NHPR tomorrow night (4/27/12) between 5:30 – 6:00 PM. Once the show airs, I’ll be able to post a link where you can listen online at any time. The evening reception was quite busy, I met many people who share my enthusiasm for 19th century landscape paintings and the White Mountains. On Saturday, I met with advanced drawing students and talked about how to do master copies of the paintings in graphite and grisaille. I was thrilled to learn that the students at Holderness have been doing some cast drawing and Bargue copies in their classes, so I spent some time discussing how we teach these things at the GCA. Kudos to art teacher Kathryn Field for introducing these valuable exercises to her classes!
Below I want to share the essay that I wrote for the show catalog:
As a student at Holderness, the White Mountains were the playground of my formative years. It was here I experienced my first winter camping trips, learned to push myself on long mountain runs, and where I first fell in love with rock climbing. I fearlessly threw myself into every outdoor activity that was available, exploring the rugged mountain terrain with endless fascination. In my early twenties, the White Mountains were my regular escape from the city where I went to college. Rock climbing was the driving passion in my life and the Whites provided an ideal environment for those challenging adventures. I had never experienced anything more thrilling than being delicately balanced on an exposed granite cliff, high above the world, with all senses engaged, my body in top fitness, my mind calm. This was the feeling of being wild, like an animal, in tune with my environment, aware of everything and yet completely focused at the same time. In my mind, this was the pinnacle of human experience and I wanted to express it in my paintings. Although this thought occurred to me more than ten years ago, it remains a defining aspect of the work I strive to create today.
As I searched for how to communicate this swell of emotions inspired by nature, I was led to study the 19th century American landscape painters who so beautifully captured the drama of wilderness in their work. When I see these paintings of a bygone era, I am immediately transported into the scene, with all the sensory awareness of experiencing the real thing. These artists were able to make paintings that transcend time and strike an emotional response from people of all generations. As an artist, I am in awe of the technical control that these painters had over their work and I became convinced that this was necessary for me to develop for my own goals.
I’ve since become part of a vibrant community of like minded young artists who are passionate about reviving the techniques of these 19th century painters. We have recognized that all great advancements in art history were born out of tight knit groups of friends working in close proximity and challenging one another. Just as the Hudson River School painters traveled and worked together, we have created our own group, called the Hudson River Fellowship. Each summer we spend a month painting in the places made famous by these historic painters, studying their work and learning their methods. We are driven by a common desire to gain the level of fluency and skill that these old masters possessed. Our guidance comes from Asher Durand’s 1855 “Letters on Landscape Painting”, in which he advises aspiring landscape painters in their endeavors. Our top priority is to master the ability to work from life, without the use of photography. By spending long hours in all weather conditions carefully studying nature, we strive to gain a more thorough understanding of our subject and to forge an emotional connection with the place. This practice involves sitting still for up to six hours at a time – something that has completely changed the way I experience the outdoors. As an athlete, I’ve always moved fast through the landscape, focused on my physical performance and viewing the terrain as a set of obstacles to overcome. When I am painting, I am an observer, still as a rock while the landscape around me is buzzing with life. Animals go freely about their activities without noticing me, plants seem to grow before my eyes and the activity of insects becomes fascinatingly important. These long hours of quiet observation may be a contrast to my thrilling climbs, but the experience of losing myself in nature is very similar. In both activities, I feel I can let go of my ego and merge with my surroundings, experiencing a level of focus and calm that is rarely accessible in today’s modern world.
Although we are approaching the landscape as contemporary artists more than 150 years later, the powerful effect that nature has on us has not changed. By striving to follow in the tradition of the 19th century landscape painters, we are not trying to replicate a style from the past, but rather learn to use the same level of skill and attention to detail so that we may be able to more eloquently express our own experience on this earth.