Summer in the City

I came home a month ago after a grand adventure in the west, where I spent one month painting on the American Prairie Reserve and one week showing new work at the Telluride Mountainfilm Festival. Time is flying, and I’ve been busy teaching, working on a new commission, and preparing for my next trip to the prairie. Here are some highlights from the past month in New York City.

FIRST PLACE WINNER!

My painting “Fortitude” won first place at the Mills Pond House Gallery juried show. You can see this and another painting of mine “Saco River” at the gallery in Saint James, NY (Long Island) until July 22.

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Fortitiude

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Saco River

EXHIBIT IN NEW YORK CITY

These two paintings are in an upcoming juried show at the National Association of Women Artists. 80 5th Ave, New York, NY. July 8-29. Opening reception is July 16, 5-7 PM

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Portrait Study

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Ball Mason

NEW ONLINE STORE

I came home to my studio and couldn’t find enough room to hang up my latest paintings from the prairie, so it’s time for a spring clearance sale. In the past I’ve sold my work through emails and Facebook connections, so I hope this new store will help make the process more efficient.

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TEACHING IN CENTRAL PARK

We managed to dodge the frequent thunderstorms for my Tuesday plein-air painting classes in Central Park, but for the workshop last weekend the weather caught up with us. Despite the rain we had a productive weekend and everyone made great paintings!

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These two paintings were done by students in my class

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staying dry under the terrace

APPLETON FARMS

Commissions like this are a dream. One of the shareholders at Appleton Farms in Ipswich, MA, asked me to make a painting of this very special place. The farm was founded in 1636 and operated by the Appleton family until 1967 when it was acquired by a local conservation organization. It is the oldest continuously operating farm in America, producing dairy products, beef, and produce. Sustainable farming practices ensure that the landscape also provides a safe habitat for wildlife and birds. I spent two days working on location and have since been finishing the final painting in the studio.

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BACK TO THE PRAIRIE

From August 15 – September 15 I’ll be in Wyoming at the Jentel Artist’s Residency where I’ll be working one of my big studio paintings inspired by my time on the American Prairie Reserve. Jentel is located in the Bighorn Mountains, just five hours south of the Prairie Reserve, and offers writers and artists a quiet place to focus on their work. They don’t even have cell or internet service, I can’t wait! After the residency is finished, I’ll be driving north to the Prairie Reserve for a week of plein air painting in mid September. It will be interesting what this landscape is like in a completely different season.

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RECENT PUBLICATIONS

An essay I wrote for Alpinist Magazine’s fiftieth issue can be read online as well as in print. The Dumpster Diaries, Then and Now  reflects on an adventure I wrote about for the Alpinsit ten years ago. It involves climbing, art, and the Trader Joe’s dumpster. Read the original 2004 article here. An article I wrote about my ongoing project on the American Prairie Reserve was published in the RISD XYZ spring/summer issue, free to read online here.

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The Mountainfilm Experience

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opening night at my gallery exhibit

After spending three weeks on the American Prairie Reserve in quiet isolation, I was joined by photographer Eugenie Frerichs and composer Jessica Kilroy. Jessica was making field recordings on the prairie to use in a musical composition, and Eugenie was documenting our work. For several days it rained so hard that the roads became thick with slippery “gumbo” clay and impossible to navigate, delaying our departure by an extra day. Even then the prairie gave us a challenging escape through axel deep mud, our vehicles fishtailing down the road for twenty miles until we reached the highway. Three hundred miles later, we were in Bozeman for some quick meetings, then we set off for another 800 miles to the Telluride Mountainfilm Festival where I had the honor of being the artist in residence this year.  After an all night drive which included some fun surprises like a flat tire, we arrived in Telluride on May 20th just in time to kick off the weekend festivities at an event where I gave a presentation about my work. From May 22-26 I had over 25 of my paintings and drawings from the prairie on view in an exhibit at the Stronghouse gallery. Jessica Kilroy’s audio installation allowed visitors to listen to a loop of music she composed that incorporated the sounds of meadowlarks, rabbits, prairie dogs, and percussion made with bones and rocks.

In Telluride was initially overwhelmed by the crowds after having been alone on the prairie for so many weeks, but after a few days my social skills were revived and I felt energized, uplifted and inspired by my interactions at this amazing festival. Mountainfilm brings together incredible stories about social and environmental activism, as well as outdoor adventure. The lineup of films, talks, book readings, art exhibits, performances, and parties was non-stop and I found myself among an incredible crowd of aspirational people using their talents to discover and define stories that matter. While many films had impact, the one I personally found to have the most critical message was Racing Extinction, which will arrive in theaters later this summer and should not be missed. The acidification of our oceans, alarming rate of species loss in the Anthropocene era, what this means for the future of the human race, and, most importantly, ways we can address the issue as individuals, is profound and I came away from this film with a renewed commitment to use my work to celebrate relevant conservation efforts.

With that being said, I received an incredible reception at my gallery opening and was reminded of how much my work has already stood in the service of ambitious conservation projects and how it influences people’s appreciation of wildness. Several visitors told me how my paintings made them feel at ease, which I took as a sign of success, since this is one of the primary emotions I felt on the prairie, and one of the ideas I wish to express through my work. I returned to New York City excited to move to the next stage of my project–six foot wide paintings of the prairie landscape–that will document on canvas this remarkable social and environmental effort.

Since my last newsletter I’ve had a number of exciting opportunities to write about my work. These can be seen on the National Geographic Explorers blogAdventurers and Scientists for Conservation blog, the RISD XYZ magazine (in print), the latest Alpinist Magazine (in print), and on Telluride Inside & Out. To see a full list of articles and events where I’m sharing my work, please visit my home page.

REMINDERI am teaching plein air painting in Central Park starting this Tuesday! This class meets every tuesday afternoon for the next 8 weeks. Additionally I am teaching two weekend workshops — June 27-28 and July 11-12. You can learn more and sign up on the Grand Central Atelier website.

 

MOUNTAINFILM PORTRAITS

In addition to sharing my prairie project, I sat down with Mountainfilm contributors to paint these portraits from life. Each one took 2-3 hours, you can read more about this project here. 

 

Capturing the Sounds of the Prairie with Jessica Kilroy

For three weeks, I was alone out here on the American Prairie Reserve before I was joined by photographer Eugenie Frerichs and musician Jessica Kilroy. I first met Jessica at the Rabbit Island Residency in 2013 where she was recording sounds in nature to use in a piece of music she was composing. When one morning I saw Jessica’s smiling face emerge from a cold wet bivouac after a miserable night of rain, I knew we would be a great match if we ever worked together on a creative project. She has a unique set of strengths derived from her diverse experiences as a touring musician, songwriter, composer of film scores, wilderness guide, hotshot firefighter, rock climber, and high angle wind power technician. She’s capable and tough, with a can-do attitude and an ambitious creative spirit.

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photo by Eugenie Frerichs

We started chatting about the prairie six months ago, tossing around ideas about the kind of inspiration we might find out here for painting and music. I had never been to Montana, so my expectations were formed by youtube videos and online research, but Jessica is a Montana native and I thought that her interpretations of the place and it’s spirit would be undeniably authentic. Together, we decided on a vision for a gallery exhibit with my paintings on the wall and Jessica’s music filling the air.

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photo by Eugenie Frerichs

During my three weeks painting alone, the importance of the prairie soundscape has become even more apparent to me. Each morning I’ve been waking at dawn and driving a few miles out into the open grasslands with my morning coffee. These peaceful hours have been filled with the songs of meadowlarks, owls, and coyotes. As the sun climbs higher in the sky, crickets join the chorus and wind whistles through the grass. The day slips by while I’m lost in concentration at my easel, but the sounds of the prairie have been a constant companion. When darkness comes, the wind dies down and the bass notes of frogs fill the air. It truly is a remarkable experience to enjoy a place so free of human-generated noise.

When Jessica arrived, she hit the ground running and captured a rich variety of sounds, including birdsong, a rabbit thumping it’s foot, percussion made with rocks on the gumbo clay, cricket chirps, and an owl. She is using these to create rhythms that will accompany vocals and instrumentation in a song inspired by the prairie. By the end of this visit, Jessica will have a track recorded to share with my paintings at Telluride Mountainfilm on May 22 at the Stronghouse Gallery. However, this is just the beginning of a larger vision she has to produce a whole album of songs that weave together sounds recorded on the American Prairie Reserve with lyrics and music inspired by this landscape. Her work will highlight the importance of an unpolluted natural soundscape and the role of audio frequencies in a healthy, balanced ecosystem. A portion of the proceeds from album sales will go towards the American Prairie Reserve. When exhibited together, my paintings and Jessica’s music will give the viewer an immersive experience in the prairie. Ultimately, this work will celebrate the significance of this unique moment in conservation history and inspire a new appreciation for this iconic American landscape.

You can follow the progress of Jessica’s work and learn more about soundscapes on her websitesoundcloud, and  Instagram. To hear some recording of her previous work under her band names pterodactyl plains and Flitcraft follow those links.

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Using portable field recording equipment, Jessica Kilroy records sounds like these rocks to use in her musical compositions. Photo by Eugenie Frerichs

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High in a cottonwood, Jessica Kilroy capturing the sounds of leaves rustling in the wind. Photo by Eugenie Frerichs

Since my last post, I’ve finished a few more paintings to share. Coming up next, I’ll be talking about this project and my influences at Twenty (by) Telluride this Wednesday night at the Sheridan Bar. On May 22, Jessica and I will be at the Stronghouse gallery in Telluride during the Mountainfilm gallery walk.

In addition to sharing my work at Mountainfilm, I make an appearance in one of the films that is premiering at this festival: Rabbit Island, filmed and directed by Ben Moon, tells the story of an artist’s residency in Lake Superior founded and run by my partner Rob Gorski. Jessica Kilroy’s field recordings are featured in the film and we will be there to see it May 23rd at 3:15 PM and May 24 at 9:15 AM at the Nugget Theater.

 

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Prairie Plein Air

It’s hard to believe I have only nine days left out here on the prairie. I’ve been enjoying some quiet time alone, observing the daily changes as spring brings new life to this landscape.

Tonight I have more images than words to share, so I’ll tell my stories through my most recent artwork. Click on the images to see a larger version.

Inspiration In The Wide Open

Sunset Color Study, 8x10, oil on linen

Sunset Color Study, 8×10, oil on linen

I’ve been drawn to the big open skies and the feeling of distance in my paintings here, but the real challenge has been deciphering the characteristics of the sage brush and grass that plays a role in every scene here. When it comes to the studio phase of this project, I imagine a richly textured foreground in my large paintings, with accurate representation of different plant species and ecosystems. I’m thinking of Andrew Wyeth and Albrecht Durer … it is fun to imagine how these artists would paint here. In the painting to the left, I have some good color notes, and when combined with accurate drawings, this type of study will be extremely helpful in bringing my idea to life on the large canvas in the studio.

Snow Flurries, Andrew Wyeth, 1953

Snow Flurries, Andrew Wyeth, 1953

Speaking of inspirations, Wyeth has been on my mind a lot. I love how he takes a mundane subject and imbues it with such weight and power. For instance this hill, looming in front of the viewer, gives me an ominous yet excited feeling about what lies beyond the horizon. I was thinking of this painting when I stopped to paint the above Sunset Color Study, and how intriguing I find the subtle topography here.

On my long walks and runs across the prairie, I am starting to notice which scenes really light up my imagination. There are the wide open vistas and big skies that feel expansive and boundless, the tangled sage brush and grease wood in the foreground that allude to the wildness of this place, and the abstract simplicity of sky vs. grass. In the below painting, Prairie Swoop, I was attracted to the curve of the horizon, the swaths of color, and the gentle wisps of clouds that gesture in unison with the land.

Prairie Swoop

In my ten days out here, it’s rained a few times and the landscape has started to become green. I’ve been covering more miles hiking with the ASC Landmark research crew, and on adventurous trail runs – my favorite way to clear my head and explore new territory for painting. I have yet to make a trip into town, which is an hour away. The local radio station has been an amazing soundtrack for my drives out here – from 7 AM to 1 PM they play only Native American music, which seems to emphasize the feeling I have of being so remote. Way up here near the Saskatchewan border, between two Indian Reservations and in the middle of millions of acres of undeveloped land, this does feel like a rare oasis where the drama of nature has become the dominant presence in my life.

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Prairie Noon, 8×10, oil on linen

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Larb Hills

Larb Hills

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storms, 16×8, oil on linen

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Getting to Know the Prairie

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There are 305,000 acres in all those blue sections

In my first three days on the American Prairie Reserve, I logged 24 miles of hiking and running through this vast landscape in an effort to acquaint myself with this place. Much of those miles were with the Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation Landmark crew as I tagged along on their daily rounds. This group of volunteer researchers have been out here since March 1st traversing the landscape by foot, collecting data that is crucial to understanding wildlife populations. Covering this much ground right away and in the company of people who have a scientific perspective has been an amazing introduction for me. As we walk along, I ask questions about plant species, wildlife behavior, and the prairie ecosystem. If I was alone, much of these fascinating details would go unnoticed under my foreigner’s gaze.

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Just after sunrise on our way out after finding the Sage Grouse lek

On my first morning, I woke up at 3:30 AM to meet the crew for a pre-dawn hike in search of mating sage grouse. These birds return to the same location every year to perform an elaborate mating dance, so we were able to use a GPS system to find our way to the exact spot. There are many of these “leks” on the prairie and the crew has been checking them regularly for the past month. We split up into pairs and set off through the dark. My team had to go three miles across the prairie to find our lek and we were almost running to reach the location by sunrise. If we arrived any later, we risked missing the birds. Before we could even see them, we could hear their guttural whooping calls. We followed the sound until we saw about 30 birds in the distance, with their white chests puffed up, they looked as big as turkeys. Watching through binoculars, I could see them bouncing their chests and strutting around, while only a few females wandered close by acting uninterested. We watched them for about ten minutes and then without warning the entire group took flight and disappeared.

(This is a video I found on youtube, so you can see what I’m talking about)

My crew mates took detailed notes on the sighting, data which will be used to understand the health of the Sage Grouse population, including whether or not they should be considered an endangered species.

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Elaine and Caitlin check a camera trap they set in a spot where they saw a cougar two weeks ago. So far, the cat seems to be camera shy.

Later that day, we went out hiking again, this time to check motion sensitive camera traps to see what kind of animals have been through the area. By this time I had hiked nine miles since waking up and I was glad I had sturdy hiking boots and gaiters as we strode through the prickly pear cactus and knee high sage brush. On our way back, we found what we thought was cougar scat, which was exciting because just two weeks ago, a cougar had been seen in this area but until photo evidence exists, the cougar presence cannot be officially acknowledged.

 

what kind of prairie is this?

what kind of prairie is this? I didn’t sign up for hill hikes!

On day two, I hiked eight more miles to check camera traps and I was surprised at the variety of terrain I was discovering on the prairie. Contrary to my expectations, it wasn’t all flat ground. We were hiking up and down quite a lot and even went through a Ponderosa Pine forest and discovered some lakes. On this trek we spotted a few groups of Pronghorn and Mule Deer, crossed through a Prairie Dog town, and saw a Kestrel.

 

First Light, Prairie Peas. oil on linen

First Light, Prairie Peas. oil on linen, 4/22/15

I’ve also been finding time to paint. In the early morning from 6 – 8 AM, the light is magical and the meadowlarks are singing. It’s a little cold, but I am loving these peaceful hours spent alone with the wind and the grass, soaking in all the details. This quiet time in a remote landscape is such a gift, when I’m out there all my anxieties are gone and I just think about how lucky I am to be present in this place.

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First Sunset on the Prairie, oil on linen 4/20/15

The time spent covering ground with the research crew has been incredibly valuable. Now when I approach my paintings, I’ll know a lot more about the landscape and I’ll pay attention to the subtle differences in ecosystems that exist all across this region. I’ve also seen some spots that I know I’ll return to paint, like the early morning lek trek, which left an impression on my memory. I’d like to take my tent and spend a few days working out there. It’s only day 4, and I’m feeling pretty inspired out here. I’ll try to keep up with the blogging and share as much as I can along the way.  Thanks for following along – Emilie

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