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I am coming slightly unhinged, everything is out of joint. It's all because of the sun. It has been a sleepless month, this June in Olafsfjordur, North Iceland, at the Listhus artist residency. The light of the sun on a foggy, overcast day, is constant all through the day and night. On a clear bright day time seems to stand still, only subtle clues to tell the hour. Nine pm, midnight, three am: white nights, with no darkness to frame the end of one day and the beginning of the next. This has been a unique experience, the Arctic summer, but I am exhausted by it.
It's a different kind of sleep -- fitful, not deep sleep, but shallow, illuminated by a pale light that filters through the eyelids. I sleep, and dream, but close to the surface of consciousness, and my dreams are thin and thready, suffused with a subconscious awareness of uncanny light when it ought to be dark. It is the strangest thing.
Without the clues of fading light, desire for sleep comes only through force of will. So one goes outside, walking in the midnight sun, and it is weird, beautiful. But freed from the natural boundaries that divide day from night one must at some arbitrary point say, OK, this day is now done, I have had my fill of this day. Eventually one must give in. We need sleep and immersion into the dark unconscious to start another day with renewed vitality.
This darkness deficiency is manifesting itself in my artwork, I think. I am working in black and white. In my new collages, deep black represents both earth and air. Black is stabilizing, and restful, and gives my eyes something to sink into. The ever present sunlight, especially from behind a veil of shifting fog and clouds, is finding expression in erasures, smudges and the shimmery grays of graphite.
This Friday, July 1, I will shift gears and begin a three week residency at the Snorrastofa, in Reykholt, West Iceland. A different kind of landscape, an area not dominated by mountains, but instead suffused with Saga stories. It will be an immersion into words and history. I wrote about this residency in a previous post. Click here for more.
Time is present in Iceland. It is in the silence, which contains all of time within itself. Time is transmitted through the Earth, made visible in the accretions and erosions, the tearings and torrents that shape the landscape. Walking along ancient footpaths, deep trodden by Vikings, I experience time flowing through me. These are some of the thoughts and ideas I explore in a series of large drawings made during my 2015 residency in Iceland.
I gaze out into the wilderness of Iceland. My eye traces lines, marks the horizon, establishes scale and distance. I see where the mountain intersects with sea and sky. The lines extend down into the Earth like a cast shadow, and up into the sky like the angle of the sun. They meet in a stable point around which the universe whirls. Landscape mirrors the silence and the space that surrounds me. I follow this line of thought, and go deeper still, to the universe that lies both within and without.
Wilderness is the part of nature that is hidden and terrifying. Every being shares this awe of nature, knowing that it will bring us all to our knees in the end. Icelanders know it, because living at the Northernmost edge of the habitable world brings with it a certain humility. In the wilderness HIC SVNT LEONES, trolls, outlaws...our very shadows. If landscape can function as a mirror of self, for me it does, then wilderness stands for the parts of myself that are unknown to me.
At the beginning of the 21st century, consciously or unconsciously, we collectively mourn the irretrievable loss of wilderness on our planet. And not only that; we mourn mass extinctions, loss of habitat, loss of bio-diversity and the effects of global warming. We need wilderness, both actual and metaphorical, in order to know our frailty and face our mortality. I believe that this knowledge brings an important sense of perspective to our daily lives. It informs the choices we make in the day to day - how we spend our time, what we consume, and what we wish to leave behind.
Time hangs in the air, like a ball reaching the top of an arc, and the present disappears into the past. Melancholy billows up out of the silence as we acknowledge the ephemerality of this moment, this life.
Side note: I will be exhibiting drawings made during my October 2015 residency in Iceland, as well as woodcuts, at Cerulean Arts Gallery, March 2-26, 2016. I hope you'll join me and co-exhibitor Roger Chavez for the Opening Reception on March 4, and our Artists' Talk on March 13. Click through for details.
In March, Philadelphia artist Bill Brookover gave a presentation at the Print and Picture Collection of the Free Library of Philadelphia. Bill has been doing research in the collections and is helping to raise the visibility of the holdings there. He assembled a group of lithographs by Arthur Flory and woodcuts by Abraham Hankins, both active mid-twentieth century, to highlight the oeuvre of these two Philadelphia printmakers. Among the artwork on display was this black-line relief print by Abraham Hankins.
I was instantly drawn to the opaque, textural and painterly surface, printed on black paper that casts a veil of darkness over all. With this treatment, the cut-out lines reverse to read as scrawled black lines. The gouged-out would-be negative shapes transform into substantive black marks by the reversal. Seeds of inspiration, and investigation, settled into a deep fold of my creative brain. Sometimes things just just fall into place.
Some weeks after Bill's presentation, I Googled "black-line woodcut" and found some amazing and inspiring works by Anne Ryan, ca. 1945, among others. It appears to have been a technique favored in the 1940s-60s. I love the mid-century aesthetics and I have many nostalgic associations with the whole gestalt of the period. It was like discovering buried treasure.
I am fortunate to have stumbled upon this printmaking technique at this juncture. For the past few weeks my experiments with paper and inks have been both fruitful and frustrating, but that's the way it always goes acquiring new tools and learning to use them. I am beginning to get a feel for it. I want to express the tenebrous atmosphere of winter in North Iceland and colors that emerged from the darkness. I want to capture my experience of connection to Icelandic place, and to the ephemeral here and now.