Adventures With Electricity

The journal entry begins : “Today I am camping in the Adirondacks.  I got to this remote spit of land led by Dick, who grew up exploring these parts.  Jim is here, too, of course, and Gordon, still on honeymoon with his bride, Su.  

We are tenting in the woods along the shore of Lake Lila, beneath a 360 degree sky with no sign of anything manmade.  We started the day paddling into a creek with a lot of beaver activity.  We portaged around a couple of beaver dams to get to the back of the creek. 

The whole experience immediately made me feel like I was looking deeply into a painting by Neil Welliver. His work was a beacon for me when I was very young.  And now that I am often without signal in places without roofs or roads, his work seems even closer to me. This was his landscape.  These were the trees and the colors he saw in the forests of the Northeast.  Not my drowsy southern swamps.   “A hostile environment”, Dick says. As much as I am living Neil Welliver here, I am also witnessing Winslow Homer’s camping watercolors brought to life.  

We paddled into our campsite three days ago and set up tents in a fine forest of pine and birch with a pine needle floor.  There are patches of Indian Pipe everywhere I look, and wild blueberries, ferns and mosses.  

It was windy and cloudy when we set up tents, so three people contributed their backpacker’s tarps to make one large dry spot in the forest, and soon after we finished, it began to rain. 

The wind picked up, got wild, and I wondered aloud if my own tent, in the direct route of the wind, was still standing.  It was its maiden voyage— my new ultralight, and the wind thought it was ultralight too.  Gordon sprang up, and ran out in the rain to right it,  and as he pushed in a stake, lightning struck a pine tree fifteen feet away. We  shouted for him and it felt like I moved in super slow motion, getting up from my chair to find him.  He was thrown to the ground but somehow recovered enough to stumble back to us. One foot and one hand were numb.  One finger was ghostly white.  Su wrapped him in her coat and we suppressed panic, just glad he could walk to us, and talk once he got there.  I can only just bring myself to write about it as record-keeping. I felt every emotion, sane and insane, but over the course of an hour Gordon returned to a shaky normal. The storm dropped back to just a downpour. 

When I headed to my tent a few hours later, the bathtub style base had collected several inches of water, as had my sleeping bag and clothes.  I hauled some things around in a shock-induced state of mind, thinking of sleeping under the rain tarp, but reversed that decision when I realized how cold it would be.  I untethered my tent and poured off the accumulated water, shaking it hard upside down, anchored it and started to refill it with anything I could find that was dry, and remove everything that was soaked.  I remembered that, with only one’s body’s warmth you can dry a set of wet wool socks in your tent, so I decided to build on that principle.  I tucked into the tent, wearing long underwear and sleeping on an air mattress, using a garbage bag as a sheet and my raincoat as a blanket, my whole world some degree of cold or damp, the zipper on the new tent’s rainfly stuck on open.  Sometimes you just have to flow with what there is.  Against a background of famine, war, terror and homelessness, not to mention electrocution, such tiny travails are a cipher.  I kept that in mind.  

But what followed the deadly first day was a deep drop into rock, soil and water.  We all had small backpacking chairs, and we spent a lot of time, sunk in those chairs on a huge stone outcropping watching wildlife and the movement of light.  I sense we all unloaded a world of care. 

We hiked a small mountain,  and canoed into secret wild gardens of aquatic plants buzzing with bees and dragonflies.  We heard the loon many times.  All the primary loon calls.  We saw loons flying.  We watched a mother and tiny loons swimming.  And we were the chosen rock outcropping for a little colony of Canada geese.  In the forest, Dick pointed out to me the call of the wood thrush.  

Dick is teaching us all the biology he can in four days.  I found a rectangle of birch bark on the ground and did a drawing on it with a ballpoint pen.  We all hustle to assemble each night on the giant rocks to watch the sun drop behind the pines and birches across the shore.

Slowly, over long exposure, and many meals, paddles, walks and talks, we have connected or reconnected in more relaxed ways. “   

I wrote this two days ago, and today, in my car,  I sang my way out loud and out of tune, through a whole jubilant playlist, headed south through the Shenandoah Valley, my head still full of gratitude and open sky.  

Herb Jackson at the Gregg

On a breather from my studio, I set yesterday aside to see Herb Jackson’s latest exhibition, “A Door is not a Window”, curated by Lia Newman and Roger Manley, at the new Gregg Museum on the campus of NC State University.

Like countless artists, my life story pivots on an encounter with Herb Jackson who, 40 years ago, figuratively picked me up out of an art trashcan, dusted me off, gave me a brief list of pithy instructions, and set me on my life’s path. I cannot imagine my life without that pivotal moment and those instructions. So, to see this exhibition was to return to the well— to the Fatherland.

The paintings are, in any circumstance, as brilliantly colored as a bag of gemstones, with textures that evoke geodes, crystals, star dust. And the exhibition has been installed, famously, to make that inescapable. It hangs in a blackened gallery, with light projected directly onto the canvases— and only the canvases.

Herb Jackson is a stone cold master of construction. The interior bone structure— the architecture— of his paintings is always masterful because he has been deconstructing paintings since he was a child. Many of his pithy instructions to me revolved around pictorial architecture. It took me years to master it. I can remember, in my early 30’s, working on paper, so that after the work was complete I could crop it like a photograph to discover the hidden structural power.

I had the gallery all to myself. At first I was an astronaut, zooming through space, watching the cosmos spin by from the safety of my darkened space craft. Then the Rothko chapel came to mind, and I was meditating on these ideas, distilled and illuminated— the rest of the world held at bay.

Then I made up a game. I went from painting to painting, making sure to NOT read the titles, so my associations could run free, and for each painting I wrote in my little notebook a list of words they evoked. I saw landforms and geography. I saw the earth from space. I saw strife, human flesh, ciphers, moonlight, midnight, continents and fissures, the Milky Way, sunrise and sunset, jewels, comets, ether, hurtling stones.

I dropped in by parachute, or was grabbed by the hand, or sometimes by the scruff of the neck and taken into the painting through a route that had been carved out for me. That route was as inevitable as one day following another. I studied his incised lines that read like flesh wounds, each uncovering another buried world of nuance/pattern/color.

The work was, by turns, calm, violent, delicate, brutal. The viewer could get by on nothing but the diet of color that is dished up, without any other thoughts or associations, because there is in this work, the deepest possible understanding of color, manipulated with great originality. In a lifetime of looking at art I can’t say that I have ever seen anyone use color as knowingly. And I fully comprehend the gravity of that statement. That alone is worth the trek.