Sunday, August 25, 2013

Sense and Presence

One of my former teachers, the late Don Koestner, was the first person I know of to do a painting of this bluff along the south shore of Lake Pepin, just west of Frontenac, Minnesota (view it here) I thrilled at his painting the first time I saw a reproduction of it, about thirty years ago, because it was a fine example of the sort of subject I aspired to approach myself (Don painted it in 1982 – as it happens, he was just a little older then than I am now). Thirty years ago my great inspiration was to do paintings of the upper Mississippi valley and the steep, rugged bluffs and limestone cliff faces that characterize it. Don was there before me and showed a way to go.

The cliff face is the west end of a ridge, a sort of archipelago in the river valley. In pre-glacial times, the river flowed to the south of it. Since the last glacial melt, the river flows through Lake Pepin on the north side of this bluff (Frontenac State Park occupies the east end of the bluff and commands a famous downstream view of Lake Pepin). I have never seen rattlesnakes here, but I have no doubt they are there. The habitat is right: sunny rocky ledges, where the snakes like to warm themselves and make dens in the crevices, adjacent to upland meadows with lots of insects and rodents, which they eat. I have encountered rattlesnakes in the flesh as far north as the Kinnickinnic River, at its confluence with the St. Croix, between Prescott and Hudson, WI (at Kinnickinnic State Park). Apparently the early settlers saw them in numbers at Rattlesnake Bluff, hence the name. 

As an aside, Rattlesnake Bluff and the “archipelago” to which it belongs are unique geological features in the Mississippi River Valley. They occur in only two other places.  Barn Bluff in Red Wing, Minnesota is one. Thoreau hiked there and an ancient petroform on the Wisconsin bluffs – an arrow or bird shape laid out with stones on the steep hillside and pointing toward Lake Pepin - is visible from its crest. The other archipelago is just upstream from Trempeleau, Wisconsin, consisting of Trempeleau Mountain, Brady’s Bluff and Eagle Bluff (there are rattlesnakes there too): all steep craggy hills jutting above the Mississippi Valley and entirely separated from the main bodies of steep ridges on each side of the valley.

Photo copyright Nora L.Koch, 2010
 One more aside, about rattlesnakes. The type that live in these rocky bluffs are timber rattlers. They are relatively shy and unaggressive. You have to either completely surprise them or really mess with them to have trouble with them. Though related to the diamondback rattlers of the west, they are not as dangerous. Bull snakes, another snake common in this area, that resemble timber rattlers in their markings, but without the rattle or the wedge shaped head, are much more aggressive, often bigger than rattlesnakes, but non venomous. Timber rattlesnake bites, however, are venomous, and these snakes are to be respected. 

Rattlesnake Bluff, oil on panel, 7 x 12, 2010
 copyright Peter J. Bougie, 2010

I have done three paintings of this scene from the same spot. The first, “Rattlesnake Bluff”, was a summer afternoon painting and the view is from a spot a couple of hundred yards further north of where Don did his painting. It is a small painting, 7” x 12”, done entirely on the spot. The temperatures were in the upper 80’s that day and after about two hours working on site some areas of the painted surface were beginning to get tacky, dragging at the touch of the brush; these circumstances, along with the fact that my return trip from the site needed nearly an hour of driving time, allowed no further work after leaving the site and returning home. Beyond that, the afternoon is memorable to me for several reasons. One: after many years passing since first viewing Don’s painting, I finally took the opportunity to go to the place myself and try my own hand. It is hard to describe the feeling I had approaching this opportunity. I felt a connection with my former teacher after many years of separation, viewing what was much the same wonder of nature, of creation. I felt it was no accident that years ago I had been attracted to a place of study (Atelier Lack) where he taught. Not merely so that I could be in contact with someone who was a skilled and competent artist, but also that I had the opportunity to be taught by someone moved to artistic expression by the things that so inspired me. I think it is no accident that I had the privilege of this contact. My teacher Richard Lack, steeped in the writings of Carl Jung, would have called it serendipitous. I don’t really object to that, but I prefer to call it grace. Don passed away in 2009, but I had a sense of his presence preceding me and instructing me. I am not claiming anything mystical, only remembrance. He was a most kindly and gentle man, with a love for what is simple and good.

I was there, preparing to paint what Don had once painted. He is gone, but he had instructed me, and I remembered. All of this was in my mind and heart as I painted; I don’t know how to describe it otherwise. 

Wacouta Cemetery, copyright Nora L.Koch, 2010
My wife Nora and my brother Pat were along with me on this excursion. Pat is my younger brother, although neither of us, both south of fifty, are young anymore. Nora took photographs of the area, and Pat did drawings in the ancient (by mid-western American standards) Wacouta cemetery not far from the spot where I painted. It is one of the only times that Pat has accompanied me on a painting excursion, and since I am fond of my brother, with whom I shared a room growing up (I trust he has forgiven if not forgotten my impatience and temper with his snoring, and other breaches of elder brotherly authority) and wish him only the best – and perhaps that he could accompany me, now and then, more often – I recall it as an afternoon doubly full of grace, sunny warmth, and good will. That sort of thing doesn’t happen every day. 

Repose, oil on panel, 12 x 16, Copyright Peter J. Bougie, 2011

Photo copyright Nora L. Koch, 2011
 As I mentioned, there are two other paintings of the same scene.   “Repose” was done at the end of October, 2011. I was full of a sense of the land going to rest prior to winter that day, something that Tolkein called, somewhere, “locking up”, as spring is “unlocking”. My sense was of all of the vigor and even unseen violence of the growing season, everything bursting up out of the earth, the most tender of shoots pushing up through matted leaf litter and rocky soil; hickory and oak trees extending the reach of their crooked limbs into the light, all of that now ending and going to rest, to repose. The third painting, “Emerald”, is quite the opposite, of the “unlocking”, of the vitality of spring on a fresh morning, with a bit of haze not quite burned off yet by the sun. “Emerald” was another one of those paintings that seemed to spring out of my brushes, as if the Holy Spirit directed my eyes and hand, as well as it could, through my most limited ability and senses. I hope there is joy in it, and the promise of all things being made new. That is, I hope there is a sense of the presence of God, and of His extraordinary promises – the hairs of our heads are all counted, and not a sparrow or a grasshopper falls but that He knows and receives it back. Every leaf unfolding from its bud is responding to His ongoing act of creation, and every exploding atom in the sun itself is a whisper, and the merest caress, of His boundless good will and energy. 

Emerald, oil on panel, 12 x 18, private collection
Copyright Peter J. Bougie 2012

Sunday, August 4, 2013

A Dark Wood


Township Road, oil on panel, 16" x 12", 2011 Copyright Peter J. Bougie
   The other day Nora asked me what my favorite painting of the past few years was. I replied that I didn’t have one favorite, but that there are some I like more, and some I like less. Okay, she countered, can you give me a few favorites? I named a few, and one of them is Township Road.
   It was done on the last day of July in 2011. That year it was unusually hot in this part of the world during June and July. That Sunday turned out to be one of the last uncomfortably hot days of that season. High clouds obscured but did not block out the sunlight. Standing still and working on the painting in the tall grass I sweat through my shirt in about fifteen minutes. I stood on a bank above the road with the coneflowers and the Queen Anne’s lace barely nodding in the humid air. Bees and deer flies buzzed. Deer flies – aggressive little biters shaped like F-16’s - are mostly done by the end of July around here. To my left, the asphalt road turned into gravel, leading back to some secluded private residences along the St. Croix River bluffs.
   It has marks of civilization; power poles with transformers, an asphalt road, and the corner of a parched hayfield. The dark wood hangs over the road and seems to press against it from both sides. This affect is relieved a bit by streaks of light on the road, and the lighter horizon at the top suggests open spaces, after the dark wood is traversed.
   The sky in the reproduction has much more color than the original.
   I saw the view within minutes of arriving, and the picture flew out of the brushes as if it were just using me to paint itself. That happens sometimes.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Ebner's Coulee

Ebner's Coulee, oil on panel, 6 1/2" x15", 2010  copyright Peter J. Bougie
   I painted Ebner’s Coulee from a spur of Grandad’s Bluff in LaCrosse, WI. It was a mild, windy spring day in late April, 2010. I stood at the edge of a precipice of 40 or 50 feet and had to mind my footwork. It looks south across Ebner Coulee on the east side of LaCrosse, down the Mississippi River. The bluff line on the far side of the river is southeastern Minnesota and, furthest down, northeastern Iowa.
   There is always some difficulty with windy conditions. In this location, the ground was rocky and so I was unable to stake out an umbrella. Since I was facing south, glare from the sun striking my shirt bounced back onto the painting. You would think that dark shirts would produce less glare than light shirts, but I haven’t noticed a big difference. Beware of brightly colored shirts, which will bounce their tints back onto your work on bright days. At times, I had to hold onto to the easel with my left hand while painting with my right. Even so, there is some movement because it is hard to continuously make judgments about whatever resistance needs to be exerted to oppose the gusts. And when that happens, sometimes the panel moves away from or towards your brush just as you are about to place it on the painting, and so the stroke doesn’t go where you want it to go, and has to be done over. Then again, on occasion, happenstance makes a better stroke than you hoped to make – just don’t count on it.
   The main point of interest was the view of the distance through the saddle shape made by the adjoining bluffs. The particular problem was representing the spring foliage, only partly opened up, and allowing a view of the ground under the trees, covered with fallen leaves and speckled with light and shadow. To mimic that mottled effect – an effect that was varied in particulars but in its entirety maintained a middle dark harmony - I worked out a number of color values (color and value/tone – light and dark considered at once), tried them on the painting, mixed the successful combinations on my palette, and then spotted them onto the painting, trying to leave the strokes alone. It was tricky and sometimes tedious work.
   This painting affords something of a contrast to Queen Anne’s Lace in terms of the overall range of value contrast, scale as related to the size of the painting, and the range and intensity of color. It is a one day painting and the size is 6 ½” by 15”. I did not use the chromatic palette, but the one noted here.