Monday, February 26, 2018

No Far Horizon

Afton Oaks, oil on panel, 12 x 16 private collection
Copyright Peter Bougie 2011

The title of this painting is “Afton Oaks”, because it was painted in the countryside near Afton, Minnesota; Washington County, on the west side of the lower St. Croix river.  Standing at this spot, I might turn around and see a long, expansive horizon comprised of territory in Wisconsin, the farmland and wooded hillsides west of the ridge bordering the northwest side of the Kinnikinic river gorge. On a day like the one when this picture was painted, that scene would seem exceptionally still, various shades of snowy blue and white, the very definition of winter glare.

Detail, Afton Oaks
Copyright Peter Bougie 2011
I made the tracks in the snow to provide a visual entry into the picture.

Perhaps I should have called this painting “No Far Horizon”. The viewpoint is low, caught up in the tangle of burr oak tree limbs and some indefinite undergrowth, probably buckthorn, an aggressive invasive. The light beyond the trees is the slope ascending the opposite side of the ravine. There are a few tracks leading into a broad, empty foreground and then stopping, as if someone had thought better of going on. This is the snow of deep winter. It has descended in several falls, and between each fall a deep freeze, so none of it has melted. When you walk in it, your foot punches down through soft snow until it nears the bottom and the snow under your foot compresses into a mass, at which point your foot might slip a bit, or not. Walking in the stuff requires a lot of effort. Snow might find its way into your shoes, if you haven’t dressed properly, and then you have wet feet, which you really don’t want. You pay for carelessness in the winter, not only in discomfort but possibly with frostbite, for starters. Cross country skis and snow shoes were developed to take advantage of conditions like these. Lots of people like to engage in that kind of recreation. “Fight the cold with the cold’s weapons” – with the cold itself, hardening yourself against it, and with activities that pump the blood around.

Some people suffer from a lack of sunlight at these near boreal latitudes. Those who can afford to travel to sunny warm places, do. Who cannot, must endure. I know someone who goes frequently to a public library which has banks of broad south facing windows through which a glory of sunlight pours, while clear weather and day light last. I sympathize; one interior image I have of dreary, ongoing winter is of being on the freeway when it is most the definition of captivity, during a snowfall, and all is colored in shades of gray, and my leg is cramping from riding the clutch for thirty or forty minutes, having to shift frequently from first to second gear and back down again, while traveling at little more than walking speed.

No far horizon; a viewpoint constricted by a certain type of reality. Another aspect of the particular reality here is the glare of the sun on the snow. I keep my gaze down because when I lift it I begin to be blinded in the glare. I recently wrote to a friend in an email that when I have dreadful recollections of winter in July or August, the first thing that usually comes to mind is the blinding, oppressive glare of the sun on the snow of a clear day. (I never made any decision about this; it's an instance of existential nausea.) You can experience that around here (in the upper Midwestern United States) from November even into April, but most years you will see it in January, February and March. If you see it in March - and you won’t see it every March - you might think how tired of it you are but take comfort in knowing that it can’t last very much longer. You will soon be delighted by the warmth of an ascending sun, and the sounds of trickling water. When you see it in January – and you will almost always see it in January – you will see it knowing that there is no way over, around or beneath it; only through it.

Afton Oaks, detail
Copyright Peter Bougie 2011

Friday, February 16, 2018

There were Swans

Pressure Ridges, oil on canvas, 16 x 20
Copyright Peter Bougie 2018
This photo is my own snapshot of the painting and not a professional scan,

hence the lesser quality.
I am painting along the St. Croix river, on the Minnesota side, north of Stillwater. It is a cold day to paint outside; about 20 degrees. There is a slight wind out of the north west, but I am leeward of a substantial riverside bluff, the subject of my painting. There is an urgency to work because I know that the cold will limit the time I can spend. So, I get after it; I make what I call ‘notes’, indications containing information about color, value, shape, or all the above, with the brush on the canvas, to be developed later after the session on site is over. Even with the urgency, sometimes I pause and just look at what is in front of me, or around me. I just look, and I am amazed at it, and thankful. Thankful too that warmth from combustion is available to me almost as soon as I want it. If it weren’t, this winter environment wouldn’t leave me much time for pausing. After about an hour and forty minutes I start to chill. I feel the cold under the layers in my chest and shoulders. Needless to say, when my torso is getting cold I am done painting outside.

This is the second time I’ve had this painting out here. We got about a foot of snow since I last visited a week ago. The slope of the bluff I am painting is south facing and most of the snow on it was melted then. I think the new snow is good for the painting because it shows on the ground through the trees in various places in the woods, providing depth of vision into the woods that wasn’t there before. There are low-relief pressure ridges making long arcs in the river ice following the curve of the shoreline. Darkened areas in the snow indicate slushy spots, probably thin ice. There is also a house tucked away on the bluff top; I can make out a little of the blue tinted glass and a roof line through the trees. 
Pressure Ridges, detail.
This place is called “The Boom Site.” In the 19th century, loggers cut the primeval white pine forests of Minnesota and Wisconsin and floated the logs downstream to Stillwater, where there were saw mills. The logs were taken out of the river here, sorted, stacked and dispersed. A boom or booms were employed in this work. There is often three or four feet of water flowing where I am now standing; in the spring, or during wet summers when the river rises. During the last glacial retreat when all the ice was melting, the water ran through here over a hundred feet deep. The St. Croix drained glacial lake Duluth, which occupied an area approximating modern southwest Lake Superior and the surrounding territory, 170 miles or so north of here, and carried run off to the River Warren. The River Warren was a monstrous, unimaginable torrent miles wide and hundreds of feet deep. It carried meltwater from glacial Lake Agassiz through what is now the Minnesota and Mississippi River valleys south to the Gulf of Mexico.

Photo by Nora Koch, copyright 2015
Trumpeter swans are in our area today, in the water and on the wing. They are the largest native North American water fowl, weighing up to 25 pounds and with wingspans of 6 feet. Once endangered, they are now recovering. We see them in January and February each year. They look creamy white against the cold gray of the sky this morning, as I pause from my work to gaze after them. They fly north, up the center of the river valley, in formation. What is it about them, or even the Canada geese, when they are in flight and calling that inspires wonder and yearning? Before motorized transport, they were among the fastest things flying, capable of traveling hundreds of miles in a day. Surely that is part of the wonder and mystery. They are here now but swiftly off to parts unknown and are seemingly unimpressed with human pretensions. Recently my wife and I tracked a group of them flying down the Trimbelle River valley near Lake Pepin. We were southbound on Pierce County Road O, and we encountered them flying downstream above the Trimbelle at treetop level, looking for a place to settle on the water. We kept parallel with them for a mile or so. Even at that low altitude they kept pace with us at about 30 miles an hour. Presently they found a suitable stretch of water at the south end of a horse pasture with wide open space on both banks of the river and settled there. Nora commented that it was quite a day, with “horses and swans and eagles.” For years there has been an eagle’s nest in the top of a cottonwood next to the river in that same horse pasture. But the eagles and the horses are a story for another day.

Photo by Nora Koch, copyright 2015