King of the Currumpaw

Art, Nature, Literature, Philosophy, and Wolves

Month: April, 2012

Contemporary Painting Techniques in Faculty Meetings

Several years ago, I found a stack of books in the painting studio at the university entitled, Contemporary Painting Techniques, published in 1969. After asking around the department if the books were being used or kept for specific purposes and receiving no affirmative answer, I snatched several copies and started to draw in them. After about six years as a member of the faculty, I grew comfortable enough to draw in faculty meetings. They say you retain 20 – 30% more information if you listen and doodle… Here are a few of the results.

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The First Circle

About ten months ago, I stumbled across a drawing of Dante’s nine circles of Hell by Barry Moser. The diagrammatical nature of the drawing—almost a cross-section—appealed to me. My father once pointed out to me that floating masses of earth have become a staple of my visual repertoire. I started in on a series of drawings that were to translate the nine circles’ transgressions into modern environmental degradations. Then about four months later, I had the rare occasion to sit down with my longtime friend, Jeff Shotts, poetry editor at Graywolf Press. He drew my attention to the fact that Graywolf was ready to release a new translation of Dante’s Inferno by Mary Jo Bang, reviewed in the Brooklyn Rail. To my delight, Henrik Drescher, a long-time favorite illustrator of mine, created a small number of images for the book, and I am looking forward to getting my hands on my own copy. In the meantime, I forge slowly forward on these drawings, executed in ink and digital processes. I haven’t decided which degradation will coincide with which ring of hell, but I have started at the bottom, where the sin of treachery reigns. And I’m working my way up.

I have saved copies of the various photoshop layers to reveal a bit of the creative process.

Drawing of Dante’s Circles of Hell, copyright Barry Moser. All other images, copyright, Ned Gannon 2012.

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Meaningful Chances

Not long ago, I posted about a series of black and white drawings and my motivations for making them. Through a series of experiments, those drawings ultimately led to some of the drawings below. I wanted to continue the black and white work of the TINAW drawings, but I wanted also to bring something specific to them. Soap, oil and water were used with specific relevance in mind. First, I have posted some thoughts that led to the drawings of animals affected by the Gulf Spill. At the bottom is a slide show. I performed the experiments in a sketchbook given to me by my friend Toby. I had saved it for something special for years, and I finally settled on simply using it to take some, hopefully, meaningful chances. Next are the drawings of animals affected by the spill. Finally, the finished drawings are posted that, as a group, I call No Horizons – both because they are some of the few works I have done without supporting environments but also because they question the future of fragile species.

All images and text, Copyright 2012.

Borders

By N. Gannon

“The human imagination… has great difficulty in living strictly within the confines of a materialist practice or philosophy. It dreams, like a dog in its basket, of hares in the open.”
– John Berger

As the BP oil disaster unfolded and I grew more and more frustrated, I pestered most of the people I knew. Printed fliers appeared in the hallways where I work—an ink drawing I created of a Brown Pelican smeared over with black oil paint. Below read the words “Thanks BP”. I posted sad updates of crippled wildlife to my Facebook page and made dramatic pronouncements on a friend’s blog. One of my friends commented that he believed it was a time to look inward and consider his own part in all of the mess. After all, he argued, we all drive.

So true.

In the 2010 Communication Arts Design Annual, several designs executed for Nike present the idea of using “sport” rather than fossil fuels. The fact that most people drive to the gym and thousands of families drive their children miles upon miles to “sport” activities did not deter the athletic mega-corporation from joining in the battle cry for a better ecology. It seems there is no shortage of voices when it comes to supporting the environmental movement.

So who was I to be decrying BP?

Not to be outdone, I pledged to myself and my friends to walk or ride my bike at least forty-five days of the academic year. This would at least assuage my conscience. After all, if the BP mess, along with books like Being Caribou, couldn’t motivate me to do something, then nothing probably would.

What I learned from riding my bike and walking consistently (I had been an occasional bike rider before) was nothing new. And yet it was a kind of freedom. I learned to cross borders.

Modes of thinking and behavior are not necessarily harmful. Humans are creatures of habit. But these modes are limiting. Modern biology is grappling with the significance of biodiversity, but perhaps we are losing a diversity of thought as well.

A good example of the loss of creative diversity occurred in one of my painting classes where I offer a project involving the idea of a window. Students are to interpret the idea widely in terms of a framework for something, an opening, or an obstruction. Two students, inclined to realism, searched for the word “window” on the internet using Google. They produced two paintings from the same image resource when their own living quarters would likely have provided vastly different windows from which they might have drawn their experience. This may sound like a warning against the use of stock photography, but it relates to a very real problem—being stuck in a particular mode of doing things.

When I drive my car somewhere, my state of mind is occupied with thoughts on how long it will take me to get where I am going, on what is on the radio, on the flow of traffic, on the lights, on the intersections, on what I need to do when I arrive.

When I ride my bike some of the previous concerns remain. I need to be sensitive to traffic patterns, and I may still dwell on work ahead. But I am aware of the temperature, the time of day, the rise and fall of the landscape, the light, the moisture, and a more real sense of the distance from one place to the next. I also check the weather more frequently.

When I walk, I have too much time between where I begin and where I am headed to be preoccupied with what I will do when I get there. I am intimately aware of my origin’s relationship to my destination. My mind wanders. It is freed, for the most part, of traffic patterns, red lights, and turn lanes. I am freed from a definite path. As Rebecca Solnit states in her book Wanderlust: A History of Walking, “Many people nowadays live in a series of interiors…disconnected from each other. On foot everything stays connected, for while walking one occupies the spaces between those interiors in the same way one occupies those interiors. One lives in the whole world rather than in interiors built up against it.”

I composed this essay walking to work. Throughout the seasons, I also spied two foxes, ducks swimming or flying south in formation or nesting in the front yard of a student housing building, an untold number of rabbits darting away or sometimes staring at me from one side of their head. I saw the end of starry nights, and sunrises. I became a squirrel watcher, watching their peculiar interactions. Are they quarreling or collaborating on some project? Hoards of squirrels came out to feed on the fractured remains of Halloween pumpkins. I glimpsed eagles above the river and one spectacular battle between a crow and a gull over some food discarded by a student. In both a literal and figurative sense, I was put in my place.

I should be clear that I am under no delusions that my short jaunts to work will offset the massive damage done to the environment by accidents like the Gulf Spill. I walk because I can think. I walk because I do not carry a portable communication device and the time affords me contemplation. I walk because it gives me a sense of place. I walk because when I do I cross borders. I walk, perhaps finally, because it demonstrates that, in some minor way, I still can still exert my will over my circumstances. However, all of this can sound quaint to a skeptic.

In a book entitled, Being Caribou, Karsten Heuer briefly describes the Y2Y Conservation Initiative—an effort to connect Yellowstone and the Yukon through protected lands that would preserve corridors for migrating animals through the U.S. and Canada. In 2009, the Mexican government collaborated with the United States government to create the Rio Bravo del Norte National Monument a stretch of protected land that straddles the Texas, U.S. border with that of Mexico. These efforts demonstrate the power of shifting modes. And as talk of raising walls and fences along the Mexican or even Canadian borders grew after 9/11, a voice inside my head kept saying we are stuck in a mode of thinking. What is the price we pay? What is the price for my children? For their children?

John Berger says, “Emigration, forced or chosen, across national frontiers or from village to metropolis, is the quintessential experience of our time.” To recognize that traditional borders are failing us and dealing with the implications may be our task at hand, for ourselves and for our fellow inhabitants. And it may require other modes of thinking than those currently employed.

In his book Consilience E.O. Wilson argues for the value of biodiversity. With Wilson, I place my certainty in science. But unlike Wilson, I place my hope somewhere else. In his book, Justice for Hedgehogs, Ronald Dworkin raises the question of how to live a life filled with value that challenges the prevalence of skepticism as a moral and ethical position.

Barry Lopez once wrote, “I think that it is we simply do not understand our place in the universe and have not the courage to admit it.” We need to learn to use less and to be more. As Congressmen and women move to fix the economy and struggle to maintain America’s standard of living, we trade short term profit for long term consequences. Talk of the debt our children will inherit is frequently spoken to, but what other legacies will we leave behind? Will we bequest them a ravaged land, values rooted in narcissistic self-interest, and an ultimate faith in ideals no more lofty than faith in free trade? As T.S. Eliot so elegantly states, “…right action is freedom. From past and future also.”

Five hundred years ago, Copernicus challenged the existing powers, suggesting a heliocentric solar system. And even years later when Galileo argued the same idea, the powers resisted. Maybe we are stuck in a similar mode, believing that our concerns and temporary problems are the ultimate stake and skeptical that any real hope exists.

Now is the time for us to have the moral courage to understand our place in the universe and break down borders. Now is the time for us to wake up from our dreaming, get out of our cars, and chase our hares in the open.

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Parting

Recently, a friend in town convinced me to part with this drawing, Symbiosis. Part of a series I called the TINAW drawings, the occasion caused me to reflect on why I made them in the first place. So I have posted these thoughts along with one other drawing called, Halflight. Copyright, 2012, Text and Images.

Balancing Act
By N. Gannon

“They say not to anthropomorphize…” – Rick Bass from Ninemile Wolves

“Wolves, when you get down to it, are a lot like us.” – Douglas Chadwick from “Wolf Wars,” National Geographic, March 2010

“Seventh heaven may be
The whole truth of a sixth sense come to pass.”
– Seamus Heaney from Seeing Things

Is the evidence in? From just about any perspective, wolves are not detrimental to the eco-system in Yellowstone National Park where they were re-introduced—just as Aldo Leopold surmised so many years ago. One element that interests me about the whole process is what made a few environmentalists and biologists so doggedly determined to fight through the animosity of a group of ranchers, hunters, farmers and politicians in order to re-introduce the wolf? Without conclusive evidence, what made these people so sure that wolves would thrive and not send the eco-system into a nose-dive catastrophe rather than a beneficial Trophic Cascade? (For more on this science, please see Chadwick’s article, or Douglas Smith’s excellent book, Decade of the Wolf: Returning the Wild to Yellowstone).

For that matter, what made Adolph Murie begin the push for wolf re-introduction almost a half-century before it occurred? What made him traipse all over Mt. McKinley National Park (now called Denali) collecting wolf skulls, scat, and kill, trying to determine wolves’ effects on Dall Sheep? It is worth noting that Rolf Peterson refers to the use of these skulls decades later in his own research. Of course, Murie was hired by the government as a naturalist, but upon reading his own accounts, it is clear how he felt about the wolves of Mount McKinley as well as the other flora and fauna found there. Murie valued the wolf before he could prove that it was valuable. In fact, his pain-staking research may have all been done in support of a subjective knowledge, a sense of things. Where does one get an internal compass like this? Do we even value such an ideal anymore? Can it be taught?

I have a particular interest in wolves for many reasons. One reason is my belief that tolerance for this once despised predator will act as a case study to determine whether the United States, as a whole, is prepared to dedicate itself to real preservation of wilderness. Wolf tolerance is a test of the environmental movement’s mettle. Or as Paul L Errington said, “Of all the native biological constituents of a northern wilderness scene, I should say that the wolves present the greatest test of human wisdom and good intentions.” The opening quotes by Bass and Chadwick epitomize the dilemma from my perspective. On the one hand, sympathizers are not to anthropomorphize, as Rick Bass points out in his account called The Ninemile Wolves. Attributing wolves with human characteristics would deny that wolves are distinct entities with unique traits which we must appreciate as such.

Paramount objectivity in the scientific community has spilled into all aspects of cultural thinking making us uncomfortable with even minor allusions to an emotional reaction, as evidenced by Douglas Smith’s response to the question put to him during an interview for PBS about wolves. He describes an incident in Yellowstone after an Alpha male’s female counterpart is killed. “…and the Alpha male, pardon my way of putting it, seemed to mourn. He howled for two days after. More than anybody had seen him howl. And he wailed and he wailed and he wailed.” (Nature: The Wolf That Changed America) Pardon my description? Why?

In many circles objectivity has been confused with open-mindedness and equality. In his book with Jean Mohr, John Berger warns of a world where everything is quantified, “…not simply because it can be reduced to a statistical fact, but also because it has been reduced to a commodity. In such a system there is no space for experience…Nor is there space for the social function of subjectivity. All subjectivity is treated as private, and the only (false) form of it which is socially allowed is that of the individual consumer’s dream.”

Etienne Gilson distinguished artistic knowledge from other forms of knowledge in the sense that it is derived from experience and action and can’t be passed through academic learning in the same manner as other forms of knowing. Even the part that is craft, which can be passed on, must be informed by another kind of ingenuity or innovation or it remains merely craft. Gilson says, “On the part of the consumer, the enjoyment of beauty is a kind of contemplation, but on the part of the producer, art is action.” (The Arts of the Beautiful, Page 57).

Magritte’s painting, “Ceci n’est pas une pipe”, or “This is not a pipe” seems to epitomize this ambivalence. Magritte’s tension between the thing (meaning the painting), the thing it references (meaning the pipe), and the contemplation the painting evokes, as well as the contemplation the pipe the painting references may generate, begins to feel like a conundrum that represents how artists are trapped between the subjective impulses that inspire, generate or create art and the very cognitive forces that define it and contextualize it.

Education is certainly not immune to this ambivalence, and, as an educator, I often contemplate the tension that arises between offering students knowledge and offering them “a way of doing things”. Not to say that “a way of doing things” isn’t helpful, but when encouraging independent thought, “a way of doing things” can seem more of a hindrance.

Joyce Cary states in art and reality, “To suppress the freedom of the artist is not only to cut off knowledge of the actual movements of human feeling but also, and more disastrously, contact with the realities of life. For those contacts can be renewed only by the continually new intuition of the artist.” (Art and Reality, Page 40) Cary later refers to a mode of seeing that many of us lose. “It is said that when you give a child the name of a bird, it loses the bird. It never sees the bird again, but only a sparrow, a thrush, a swan…” (Page 49) This seems in some way opposed to science’s goal of naming and identifying things. Psychologist Michael Gazzaniga’s studies have implied that the right side of the brain absorbs information on which humans act that the left brain can’t process. Perhaps Paul Valery referred to this when he said, “To see is to forget the name of the thing one sees.” So what kind of knowing is this, if it deliberately eschews categories?

Art has the potential to generate mutual understanding through experience. It remains one of the few domains in culture in which intuition and the subconscious alter our perceptions of the world. Shared experience generates a bridge between the impersonal facts of life and the personal experience of life, between the objective realities and the subjective realities. Art reconciles our feelings of what we know to be true with our observations of what is qualified as true. But generating this response in a viewer requires a work of art to affect in its viewer both a surprise or shock and the recognition of an experiential truth exclusively recognizable in its existent form. Rebecca Solnit addresses this in her book, Storming the Gates of Paradise: Landscapes for Politics. “To believe that conscience is an imposition upon consciousness is to regard engagement as a hijacker rather than a rudder, interference with one’s true purpose rather than perhaps at least part of that purpose.”

 
I titled a series of wolf drawings with the prefix, TINAW, This is Not a Wolf. Beyond the humorous reference to Magritte’s pipe, I wanted to stress the importance of the existent. Rick Bass was not objective about wolf re-introduction. To quote Bass more fully from the Ninemile Wolves, “They say not to anthropomorphize—and I’m learning not to—but in some respects, it seems bend-over-backwards ridiculous not to, for if a wolf does not have a spirit, then what animal, ourselves included, can be said to have one?” (Page 131)

Learning how to live is a balancing act that requires us to feel and intuit. Einstein put it this way, “It is very difficult to elucidate this feeling to anyone who does not experience it. The individual feels the vanity of human desires and aims and the nobility and marvelous order which are revealed in nature and in the world of thought. Individual existence strikes him as a sort of prison, and he wants to experience the universe as a single, significant whole…In my view, it is the most important function of art and science to awaken this feeling and keep it alive in those who are receptive to it.”

Maybe all artists are like Adolph Murie, lost in the primal wild of Denali Park, having shed civilization’s rules, knowing that their thing of value, their wolf, is of inestimable worth to the world, finally in step with everything that has escaped them, trusting their sixth sense, and hoping that they can be receptive enough to recognize the evidence that proves it.

The Value of Water

Recently, while in New York, a colleague of mine and I wandered into St. John the Divine. I have a fourteen year relationship with the cathedral, and my colleague is taken with the space. However, we got more than we bargained for. As we moved through the quieting space, we discovered works by Bill Viola, William Kentridge, and Jenny Holzer just to name a few. The Value of Water consitutes the largest art exhibit the cathedral has mounted to date. Here is a glimpse of the  art in the exhibit, though the site doesn’t do the work justice. The Bill Viola video was absolutely breath-taking, and I had to watch it twice. One of the largest cathedrals in the world, St. John’s has always been a source of inspiration. I can only hope that the cathedral continues to mount exhibitions of this magnitude. There is something to be said for viewing art apart from the sterility of museum and gallery and in a space intended for contemplation as a change of pace.