A story of Alaska, in three essays and two epilogues.
Essay one, my art residency application:
Back to Alaska: My Story
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Lines above and below from T. S. Eliot’s ‘The Four Quartets.’
I was born on Adak, an island in the middle of the Bering Sea, in a blizzard, at home. Wrapped in an army blanket, placed in a cardboard box, I was taken by jeep to the hospital.
When my mother died five years ago, I was seized by the idea of heading back to my birthplace. I had not been there since I was a baby. It was time to return.
Research reminded me what my father could have if he were still alive: Adak is often besieged by high winds, fogs, cyclones, and snow. Flight delays of days or even weeks are common. Facilities for travelers are now practically non-existent, after the government’s relinquishment of the military base where my family had lived. My dream trip seemed outside the realm of possibility.
Still, even though I have painted in Iceland, a similarly rugged landscape, I could not give up the idea of going back to an Alaska in some way related to my Aleutian island. When I found the Chulitna Lodge art residency online, I began to think this might really be possible. Adak is several hundred miles from Port Alsworth, but there is a real geological connection: the mountains in the Lake Clark National Park are part of the Aleutian Range and all of this area, of course, was once one landmass stretching across the Bering Sea.
A passion for energy and place, as well as a delight in the materiality of paint, pencils, ink, and surfaces, have been the propelling forces of my art life. At Chulitna Lodge, I would be able to experience these in a deeper way than I have ever done before.
With the model of British artists like Richard Long in mind, I could document my stay there using wilderness materials: mud as paint, pigments I would make from local rocks and other natural materials, twigs as drawing tools, bark as canvas, lake and glacier water as the basis for watercolor washes, and more. I would mix these with more standard painting and drawing materials, exponentially increasing my expressive repertoire. I would make drawings, sketches, studies for larger paintings, monoprints, mixed media pieces.
The possibilities seem various and thrilling. Not only would my work be a metaphor for the c’hi emanating from the Alaskan wilderness, it would literally embody it, containing as it would the DNA of the wild place where I was born.
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Essay two, statement of intent:
In order to fully immerse myself in the Alaskan landscape, and to express in my artwork the energy that pervades it, I intend to make art with natural, found materials... mud, rocks, twigs and bark, among others. I will draw in the sand and document that process with photos. I will draw and paint on any available appropriate surface.
I will combine local organic materials with a limited number of conventional art supplies that I will bring with me, so that I can fully express the life force I find in that milieu. I will make studies for later paintings. I will make sketches and on-site mixed media finished work.
I am going to spend the next months developing the practice of using found organic materials for art making, something I haven’t done before. At the same time, I want to be sure to bring a sense of spontaneity and discovery to my week there, so I will guard against forming a lot of preconceived ideas of exactly what I will produce.
A week is short, but I am used to traveling and orienting myself quickly to the spirit of a place, and documenting it with drawings, paintings, and sketches. In a week I will be able to work hard, experience deeply, and build up a store of images, both in the artifacts I create there and in my heart and my mind’s eye… a store of images that I can turn to as an artist once I return to North Carolina.
It will have taken me a long time to get back to an Alaska related to the island where I was born. I'm not going to lose it.
Essay three, artist statement:
I’m a restless artist, a shape shifter, a seeker, and therefore, not surprisingly, a traveler.
The past three years I’ve done a lot of illustration work, work for other people. It was a good thing to do, a necessary part of my trajectory, I’m convinced. I’ve also spent a long time drawing and making sketches, work that is an immediate and direct response to place and people. That, too, was worthwhile and right. Now I’m determined to get back to my own paintings, my own deeper path, to plunge back into that thrilling process of trying to know what it is I need to say and how in the world I’m going to say it.
I know I need more of mountains, rugged open spaces, cold days and nights, and skies with lots of stars...the numinous places of my history and my imagination. With my trips to Iceland, Norway, the Alps, I have been circling back to the source. That is where I need to be.
Not long ago, on reading Michael Pollan’s wonderful book A Place of My Own , I was reminded of the concept of ‘c’hi:’
' "C’hi" is the Chinese word for the earth spirit, or cosmic breath, which flows in invisible currents over the face of the earth... . This earth spirit animates all living things.'
It’s when I pick up my brushes and address the c’hi, that life force I sense so strongly, in places that are personally important, that I am a painter in a way that matters most to me.
180 people from around the world applied this year for this residency program, which is available only in the summer months. Applicants were told they would be notified of results around the first week of January. The large number of applicants made for a long delay in the selection process.
On Easter morning, I got an email in my inbox. Out of 180 applicants, 8 were chosen. I was one.
Reader, I’m going!
Because I didn't hear from the residency program for a long time, I assumed I hadn't made the cut, so I made another plan to spend time this year making art directly connected to a numinous place. I wanted a place somehow related to coastal Norway, but closer and easier for me to access. I chose coastal Wales and I'm going there, too! And that is a story for another day!