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Ontario Birds (and a few thoughts about making art)

In my history as a painter, I’ve never been very interested in creating prep work for paintings, preferring instead to work out the problems on the canvas and to put the highest value on pictorial invention in the moment. The exception was perhaps a series of highly geometric shaped works in which I found it sometimes necessary to create pencil lines on masonite to follow with my jigsaw. Even then, I invented some of those on the fly and my jigsaw became like a pencil in a sketchbook, as I cut out elements as I decided upon them.

I’m thinking of these little collages as thumbnails though, or starting points for a group of paintings, rather than as any kind of finished products in themselves. If they do in fact lead to paintings, I don’t know what those paintings will look like, nor to what degree these starting points will influence the final works. In other words, these are a way in, an ante in a way.

Except for messing around with some digital images from time to time, I haven’t had much interest in working with photography as any kind of factor in my painting. In the past year or two, I have developed an interest in taking photographs, though – of the world around me while out on nature walks in GTA parks. I use some of these photos to help me identify or name or remember plants or photos I’ve come across in nature. I use a bridge camera, often on “auto”, and really I’m not obsessed with the values many nature photographers worry over – although I admire and respect what they do.

When I started going on organized walks with naturalist Miles Hearn, I found myself overwhelmed with all the information I was trying to process in a fairly short period of time. I took to making lists of birds and plants we came across in a little notebook and taking a photo of everything on the list. Then later, I would match photos with my list, and look up each item on the list in an effort to try to learn even one thing about each. This awkward method was still highly overwhelming, but over time my knowledge of plants and birds increased tremendously, even if sometimes my memory fails me.

One day, I looked at a bunch of the lists I scrawled in little notebooks while trying to keep up on the walks, and it occurred to me that they are like inadvertent poems. Each list is peculiar to the specific day, the location, the weather, what birds were migrating through, and so on. Some lists are similar but no two lists are the same. I suppose these would be boring as poems to most people, but I have enjoyed looking over some of the lists and creating pictures in my mind of these walks, based on the list, rather than any particular memory I might have of that particular day.

Now I’m separating those photos from my little obsession with naming the natural world around me (which by the way has also included mushrooms and some insects like mayflies and caddisflies). By printing out my photos and cutting them to pieces, they become like pieces of a puzzle that has no solution beyond my own invention.

I’m going about these collages by cutting out many pieces, quickly and intuitively and spreading these elements around me. I’m making the collages in a dollar-store sketchbook (I want to take preciousness out of the equation) using a glue-stick and working as fast as I can, occasionally cutting some elements with scissors as I feel the need. There is nothing fussy about these things. I’m aware that I find some of them much more satisfying than others but I’m trying not to slow down to think about any of that. Instead, I’m more interested in working in the moment. I’m sure in my own insecurity, I’ll obsess over evaluating them further on up the road.

In the most recent Agency podcast (which I co-host with Candy Minx), called F Holes, I brought up a study done about jazz improvisation and what happens in a performer’s brain during improvisation. I came across this article at the time I was starting the collages. And so, I’ve been conscious of the idea that these little collages are akin to a musical improvisation. There is some structure – the photos have recognizable elements and I’ve decided that while I will merrily subvert space and time, I’m going to maintain a recognizable element in each let’s call The Bird. Later, I may yet take these to another place in which I abandon The Bird and if I range to that place, I don’t know what if any structural rules I’ll impose on the work.

In the podcast, I read a quote I found on the internet from sax player Sonny Rollins. “This is my dilemma. I’m a guy who makes things up as I go along, so nothing is ever finished – there are so many layers. So when you solo, yea you might get into one thing, but then, hey everything has implications! You can hear the next level. And that’s how I feel about improvising – there’s always another level”. Exactly. There’s the rub, as Old Bill said.

Let’s just say that it occurred to me that at some point I may have a box of scraps accumulated with few if any birdy bits left. What then? Is it over? Do I need to cut up more photos? Do I want to simply work with the box of scraps, the glue stick and scissors and allow myself to leave the birds in my dust? I really don’t know, except to say that I’ve always had a restless imagination and in my work as a painter I’ve typically worked in groups of paintings. When I stop, I find myself going back to the most basic questions, like how do I make any kind of image I can live with. Sometimes I’ll look at a group of paintings when I’ve exhibited them, and while I recognize ideas that permeate my paintings and have for a long time, I wonder, how did I make these things up? How did I get to this particular place? Is it still possible for me to make more paintings (a curious thought, since it seems that like a junker with his dope, I would find it difficult to stop if I wanted to).

I know that in my painting, and I think in the work of most painters, similar themes come up over and over again. Candy Minx mentioned to me that she sometimes feels she has made the same painting over and over again. I know that feeling, and for me it has nothing to do with anything like the look or style of a painting. Instead I think it is because we’re all trapped within our own peculiar frames of reference in all that entails, like it or not.

I try not to worry too much about that and while I think about my paintings extensively, I don’t have any desire to try to explain one to anybody. If anyone else is interested in taking a stab at that, sure go to town. I’m too busy worrying over the same things over and over again – how do I make a painting I can live with, how do I make an image that will stick?

There are starting points and there are starting points. The nature walks are a starting point. My desire to learn more about the natural world around me is a starting point. The lists I make are starting points. The photos I snap on the walks are starting points. The arbitrary elements I create by cutting up photos are starting points. The collages are starting points. On and on.

On some level, if these collages end up leading to a group of paintings as I hope they will, there will inevitably be some kind of relationship between walking and observing and photographing and learning and the paintings I eventually make up, although that relationship may end up being more or less obvious. For sure, I can’t begin to imagine what these hypothetical paintings might look like, or even if this effort will lead to paintings I want to keep or show to anybody down the road.

Meanwhile, I’m going to keep on with these little collages for as long as I can before I start painting, because I know once I have a bunch of new paintings active they will become top of mind for some time to come.

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