Responses to the essay Poetry-Science Gratitude Duet by Alison Hawthorne Deming and Frederick J. Swanson

And Notes for the Art Science Convergences at OSU Panel Discussion


Part 2: Responses to the essay Poetry-Science Gratitude Duet by Alison Hawthorne Deming and Frederick J. Swanson

 Ambient: October 11, 2014 Between 10:55 AM and 3:42 PM; Watershed 1, Lookout Creek & Watershed 3

Ambient: October 11, 2014, Between 10:55 AM and 3:42 PM; Watershed 1, Lookout Creek & Watershed 3

Oil on 6 Wood Panels, 25 1/2 in. x 112 in.



Telling you what I do is fairly easy: I make abstract paintings that show chromatic changes in the environment that we can’t easily see or track with our own senses. Sometimes I paint agents of change. In either case, I reduce as much of the surrounding information from the environment from the painting as I can. If I am working with color, I strip the composition to the color only, letting the patterns of change create the compositional elements rather than depicting objects in the environment. With my current and recent projects, I look to field research and data collection for my process of researching information for my paintings. I choose projects that will bring me to a place again and again for at least a year to gather the information I need for my paintings. It gives me the opportunity to sit in silence and listen.

Telling you why I do the work that I do is more difficult to pin down. I might tell you something different tomorrow than what I say today. That is not to say that what I say today is not correct, it is that there is no clearly delineated ‘why’. The story of why seems to have no end.

I’ll tell you some vignettes that start to point to the why. I can say that at a fundamental level I am searching for a deep relationship with a place the way one searches for a meaningful romantic relationship with another person. I had a dysfunctional relationship with the place where I grew up, in Southern California. I finally found a place that I thought was going to be my PLACE 12 years ago in the Sierra Foothills of Northern California. But I left it behind 4 years later to come to Oregon. I still pine for that place.

When I was 17, I moved to Oregon for the first time to attend Oregon State University. I chose it because I thought it was beautiful and so different from Southern California. It’s probably not the best reason to choose a college, but it’s a good start when choosing a place to be. I began my time at OSU studying ecology. The places I connected with the most as a child were in the wilderness, so this seemed like a good fit for me. It hadn’t really occurred to me that I could study art, although I had been taking college art courses at a local community college since the age of 15. During the Spring Quarter at OSU I took a dendrology course. I loved  the part of the class where we went outside and worked with our plant taxonomy books to name the plants and trees surrounding us. I had no interest in the forestry parts of the course. Not surprisingly, I wasn’t doing very well overall, aside from the practicum. My professor called me into his office one day. He asked me who I was (he had never noticed me before) and why I was taking the class. To my surprise, I told him that I was an artist and I wanted to know more about the trees so I could make better art. I wanted to be able to SEE them better. My answer gave him pause. I’m sure it was not what he was expecting to come out of my mouth either. We talked some more, then he struck up a deal with me: he would help me pass the course if I continued to do well with the practicum, and if I continued to make art. We both kept up our ends of the deal. That fall I enrolled in an art school back in Southern California. The two plant taxonomy books from that class are the only ones that I still have from my one year at OSU. With my art, however, I want to go beyond naming and labeling. I am interested in creating a visual experience of the place rather than an explanation or depiction.

Average Colors of the South Yuba River: a mathematical determination of an aesthetic value

A Year of Average Colors of the South Yuba River: a mathematical determination of an aesthetic value, oil on 65 wood panels, 55 in. x 151 in.

When I was living in Nevada City, the place I loved in Northern California, the local river, the South Yuba, was undergoing the FERC (Federal Energy Relicensing Commission) relicensing process. I went to community meetings to learn more about it. I listened to scientists, policy makers and special interest groups explain the river with charts and graphs and terms that stripped the life out of the river that I loved. I felt the river was an integral living part of me. I had kayaked on it at all stages, swum in it, hiked along side it, cried on its granite boulders, and fell in love there too. I made a reactive piece from those meetings called the A Year of Average Colors of the South Yuba River: a mathematical determination of an aesthetic value. I took underwater photos at 4 different locations for a year, and averaged the colors together to make my own chart of colors that consisted of 65 painted panels. The resulting piece is 55 in. x 151 in. I didn’t see the piece in its entirety until several years later when I installed it for a show in Oregon. When it was finally up on the wall, the piece stopped me in my tracks. What I made was beautiful and it showed me things about the color diversity of the river that I had not been able to see when I was out there in the landscape. It changed the way that I thought about what art can do with the landscape.

HJ Andrews kiosk

HJ Andrews Information Kiosk

In the fall of 2007, I visited my husband-to-be for the first time in Eugene where he lived. I was still living in Nevada City, California at the time. He wanted to show me one of his special places. We drove to the HJ Andrews Experimental Forest and stopped at the information kiosk at the start of the road leading in so I could read the text and see a photo of his great grandfather, HJ Andrews. Then we drove up the dirt road to the Old-Growth Trail and hiked down to Lookout Creek in the rain. We stood on the bridge over the creek in silence, just being together there.

Sarah in field

Sarah in the Wetland Prairie

I met a soil scientist, Sarah Marshall, studying wetland prairies at OSU soon after moving to Oregon for the second time. I followed her as she took readings from her piezometers at Finley Wildlife Refuge. She talked to me about wetland prairies, an ecosystem I didn’t even know existed in the Willamette Valley. I had not known about Finley when I was at OSU, although I lived in the Finley Residence Hall. I made two wetlands projects after my time with Sarah, both year long projects that compared color changes in native wetland fields, farm fields and farm fields that were transitioning back to wetland prairies. Working on those projects and spending time with Sarah, taught me about the way that water flows under the surface and how it is affected by roads and heavy farm equipment. My color projects brought the fields to life for me because I could see very clearly how diversity was lacking in the restoration and farmed fields compared to the native prairie through the colors that I collected. It was also my first experience with a field researcher collecting data. My time spent with Sarah still informs the way that I work now.

Ground Wrap

Measuring the Forest Canopy Debris

My husband’s grandmother, Virginia, suggested I look into the artist-in-residence program at HJ Andrews. I did, but didn’t act on it because it was for writers. She insisted that I contact Fred Swanson because “he’s such a nice man” and she liked his beard. I eventually did so and was granted a residency in 2012. I connected to the place immediately. Mark Harmon’s log-decomposition site felt like a site specific art installation tucked away in the dense forest. I had the sense that I had come to a place of like-minded people who were just working in a different mode from me. Virginia was so pleased that I went. One evening when my husband and I were at her house, she pulled out some dusty boxed filled with photos and documents of, and about, her father, HJ Andrews. She told us stories late into the night.

Lookout Creek

Lookout Creek at the Old Growth Trail Bridge

This work has connected me to the places where I have lived. I choose long-term projects that bring me out into the forest, prairies and rivers where I can sit in silence and listen. When I do, the places start to tell me stories beyond words about the landscape and ecology, the family that I have married into, and my own past. I do this work because the places have just begun telling their stories to me. I sense there is so much more and I want to be able to be there to listen. The places give me something that I can’t immediately see, but when I start to make paintings with the information I gather, I find that I am always given a beautiful gift. Every project reveals itself slowly to me as I make it, and every time I am stunned by what the landscape has given me. Every discovery makes me more curious and keeps me returning for more.

Now, years later, I return again to OSU for the Art/Science Convergences panel discussion to tell a story, that in many ways began there with science when I was here at the age of 17, and keeps bringing me back one thread at a time, adding layer upon layer to that same initial story.

Part 2

Responses to the essay Poetry-Science Gratitude Duet by Alison Hawthorne Deming and Frederick J. Swanson in Forest Under Story Edited by Nathaniel Brodie, Charles Goodrich and Frederick J. Swanson


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