“In a gentle way, you can shake the world.”
Why I Paint Trees
In 1984 my partner and I planted 7000 trees on 20 acres we owned in Grey County, Ontario. As a result I began to see trees as an artistic subject that I could really embrace. Helping these trees to grow and protecting them from vermin in their first few years allowed me to connect in a visceral way with environmental issues as well as ideas of shelter and nurturing.
Being so involved with trees also changed the way I looked at them. They are excitingly sculptural in their huge variety of shapes, forms and textures. It is not possible to see them as static, rather they respond to both the long term climatic forces and the immediate influences of weather. Trees move in the wind, make sounds, have smells, are smooth or rough; and they can show us how they are experiencing conditions of drought, cold, heat and threats. In many ways trees can express a wide range of human-like concerns and states of being.
Gradually my landscape paintings, which were fairly abstract in the past, shifted emphasis - with tree forms coming to dominate the central theme of most works. Today I continue to explore and refine my painterly methods used to express what I sense about foliage, branches and trunks surrounded by airy spaces.
It is clear that trees have an almost infinite variety of types. I travel fairly often to other regions and spend time looking at trees and shrubs in widely ranging conditions, from deserts to rainy forests. They are all interesting; my visual passion.
While staying in Taos NM at a house surrounded by sage brush I heard coyotes one night outside my window. The next day I decided to try and experience the sage brush from their height. Getting down on all fours I moved through the sage which changed into a forest from that vantage point. It was a valuable insight; change your perspective to learn new things.
Why make a painting when you can shoot a photo?
A friend asked me this while visiting my studio. Such a simple question, and yet I hesitated to answer. I needed to think. What follows is my attempt to work through the various opinions I have.
First, photography is currently very “hot” as an art commodity. Collectors are buying more photographs and paying higher prices than ever before. A recent international art fair that I attended showed as much photo-based work as all other art forms combined. A survey of art school students found overwhelming interest in digital photography while the traditional studio techniques received almost no attention. Seeing this shift to digital media, I wonder if I have become an anachronism.
I am a painter. I use the traditional media of oil, solvent, brushes and rags. I have spent over 35 years working hard to develop a unique vision and style. I take seriously the craft of constructing paintings.
I own expensive camera equipment, a good computer and photo editing software. I am quite skilled with digital technology. I enjoy it. But the “substance” of a digital photograph is ephemeral while a painting has mass, surface textures and layers of paint; it is a physical object. This object is created by hand through adding, adjusting and removing marks applied with various instruments to a surface material. I like the physical interaction with art materials; it is a visceral exchange in ways that photography is not. That’s important to me.
Interestingly, many photographers are currently outputting their digital images to large surfaces such as canvas, plywood or metal. These surfaces are sometimes over painted with matching colours and coated with encaustic waxes or resin. Textures are added to these surfaces to imitate the skin of a finished painting. At a casual glance a viewer might mistake one of these for a traditional painting and might be impressed with the skill required to render the image. That is until they realize that the image is photo-based and probably modified in Photoshop. Some will shrug and accept that this is the way images are made now. Others might ask why is there a need to disguise the product to look like a traditional painting. A few might see the process as “cheating”.
Obviously, there is a commercial aspect regarding the decision to make photographs that mimic paintings. Buyers like to decorate their places with nice things on the walls. The prices paid by collectors now run into the thousands of dollars for a single print in editions of anywhere from 10 to 100 copies. The photographer retains the original image file and can, if the edition sells out, reissue it at another size to further increase profits. Speed is another plus. The time to create a large print is relatively short compared to the time to create a large painting. Technology even removes the need for a studio. Often the image can be developing entirely with a computer; the file is sent via the Internet to a commercial shop for printing and surface preparation, and then shipped to a gallery for sale.
When I consider this process I feel unconnected to it. I need a studio where I can make a mess in the process of creation. I need a place where I can feverishly move pigment across a surface and then sit before the canvas while debating my next move. This is about what I value as an experience that I want to have.
So far, I have written about the “thing” I like to make. Of equal importance is the visual process involved. A camera captures a still image from a very short moment in time, say a sixtieth of a second. It can render the image very accurately. But that’s not how I see my world. My experience occurs over a longer span of time; my eye does not frame what I see inside a rectangle; I find it impossible to disentangle my visual sensations from concurrent physical input – sound, movement, form, temperature, smell and touch. What I see is effected by what is happening around me. All of these things are concatenated to produce my visual experience. I can’t photograph this. But over a long time I have worked out how to make a painting that encapsulates these visions.
The process is differentiated from photography in this way. It requires from the artist a mark-making response to what is seen and remembered about a subject. This skill does not come easily. It requires thousands of hours of painful practice and dedication even when efforts produce bad results. There are no technical crutches when it is just the artist, a pencil and a blank paper. The ability to master the process is a lifelong challenge. Those practitioners who persevere may produce something that triggers a deep response in the viewer. Those marks add up to penetrate our senses and connect artist and viewer in a visceral and even psychic way.
I may tell my friend that a photo will not substitute or provide what I need to express myself as a visual artist. I have spent far too long learning about my subject, observing it, experiencing its many moods, thinking about how I can use paint to suggest what is important. While photography is a delight in its own right, I find that painting has provided me with the best means to express myself.
Robert Marchessault and the Landscape
I first saw Bob’s art at the Gadatsy Gallery in Toronto in the early 1980’s. He was exhibiting works in pencil and watercolor on paper dealing with the landscape. The pieces were small and delicate, somewhat abstracted, yet captivating. Each work provided a small window into a particular universe. At one level they were highly accessible depictions of countryside yet they were also places into which the viewer could insert himself or herself and roam. His use of the land, its contours, horizons, skies, trees, rocks and water provided points of entry, inviting exploration, experience and reaction to that particular scene as well as the art of painting itself.
Somewhat later, I had the opportunity to visit Bob’s studio, then a tiny cramped space, and see his work in oil on canvas and on wood panel. The scale was large and the style was bold and exuberant and again, the work brought the viewer in – to feel and relate. His paintings delivered. His image of a particular scene: looking down from a vantage point in Halliburton, looking out through a window, seeing a sand dune, walking in an apple orchard, engaged rather than presented the viewer with an illustration of a vista. As Jed Perl of the New Republic (June 25, 2008) points out, “A painting or a sculpture, whether abstract or representational, must always be a place – a unique locale, a little universe. The particularity of the place draws us in…. we linger, we explore….”
The landscape always evokes feelings, not only about the scene that we take in, but also about our relatedness to the earth, the world and parts of ourselves. We experience a sense of our being in the particular world of the painting, looking about, sensing, relating. Sunlight streaming onto golden fields, heavy clouds in the sky darkening the earth, a river meandering away from us into the distance evokes thoughts, expectations and memories. We explore the parts of the painting and we meet parts of ourselves. Bob’s paintings invite our visit and reward us with the experience of the world he presents. As R. Kitaj, in the Diasporist Manifestos observes, “Paintings sit there, looking out at the world, which remains separate. I’m for an art into which the painter imports things from the world that he cares about – imports them into the alternate world that is the work of art.”
Dr. Jack Brandes
I am married to Teresa Cullen. We met in fine art classes at Concordia University in Montreal. The year was 1975. I was 21 and she was a year younger. After two years we decided that we wanted to marry.
In spite of being younger than me, she graduated with a BFA one year before me. That was a tough year; I wanted to quit school because I was convinced I already knew everything and was ready to work in my own studio. Thankfully, Teresa convinced me that I needed to get the degree. She's always been a wise person who sees through many illusions and calls them as she sees them.
A recent article in the Globe and Mail newspaper offered financial advice to a young writer living in BC. He asked whether he should get a "Joe job" because he wanted to purchase a home so that he and his partner could start a family. Even though he had some small successes as a writer, financially the couple was poor. The advise was to set a time limit (two years) and after that, if the income remained low, then get a job that would provide the means to their needs. I'm not sure I agree with the advice. While it makes a kind of sense, my own experiences tell about a different path. One that finds a way to follow the heart while keeping the larder stocked.
Our wedding took place in 1977. Quebec was in constant politcal crisis and was not the greatest place to be a young struggling artist trying to make ends meet and establish an art career. Nonetheless, we each had part-time jobs that paid the rent on our apartment. We took one of the two bedrooms and set it up as a tiny shared studio. With little experience we envisioned ourselves as professional artists. Our passions ran hot and we spent our time in Montreal as a young artsy couple drawing and painting, socializing, visiting galleries, reading art magazines, and trying to build good portfolios.
Looking back, I wonder how we ever stuck with it. In some ways we didn't. Who we are today and what interests us is very different. However, the determination to pursue a life outside the conventional parameters continues to inform our choices. In the late seventies we saw ourselves as "different", we still do.
Robert Marchessault, 2011