Teton Artlab Residency Blog – April 2016
The blanket of snow that covered much of the valley when I arrived gradually receded, like a continent breaking into smaller and smaller islands. However the closer you get to the mountains there was still some deep cover, which can stick around until well into May, so I still had chances to keep my snow shoes happy with a number of hikes. It’s was interesting to see the many shortcuts and paths, created in winter, that would be impossible when everything starts to grow. I like the thought of these many improvised routes and paths disappearing every year whilst the memories of new vantage points and the spirit of discovery they offered will still be very much alive in recollections of their founders.
Time Traveller. Well, I’ve been well and truly overtaken by the march of time and now find myself sat in the Kitchen, back in a reassuringly rainy Bolton, wondering if the last four weeks has all been a dream.
From a creative point of view the end of the residency was always going to feel like an unnatural juncture but now I’m home I’m already thinking of the ways I will develop this work. It’s exciting to know that there’s a chance for my experiences to settle into recurring themes more organically.
I did think that the time in the studio would dominnate my remaining two weeks and so it has been. I wanted to make some cave work while I was there and this one in particular helped, in terms of a focus on light and rock textures in other works.
As far as the paintings themed on the mountains go, I’m encouraged with the direction of travel and some are finished but I think there’s a lot more to come. As I have time to digest the whole experience I’m certain that larger paintings will emerge which will consolidate all the threads of this exploration. I will be presenting the entire body of work on this page, hopefully soon and with a few more blogs about various subjects but for now here are a couple of the final selection that I am pleased with.
As so many of these works seem to adopt an imagined impossible view point it seemed a fitting end to the month, to literally fly over the entire Teton range and all its canyons on the plane leaving Jackson Hole Airport, just as the sun was rising and bathing the peaks in a mesmerising golden glow.
As I arrived at Salt Lake City airport after the first leg of my journey, I became aware that I was totally unused to the hustle and bustle and slightly unnerved by the number of people in one place. I’ve sampled a lifestyle in a working town but one where the environment has such a powerful invigorating influence on it’s population that the tempo is in sync with nature.
I thank The Teton Art Lab and the local bodies that support it, as well as, all the other artists using the studios, they have given me much needed support, and inspiration, with the very committed approach to keeping art and artists in the town. Extending that thanks out, the people of Jackson have been consistently friendly, engaging, encouraging and entertaining in equal measure.
The endlessly beguiling West had one last surprise in store for me. I thought to change my seat on the plane leaving Las Vegas to a window position. Luckily I was on the right hand side of the plane and was treated to an aerial trip over the Grand Canyon. As if to say “you ain’t seen nothing yet!” I was transfixed. I had a notion that the month in Jackson may finalise this phase of my creative life in a perfect way. How glad I am that perhaps the seeds of another journey have been planted.
Special Branch. One surprise as soon as I arrived in Jackson were the trees of the valley. I’d looked forward to the giant firs and the smell of the pines with the snow, as a reminder of Christmas but there’s much more to see at this time of year that I doubt it would get a mention in any guidebooks.
I’d not even noticed the Cottonwood trees on the previous trip, as they were fully laden with leaves. Now they are a gothic wonder, found hugging the Snake River, telling the story of winter silhouetted against the mountains or the open sky. They are beautifully narled and the larger ones all have a distinctive clump of growth at the base of the trunk, it looks like a big furry sock, and is understandably called bearding. When they caught in sunlight they are transformed, as if suddenly wake after a long sleep, they dazzle in bleached brilliance.
The Aspen too, is very distinctive, with it’s striking markings that spookily resemble staring eyes. The fans of this arboreal treat would head here in summer to listen as transparent leaves russle with the the wind and in Autumn to catch them turn from bright green to fiery yellows and russet. I’ve enjoyed the luminous subtle contrast of their bark against the deep snow. They have an admirable steadfast character and it’s been a pleasure to snowshoe through dense areas of them, that will soon be thick with vegetation.
There’s also a number of large bushes whose leafless branches have turned bright orange yellow or deep burgundy. I’m not sure what they are called but as winter subsides with muted natural tones these humble shrubs are quite comic in the way they buck the trend.
Trees are crucially important in landscape art, because they are usually vertical, they can feel symbolically like a human presence, particularly in work like mine without people. In the paintings I have done of the mountains the trees are perfect to give a sense of scale as well as its metaphorical struggle and power, surviving the inhospitable conditions.
Here are some woodland themed paintings I’ve just finished. These are an attempt to record some of my experiences on woodland winter paths here and a chance to shift from the open space of the larger mountain pieces with the feeling of being immersed in a tranquil forest. The paintings are tiny but I love the challenge of making a rich evocation of light and colour with so little space.
Born to be wild. Wildlife is a major consideration whenever travelling here either, by car bike or on foot. It’s good to approach your journeys with a warranted caution of the dangers you may encounter. In most situations common sense will serve you well. Big mammals such as Buffalo Moose and Elk can be unpredictable but rarely aggressive, unless they feel under threat so in most cases a safe distance will be enough to keep safe.
Anyone coming to either the Tetons or Yellowstone will be made instantly aware of the real threat from bears. Whether it be a Black bear or Grizzly, the visitor centres offer some great advice to make an encounter unlikely. Although not so long ago visitors would regularly feed them, giving rise to the popular cartoon characters Yogi Bear and Boo Boo, with their famed penchant for “Pic-a-nic Baskets”. Over time conflict incidents involving bears became much more common and this dependancy was very detrimental to the Bears, reducing their natural instincts to hunt and leaving them reliant on rummaging though waste bins. Strict rules, about food storage and disposal were established in 1970 and since then numbers of incidents have dramatically reduced.
Usually the Bears will also naturally try to avoid human contact now, so the advice is to walk in groups and make plenty of noise, so the Bears know you are around, especially if you are reaching a bend in the path. The rare incidents are usually when the Bear is surprised or protecting their young and in these cases walkers are advised to carry Bear spray which is like pepper spray and if dispensed correctly should prevent an attack. There are some stories of people spraying themselves with the bear spray, like mosquito repellent but I have a sense these are urban myths or perhaps rural myths.
To do any hiking, on the normal woodland trails I’ve had to ignore the advice on walking alone and in many cases I have not seen another walker. This has added to my sense of trepidation and after initially feeling stupid I am now very happy warning the Bears of my presence. I’ve even adopted a technique to make it sound like I’m in a big group where I shout “Hey Bear!” and “On your way Bear!” but I do this at lots of different pitches a bit like my favourite butcher on Bolton Open Market. It’s worked so far, it’s just that now I’m more scared of bumping into other humans who’ve just heard me.
There’s a great study on the National Geographic website, at the moment, where Bears have had cameras attached to a collar and you can see their journey through the park with some footage at various interesting points – https://www.facebook.com/NGM/posts/10154181777848336
A Rookie in the Rockies. In a chance conversation with the organiser of The Teton Art Lab, Travis Walker, it was revealed that no one, who has been on a residency here, had ever done any Plein Air painting (painting in the open air). Travis is a renowned plein air artist himself and is to be regularly found in and around Jackson painting a whole variety of subjects as well as the Landscape. Now, I’m not the competitive type, who’d take on such a task just to claim a mention in the Teton Art Lab year book, I decided it was my duty to the Queen to be the first artist to plant this particular flag for the Great British nation.
Sketching outdoors rarely forms part of what I do, it’s not that I don’t like sketching or that I’m very lazy. I’ve always thought that just walking and looking works for how I like to interpret the paint back in the studio.
It was a multifaceted conversation, during which we also talked about the close proximity of Jackson to the Super Volcano underneath Yellowstone and what might happen if It was to erupt. Needless to say it was another spur to seize the day and add “beginners plein air painting” to my skill set.
Even though I’ve never done out door painting before I have gone as far as thinking how I’d manage the practical problems of making small oil paintings on the road, I’ve always imagined that a humble pizza box might offer a perfect solution. I taped four boards inside so I’d easily be able to work on them and bring them back to the studio without them smudging. My ambition only stretched to taking the monochrome colour, raw umber, I like to use for tonal sketches. It occurred to me that the box could also be quite handy to transport some mid painting sustenance but on this occasion it’s contents had been happily removed the day before.
As I made all my final preparations a very heavy rain storm passed over Jackson and would have given my pizza box some structural issues so some patience was required. Luckily after the storm there was a wonderful golden light gently settling around the whole valley and the kind of pleasant summer heat that isn’t typical for April.
I went in the car for a ten minute drive to Wilson, a very small town that is nestled at the foot of the mountains just before you reach the the hair raising Teton pass, which takes you up through the mountains over the western state line into Idaho https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wilson,_Wyoming
A left turn before the mountain pass takes you along a quiet road with some great views of the valley looking back towards the mountain range and Jackson Hole. I parked the car, was surprised at how easily the pizza box fulfilled its destiny, I squeezed the paint out and was ready to begin.
As soon as I started looking at what I was going to paint it was as though all my senses had been turned up, so all the noises and the scent of the recent rain drifting in the warm air were suddenly so intense. In concentrating on the view, so fully it felt like I’d disappeared into it all. Most notably some Trumpeter Swans passed over and as well as making their famous hooting I could even hear and feel the movement of the air around their wings.
I’ve had the same sensation while walking in the past but this strange state lasted for the entire time I was painting. It’s easy in this position to want to capture every last detail of everything you are looking at but I wanted to ignore that urge and try to focus on a particular area of interest, initially the light hitting a nearby peak caught my eye. Even though I was trying not to communicate everything I found it very difficult and this first sketch felt like I was trying a bit too hard.
As I moved onto the other boards I was more relaxed and these were more like my how I normally paint but we’re still observing from what was happening around me. I must have been out for a couple of hours and really enjoyed the stillness of fixing my concentration on the task at hand.
As well as being the first artist to paint outdoors whilst at the Art Lab I like to think I might be the first painter to ever use a pizza painting box in Wyoming or North America! I’ll leave that to the historians but Plein air painting is something I will definitely be doing again and will no doubt I’ll have a steady supply of painting boxes too.
Time Flies. I can’t believe I’m halfway through the residency already, I’ve been working hard on the paintings and now realise the time here is shorter than I imagined when I arrived with the luxury of a full month to play with. I’ve had to scale down my ambitions literally, I had wanted to shift up to eventually make some very large paintings towards the end of the four weeks but the costs of shipping these works back to the UK makes it impossible unfortunately. However I can continue working with these themes in the studio back home and I will also make sure the blog is complete too, I’ve started writing a few posts on various observations I’ve had on my ventures and it will be great to finish these off, even if that involves reminiscing in my garden at the Bolton homestead.
Towards the end of the first week I felt a bit like a coiled spring, the watercolours were a great preparation for eventually getting in the studio with the oils. I started a few small mountain paintings that feel like a combination of what happened in the Teton stage of the Moran project and the recent cave works. These two strands allow a great deal of freedom and abstraction until very late in the process and that feels right for where my interest lies in terms of the subject and the paint.
In previous posts I’ve mentioned that the whole view of the mountains can easily lead to taking flight and following paths, isolating little passages up canyons, over turrets and spikes of sharp stone. Similar to endlessly watching waves crash at the sea shore you feel a more powerful concentration of the full nature of the sea, in these small paintings, my hope is to let the imagination run into a limitless idea of the enormity of what is beyond the edges of the painted surface.
I’m a bit disappointed about the fact that I’ve had to rule out the idea of making some very large works but these fresh paintings will hopefully offer a small door into a big experience.
Big Foot. A couple of the hikes that take you closer to the mountains are still under about 4ft of snow. In places this is packed hard and you’d be able to walk on it in hiking boots but after trying this I discovered some sections are less compact and your find yourself up to your waist! It’s comical initially but it doesn’t take long for the amusement to transform into considerable discomfort.
I was talking to a kind gentleman at the local thrift/charity store about this predicament and as luck would have it he had a pair of snow shoes(apparently they don’t come in that regularly). I must have looked slightly puzzled as I was fully expecting them to be like tennis rackets with straps. It turns out they haven’t looked like this for a long time. I quickly did my rudimentary mathematics and realised that I would only have to use them twice to make it cheaper than hiring a pair. So I now own a pair of snow shoes.
Strange to think about it now that I’m a seasoned snow shoeman but I went into the National Park visitor centre to ask for advice on the trail, I had planned, also how to actually walk in the shoes? I was directed to Taggart Lake and told to just walk in them normally, unless on an steep incline then go toe first to give more purchase.
Now, this is going to sound ridiculous as you’d imagine that just walking, with an increased distribution of weight, would be more cumbersome and annoying than just the straight forward walk. It happens to be incredible fun. I’ve not worked out whether it’s either, the deeply felt inherent link to our ancestor’s only way of traversing very deep snow, or just the smug satisfaction that the only people you will meet on the walk will either be fellow snow shoe aficionados, cross country skiers or wild animals.
Although I’ve skied before, I’ve never just walked in these severe winter conditions. Utterly bewitching, in its beauty but with a flavour of the danger that would accompany survival in such conditions and also the day to day practical use of this ingenious footwear by people’s living in such harsh winters. It’s important to remember that certain populations have been using this mode of winter transport for thousands of years, so I’ve no doubt we all still carry a sub conscious familiarity with it. This Wikipedia page is a perfect guide to every aspect of Snow Shoes-
The views of the mountains are spectacular. Upon reaching the lake I decided I’d earned a cup of coffee from my newly christened flask was surprised to find cross country skiers making their way straight over the middle of it. I did this hike on the Moran project a few years ago which is what made the walk so interesting, to compare memories and see it in such a different seasonal demeanour.
I’m looking all the time, these majestic peaks are full of character and I enjoy just isolating a small section for what feels like a journey into them. It is these flights of fancy, similar to walking in the shoe shoes which all combine together to create the perfect mixture of experience and imagination when I return to the studio.
As you can see from the photos it’s a glorious day and as I return to the car I’m starting to wonder how I’m going to manage to get my new footwear into my case going back to the UK, as they are the best souvenir of a perfect day.
I certainly didn’t mind waiting for this Moose on my evening drive last night, the pace matched the slow setting sun. The ragged coat at this time of year comes as the Moose shedding their Winter Coat. Find out more about my travel companion here – https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moose
Down to Work. So what’s to be done with this amazing Landscape? After a few drives out to the mountains and a small hike I decided to make a start with initial experiments. Whilst I was still getting the studio set up, the first paintings I did were some small watercolours. I’ve got a romantic notion about the tradition of sketching with watercolour. A pocket size box containing tiny jewell like pigments with the potential to mix and depict every colour you’ll ever see. There’s also a mini brush in there, that slots into itself to make a bigger brush! It feels like the painter’s version of a James Bond gadget.
What I wanted to do with these first examples is make some loose washes of observed colour and then, as they dried, add elements of structures and patterns of rock forms in the mountains. So I wasn’t trying to make an image, more a collection of layered notes which are intentionally abstract.
It’s ironic that in many ways the power of Water helps to create these mountains whether it’s glacial ice or the annual snow, rain and moisture carried in the wind. I don’t think I deserve a Dry Martini just yet but with dehydration being a problem at altitude, I’m fine with water for now.
A Moment of Magic. As the first few days involved some necessary logistics it’s been important to remind myself that I’m about five minutes drive away from something very special. It must be one of the most incredible moments of road travel that the earth has in store for us. The route north out of Jackson takes you past a large butte which is close on the left and is a little like a large rolling green hill. After three miles the road rises and as if to hint at what’s to come, you drive past the last rocky out crop.
The out crop is beautiful and full of different reds and greens and then within seconds of that you’re suddenly looking at heavenly mountains as far as the eye can see. It must be something about the immediate expanse of space and the new skyline that now resembles something dramatically torn. There’s no way a photo or painting can capture the moment of sudden transition(as you can see from my rubbish attempt, it’s one of those things that asks to be photographed as it feels so close but then dissapears into a thin strip, on the device that hasn’t a clue what you’ve just experienced). I’ve concluded that someone needs to write a folk song about it.
It’s strange to think that the Tetons are young, in mountain terms, they are the youngest of the Rockies and even more strange that this whole range was once under a warm sea. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geology_of_the_Grand_Teton_area
I’ve taken this journey a few times now, each time the colours and atmosphere of the view is so unique, I can’t imagine a time when I’d get used to it. There’s a number of experiences I’d like to make work from, while I’m here but the Teton range will be the main focus of my attention with the help of repeated trips . There’s a long tradition in artists painting these mountains but that makes the challenge to bring something new to this subject all the more inviting.