The Same Hat

 
James Lloyd Huffman :: 1960’s

James Lloyd Huffman :: 1960’s

Plowing the fields of the homestead near Highwood

Plowing the fields of the homestead near Highwood

I’ve been working on a painting for over four years. Not daily, or even monthly; instead, I go through concentrated periods when I do and then I don’t. I have other paintings in progress, many I’ve finished and even a few have been exhibited during this time, but this one sits on a couple of five gallon buckets and leans against the wall. Mostly I try to ignore it, but it's five feet square so it's difficult to overlook. I currently call it Hat, Boat, Plow, because that’s what the images seem to be about, but usually it’s just the The Heaviest Painting I've Ever Done. It has so many layers that someday I’ll probably need to remove the canvas from the frame in order to transport it more easily. During these years, it’s been many different things with different intentions, and each time most of it gets painted out to white. I can’t ever figure out what it’s supposed to be and I’m never happy with what it is. Sometimes it’s an albatross. Sometimes it’s a source of anxiety. Sometimes it feels like an opportunity. Whatever my emotional response, I'm still confused about it.

Typically when I sit and stand in front of it, looking at it, over-analyzing it, bombarded by all of the chatter, I try not to think and just paint but it mostly turns out to be a dead end—thinking and painting never mix. Then one night I had an epiphany. Maybe I wasn't supposed to figure it out. Maybe it’s supposed to be an ongoing experiment where I can just try things without any expectations. I'm a little more comfortable with that idea lately, just keeping on with it and not sabotage it at every step. Of course the other possibility is that it will always be unresolved—that maybe it’s just a hot mess forever.

Last fall in the early morning hours, I was cleaning up when I glanced at the painting and out of the corner of my eye I noticed the wrapped package of old artwork nearby, leaning against my flat files. I had brought the work back the previous summer from Montana. It contained a few projects I did in high school. One had been hanging on my old bedroom wall and a few others were stored in my dad's studio. I'm pretty sure these are the very last artworks left at my childhood home, except for the few that my sister owns. After I saw the package, I unwrapped it and pulled everything out. I leaned one of the pieces up against the canvas and sat in front of it. It's a black ink drawing on a piece of 36" x 30" white illustration board. There’s a montage of a wheat field, a fence line, a windmill, my grandfather on his horse drawn plow and a large head and shoulders portrait of him wearing his gray, felt hat. The portrait was copied from a classic photograph someone took of him during the late sixties. The drawing was completed for a class assignment about storytelling. It was an homage to him with all of the images blending into one another like a kind of retromovie-poster. Then I looked at my unfinished painting which is big enough to fill your field of vision when you're close enough, and realized it's the hat—it's the same hat! It felt like the forty-year-old drawing could have been a study for the painting—both about farming and Montana. At that moment everything seemed to merge a little bit more.

© C. Davidson