Prairie Forward

 
Folded Canvas

Folded Canvas

Near Augusta, Montana : : 2017

Near Augusta, Montana : : 2017

Sage : : Badlands, South Dakota

Sage : : Badlands, South Dakota

I have a neatly folded pile of heavy cotton canvas and one day soon I plan to unfold it and attach it to a wall. I won’t need to build a frame because I’ll gesso it on the wall, paint it on the wall and display it in the same way. I’ll need to re-arrange my current studio space to accommodate it, or I may have to rent the corner of a warehouse somewhere else. Once it’s unfolded, it’ll be close to nine feet by thirty-six feet. I purchased the bulk canvas in 2008 and used half of it to assemble four stretched canvases. Each canvas was 60” x 60”. I have a lot of material left over and that’s what I’ll use to paint something big. I imagine it’ll incorporate some view of eastern Montana, one of the Badlands, the summer fields of Iowa, or another enormous horizon from my youth—one that’s peppered with sagebrush, grazing cattle, or collapsing cutbanks. It’s usually silly though to predict what a painting will actually become, but I like thinking about it.

I imagine a space that I can walk into—that I can lose myself in, my spatial reference points completely in question because my eyes and my head can’t sync things up. It might shift what other people think they’re seeing too—a quiet suspension of disbelief. The space might feel like the countless road trips I’ve taken during the day and at night; in the hot dust of August and in the crisp nights of winter. At some point on every trip I pull the vehicle over to the side of the road, or into an adjacent field and stay awhile. If it’s dark, I stare up into the sky and lose myself in a blanket of stars. Sometimes in the daylight, I’ll open the tailgate and sit with my lunch, or dinner. If the cooler is still cold, I might have the food Jeenee prepared special along with my thermos of hot coffee. If I’m almost in the middle of nowhere, I’ll hear crickets, grasshoppers and meadowlarks surround me. It’s a full prairie immersion. It’s like swimming in it. If I’m lucky, once in awhile in open country near Circle, Ringling, or Augusta, the air will be still with the heavy smell of sage and sweet grass, and it will overtake me while I just drift there; just drifting.

© C. Davidson

Grinding the Stone

 

Sometimes a couple of us would be gathered near someone who was in the middle of working, or we might be on the roof outside the painting studio, or next to the hot kilns in the sculpture yard, or in someone’s living room. Inevitably, somebody in the group would blurt out, “alright, shit… I need to take off and go grind my stone.” We’d usually chuckle. We’d all heard it before, or had said that ourselves. “Poor bastard. Have fun with that. We told you the lithography class was going to be a pain in the ass.” The rest of us would resume our conversation knowing that we’d probably see them the next day and they would’ve survived just fine. But whenever I walked through the lithography lab and past Fran’s office, one of the printmaking professors, I’d look over at the presses and the work tables, and usually see someone scowling while they slowly ground their stone. You don’t usually see someone smiling while they’re doing that but there’s no shortcut. Eventually though, you’d see a print someone completed a month into the quarter and it would take your breath away, and if you were lucky, you’d see them smiling while they peeled the paper. To top it off, they’d get to reprint it and reprint it again, and repeat that same feeling over and over until they were satisfied.

My friend Ed made lithographic prints. He was a print maker and a ceramicist. Sometimes his prints seemed to defy the hard stone he was working on because his images were soft and intimate—other prints were hard just like his stone. I never learned lithography. I learned a little screen printing, a little intaglio and a lot of photography. Each medium has its own thankless tasks of drudgery, but all of the drudgery is the price you have to pay to break through—to print from stone, from aluminum, through a screen, or dragging it through a chemical bath. There’s always the ‘possibility’ and I know that’s why Ed kept grinding.

My friend Dave was mostly an intaglio print maker. He used found photographic material and created black and white photo-montages which he then exposed to light sensitive film, and then everything was exposed onto photo-sensitive aluminum plates and etched in an acid bath. He also drew directly into his metal plate to scratch-out, or add details as needed. Eventually, he could use that plate to make prints onto thick lucious paper. He had a background in painting too and his prints reflected that. They were beautiful and dense. Sometimes they hinted at politics, other times they were bleak domestic images filled with melancholy. You’d often find him sitting on a stool at one of the long tables in the central print lab workspace. He was usually humped over his plate, preparing it, or manipulating the kodalith films he used to expose his plates in the darkroom. His ear buds were usually in, probably listening to Lou Reed, Roxy Music or Bowie. He’d look up and give you a friendly nod if you were just passing through, or if he sensed you wanted to talk, he’d remove his buds and encourage you to sit.

One particular evening I was up in the painting studio on the second floor. I had it to myself. During the weeknights you’d often share the space with a couple of other folks, but after midnight, or on a Friday and Saturday night, you could count on being alone. Sometimes I’d be in the painting studio, or the photo lab, a friend would be in the printmaking studio, another might be in the sculpture studio and if it was really hopping, there might be a few folks in the ceramics studio. It felt like we owned the art building. The way students should feel.

I was sitting alone staring at a big, white canvas. I had just finished applying the last coat of gesso an hour earlier, and was waiting for it to dry. Dave walked in and greeted me. He went out of his way, up to the second floor, to check-in with me for the night. It was a little unusual for him to stop up. The printmaking studio and small photo lab where he spent most of his time were on the first floor, which is where he was headed. After smoking on the roof outside the studio windows, we came back in and sat and talked for awhile. While we sat there, he scanned a few of my paintings that were around and then settled on the large blank canvas I was about to work on. “I don’t know how you do it.” “Do what?” I said. “How you’re able to stare at that white surface and just start painting without a specific plan”. I asked him why. “Because I’m uncomfortable with the whole immediacy of it, the confrontation, that’s why I make prints. I have a plan and the process takes quite awhile before the image is printable so I can just ease into it.” I understood what he was saying and told him that I’m way too impatient. I’m most comfortable with something I can immediately respond to. That’s why I used latex paint along with oils. House paint allowed me to obliterate areas of paintings I didn’t like on the cheap. His way of working was far more methodical. That conversation was huge for me. I’d never heard anyone else reveal themselves about making art in that way, about our common fear, about how for both of us the emotional part of the process has the biggest impact on our approach.

© C. Davidson