My paintings are representations of the midwestern landscape. This landscape is compelling because it is vast, a little threatening, and, at times, uncanny. The scenes I paint are like idle theater sets, awaiting a protagonist or lamenting their departure. These places and objects have certainly belonged to someone and have shared a form of human intimacy. Had they been watching, they may know more about us than we know about them.
I record the bleak winter roadway, the unmoored chapel, the rusting and fallen lounge chairs to emphasize their inanimate forlorn and poetic state. I engage with these subjects in my work because I embrace their strangely suspended state of being. That state, which the environmentalist philosopher Jane Bennett calls “enchantment,” recognizes the unusual and sometimes disturbing aspects of everyday objects and experiences. Once recognized, this helps us contemplate our responsibilities as stewards of nature. Their status as a record of human activity reminds me of both the promise and threat that has always defined the North American landscape.
In my two decades in the Carleton College Art Department, I have tried to pass on this method of careful looking and recording. Asking a 20-year-old to sit and contemplate a grouping of objects for several hours is, perhaps, preposterous. We are told that this mode of looking is inconsistent with the speed of everything else young folks do — text messaging, e-mailing, cell phone conversations — which argue against the slow contemplation, reflection, and patience required to complete a drawing. Like all good Evangelists, though, I seek conversion. There are days, too busy or distracted myself, that I risk missing this transformation!
If I am lucky, there is an instant each term when every student has forgotten to notice that observational drawing is foreign to them. The studio becomes silent. In that moment, they are engaged in an intimate relationship between their perceptions and the drawing materials in their hand. Their world has been reduced to the scale of that piece of paper before them, and it is a revelation… I have made a career of watching for that moment.