Transcendent artists such as Agnes Pelton aimed to capture the forces underlying desert mountains and dunes. One of the boldest artists working in the same vein today is Brooklyn-based Janet Morgan. Along with her artist-partner Gregory Frux, she has explored the California and Utah deserts as well as Patagonia, Peru, Antarctica, Turkey and other lands. She was a Death Valley National Park artist-in-residence in 2005, 2006 and 2008.
Here, in three sections, is an introduction to the land as Janet sees it. Even if you’re not an artist, Janet’s suggestions can vastly enlarge your view of the passing scenery. Part 1 is a Q&A; Part 2 is Janet’s statement on working in Death Valley–from the catalog to her 2012 exhibit–and Part 3 is her artist’s statement. If you’re traveling to the east coast, you can learn more from Janet Morgan and Gregory Frux in an October 13th, 2013, workshop on Painting the Energetic Landscape. Details below.
How can I begin to find this underlying energy in the landscape?
Janet: Look at other artists who have been working with the energy of landscape – Charles Burchfield, Georgia O’Keeffe, Agnes Pelton, James Lavadour (Native American), William Robinson (Australian), Emily Carr and Lawren Harris (Canadians), even Van Gogh. This will give you the understanding that you can break any rules of landscape painting and expand our understanding of the earth.
Study biology, geology, i.e. the spiral growth of threes, earthquake, flood, erosion, volcano, etc. Study the history: How much human interference has there been on this land, does it have a sacred value to anyone, is it polluted?
How can I find this energy when painting?
Janet: Start with a slow contemplation of the land you are in, walk in it, watch carefully different times of day, take it all in with all your senses before you think about what you want to depict. Look in different directions, lie down and look up and all around if you can. It is huge or intimate, scary or peaceful, familiar or alien?
Paint the same scene three times. O’Keeffe did this often, starting with a more literal depiction, then getting progressively more abstract. It is truly a learning experience to paint the same thing a number of times. Each time you will discover things that you didn’t see before, sometimes very big and obvious things! This process also makes it easier to see thrust, gesture, repetition, stripes, color and mood. By the time you do the third your colors will all be mixed and ready, and you can really go.
Another way to go is just to paint very fast, not allowing any time to think or analyze.
How can I begin to find a more personal and expressive way of depicting landscape?
Janet: Exaggerate what you see. Look for repeated patterns, parallel lines, drastic tonal value changes – in other words, drama. Take off your glasses, squint to bring out the lights and darks. Use your non-dominant hand.
Be playful. Paint on different sizes and shapes of paper and canvas, paint in all directions at once.
Pretend that you can feel the forces of nature, the invisible energy, the earth’s power, even if you have to make it up! Let things happen in your paintings without judgment. Much of the energy in the painting can come from just letting go and going for it.
Before you start depicting what you see before you, put down quick marks using your whole body to put some energy into the painting, with whatever rhythm is in your body, then work into and on top of that. You can even use both hands.
Don’t be afraid to show sound, wind, the songs of insects and birds, heat, cold, wet, dry, and movement in any way you can. By showing movement you bring another dimension into your work – time. And remember that in the natural world “all things are in motion, some just move faster than others”. Most people do not spend this much time looking, so you are giving them the gift of your experience.
If you are stuck, paint to music. In most places I find it better to be listening to the world around me, but occasionally music can really help.
How do I see all this “motion, energy and dance in nature” you talk about in your Death Valley article?
Janet: In Death Valley as one drives and walks and looks and looks, forms will jump out at you and beg to be painted, repetitive triangles on a mountainside, rays of the sun with ravens, a hot wind blowing across salt, vast expanses. I am a very impatient painter and I know it, so I use that quality to try to get things down quickly (you always have to work quickly outdoors and everything changes so fast). A deadline can be a good thing. Greg and I were painting in the slot canyons in Utah, and he chose to paint a wall I saw and a big blank image, and I found a rock tower of very dynamically tilted strata that zigzagged back and forth. Paint what draws you in, what hits your eye, what grabs you and says “paint!”.
Janet Morgan on Making Art in Death Valley
In Death Valley everything – animal, mineral and vegetable, sky, water and earth – is in motion. Moved by earthquakes, footsteps, water, wind, wings, growth and upthrusts from deep in the earth. It is a grand, open, majestic land, with mountains and valleys and canyons and salt flats. It is also an intimate space, down to the tiny belly flowers, one eighth of an inch wide.
And that motion finds its way into my work. I have always painted from a kinesthetic, tactile and physical base. The spirit and movement animate me, and the force of things dictates my brush. After studying dance, my work gathered a greater perception of energy and movement – and in Death Valley the evidence of plate tectonics and weather systems and flash floods is an open book: the geology has no clothes, the earth is laid bare. There are truly transient things that change from hour to hour, day to day, and others that take thousands of years to move or wear down or build up. Then there is the sun and wind…
We as visitors are blessed to witness this intense and volatile place. The raven shows us the currents of the air, the morning tracks in the dunes show us the night life of lizard, bird and snake. Grand. Tiny. We find our place in between and among them all. Everything touches everything else – weather, rock, water, animal, human.
Somehow we feel we are part of this power of movement and mass, like we are welcome here.
Janet Morgan – Artist’s Statement 2013
The multi-faceted artist and life skills educator Nelson Howe said to me recently while we talked around my kitchen table “it is in the nature of the god(desse)s to be limitless and without agenda.” That is how I like to be, as a creator of deities and a portraitist to the earth. He also told me that my art is about the “underlying energy source.” That is the best description of my work I have ever heard. It rings true – for my depictions of deities and humans, and for my paintings that capture our ever transforming planet. I have been making art in my own way all of my life.
My “figurative” work (some day I will find a better word) is of gods and goddesses, healers, wild women, musicians and dancers – those who rise above the mundane while participating in it. These large watercolors grew out of a desire to find the sacred in the everyday and the transcendent in our lives – while being embodied and with our eyes open, not afraid of the shadow.
My landscape artwork is of volcanoes, deserts, arctic whites, flashfloods and the sacred places we humans have created within geologic upheaval. It was inspired by travel and the realization that the way we see the earth can be as personal and expressive as anything we paint – and to truly experience place there is no better way that to learn to truly see and feel and touch and smell and hear it.
The quest for the “underlying energy source” runs through all of my work – paintings, books, stage sets, dance and teaching. Geology, history, mythology, religions, architecture, dance – it all mixes in to create a world view full of color and force.
For more on Janet Morgan see: http://janetmorgan.net/
If you are in New York on October 13, 2013, learn more about the energetic landscape from Janet Morgan and Gregory Frux: