The art of trees

Please stop cluttering up the forest with silly signs.

Bracken Fern, 9×12, oil on canvasboard, $869 in gold plein air frame.

I like the written word almost as much as I like paint. I spend a lot of my time reading it, and sometimes I write it.

I also like the lonely paths through verdant forest, the high ridges from which I can see the sea and sky. During the week, my hikes are limited to places that I can reach in a few minutes from my home. That means Land Trust properties. I’m grateful that these lands are being maintained as open space by citizen-consortiums, especially with the proliferation of summer homes along the coast.

Spring on Beech Hill, 8×10, oil on canvasboard, $522 unframed.

The occasional blue diamond to keep us on the straight-and-narrow is a good thing. However, most of the signage along the trails near my house has nothing to do with safety. Most of these intrusive signs are ‘informative’, telling us the life-cycle of the blueberry or expounding on the need to regenerate meadows. There are the inevitable and necessary posts about rules, of course.

But strung along a path close to my house are a series of signs with revolving displays of—of all things—poetry. I close my eyes tightly as I walk past, but I inevitably catch some of the words, which in turn intrude into my private thoughts. I avoid this path when I can, but there are times when it’s inevitable.

Still, they’re only a few signs—perhaps a half dozen or dozen in all—so why do they get my back up? And they do regardless of the content, which can range from the pixieish to the political.

Glaciar Cagliaro from Rio Electrico, 12X16, oil on birch, $1159 unframed.

We are drowning in a surfeit of words. They chase us from the time we open our eyes until we rest at night—or in my case, since I read at night, even into my dreams. Our homes are full of written words, with the signage wall-decor trend showing no sign of abating. (One tiny landscape photograph will have far greater impact than that big ‘live, love, laugh’ sign at TJ Maxx, but the shelves are still full of them.)

Nature should be a place where those things are left behind. As the poet Wendell Berry wrote:

To come in among these trees you must leave behind
the six days’ world, all of it, all of its plans and hopes.
You must come without weapon or tool, alone,
expecting nothing, remembering nothing,
into the ease of sight, the brotherhood [and sisterhood!] of eye and leaf.
(Wendell Berry)

We go to the woods to sort out the jumble of our thoughts, to refresh ourselves for living, to chat quietly with a friend, to watch birds and other wildlife, to watch our dogs look at the world. None of that is enhanced by having someone else’s thoughts written over ours.

Beaver Dam on Quebec Brook, 12X16, oil on canvasboard, $1449 in plein air frame.

Henry David Thoreau was a poet, essayist, philosopher, and leading Transcendentalist(a philosophy that could use revisiting these days). He could be considered the father of modern conservation. Thoreau’s life revolved around words, but he turned to nature to concentrate his mind. It was his exemplar and reference point. As he famously wrote:

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.

Every time I see those blasted signs along my walk, I sigh and wonder, “what would Thoreau think?”

The discipline of solitude

If you want to make any progress as an artist, keep the door firmly shut.

Victoria Street, by Carol L. Douglas. Available.

Shelter-in-place has, perversely, not given me lots of alone time. My adult children have, in various combinations, come to quarantine themselves at our house, and who can blame them? Tiny apartments may be smart options for young working professionals, but they’re challenging to be stuck in. That’s especially true when one or both partners are working from home.

There are things about lockdown that are trying my artist peers’ patience, starting with economic dislocation. For those in my age group, the most terrible consequence is not being able to see their elderly parents. But I’ve noticed that none of my artist friends are complaining about the alone time.

Fallow pasturage, by Carol L. Douglas. Available.

Ingmar Bergman ran through his first sixty years of life as an enfant terrible, admiring Hitler and impregnating eight women with nine children. In 1976, he was arrested in his native Sweden on tax evasion charges, which led to self-imposed exile in Munich. In 1978, Bergman returned to Sweden and moved to the island of Fårö. He stayed there for the last 29 years of his life. There he pursued a radically-different lifestyle, married to one woman and spending his days working, walking, and watching movies.

“Our social relationships are limited, most of the time, to gossip and criticizing people’s behavior. This observation slowly pushed me to isolate from the so-called social life. My days pass by in solitude,” he wrote.

Autumn farm, pastel, by Carol L. Douglas. Available.

Bergman managed to embrace the two radically-different impulses in the artist’s life into one memorable lifespan. There’s the lure of chaos, where ideas and inspiration are shaken up and fizz into new forms. That has to be balanced with the discipline of solitude, or the artist gets nothing done.

Of course, most of us go from ferment to discipline as we age. Part of that is embracing solitude. We progress from coffee-shop conversations about art to the difficult business of producing it alone, in our studios. We may love talking about art, but the creative disciplines are not a great career choice for the naturally-gregarious.

Paul Cézanne spent most of his career in obscurity. (It helped that he had a banker father and no financial worries.) His critical success didn’t happen until later in his life, meaning he had the solitude to work out his ideas in paint. Would Cézanne have been able to create the bridge between Impressionism and modern art if he’d needed popularity? It’s doubtful.

Wood pile, Hope, by Carol L. Douglas. Available.

One could say that Cézanne died of aloneness. He developed severe depression in the last decade of his life and was sadly alienated from much of his social circle. Painting alone, he was drenched in a storm and collapsed. He was taken home by a passerby, and his housekeeper nursed him back to consciousness. The next day, he got up and attempted to paint from a model. He collapsed again and was put to bed; he never rose again.

That’s a terrible death, but a good attitude towards work. The problem with company is that dialog mutes your own thoughts, and they’re what’s necessary for the business of creation. If you want to make any progress during lockdown, keep the door firmly shut.

The Practice of Solitude

"Headwaters of the Hudson," oil on canvas, Carol L. Douglas

“Headwaters of the Hudson,” oil on canvas, Carol L. Douglas.
If, like Garbo, you vant to be alone, the Maine coast in summer is not your place. During its 100-day season, a more gregarious habitation never existed.
Right now it’s trendy to declare, “I’m an introvert,” as if there were any need to justify the need for alone time. Society has always been wary of loners, but being alone is a requirement for serious work. If there’s anything at all to the idea of “talent,” it’s the capacity to separate oneself from the herd long enough to think.
This is not unique to the arts. I have known Dr. Kate Rittenhouse-Olson for four decades. There were many times when she turned down invitations to youthful hijinks because she needed to work. That capacity is why she’s an internationally-recognized cancer researcher today.
"The Long Way Home," oil on canvas, Carol L. Douglas

“The Long Way Home,” oil on canvas, Carol L. Douglas.
Each of us is a constantly-shifting mosaic of outer- and inner-driven motivations. This is a conundrum for creative people. Our work requires us to be alone, but what we produce is a form of communication.
“Writing, at its best, is a lonely life,” wrote Ernest Hemingway in his Nobel acceptance speech. “Organizations for writers palliate the writer’s loneliness but I doubt if they improve his writing. He grows in public stature as he sheds his loneliness and often his work deteriorates. For he does his work alone and if he is a good enough writer he must face eternity, or the lack of it, each day.”
Plein air painting is, in some ways, performance art. We work outside in public spaces. That allows people to engage with our art. At the same time, we must keep our inward focus. It’s a delicate balance and at times it’s stressful.
The importance of being informed was impressed on my generation at home and at school. A daily paper was as much a part of a good upbringing as brushing one’s teeth in the morning. My Millennial children, on the other hand, don’t feel nearly as obligated to be politically and socially involved as we were. None of them take a daily paper or watch broadcast news. I’m starting to think they are smarter than me.
"Hudson Overlook," Carol L. Douglas

“Hudson Overlook,” Carol L. Douglas
While I’m painting in an event, I let my correspondence go. I ignore the news and Facebook. When I get back, my strongest impression is always that I haven’t missed a darn thing. Yes, there was horrible violence while I was gone. Sadly, that is no longer news. Yes, the major candidates went tit-for-tat about who could be the ugliest human being. Sadly, that tells me nothing I didn’t already know.
“Your kid does not attend in class.” Lots of parents hear that. So what? Daydreaming is just a nasty term for solitary thinking. It’s a rare human activity, and no creativity is possible without it. In a world where the bonds of interaction grow so tight that we can’t even sleep without our phones on our pillows, the art of being alone is even more precious. Grab it if you can. That is the direction in which genius lies.