While it is understandable that a lot of people going out to the island start thinking of man vs. nature, I think that is a function of humans being humans: everything revolves around them. The thing that impressed me was that everything, animate or inanimate seemed to be hanging on for dear life or trying to take over. The dunes seem to want to overrun anything that gets in their way. The trees and other plant life are clinging to what little solid ground there is and trying to turn sand into solid ground. The wind is driving and pushing everything in its prevailing direction. The water wants to wipe out everything. It is invading and trying to change everything in its path. Some of the inlets leading into lagoons and ponds are altered dramatically on a daily basis. Its not man against nature, its nature against nature, everything for itself. I felt that while I was out there and thought about it in almost all of the Horn Island-related work I have done since.
There are many different goals for those going on the Horn Island trip. For me, the most important thing was to have an opportunity to work directly from the landscape and I wanted to maintain the working momentum that I had going into the trip. Since last fall I have been working a lot and have been encouraged with what I have done. I didn't want to reduce the scale of what I was doing so I determined that I would bring 22x30" sheets out to the island. This was a pain. Getting paper that size out there and back through the open boat rides and keeping it dry in the rain was an accomplishment. Heck, just keeping the wind from creasing it or ripping it up when I was working wasn't easy. I had a cardboard box in which watercolor paper was shipped to me and so I coated it with several layers of acrylic medium. This sealed the surface and allowed me to keep the paper flat. The box also served as a good drawing board as you can see in the photos below. The photos were taken by James Carey, an MCA alum and another Horn Island veteran. The drawing that I was working on in the photos was the most complete of those that I started on the island. I only had to touch up a few things in the studio. A picture of the finished drawing on my studio wall is at the bottom of this blog entry.
The Horn Island trip occurs in May of each year and encompasses about ten days. This year we left Memphis on the 17th, got to the island on the 18th, returned to the mainland on the 27th and drove back to Memphis on the 28th. The first day consisted of driving to Pascagoula, checking into a hotel for the first night and then attending the opening of the Horn Island exhibition at the Walter Anderson Museum in Ocean Springs. This is the second year that WAMA has mounted shows of work produced for the annual Horn Island exhibition at Memphis College of Art. These shows are put together by Don DuMont and it is his work and relationship with WAMA that has made them possible.
The next day everybody was at the boat launch at Pascagoula Point by 6:30AM to take the boat ride out to the island. There were forty-one participants this year so it took several trips back and forth to the island to get everyone and all the equipment out there. As I mentioned, Horn Island is uninhabited. All water, food, tents, cooking equipment, etc. for the entire ten days has to be brought out to the island. The boats are small so they can get right up on the beach to unload. That's great, but it makes for some spine-jarring rides to the island when the water is as rough as it was this year.
Everyone was on the island by noon and then had to find a camp site. The main camp is on the north side of the island. It is the central point for dinner, water, camaraderie and a little bit of shade. The old guys tend to camp near the main camp on the north side. Students generally head for the south side of the island which faces the Gulf and is buffeted by wind and more extreme weather. I'm an old guy, so I found a good spot about ten minutes west of the main tent. That made it possible to get to the main tent to have coffee and watch the sun come up with Richard Prillaman, Faculty Emeritus, Metals and sometimes Marc Rouillard, Painting/Foundations faculty. I am not an experienced camper, but I did a pretty good job with my brand new tent (Don helped) and I had no problems the whole trip.
It took thirty years for me to join the Horn Island trip. In the end, it was my good friend Don DuMont, the Director of the program and leader of the trip for the last twelve years (Foundations/Graphic Design faculty) who convinced me I should go. Don took over the Horn Island program after Bob Riseling gave it up (with one year in between under Clay/Sculpture faculty member, Leandra Urrutia). Don is equally committed to the Horn Island experience and is as passionate an advocate of the trip as Bob. In the picture below, that is Don on the left, Adam Hawk, Metals faculty and long-time HI vet in the middle, and Joe Morzuch, Painting faculty and HI rookie, like myself. We're on the Gulf (south) side of the island. Don and Adam were leading us along a trail that Walter Anderson used to get back and forth across the middle of the island. Below that is a picture of one of those iconic trees that have been immortalized by so many faculty, students and alums in the annual Horn Island exhibitions. This one we came upon as we crossed over to the north side of the island following Anderson's trail.
Horn Island is located off the Mississippi coast roughly ten miles from Pascagoula. It has mostly been uninhabited and is now part of the National Seashore system with its only regular residents being park rangers. It has gained notoriety mainly because of the artist Walter Inglis Anderson (1903-1965) for whom it became his muse. Anderson would row out to the island (which is unbelievable) and stay for extended periods living rough, writing and making work. There is a lovely little museum in Ocean Springs (www.walterandersonmuseum.org) dedicated to Anderson and his brothers with a great collection of his work and artifacts like the row boat he used to get out to the island as well as the Ocean Springs Community Center, the interior of which he covered with a mural. Anderson created a distinctive and varied body of work, much of it focused on subjects from or inspired by Horn Island. For Bob Riseling and many of the MCA Horn Island program veterans, he remains an inspirational figure.
In 1987, when I first arrived at Memphis College of Art to teach, I was accosted at the front desk by some guy who started talking to me about camping on a deserted island off the coast of Mississippi!! I had barely acclimated to my new surroundings and being from the northeast, had a serious case of culture shock, so I thought the guy was a nut. For those of you who don't have history with MCA, that guy was Bob Riseling, a Painting/Foundations faculty member and founder of the Horn Island program which has now run for thirty-three years. Bob is since retired and is a member of the Emeritus faculty. Besides his teaching, Bob is best remembered for Horn Island and other college sponsored trips. He passionately believed students needed to get out of the classroom and expand their view of the world through travel and and he did his best to make it happen. It is no exaggeration to say that Bob made Horn Island a unique feature of the MCA curriculum through sheer force of will and hard work. Amongst those who followed him to the island he is legend. It is again, no exaggeration to say that he changed many people's lives. Cheers, Bob!
But, that is the point. I think you have to go where the work takes you and not worry about style, consistency or how the imagery fits into your body of work. Sometimes you just have to follow your eyes, don't question what you are feeling and do what seems called for in the moment. Like all people that have pets, I think our cat is fascinating. She is difficult, not very friendly and does inexplicable things. Why she sits in the places she does is unknowable, but extremely interesting in a visual sense. The way she fits into the architectural space seems somehow calculated. So, I did a few drawings when I noticed she returned to particular spots repeatedly. They are places where she is partially hidden or shielded. I don't know why, but I respond to how beautiful it is. And, she's kind of funny.
While small adjustments are made in the large painting, work on paper continues at a quick pace. The last couple of months have seen a large number of drawings of plants and flowers. I got charged up when we trimmed our holly bushes in the backyard and I kept a few branches to work from. A number of drawings in charcoal, conte, ink, gouache and other media resulted. They have a physicality and gestural mark-making that is very different from the layering and large areas of color that predominate in the big abstract painting. Then, at Easter, a friend brought us some lilies. I did a number of pictures of the lilies as they opened and then began to decay. These are more linear, but again, gestural and physical. As I've said before, it is important to me to have a range of approaches to handling materials that can be brought to bear on any given subject. I don't want to be locked into a certain stylistic manner. If personal expression is a goal, and it certainly is for me, then I should be able to vary the effects I am able to achieve in pursuit of what is right for the image or right for the feeling I am after.
It would be great if paintings would resolve themselves in a dramatic blast of passionate brushwork. Unfortunately, for me at least, that isn't the way it works. This big painting drags on and on as I make small adjustments trying to get it right. It is certainly close, but is not finished.
It was a good day in the studio yesterday working on the big painting. I sanded down some of the panels to make them fit together better and took the surface off of the stripes in the lower right. The panel had become "blob-y" and the stripes were too big in scale, anyway. I also ended up sanding off the surface of the second blue-green panel. I have to get a sander of my own. They are excellent for taking off layers of paint that has piled up and interferes with the matte surface I am typically seeking. The painting is now back together and hopefully nearing the end.