We isolate ourselves in layers of protection from the wildness. Even our camping is hardly a foray into wildness. It has a certain safety and sterility to it. We pack our belongings into our trailers and head to the country for the weekend to set up temporary residences along with other urbanites in the great outdoors. Tents and trailers hastily assemble on Friday evening and set up temporary nomadic villages that disassemble Sunday and move back to the city. Wildness is rarely unseen and largely unknown – it remains a stranger and therefore frequently frightening. Yet, it is reflective of our soul’s craving that is so essential to our being. For many wilderness has become artificial and the city is reality – wildness is abandoned for the false security of the cloistered neighbourhood.
For me as I grow older the urban world is increasingly foreign. I find it necessary to imbibe regularly from the wildness in our world. I am not immune to creature comforts but I need to move beyond that at times and experience the wildness that is still there. We do not often go into the wilderness to find the wildness – we go onto the wilderness. The wilderness becomes our playing field in which we engage in our “extreme” sports. We tear over our lakes in high powered thundering boats or seadoos. Snowmobiles try to outdo one another in speed and telemarking. We “conquer” mountains by climbing them. But, the wildness remains unseen and unnoticed. The wildness is subtle and secretive revealing her beauty to the patient and determined suitor. Wildness is the soul of the wilderness – it is not a place as much as an experience. It is the art and spirit that is frequently found in the most elusive and isolated places. It most often comes to us when we are quiet and alone in an unexpected time. It withdraws from noise, clamour, and busyness.
We live in a time when people are increasingly nervous about quietness. We are bombarded with messages and the media every day. We have been seduced by noise and clamour. We want to be endlessly entertained. In his excellent book Last Child in the Woods Richard Louv writes about a commercial on television which advertises the advantage of a particular model of Minivan in which children are entertained in the back seat by videos that can be seen on the back of the front headrest. The commercial shows these children immersed in the viewing of this video while driving through spectacular mountain scenery which they never observe. We are so enamoured with the media that we do not see the beauty around us.
My father was a minister and his last parish was in the heart of the inner city in downtown Brooklyn, New York. His church was in the ghetto with the Black Community on one side of the church and the Puerto Rican Community on the other. In the summer he operated a day camp which took children from the ghetto out to the country. They were in shock, it was a world they never had seen in reality. Some children saw their first tree. The ghetto where they lived did not have trees and they never strayed far from home. The risk was too high.
I was walking one day with some children in a park near my home and I suggested that we see how many different birds we could identify on the trail. No sooner had I said that than a robin landed on the path in front of me. I said “Look, there’s a robin”. A ten year old said, “What is a robin?” I was surprised that even something as common as a robin was unknown. What is happening here is significant. I do not think the initial threat to our wilderness is overhunting or pollution. We lose it first from neglect and lack of knowledge. With no naming of what is there and no knowledge we simply do not show up – we forfeit our stewardship.
Naming is an important process. In ancient writings was the first task given to people. It is still the first task. When my father was a child being raised in southern Ontario his mother told him not to name the farm animals because, she said, it made it hard to eat supper. Sounds funny, but it is true. If you name the young calf or the chickens you change the nature of your relationship and when it came time to butcher the animal it was more difficult. We need to start again to name and to identify what is there; in that process we change the nature of our relationship.
So it is with my painting. I view my art as a language, an effort to translate my experience in the wilderness. It is an attempt to communicate wildness in its many forms; to narrate my encounter with wildness. I am trying to seduce you into experiencing the wilderness. It is a story. But I only get to tell half the story, I never write the conclusion. That is up to you. When you observe the painting and say: “That reminds me of the time….”, you pick up the story and carry it on. I spend approximately 4 months of every year in the wilderness, sometimes in isolated places. I live there and paint there. These are not “pleine aire” paintings done in one sitting. They are often large canvases (24” x 36”) done on location over several weeks. I try to catch the elusive wildness of the place. I try to communicate to you the beauty and secretive quality of wildness. Sometimes, every once in a while, I get glimpses of something so precious, fleeting, and wild that I am moved to tears. It seems as if I am walking on the still wet paints of a Master Artist so far beyond me in ability and resources. I stand in silent awe and adoration. It is a humbling experience. I am left with my paints and my brush to tell you what happened. That is why I paint.