original photo credit: Jill Kokesh, 1984
Project: First Language
Last fall, I was immeasurably drawn to sit and do much of nothing in the middle of the woods on my family’s property for weeks. It didn’t make sense...until it did. It completely changed the trajectory of my work, was confusing, phenomenal, and helped me rediscover what I now call my First Language.
I was there on the premise of another welding commission and had scheduled 5 working days. On the fourth day, I couldn’t imagine leaving. I rescheduled my flight for an additional 5 days and went back to sit and stare in the woods again. Then, several days later, I rescheduled the flight again. I kept telling myself to “wrap this up” and “get productive.” I just couldn’t leave. I felt anchored to the forest, even lightly drugged. It was bizarre.
I could sense a lightweight message, wrapped around me like an indefinite, gauzy material, the kind of ethereal instruction that’s so quiet, tiny and humble it’s easy to miss. But it was there, and I was fully engaged in giving it a job and trying to make sure it fit into the rational view of this trip. The more I meditated, the clearer it became. It was: “Stay here, listen. Watch.” I thought, "For what? How would I explain this? What does this have to do with the work? Am I supposed to actually hear or see something? At what point would my incredibly industrial, efficient family question my work ethic, or worse, my sanity? Why did I feel so stubborn and intent on sitting there and breathing all that in? Was this just me searching, listening for a call from something that quelled my ancestral amnesia, soothed my deep longing of be-longing? This incessant human need to be identified with something meaningful?"
Then, I started remembering:
It’s summertime and I’m 5 (or maybe 7) in our makeshift basement darkroom…my mother and her long olive colored cotton skirt, the soft red light and gurgling water running through the hose. I’m half her size, standing on a stool as she counts out seconds for the exposure, holding my breath and being very still, in awe of the projected negative and feeling my heartbeat speed up as what seems like probably all the magic in the universe bringing forth a positive image in the tray of developer. The scent of dektol, the background sounds of draining from the water softener in the corner at the end of the stainless steel table, and the two of us crammed in this tiny, makeshift darkroom of magic.
Being still long enough on that land, in the woods, allowed me to drift back into forgotten dreams. I recalled how incredible it was watching her images come to life. I also remembered spending hours looking at what was in the forest. Looking and watching as children do. Looking and listening with the kind of curiosity that wants to loosely weave it all together but doesn’t need it to be packed into itself the way we do as adults. I see, in hindsight, that I was learning my First Language: a way of knowing from the forest.
Often, when I spend a lot of time in a natural environment, there is an inner movement much like descending a staircase that brings me from a state of separation to synthesis. It takes some time to unplug from everyday life, but soon becomes quiet. And calm. And I remember how to exist in that space, how to integrate myself into a fully living matrix, how to notice and be part of all the living systems around me. There’s a language built in there, a conversation about life and what it means to be alive. It’s often damp and cooler in the mornings, the wildlife is quiet, even the winds are still and the air is clear. Mornings are a time of receptivity, slow movement, sleepy appreciation and possibilities for a brand new day…all wrapped up in a non-verbal invitation from the land. You don’t have to be told to go slow in the morning, all the rhythms and sounds and even the lighting will show you that: First Language.
I value the unknown and the inexplicable because these are crucial and missing elements in our cultural understanding of ‘reality.’ Leaning into uncertainty while working with unforgiving mediums offers an experience of discernment, distillation, reverence and transcendence. Culture activist, teacher, author and ceremonialist Stephen Jenkinson has wisely said, ‘What we suffer from most is culture failure, amnesia of ancestry and deep family story, phantom or sham rites of passage, no instruction on how to live with each other or with the world around us or with our dead or with our history.’ I have learned that our cultural history is sculpted from what we hold sacred and provides the blueprint for our perception. With this body of work, my intention is to unravel what we know to be true by showing in images what cannot be fully seen, yet always felt.
2018 marks the beginning of a multi-year, multi-media project exploring the same land that offered its wisdom to me 40 years ago. Photography, sculpture, writing and installation will collectively build a new body of work titled “First Language.” You can follow the project here.
Our capacity for meaningful and significant communication relies heavily on our contextual understanding; that context and our ethos are continually shaped by the way we choose to record our experiences. “ethos” explores the relationship of what we understand to be true within the context in which we came to know it.
For my second solo exhibition at SBDAC, I created ethos, an assemblage of both hand-made, silver gelatin prints created from film negatives as well as images created by the alternative photographic process known as colloidan photography. This technology was developed during the birth of photography in the mid 1800’s, and employs a large format camera to record images on glass and metal plates. A hand-mixed combination of cotton cellulose, iodide, bromide, alcohol and ether are poured onto the plate in the darkroom before sensitization in a silver nitrate bath. The plate is exposed in the camera, then brought back to the darkroom to be developed. Each plate must be cleaned, colloidan poured, sensitized in silver bath, exposed, developed, washed, fixed, three additional washes, allowed to dry overnight and then varnished. The end result is a virtually grainless image, and because this type of photography requires 75%-80% UV light, it “sees” things our human optic coverage does not.
Various factors (humidity, temperature, wind) change the way the colloidan chemistry behaves in a single moment of time, never again to be experienced or reproduced. It’s an extremely contrasted recipe of rapid, back-to-back steps that require slow movement, including a naturally occurring film speed of .5-2, so low light exposures can easily be 10 minutes or longer. That’s an eternity of time in photography for the shutter to remain open, and that’s when it gets phenomenal. This is evident in my 12 minute exposure of a Pacific fern frond titled “Praeter Naturam,”meaning beyond what is natural or normal. This image visually describes the air filled, fluid space of spirit and spontaneity where our extra sensory perception is required.
Praeter Naturam, 8 in. x 10 in., ambrotype, 2017
I was raised in a fairly remote forest in Ohio. It was this wilderness that gave me my First Language, a language that undercuts and surpasses words, teaches fluency in extra sensory perception, and requires a feeling, sensing and intuitive state for communion. Although I didn’t know it at the time, this First Language was revealing itself in a new light during two separate events which ultimately gave birth to ethos.
During a 2016 journey to Reykjavik, Iceland, I was deeply moved by what film critic Paul Schrader has referred to as “sparsity of means.” In comparison to contemporary American culture, Iceland was quieter, slower, earthy and minimal. I realized that what was valued in a community and culture was completely dependent on its history and context, and that history and context was sculpted by the ethos of the people and their relationship to the land. When I returned to my studio, the work had changed. In particular, language and its place in context became an important theme in my research and studio practice. I employed a reductionist approach, eliminating high chroma in my paintings, began a series of large scale, abstract India ink drawings with a glass pen and experimented with alchemizing metal mediums, searching for a way to express this new appreciation of less.
Then, in 2017, I spent two weeks on my family’s property in the Ohio woodlands while working on a welding sculpture commission. Spending time in my tent and sitting next to the creek for hours, I watched as the autumn winds worked hard to bring down an entire canopy of ready leaves. The wisdom of winter. The vocabulary of potential. There’s a language built in there, a conversation about life and what it means to be alive. That’s what the land taught me as a child: how to exist in that space, how to integrate myself into a fully living matrix, how to notice and be part of all the living systems around me.
I value the unknown and the inexplicable because these are crucial and missing elements in our cultural understanding of ‘reality.’ Leaning into uncertainty while working with unforgiving mediums offers an experience of discernment, distillation, reverence and transcendence. I have found that our cultural history is sculpted from what we hold sacred and provides the blueprint for our perception. With this body of work, my intention is to unravel what we know to be true by showing in images what cannot be fully seen, yet always felt.
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