Illumination of an Artist: The transferable currency of place

Snow Canyon Painting

Before the Heat, Snow Canyon State Park ~Tracy Taylor

Wallace Stegner said that in the beginning the continent stretched away westward without names, that it had no places in it until people named them, and wore the names smooth with use. He went on to say that no place is a place until things that have happened in it are remembered in history, ballads, yarns, legends, or monuments and that fiction serves as well as fact.

Stegner argued against the statement that writers are like a mirror, insisting instead that they are like a lens and that ultimately there is no escaping the fact that fiction is only as good as its maker. The reader sees only with the clarity that the writer is capable of expressing.

I agree with Stegner, but if that is true of writers then artists are like Ali Babba and their artwork the magical phrase that opens the mouth of the cave allowing us to see treasures hidden inside. They are masters of revelation, conjuring memories and emotions, thereby allowing us to re-experience a person, place or time that we’d never be able to recreate or re-experience on our own. The artwork they produce is not just a copy of what they see, but an illumination of how they see it – and how they express it determines how we feel it.

Ansel Adams, when trying to explain what his photographs were about, used the word “equivalent.” The photographic image was an “equivalent” of the feeling the photographer had when he created it, and then became a form of transferrable currency. In other words, what the artist felt, the viewer felt.

The idea of transferable currency is what came to mind when I looked at this painting of Snow Canyon. In an instant I felt a rush of memories. What the artist was able to capture on canvas with paint, I was able to remember and feel by looking at it. This is the currency that artists trade in. Their perception of the nuances of light and color and mood and texture excites the synapses in our minds that release feelings of pleasure like a sweet dessert after a savory meal does to the taste buds.

Not all places have written histories, ballads, or legends but are places none-the-less; they are just either subtle and understated or so common that they are virtually hiding in plain sight. These places are usually well-worn and loved, or unknown and neglected. Many of these places are so pimped out on social media that we’ve grown bored and weary of seeing them and others are so rarely noticed that they might as well not exist at all.

These places are the ones whose rendering is given their due only when an artist gives them the careful and unrushed attention they deserve, and it is often only through their eyes that we truly see the soul of the subject.

Wendell Berry said that if you don’t know where you are, you don’t know who you are. Stegner explains: “He is not talking about the kind of location that can be determined by looking at a map or a street sign. He is talking about the kind of knowing that involves the senses, the memory, the history of a family or tribe. He is talking about the knowledge of place that comes from working in it in all weathers, making a living form it, suffering from its catastrophes, loving its mornings or evenings or hot noons, valuing it for the profound investment of labor and feeling that you, your parents, and grandparents, your all-but-unknown ancestors have put into it. He is talking about the knowing that poets specialize in.”

The awakening to this knowledge of place and identity comes unexpectedly through the senses, surprising reminders of who we are and where are are that plant us and keep us grounded. The momentary sensation of remembering a place and our place in it is what artists like Tracy Taylor stimulate when they capture the essence of the place. We know it when we see it – every time we look at it – even if we were only visitors there.


Posted on August 15, 2016, in Film, Art & Photography and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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