Monday, November 22, 2010

"Chris's Tent, Stampede Trail"

"By all means use sometimes to be alone.
  Salute thyself; see what thy soul doth wear."
  ~George Herbert

It is human nature to test oneself. There is a desire to carve out one's character and prove one's mettle in this world. How we do this is beautifully varied and unique to each of our own temperaments. Some of us dream to take the leap into this unknown. Others do it. Chris McCandless did it. The fact that he perished while realizing his dream doesn't change the fact that at least he tried. This is why I have gravitated to his story and the photographs that he took have inspired over 14 paintings based on his adventures from 1990-1992. "Chris's Pack, Stampede Trail", 18"x36", oil on canvas,  is the latest in this body of work.

Chris set out on The Stampede Trail on the morning of April 28th, 1992. It was cold and spring was particularly late arriving that year. This painting shows  the snow-packed trail and his small camp that he has set up right on the track. Considering how many mushers and snowmobilers, skiers and outdoor enthusiasts frequent the area, it is pretty amazing that Chris didn't see another soul for 113 days. But this is probably what he hoped for. Total isolation. The ultimate test to see if he could do it. And he almost did. 

The Stampede Trail runs along a small parcel of land that is technically in the Wolf township. It is surrounded entirely by Denali National Park, a vast expanse that is over 6 million square acres. Stampede Road graduates into Stampede Trail, and the trail meanders for over 20 miles before dissolving into the wilderness. Along the trail there are a few cabins but it is largely unpopulated. I have hiked the entire length of Chris's journey along the Stampede Trail, so going through his photographs I feel a wave of nostalgia, which strikes me as a bit strange. Read about my entire journey here. I recognize areas that he photographed (the Teklanika River, Bus 142, the gravel bar near the Sushana River). This painting is another of Chris's many "self-portraits". His tent, his small home, his worldly possessions all assembled on the cold earth, are an extension of himself. He wanted to look back on these images and remember what he had done and where he had been. 

In approaching this painting I wanted to accentuate the space, the open sky and surrounding landscape. The colour palette is muted. Subtle. I used a lot of grey which I mix on my palette rather than purchasing grey in a tube. The same goes for black. I like to mix all of these tones each time I apply a bit of pigment. I never mix a large quantity of paint to draw from but prefer the inherent variations produced from mixing for each brushstroke. That is why a large section of black can have echoes of dark green, purple, crimson or blue.

Painting white is one of my favourite things to do. Whether it be snow or sheets draping a figure, all colours are found in white, but the challenge is to show that it IS does one do that? Like anything else, it is a balance of value and colour. The important thing is to stay open to being surprised by what you see and being faithful and resolved to reproduce it on canvas as accurately as possible.

Although this painting is of Chris's tent along the Stampede Trail it could belong to any of us. It is a symbol. It represents the bottomless energy of youth and the determination to not shy away from the precipice. 

I have had many requests to show the painting of Chris's belt that I painted a study of. Here it is again. It is called "Diary Of A Supertramp (study)". A full version of the belt will be included in the "Back To The Wild: The Photographs And Writings Of Christopher McCandless", released in 2011! 

"Diary Of A Supertramp (Study)", oil on panel

Below is a photograph of the Stampede trail as it winds through the Alaskan backcountry in the height of summer. Photo courtesy of my dear friend Ed Plumb, who hiked it with me in 2008. 

"I hold it true, whate’er befall;
I feel it, when I sorrow most;
‘T is better to have loved and lost
Than never to have loved at all."
~Alfred Lord Tennyson

Friday, November 19, 2010

Bodie, California: Beauty In Decay

"Men rush to California and Australia as if the true gold were to be found in that direction; but that is to go to the very opposite extreme to where it lies."~Henry David Thoreau

Human beings are by nature a curious and persistent lot. We are constantly seeking to improve ourselves through whatever means necessary. Take gold for example. Gold was the catalyst that created a huge influx of wealth and people into California in the 1800's. Bodie, California lies east of the Sierra Nevada, only 12 miles from the Nevada border. I had the chance to see this amazing town that lives in a state of "arrested decay" with my friend Jay this past August. 

Jay and I were in the midst of spending a week in Yosemite National Park, exploring its many wonders. We decided to leave the park and venture to Bodie for a day trip. A 3.5 hour drive northeast of Yosemite brought us to the dusty and rock-strewn road that breaks off from I-395. We then began a circuitous route around sandy mountains littered with dusty, dry bushes. It was HOT. August. The desert. Enough said. Yet we relished was such a far cry from the cool mists of Vernal Falls and Yosemite Falls in the heart of Yosemite Valley.

Big sky country. Taking a break along the bumpy, 
12 mile stretch of unmaintained road towards Bodie.

As we drove along this road we marvelled at the unrelentingly stark landscape around us. We could not imagine living out here, much less in the ferocious winter months. After what seemed like hours a bend in the road brought us to our prize: Bodie. The buildings scattered on the hillside seemed dwarfed by the sky and sheer scale of our surroundings. 

Bodie's notorious reputation precedes it. Known as a den of inequity and crime in its hay day, all that remains now are whispers and ghosts of its past. As an artist and someone fascinated by the remains of activity in quiet places, it was Xanadu. There were no residents to tell the tales, no miners and bankers, mothers and husbands to share their happinesses and sorrows. There was only what they left behind in the spaces they used to inhabit. Haunting stuff. 

 A small barn slowly accepting the inevitable..
This old bed frame, cast aside, symbolized lives lived and long gone.

Bodie has been designated as a National Historic Site and thus has a small crew that works there on a full-time basis. They take tours out around town and supply visitors with answers to their questions. With a detailed map of present and the footprints of past structures in hand, Jay and I meandered around the town for the afternoon. Here are some photos of what we found...

A chopping block. I found this rather eerie.
Wires like arms outstretched..

 Jim, a convivial guide who offered tours of the mine that is usually closed to visitors.

Relishing the unique climate and feel of such a special place. 
Ontario seemed very far away..

Bodie is a testament to the adage that change is the only constant. The buildings were hastily and poorly constructed when the town began to boom in the 1870's. Thus when winter set, in a lack of insulation contributed to a high mortality rate. Crime was a daily reality as well. The town bell would ring each time someone lost their life. It rang very frequently. One little girl famously wrote in her diary when she learned of her family's move to Bodie: Goodbye God. I'm moving to Bodie."

 The Swayze Hotel in the foreground. Note the beam propping it up.

This side trip to Bodie will always stand out in stark contrast to the verdant climes of Yosemite that we had come to know and love in the days leading up to this day. Bodie in particular is a reminder that life is always hurtling quickly forward. It takes no prisoners. A sign in one building in town had a plaque that showed Bodie in various phases of its existence. "Nothing Endures But Change" Hericlitus said, and this quote lies above the photos. I could have spent weeks photographing this place...the rugged countryside and threatening sky seemed constantly poised to descend and swallow it up. It was eerie. It was beautiful. It was. 

Crumbling remains of the bank in Bodie.

"Because things are the way they are, things will not stay the way they are."~Bertolt Brecht