Unpromising Patch of Ground?
There is a fine tradition in American arts and letters—and in field science—of cataloguing the wonders of a given piece of land, its flora and fauna, its history and its spirit of place. The towering names of Audubon and Muir come to mind, especially when thinking about the preservation of parklands and native wildlife and its habitat. The watercolor journals of Winslow Homer recording his Adirondack and Caribbean sojourns are highpoints in the history of American art and travelogue; John McPhee's magisterial books on the dramatic geology of the US—all of these set a high bar for anyone attempting to evoke the unique strata of nature, time, and culture that typifies a given locale. Joel Sheesley, a painter and educator at Wheaton College, has stepped into this august company with great integrity and shows himself to be a worthy conversation partner. His Lincoln Marsh Journal makes a singular contribution to the genre with humility and rare insight—combining personal reflection and a resonant spirituality, with great care given to local detail and themes spanning a spectrum of issues: land conservation, local industry, plein-air painting, and lofty phenomenology alongside simple personal reflection on the changing seasons.
Sheesley's style of painting harmonizes beautifully with his written reflections. A spare realism characterizes the whole book, images and text, and yet the paintings and written vignettes contain many subtle surprises. There is a quiet authority to the draughtsmanship and painterly skill shown in every image—and a corresponding wisdom in written confrontation of the realities attending daily practice of painting and writing about Lincoln Marsh, a small wetlands area just outside Chicago. The marsh is an unpromising patch of forgotten land seemingly without picturesque possibilities (at least at first glance). Yet Sheesley's committed eye and hand and intellect scope out for us a dense matrix of history, geology, and seasonal change that slows and refocuses the reader's mind, deepening our appreciation for such a place.
The book comprises an entire calendar year of journal entries—beginning with late autumn, moving through winter into spring and summer, and finishing with late December ruminations as the year slows to a finish, yielding once again its snow-laden tree branches and frozen turf. Each entry features a painting or drawing or both—done on the spot—combined with subsequently written ruminative text exploring the specifics of a given location within Lincoln Marsh, the particular time and place in the season when the painting was begun, as well as a series of thoughtful musings on everything from epistemology and cartography to theology and art history. The writing is crisp and clear and inspiring—without a trace of the glib motivational calendar books one finds in abundance these days.
In the very first journal entry, Sheesley paints an early evening moonrise at Thanksgiving overlooking an expanse of marshland with its dry reed grasses. The sense of space is palpable in this image and the color muted, communicating hallmarks of the season: early onset of winter light, grays and browns and powder blue sky with luminous, hazy moon. The artist contemplates the land's "knowable mystery": "Surrounded by beauty and enmeshed in the drama of nature, as a painter my reaction is a mix of amazement, anxiety, exhilaration, and exhaustion."
He writes of Paul Cezanne's dictum about representation of nature, that it should not be an attempt to copy the appearance of things so much as the work of "realizing sensation," grounding and giving place to our own responses to this world of wonders. And yet this early journal entry reveals the artist's immediate response of "exhaustion"—that is, the recognition that nature's panoply just cannot be adequately grasped in word or paint. Any attempt to be comprehensive is met with an infinite complexity of texture, color, light, space, and form—even in a small patch of suburban wetland. One of my own art professors, Boston artist Reed Kay, once told me that nature was fundamentally "un-paintable" and yet he has spent a lifetime painting New England landscapes in the spirit of Camille Pissarro—a less celebrated member of the French Impressionists circle.
Joel Sheesley also compares favorably with Pissarro—who faithfully recorded and "realized" his sensations of the French countryside without fanfare. Pissarro's subtle paintings are quiet and unpretentious—rewarding the patience of a careful viewer with great beauty and significance in low-key honest réportage. Sheesley's paintings similarly avoid flash and cheap thrills but provide a lovely antidote to our frenzied pace of life, revealing great beauty in the quotidian vistas of a local marshland. His images of the Lincoln Marsh seem to say, "Slow down. Take time. Look. Drink in this forgotten piece of earth and its hidden beauties. There is more here than you think." And Sheesley's written reflections are fittingly juxtaposed with these humble images, providing a meaningful counterpoint that nourishes that same patience of eye and heart, memory and imagination.
In an entry dated 13 January, 2014, Sheesley questions the idea of art for art's sake (and, for that matter, nature for nature's own sake). He reflects: "There must be a way to preserve the inherent value of art and the inherent value of the natural world that also includes their value to human community life."
The artist questions the extremism of some artists and conservationists whose militant commitment to their respective causes can blind them to the importance of balance between culture and nature, between public good and the disinterested contemplation of nature and art. The painting juxtaposed to this text entry is one-third foreground—forcefully painted with tangled, bent, and snow-laden reed grass—cattails jutting skyward and competing visually with the bough of a distant leafless tree. As they begin to lose their tawny "fur", the cattails point not only upward but also forward to the advancing winter weather and falling temperatures. In this and many other passages and paintings Sheesley explores the relationship between human need and natural beauty; between utility and gratuity, work and play—even as he faithfully records the yearly cycle of seasons.
In an entry dated 30 January, 2014 entitled Mystery, the artist recalls the (real-life) albino gorilla mentioned in Italo Calvino's novel Mr. Palomar, who viewed the world of its own captivity through the "lens" of a used truck tire hanging in its cage. Sheesley employs Calvino's anecdote as a metaphor for our own need to have a stable interpretive grid through which to see (and tame) our world. Sheesley writes:
The albino gorilla peering through his tire, the psalmist observing the skies, the signer for the deaf, the painter, all are engaged in an indeterminate pantomime of response to what seems apparent and yet is ultimately inscrutable. So I return to Lincoln Marsh, "the knowable mystery.
In the painting for this entry, captioned February 5, Lincoln Marsh, 16x20, 2014, the artist continues the nearly monochromatic rendering of wintry marsh, bare trees, and gray expanse of distant hills. He portrays a pale, raking light that plays across the crests of snowdrifts creating luminous blue shadows and giving the painting a mysterious air—as though something dramatic might soon happen in this silent world. The diagonal thrust of now tumbled cattails in the foreground is evidence of the weight of winter pulling these figures to earth—perhaps as foreshadowing of harsher weather. Sheesley's art seems to indicate that the maps we make and grids we impose can really never finally capture or define the land. There is just too much paradox, mystery, and indeterminacy.
And the mood throughout the book—both paintings and texts—evokes this same indeterminacy and uncertainty about our literal maps and grids—as well as our conventions of representation in the history of landscape painting and the implications for how we orient ourselves in our environments. In a very real sense, the Journal is a kind of ongoing inquiry into how we see, how we know, and how we are to live and dwell in the land—respecting its otherness—yet cooperating, building, and living in harmony without the necessity of viewing every tree as potential lumber; every landscape as a space for potential housing developments.
In another moonrise painting captioned February 18and the accompanying journal entry entitled Humble, the artist-scholar meditates on the wildness preserved in this little 140-acre marsh despite the continual human interventions it has suffered over the last few centuries. He speaks of that wildness as "the generative force within nature itself"—a "finely tuned liturgy of seasons" that breaks out and renews itself whether humans notice or not. Joel Sheesley himself is determined to notice and to invite us into his own dance with this place and its movement through the year. He calls for epistemic humility and a certain reticence—a listening, receptive posture in which we can discover our interdependence with nature. The painting juxtaposed here is serene and beautiful with its rich, deepening sky above a rising gibbous moon—itself a cold eye opening on our world from out of the hazy grayness below. As in many of the paintings from the Journal we sense in this piece an almost physical weight of silence and solitude communicated in its spare compositional strategy.
In a later entry dated 11 September, 2014 (coincidence with the memory of 9/11?), this interdependence is voiced in the lovely descriptions this sensitive painter makes—using words as skillfully as his color palette:
Yellows now dominate Lincoln Marsh. The tall sunflowers have succeeded one another—Prairie Dock, Compass Plant, Cup Plant, Sawtooth Sunflower, Rosin Weed, Tall Coreopsis. Jerusalem Artichoke has the final hour, and what an hour it is. Time, backed up in the fine sieve of the clock, moves slowly. The Marsh air is dense, condensed into a bath of mosquitoes. Big Blue Stem grass waves its lank and seed-heavy tops. Crowds of other tired stems lurch and lean into one another. Above, razor-edged yellow sunflowers cut into the vermillion-stained greens … .
Everywhere there is a feeling of resolution. Among the cattails conceit reigns despite the rusty-brown that has tinged the top foot or more of its tall leaves … .
To behold and then try to paint this scene is to invest oneself in mortality. What I seek in vain is differentiation, some sign of contrast by which to rise above the melee.
Lincoln Marsh Journal navigates between celebration and mourning; between evocation of a poignant fragility and a strengthening hope, seeded by this little ecosystem of weeds and reeds. Artist Joel Sheesley embraces the very impossibility of adequately recording the wonders of this modest little patch of unpromising ground—with the revelation that faithful attention is richly rewarded in the surprise of ordinary miracles: grass and bramble, root and branch, ever-changing seasons of land and sky.
Bruce Herman, a painter whose work has been widely exhibited, is Lothl"rien Distinguished Chair in the Fine Arts at Gordon College. He collaborated with G. Walter Hansen in Through Your Eyes: Dialogues on the Painting of Bruce Herman (Eerdmans).
Copyright © 2016 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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