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Bruce Herman

Unpromising Patch of Ground?

Joel Sheesley's "Lincoln Marsh Journal."

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, ...

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