Sunday, August 26, 2007

Mount Duval

In the body of Pavarotti, I opened my eyes. The bedroom was two-storied, made of stone and sparsely furnished with substantial, Baroque furniture. I rose from bed and walked up the steps to the balcony which overlooked a piazza where a crowd had gathered. I opened my mouth and sang with the perfection that comes when technical control and emotional abandon merge into one thing. With sound I expressed every feeling that any person has ever had and with my voice I transformed the crowd into a single, ecstatic being. Then I woke up a second time, as me, alone in a double bed with flannel sheets and I was happy.

Carrying the fantasy that virtuosity can unite humanity as well as satisfy the ego, I hiked up the guardian of Pangnirtung, Mount Duval, to end my Arctic adventure.

At the foot of the mountain I stopped many times to admire the Arctic Cotton, and other late blooming plants.

As I moved up the slope, the footing changed and I stepped from jumbles of bruising rocks onto planes of dry lichens that crunched like fried noodles.

With other steps I sank into brilliant, green tubs of sodden moss that filled with water at the pressure of my foot only to spring back into shape as I moved past.

Boulders, unlatched from the mountain, pressed into the ground to demonstrate their weight or perched on promontories to express their potential.

Black-bottomed water courses, large and small, streamed over the surface reflecting a deep shade of sapphire too blue to be the sky.

Over the course of hours the sun lowered to describe the land with great volumes of shadow. In all this glory, I thought, “I’m sure glad I’m not trying to paint realistically”.

At this unguarded moment painting “realistically” meant the ambition to faithfully record detail, and to minimize interpretation so that the thing being observed is captured fresh and whole. Of course it is impossible to package the complexity of an experience like hiking Mt. Duval and deliver it fresh and whole, but I’m often troubled by the thought that I’m a fraud unless I can deliver no less. This fear is real and it often dictates that I paint in secluded spots to avoid exposure as a faker. With dread I imagine the moment that a stranger approaches, looks at a half-finished picture and asks, “What is that supposed to be?” If hell is self-imagined, then “What is that supposed to be?” will crown the gates. In this fantasy, the question is not really a question but a judgment. The stranger has asserted that the art is Poorly Observed. Badly Recorded. Self-indulgent. Uncommunicative. In other words the artist, formerly known as Pavarotti, has failed.

Continuing to the summit of Mount Duval, I rested and enjoyed a small bag of cookies and cashews.

The summit is dotted with Inuksuit, stone messengers “which act in the capacity of a human”. Although I suspect that the majority of Inuksuit on Mount Duval are modern, there are many ancient ones across Baffin Island which served and continue to serve native hunters. *

On the way home I flirted with the sheer, western edge of Mount Duval, which drops 2200 feet to the fiord below. A spectacular drop from which one could fly, briefly, is always an occasion for a quick assessment. With the deep space spectacle of Pangnirtung Fiord before me and the inscriptions of time on the rocks around me, I took stock of what I had learned by painting in the Baffin Island landscape. First, I can’t begin to tell the whole story. Second, that being true, I can tell a good story by reducing color, light and form to their essentials. As for color, there is not much red here, but a lot of orange, which ranges from flaming, to rusty, to pale salmon. In the early spring the land is tan, but as the weather warms, it shifts to olive and gold. The blue of the sky is often cool and pale and is best described by adding a little thalo green (a very cold and powerful color) to the usual recipe for sky. Contrasts of light and dark are strong in the Arctic and there are countless shades of black and white to employ. Although Arctic Poppies, a cheerful and ubiquitous yellow flower, were painted into several scenes, they were in the end erased, because they detracted from the essential soberness and grandness of the open, treeless space. Besides the occasional boulder and caribou, few things are middle sized. Instead a vast, living carpet of infinite detail and texture clings to massive convexities and concavities. Ovals and hemispheres are common forms and angular lines are as abundant as long curves. The circulation of water from air to land to sea is a constant subject and the transformations of water into fog, drizzle, torrent, tide, and ice are always interesting. Time seems long here, since it is marked by glacial scrapings and ancient ice caps, but the pace is becoming more modern as the glaciers melt and the sea ice retreats.

These observations are a part of the inventory of thoughts from which the Arctic paintings were made. This same inventory included comic dreams of artistic prowess and comic visions of artistic humiliation, but these two items were selected infrequently since the inventory was stuffed with more fascinating things like

fancy boulders

and Arctic mushrooms on Mount Duval.

*"Inuksuit: Silent Messengers of the Arctic", by Norman Hallendy, published by Douglas and McIntyre Ltd., 2000, is an excellent source of images and information on the stone structures of Baffin Island.


Roberto said...


Thanks for taking the time to show these phots; and for the details about trekking Mt Duval. I really got caught up in your adventure.

David (Of David and Roberto)

Anonymous said...

Hi Mike -
I just found you via the Williams website - what an adventure! I am totally fascinated... having spent my summers in the tundra in Alaska - though a slightly bleaker and less topographically interesting tundra than yours - I've always been interested in the tundra landscape and its colors, and have also been confounded by the small vs. big picture of its beauty. You capture it so well. It's also comforting to hear that a seasoned pro like yourself still doesn't like people looking over his shoulder saying "What's that supposed to be?" My amateur heart lifts.
Keep up the good work, the good writing, and the good adventure.

Robbi Behr ('97)

Carol Diehl said...

As a small child I remember being frustrated by the "what is it?" question, constantly being posed to me by teachers and other adults. My answer? "It's a 'besign.'"

I'm still making "besigns" and believe that because they are so fully intuitive, they link us, more closely than reproduction ever will, to nature.

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