Last summer, like every summer, wildfires ripped across the arid high desert in the west. Montana got hit the hardest. Almost 1.3 million acres of private and public land were incinerated in the state by the time moisture and colder fall temperatures brought relief. The destruction was unfathomable. People lost their homes, some their lives. There is nothing more emotionally charged than the unhinged force of nature that is fire.
Map of the 2017 Montana Fires (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2017_Montana_wildfires)
That burning acreage introduced enough smoke into the atmosphere to blanket the west in a slow drifting haze making the air in Northern Colorado dusty and thick. Since moving here nearly a decade ago, few things have captured my intrigue like the atmospheric effects of smoke in the air. Every summer, various plumes of scorched earth will make their way to us. They hang like lead clouds over the horizon and add a filter to the sky gazers vantage point. The smoke obscures the crispness in the colors that high altitude affords and the haze transforms the environment...It carries the sunlight with it while obscuring the radiation of our dying star just enough that you can stare at it without your eyes welling. The sun shines through in fascinating ways in the morning, and I was enraptured by it.
This transformative atmospheric cloak became metaphorical for me. The fires, and the smoke that accompanied them became emblematic for a time in my life that I was (am) trying to break down into little pieces that make sense. My inner vision was obscured by the smokey remnants of fires that had once burned there. My brain was full of heavy, carcinogenic distraction born from indecision and over-activity. My brain was soaked in filthy realities. The light shining dimly through thick, destructive vapor...ionized madness.
As an expressionist, painting this phenomenon was a given. The emotionally charged nature of the imagery spoke to me in an aggressive way. The balance of creation and destruction...nature's brutal dichotomy. I knew that I was going to do a series...I wasn't aware that it would take me a year. I certainly wasn't aware that the time I spent painting these, I would experience a psychological shift...a deeper understanding of what it means to be me...a solemn, solitary journey through my space and time.
Let me back up a bit...
Some idle, insignificant day in May of 2011, I woke up with a hangover after losing another job. I was 27 years old, a few trips around the sun removed from college days spent dreaming of bright futures. The years in between my academic pursuits and this time were a complete mess of my own creation. I skidded into adulthood without grace, opting to drink my youth away in a manic, unwavering malaise. My motivation for art fell victim to my ever growing appetite for things that would infect my brain with false narratives and fleeting joy. My comfort became so tied to inebriation that I had ceased doing anything else. For years, my life was devoid of meaningful pursuits and everyone saw it. My girlfriend, my friends and my family were watching me wade further and further into the abyss. We were all powerless and vulnerable in the face of my sickness...They knew it...and most painfully, I knew it too. I was watching myself waste away into nothing...I was the walking dead. The cautionary tale that my sisters would tell their kids about...I was becoming that. I did become that.
These are difficult connections to make. Our brains will do virtually anything to make us feel a sense of purpose...we need a place in the world. It is almost impossible to accept a fate of irrelevance, obscurity and failure. You need help to fully submit to the darker sub-realities of your mind. Alcohol was my catalyst for depression. I rode it as far down as I could. I had virtually no good will left with anyone...I had no job...no career prospects. I had all of the time in the world and also none at all.
I decided to get sober...I decided to do right by myself...I threw myself into my art. I made myself an online presence under the name 'nocturnearts' and dedicated myself to carving out a place for me in this world. Painting every day became my salvation. Over time, I developed a style. My interests and skills began to mature. I learned how to market myself online and slowly began to sell paintings.
As I continued limping my way through existence, my artwork began to carry me. Gaining confidence with every painting and every exhibit, refining my technique and exploring what interested me. A foundation had been laid, that much I was sure of. I continued painting that way until 2013 when I moved into a studio in Loveland, CO.
I enjoyed a few years of mild successes in Loveland. The opportunity to work in a professional artist environment really drove me. The pain of my sobriety slowly dwindled into a dull ache...a throbbing, ever-present reminder, but not a debilitation. Being social was becoming easier too, as I was forced to discuss my work with people on our monthly open studios nights. Confronted with the fact some people were legitimately interested in my work, explaining it became a task that I couldn't run from anymore. I would talk about my choices, but it never seemed genuine. The truth is, that I was, and am still, trying to arrange a narrative in my mind about what I am doing in the studio...I was exploring brushwork and texture. Playing with color combinations and blends. I was desperately trying to find my genuine voice...trying to get back in touch. It's hard to explain a vacancy...to elaborate on nothingness.
There are so many convenient short-cuts when it comes to explaining ones self. That is true for just about any situation, but in the art world is built on them. If you take more than a minute to think about the state of things on this blue marble in space, it is difficult to put importance on painting pictures. There are too many beautiful, horrifying and mind-bending things available to anyone, anywhere, any time. Flat screen TVs with huge, crisp displays...video games...24 hour news cycles...instant gratification through infinite avenues. We, as members of the art community, have to make our work seem like it matters. So we use terms like ephemeral, and we claim to have an extra cone in our eyes, or we claim to visualize colors and fart fractals. We put feathers in our hair and pretend to be super heroes. We put an enormously high importance on enormously un-important subjects. Most of all, we convince ourselves that we matter more, that we are somehow above the fold. I've sat through far too many art talks, presentations, interviews and gallery openings where the subject of the art is just a thin veil for the artist to discuss how fucking special they are. It infects every aspect of my interactions with people in those environments and I hate myself for it.
So I withdrew myself from any art scene and began searching internally...setting up shop in my dark, mildly depressing garage. It suited my world view and my desire to hide out a bit. I needed some time to think...I needed some space...I needed to feel good again. My quest for those things led me to a new approach. I got a full-time job, painted for fun, went to Rome (more on that later down the road) and just tried to not freak out (a lot of my time is spent on this seemingly simple task.) Leaving my country for the first time was an educational luxury. It opened up my curiosity like a freshly healed wound on a bent knee. I was in a state of raw, uninhibited wonder, seeing what art was for the first time...I saw it's timeline, gazed upon it's history. More importantly, I saw myself and my work through a historical filter for the first time. It was refreshing. It was unnerving...It was inescapable.
Nothing will put your ego in check like wandering into San Luigi Dei Francesi in Rome and seeing 'The Calling of Saint Matthew'. A perfect painting in it's perfect, original place. If you can look at a Caravaggio and not find it absolutely, truly breathtaking...then you are bereft of either soul or taste. If you can look at that Caravaggio, and walk away thinking that you are some hot shit painter...you are just delusional. What was left of my ego didn't survive it. How could it?
Upon returning, there was a movie quote echoing through my inner monologue...
"Why do my eyes hurt?"
"You've never used them before."
I was long overdue for an awakening. Keanu...you beautiful bastard.
After my first European adventure, I found myself in the cursed position of milling through some difficult thoughts. Six years prior, I was a confused and anxious drunk trying to will myself into an art career. My paintings were immature but they possessed a certain optimism...the hopeful confidence that only ignorance can gift. It didn't really matter if the work itself was raw and unrefined, because I was raw and unrefined. The work was honest and brave, but not technically good. Technique comes with practice. I practiced constantly.
Five years later, and five years sober, my technique was markedly better...I had been painting prolifically...not particularly carefully...but with rigid regularity. The years that I spent living on the wage that my artwork provided me turned my studio into a constantly moving and changing organism. During that time, my tastes evolved, I became a better judge of my own work. Constant and consistent improvement as a painter became my main source of self worth and confidence. Criticism drove me to be better. Paintings sold regularly and frequently...my clients were usually very happy to work with me...my palette matured...my colors deepened and interacted with more gusto. I was so god-damned relieved every time I sold a painting that I lost track of my voice a bit though. Selling artwork was a dream come true, but living off of those sales was a challenge. The aim of my artwork became less about my artistic growth and more about paying my bills...Nothing inspires like a red bill in the mail. I felt forced to paint the things that I knew would sell. The raw, unfiltered emotion that lived in my earlier works was now a bit stiff. The voice of my muse was constantly filtered through my need to attract buyers. My paintings were improving, but I wasn't. I was reverting back to some old miseries.
In the spring of 2017, I was facing my first real struggle as a professional artist. My first authentic battle with a dying muse. My work needed more from me than I could give it now. I was holding down a job...married my wife...had been to Europe and saw the greatest artworks ever created...and it was time to find my place in all this madness.
My paintings have never been particularly tied to any specific place...I have a pretty broad regional identity, but I had never painted directly from life. One reason that I consider myself an expressionist is that I depend on my emotional filter to influence the paintings. I much prefer painting the feel and mood of a valley than to actually paint the valley. I want a painting to look the way a place smells. To me, a painting wasn't done until it melted my eyes into a warm puddle...they need to vibrate my senses. Those senses, however, had become blunt...dulled. I wasn't feeling that connection to the air...to the ground. In order to keep myself busy and in the studio, I started stretching canvas. I spent weeks stretching and priming some thirty-odd 20"x 24" canvases. I was preparing for something to happen. Hoping to find my footing.
Then Montana started burning.
The night before this picture was taken, my wife and I went for an evening walk...Our northwest Fort Collins neighborhood is gorgeous in the spring and summer. We had noticed that the fires burning north had turned our thin, high altitude atmosphere into a murky, hazy fog. The shone through the dust and smoke...a floating vermilion orb. Every outside surface had a warm, pink tint to it...the color bounced around the sky, pinging off clouds in every direction, and finally settling on the earth, lighting up every blade of grass and fence-post with an eerie, back-lit glow. It was mesmerizing. We decided to get up before dawn, drive up Bingham Hill road, and back down into the valley near Bellevue, CO. We turned north towards Lory State Park and came to a stop near one of the large, open fields that have occupied the space for millennia. We sat there, meditatively watching as the sun rose over chunks of timeless Earth. As it broke over the horizon, the smoke in the sky was illuminated...red and brown and green and blue...purples appeared in unexpected places...little bits of harsh red reflected off low lying cloud formations. A massive burning ember in the sky...everything was set ablaze. I began painting that day.
There are many reasons to live in a place like Colorado. It is truly beautiful...a gift from the Gods. There are three hundred sunny days a year. The air is thin and carries color uninhibited at dawn and dusk...Not a day goes by that I don't have a 'Colorado moment' where I round some innocuous corner of Earth and am met by a jaw dropping, stunning little picture of place. These snapshots live everywhere here. Northern Colorado in particular has a relatively unmolested natural quality. The growing community is still tucked in between foothills and farmland. Natural spaces are maintained and protected. People here really value space...air to breathe...room to live. If you can manage to make a living here, I would highly recommend it. You pay a high premium for the beauty, but my god, is it worth it. I never get over it. Though the city of Fort Collins is growing rapidly, you are a 20 minute drive from reclusive paradise like the aforementioned field in Bellevue.
I grew up in the thick, humid air of Eastern Iowa. The whole state is filled with dense, saturated greens and piercing blues. Midwestern clouds hang like titanic, fluffy cotton balls over the miles and miles of farmland and forest. Colorado is different. The land is dry and flat...arid. The air is thin and transparent. The general lack of humidity leaves the sunlight unobstructed. It travels through the atmosphere and bounces off of everything that it can. You can see the layers of sky, the colors mash themselves together and form new ones. There are soft gradients layered on harsh tonal shifts. I became fascinated with this particular phenomenon when I moved here. When these layers of color and light overlap. It is a violent combination of unwilling participants. If you find yourself in nature at a particular time of day...usually around the edges of the day, when the sun rises over the gentle curve of the planet, or retires behind tattered mountains...you can notice it. If you look at the light around the horizon and just above...there are colors that defy explanation or categorization. If you look at one little segment of the sky, you will sometimes wonder what color you are seeing. Is it purple or blue or orange or green. You would think that the combination of colors would be muddy filth, but it isn't. They all exist independently in the same space. It is perplexing, but more importantly, it is a strong metaphor for life. It is the manifestation of the kind of beautiful chaos that formed this world...quantum color. It is simple and complex...impossible but unavoidable. Our Earth is simultaneously a miracle and an accident. A beautiful creation, and a horrible mistake. Chaos Baby!
After a few months of laying down, thick, chaotic base-coats and painting in foundation colors, I began to think that these paintings were a marker of something for me. Up until these last few years, the act of painting was enough to excite me...I was a player in the story...I was involved in every brushstroke because I felt emotionally attached to the work. I didn't worry much about realism or accuracy...I didn't worry about depth and weight and the richness of my palette...I didn't really care about what I was "supposed to do" and just created things...I felt that as long as I was painting, I was living right. If the paintings look finished to me, then they are finished. If someone bought one, bully for me...this was the life cycle of my creative process. Raw, unrefined creative ambition.
I didn't look at these paintings that way...I wanted more from them. For the first time, I needed the paintings to lead ME. I needed the paintings to tell me when they were done. My painting process had to be removed from my control. I needed to be honest with myself about my goals and my intentions. Paintings don't lie. They speak their own insecure language. A painting will tell you when it's overworked, or underdeveloped. A painting will tell you when an artist is inspired...it will tell you when an artist is full of shit. A painting can speak profound truth. A painting will show your manic ramblings...your impatience...your confusion. You can see it in brushwork, in materials. You can tell what an artist thinks of themselves in the amount of medium in the washes...in the sheen of the varnish...the bristles embedded in the oil...the gaps in the paint...the pocks of white canvas near the folds. I needed to submit to these things. I will never know as much of myself as a painting does.
A few more months down the road and the fires were all long put out...I had taken about six steps back from what I thought I was as an artist. I allowed the paintings to inform themselves...they would reflect one another and tell me where they needed to go. I still had some side commisions that I was working on, but my primary focus became this dissociated series of smoke paintings. When the commissions were complete (Christmas time 2017), I headed into the new year with no plans to promote or sell my art until I figured out what I was trying to say. I made the decision that in order to continue progressing in this world, that I would need to be more critical of my voice. I needed to employ the same tactics that I did to stay sober (personal accountability, brutal self-honesty and focus) to my art making process. No more excuses or shortcuts. If I felt that I was creating something for the wrong reasons, I would nix it. If I felt like my work was informed by outside influences, I would block them out. If I didn't want to paint something in but wasn't confident in myself enough to execute it, I would paint and re-paint and re-paint it. I was done living in a space where good enough was good enough. My reckoning came via the removal of elements that had been hidden in my subconscious. These programs running in the background of my life. I had to shut them down and paint until my inner critic had nothing left to say.
So I just kept working on them. It may seem manic...It may seem unproductive, but for the last year I have been painting and re-painting the same 20 (ish) paintings. I have simply allowed myself to give in to the art...in hopes that it would gift me some insight into myself, into my future. I submitted to the higher power of blind seeking...embracing the chaos in order to make some sense of it.
In January on 2018, I had an epiphany. I believe that this realization came to me through the process of letting go...of breaking out of my mental routine and rejecting my own inner narrative. My self imposed asylum was beginning to lead to a metamorphosis of the way I thought about art. I had a lot of needs that were not being satisfied with the work that I had been making, and no amount of external praise or validation was going to fix that. It was time to ask myself what those needs were...I found my answer, ironically, through the work of other artists.
I have always had a tumultuous relationship with other artists. If I saw someone who was better than me, I would get jealous and angry. If someone's work moved me in a profound way, it would shake my confidence...If I experienced something beautiful, I would be anxious that I didn't create it or couldn't capture it. The art world had become a competitive place for me...a war of attrition. I would witness other people's success, growth and acclaim as a personal affront to me and relish the opportunities to prove my dominance over those not as advanced as me. It is hard to admit, but I had been so caught up in the frivolities of the modern world that I had lost sight of myself and why I make things. Couple this with our ongoing culture war and you have a perfect little incendiary pot of distraction and discontent. Our society will fill you with dread...social media only exacerbates this. I had to move away from the diseases corrupting my brain and into a safer space. I had to ask myself the tough questions and try to answer them.
The first step in this process was to remove myself from situations that cause me high-stress with little reward. Arguing with people on Facebook about politics doesn't have a high payoff...so I got rid of my personal Facebook page. I kept it only to update my art page, which meant going through the nine hundred-plus connections that I had on there and deleting them. This severely limited the reach of my artwork, but it significantly reduced the amount of political mouth-shit and Soviet propaganda that I was exposed to. My stress levels reduced almost instantly. I still haven't checked it...I don't miss it at all, and I would highly recommend that anyone...hell, everyone...should get off of that poisonous fucking platform. It is a snapshot of the worst in humanity. It captures and excites the most unproductive and sickening qualities of this great nation, and you don't have to be exposed to it. I shifted my focus to Instagram (same owners...I know) where the focus is less politically charged. The community of Instagram tends to be more supportive of art in general...certainly more supportive of creative and beautiful things. It seems like a small thing, but spending less time on Facebook and more time on Instagram looking at art made me less egocentric. I spent less energy shaping and projecting who I thought I was and feeding that to strangers, and more time looking at artwork and studying my contemporaries. I began to admire people that I used to have some disdain for...I don't know how or when this shift happened...maybe it was a seed planted in Rome...maybe I am starting to act and feel like a grown-up (I'm 35!)...maybe the explosion of air-born repulsiveness that this country has fallen into made me realize that I was part of the problem...maybe I just got tired of looking at beautiful things and feeling ugly.
I have always admired realistic and plein air painters, but never saw myself through that filter. My interests have always lived in the periphery of realism...things inspired by the natural order...but not a direct rendering of nature. Painting en plein air requires years of technique and perseverance. There is no avoiding the struggles. That's the main reason that I admire those artists...there is so much work...so much frustration hidden beneath the surface of those paintings. No one can just do it...you really have to learn to paint from life. You have to want to learn to paint from life. The artist who paints from life is planting themselves in the middle of an ongoing traditional exercise. They, like artists going back to the cave dwellers of Lascaux, are communicating a direct experience from nature. I don't think this robs the work of virtue, I think this is the virtue. Carrying on a tradition that you will never rule...you can only hope to contribute to the overarching history of that activity. I think that is the reason that I hadn't attempted it...there was very little room for me to feel special in repeatedly failing to paint a tree...there is even less room to feel special when you can go to the Denver Art Museum and see a painting by Renoir of Monet painting in his garden. That is the high-water mark. How can anyone possibly compare...how could I possibly include myself in this tradition?
My admiration for realistic painters inevitably led to more incorporation of realistic elements in my work. I began to care more for the shape of trees and the way that light hits them. I began to look at nature with more attentive gazes. As some of the Smoke paintings neared their completion, I felt compelled to re-address some of these elements...adding a bit more realism here and a bit more there...This practice led me to a more productive criticism of my work. It's not challenging to measure your level of success in realism...it either looks like the thing or it doesn't...this I found exciting. I have been earnestly looking for ways that I can measure my work and my abilities in a non-biased way...I think realism may gift me the opportunity to track improvement and re-invigorate my sense of self...I have always had a deep attachment to earth and sky...now I needed a deeper understanding of them. A better connection to the way life moves...the way nature wriggles its way through fence posts and driveways...the way it persists and survives despite of our molestation and it's own re-birthing hellfire. The incorporation of more realism would become the goal. I bought a plein air setup with the intent of going out every day and painting the earth.
I went out a few times to practice early in early 2018. What became immediately clear to me is that I am going to need to have a lot of patience with myself on this journey. My first paintings were quite challenging. I certainly don't consider them finished works of art, but they were valuable experiences.
I know now that the results will come...later. I just need to work on it.
Painting outside was a reprieve from the oppression of my normal routine. I found it very grounding. I can tell that there will be a harmonizing force in this exercise. Feeling the sun on your skin and hearing the wind and the birds whip around the open air...I can see why people do it. I am excited to progress and get more comfortable.
Oddly, my new-found inspiration to paint from life has led to a re-focus in the studio. I began to finish things with more confidence...I found a few of the many things that I had been searching for and with them, my comfort level in the studio returned to me and the Smoke started coming together more fluidly.
That pretty much catches us up to now...July 2018
I have had a few more practice runs painting outdoors. It has activated me...I find that I am always searching for little moments to paint. I have this running list of things to paint from life...little corners of the neighborhood to explore...beautiful scenes in and around my corner of the world. For now...I need to create as much as possible without feeling beholden to it. I need to paint my truth...shifting from surviving to thriving. I realize now, that I can only do that if I am motivated, informed and forgiving of myself. I can't paint everything today...I need to balance my life and my work with more grace and exuberance. Painting from life is helping me get there...slowly and methodically...from smoke to substance.
By the end of the summer, I want to have the Smoke wrapped up...so far I have nine smaller paintings finished (20" x 20" & 20" x 24"). I plan on having at least 15 of those size finished by the end of August. There are currently three large scale Smoke paintings under way as well. Once they are wrapped up, I am going to shift my focus to painting in the field. Fall 2018 will be almost exclusively from life and I will re-address things around the Holiday.
I can't wait to show you what the future holds...hopefully more internal and artistic growth...maybe some resolution to my existential dread. I look forward to a higher connection with the land under my feet.
Through some organic blunder...I found my future self in a field.
Through some cosmic accident...I ended up here in this time and place...I'm getting more comfortable with that reality.
Michael J Ryan lives and works in Fort Collins, CO. You can see his work on Instagram - @nocturnearts, Facebook - www.facebook.com/nocturnearts and at www.nocturnearts.com
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You had me at hello...
you complete me.