Friday, November 07, 2008

The Inventory of Ideas

Though my fellow finalists are no doubt half way through their proposals by now I am still sorting out ideas. I've had quite a few since my search for a subject began so I thought I would list them.

In order of appearance:

1) Adam and Eve. Vermont as Paradise; Paradise Lost (work in something here about eating the Apple of Over-Development); Paradise Regained = land conserved; good public transit and infrastructure; alternative fuels. Tom [husband, fellow artist, best friend] liked this idea. I saw Eve as a sturdy young farm girl and Adam as a hardworking young farmer (he doubled as an allegory for the Working Landscape). Somehow I couldn't move this idea to the sketch stage so I moved on...

2) Inspired by the phrase "We are all living in someone else's future" which I found in one of the panel discussions (part of the information supplied by the Council on the Future of Vermont) I decided to do a series of paintings of various stages of Vermont's history showing how one era gives birth to another. The design was inspired by Ghiberti's Florence Baptistry Doors. I started an oil sketch of the first one and managed to pack Ethan Allen's conquest of Fort Ticonderoga, the primeval Vermont Forest and the beginning of husbandry into a 10" x 12" canvas. But it wasn't what I wanted to say at all.
As I read through the packets of information it became clear to me that of all the things that needed fixing in Vermont the first one, to my mind, was infrastructure. Good roads, excellent public transportation for both goods and people, and a state of the art cyber-network would boost the economy, create jobs, and save energy all at the same time - but go try and make a painting out of that. I decided that Land Use and the preservation of the working landscape would be my issue. It is after all something I care deeply about. And that decision led to my first really good idea...
3) A recreation of Norman Rockwell's "Freedom from Want" in which the feast being consumed would be a farm, not a turkey. I was in heaven - I had it! This idea had everything: ironic bite, an opportunity to paint figures, a reference to another artist and a famous work of art. Sadly, what it lacked was a couple of companion pieces. Looked everywhere, couldn't find 'em. Not that I didn't come up with any ideas that would fit with this one, but rather that the ones I thought of were awful -really, awful - so bad that I am embarrassed to write about them on this blog. And there was something else wrong, something deeper, and that is that I am not really a satiric artist. It just isn't natural to me: there is something in this approach that is too juvenile for what is, to me, the noble art of painting.

I tried to think harder about land use and the working landscape. Which led to...

4) Two wild fanciful ideas. The first was an image of a skyscraper that looks like a barn. It sits in the Vermont landscape; cows and sheep pour from its open doors; trees grow on the roof... The other was a landscape supported underneath with rotting supports like an old covered bridge. This bridge/landscape spans a deep chasm that takes the shape of a "V"...

I went to the Farmer's Market to sketch and search for information and struck up a conversation with a cheese maker. I explained the AOA and inquired into every detail of how she is able to live on her cheese-making. Then I asked if I might visit her farm and if she would consider posing for me - she cheerfully agreed. On election day I chatted up friends who were working the polls and got their views on Vermont's future. I told them about AOA and asked if they would pose for me -they cheerfully agreed. One, a native Vermonter, surprised me: he said he is optimistic about the future of Vermont because of "the resilience of the people". It turned out he is on the Regional Planning Commission. I learned a lot about land use and development that day but what stuck in my mind was what he said about the people. I realized that while I did not yet have a proposal at least I finally knew for sure what I wanted at the center of my project: the people.

5) Not allegory, not satire - metaphor - that is my real voice; everything else is forced. I'll do a painting of the farmer's market: the potato man, the cheese-maker, the guy who sells samosas. The metaphors will come as I work; they always do. There is a metaphor there about the land feeding us - the potatoes are roots...get it? And what about the scene at Mach's Market, the country store at the center of Pawlet. All day long it buzzes like a hive as all types of Vermonters come and go: farmers, carpenters, hippies, summer people ("summer people" as we all know designates a type, not someone who is in Vermont during the summer months...) the young, the old, and those of us in between. In summer a group sits on the bench outside, but if your family hasn't been here for a couple of generations don't try to sit down - be pleased you get a wave and an acknowledgement. Winters the conclave is on the bench by the deli counter. This group endures. Winter, spring, summer, fall, they are always there; to my flatlander eye they are always the same. Like rocks in the river they are our sign and our landmark. The river flows around them, ever changing, ever the same, life in Pawlet, Vermont.
This is better. I really am happiest painting figures and if I manage to get a commission it has to be for something I really want to paint. I crack open Paul Searls's "Two Vermonts" which I had ordered from inter-library loan. Searls was one of the panelists that the Council on the Future of Vermont consulted; I had been struck by his presentation enough to order the book. Bingo. The book is a revelation. It leads to idea #6 ...


Clair said...

This is funny -- I read your post this morning, after ordering Two Vermonts yesterday from Bygone Books in Burlington! (The minute my check arrived I was at the computer with my list of used books!)

And, Elizabeth, I am in the same boat as you -- lots of ideas flying around, many with tails long and unmanageable. I think the project time frames are reversed: we should have 9 months to come up with the proposal, and 2 months to execute it!! said...

Whew, that was quite a process! After you've done the painting, you should write a book. I can't stand to think of all those ideas going to waste.
Looking forward to seeing the sketches.
Now I'll have to read "Two Vermonts."