Temporality- Barns, River Eels and other women etc.
Updated: Feb 28
Contemplating the impermanence of so many things- an essay by Brian Keeler
As I was immersed in painting my most recent landscape, a winter view of a barn not far from my studio here in Ithaca, when an odd confluence of memories and ideas came together with the unifying theme of impermanence. This lovely old barn was chosen for the beauty of the late afternoon winter light playing on its old, but well-maintained board and batten, rust-colored exterior.
But before I get into the transience of life, I’ll mention how some attitudes and ideas in relation to art are also transient and fleeting. I just heard a watercolor artist lecture, John Salminen in an online seminar that I was enjoying as a viewer. He reminded us of how using the word illustrator was about the worst insult one could hurl at a painter, back in the 60’s and 70’s. I recall it being used this way at a dinner party with my parents and some of their friends who ran an art camp when I was a youth. The comment was that a local artist we all knew was merely an illustrator. We don’t hear much of this attitude today, as even illustration is more or less a past profession.
But I have to admit that I love illustration and have gone out of my way to visit the exhibits of N.C. Wyeth at the Farnsworth Museum in Rockland, Maine and at the Brandywine Museum in Chadds Ford, PA as well. And I’ve visited the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachussets on several occasions.
But barns represent a passing of American life in way, as we see all those dairy farms in Pennsylvania and New York disappearing. Worse yet, they get replaced by industrial scale farms for cattle and even more abominable, for pigs on a level that is beyond cringing. One of these pig monstrosities was built in Bradford County a few years back, but with considerable protest and with a lot of opposition.
So I have made the painting of landscapes of the Susquehanna region, The Finger Lakes and other areas one of my main motifs over the decades. And barns and vintage old houses are often included. So, there is a certain historical wistfulness inherent in them of an American golden era that is not part of our lives anymore, but only in vestigial form.
I have an interest in history from many eras, primarily ancient Roman and Greek, but also early American and Civil war era periods too. I am reading a great book now that ties two of these periods together. It is titled, “First Principles” by Thomas Hicks, and it is a book on how our early American founders were heavily influenced by Cicero, Cato, Horace, Pliny and many other Roman philosophers, politicians and poets. The level of their immersion in the classics is so prevalent that it is truly remarkable. And by extension, the founding fathers influence of the Scottish and French enlightenment thinkers is deep and profound. John Adams, Jefferson, and Washington were so indebted to Scottish intellectuals, that it begs the question of, why were the colonies not called New Scotland, instead of New England?
In regards to impermanence and the fragility of life, this contemplation brought in how the flora and fauna that we experience and live with today is just a vestige of the abundance of what was once prevalent. A fascinating article on Susquehanna River eels was brought to my attention this week. And indeed, it was remarkable at just how abundant these slithery creatures were. The historical remains of how Native Americans captured the eels is still visible in many places but one of these weirs was still extant at the mouth of stream at Danville, PA. The weirs are large V-shaped stone structures on the river bed that forced the eels heading downstream into a narrow funnel for netting or spearing. They took them out by the tons even up to the early 20th century- before the river dams ended that migration. The article's author believed that some of these Susquehanna weirs dated back to the time of the pyramids.
Along with the eels, we can thing of the river teaming with shad and maybe even salmon or sturgeon? And then there’s the passenger pigeons that flew over the northeast in vast flocks. So it doesn’t take long to contemplate disappearing species to cause a despair at just how impoverished we are in a certain sense. It is even more discouraging when we regard this in terms of human greed, short sightedness and insensitivity. I think of this today in terms of fracking and the construction looming of an LNG plant in my hometown. All that wanton greed in that area of PA is a furtherance of this abomination. Also all along the North Branch of the Susquehanna River are the massive walls of the canal that was there in the early 19th century. When kayaking the river I often speculate about the tremendous amount of physical labor that went into the construction of the canal- truly Herculean.
In regards to history of that area of the Susquehanna River near Wyalusing, there is extensive research by Katie Faull of Bucknell University. Here study has revealed how the early settlers at the Moravian Mission there recorded the abundance of all types of wildlife and their knowledge of local herbs and mushrooms. That history is part of the destruction and desecration by the 265 acre paving-over of the site of the original Moravian village, known as Friedenshutten by the construction of the planned LNG.
But back to barns. Growing up in a predominantly dairy farm area there was an abundance of these old structures that we all took for granted. But when I was teenager, my father was painting barns as one of his main subjects. He also gave me a book by a wonderful painter of barns, another Pennsylvanian, Eric Sloan, who hailed from nearby Lockhaven, PA. His oil paintings of barns were wonderful. They were well composed and portrayed with beautiful light. My father also gifted me with a book of Andrew Wyeth’s work too. So the influence and appreciation was there.
But barns are one of those themes, that can border on the hackneyed or overworked. Other motifs in this slippery slope could be lighhouses and covered bridges. But with some honest effort, and authentic study, I feel that we painters need not feel that they are off limits or taboo. I recently painted a series of lighthouses on the coast of Maine and absolutely loved being next to waves on the craggy rocks portraying these beacons- along with the tourists all taking photos. It didn’t matter, it was enjoyable.
Impermanence as a underlying contemplation for painting has been on my mind as of late. In the past year I have been painting still lifes again after a break of quite a few years. And the history of this genre is steeped in the idea of temporality. The objects of still life, such fruit and flowers being impermanent and fleeting are often combined with other objects of mortality, like skulls.
Portraying the effects of fugitive, but beautiful light and passing clouds along with barns and Victorian era homes also brings the landscape genre of painting into the process of appreciating the fragility of life. When you add in rusting tractors, plows and cars into the depiction as with this recent painting and others these inclusions also underscore the eventual entropy and passing of all things. I suppose this could be morose, but I think it enlivens too, or has that potential. We realize the brevity of life if not even the sacred nature of so much as well.
You may ask why I included women in the title of this essay. Well, it is somewhat of stretch, but I liked the juxtaposition between the animate and inanimate- women and barns. But the beauty of light on the portrait of a woman or on a depiction of the nude in afternoon light is equally as temporary as a still life or architecture. We are all here for a short time and we would hope that good stewardship of the land, while honoring history and our relationships is all part of the mix.