The Day I Became a Landscape Painter

Philip Koch, Looking South, oil on canvas, 18 x 36", 2006

Something that used to be a staple of American painting, the vast landscape panorama, had its heyday back in the mid 19th century. At that time the subject attracted the finest talents to mastering its challenge. Then fashions changed and more closed in views, where the far distance is reachable, came to predominate. Actually I love both kinds of landscape painting.

But if I had to choose (sort of a Sophie's Choice nightmare for painters) I'd have to say my heart is with the deep spaced paintings. It's not a rational choice, its more about where do I feel most deeply at home.

One of the highest purposes of being an artist is the task of noticing what's commonly going unnoticed by most people, and then finding a fresh way to present it to let people see what they're missing. In particular, those elusive qualities of meaning and beauty, so often get lost to us in the details and stresses pressed upon us by daily living. Want to tell you about the afternoon when I made the decision to become a landscape painter.

When I arrived at Indiana University in Bloomington in 1970 to begin my two year MFA in Painting program, I was young and running in several directions at once as a painter. I was serious and passionate about becoming a truly fine artist. But confusion was rampant. Then one afternoon I had a personal epiphany.

It was October. My wife was pregnant for the first time. I didn't know quite what to make of that having never been a father before. My own father had died when I was young so I had little experience with what a good father meant. So it was an exciting but also an unsettling prospect. In addition I'd just returned from bringing our beloved black cat back from the vet. He'd had come down with a nasty respiratory infection and the vet said his chances of living were at best 50/50 (fortunately he did survive, but was left partially crippled for the rest of his life). So death and life were on my mind. I was worried about all this and apprehensive about what the future held. And was confused as all heck as to what course to take with my painting.

I had climbed up the high hill in back of the house trailer where we lived as far as I could until the dense undergrowth forced me to stop. I sat down and fell into looking out over the long narrow valley where we lived. From this elevated point I could see for the first time the true silhouette of the opposing hill across the valley. Unremarkable when viewed from down in the valley, at this height one saw its monumental contours stretched over an elaborate series of arcs and straight lines. It looked remarkably like the elegant form of a Canadian goose in flight, an animal favorite of mine from childhood.

It was nearing sunset on an overcast day, and the light only managed the most subtle casts of yellow. The understated glow matched my interior mood and I felt a curious calm descend over me and all the rough edges seemed to fall away. Able to see literally for miles, the enormity of the world struck me as if for the first time. It seemed big enough to contain everything. All through this valley, I thought, both the most wonderful and tender things and yet also painful endings must be happening. The grand setting where it was all taking place seemed to me that afternoon so incredibly beautiful. Somehow that mysteriously made a feeling a acceptance and even gratitude flow through me.

I always remember that moment as a island of personal clarity. I decided sitting on that hillside that there is really nothing I want to do more than spend my time immersed in the big forms of the earth and sky and all the feelings they carry for me. I can't recreate that special moment I had that afternoon in 1970, but I can take to heart the meaning it held for me.


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