Speculating: Why I Paint So Many Islands

Philip Koch, The Violet Whisper, oil on canvas, 30 x40"

Artists frequently return to paint the same theme again and again. Me, I seem to do islands.

Last night I had a nightmare about a hunter bleeding a captive deer to death. In the dream I want to rescue the deer but am unable, feeling impotent and terrified. Danger and loss are tough topics for any of us. And anything that offers escape from them is a balm for one's heart. It's also a crucial theme in art.

As a landscape painter, I've always been puzzled by my own lack of interest in painting the wide open sea. Or large waves crashing on the rocks. It's a theme that fascinated one of our best painters, Winslow Homer. As a boy there was a Homer watercolor print in our living room and he was the first painter I could identify by name. But I seem to want none of Homer's bursting waves.

The week I turned four we moved to a new house my father had built on the shore of Lake Ontario outside of Rochester, NY. My dad worked a lot and when he was home he tended to bury himself reading technical journals (he was a mad physicist). When I was about seven he and I took an overnight trip from Rochester to New Bedford, MA to buy an 11' rowboat/sailboat. To me this was a big deal. We brought it home and he taught me how to sail. Doing this together with him is my happiest memory.

Lake Ontario was often rough and always was on the cold side. Where we lived faced open water with no inlet or peninsula to shelter us from the prevailing wind that roared down from Canada. The simple dock my father installed was wiped away by the first big storm. Undaunted, he'd struggle to launch and then land the boat, half lifting and half dragging it over the rocks. Late in the first summer we had the boat the waves banged it against the rocks and ripped a huge hole in its bottom. My father carefully repaired it with epoxy resins and fiberglass cloth, but the following year the same thing happened in an even bigger storm. The boat was literally smashed into pieces. We only found a small section of her stern. I felt the loss of the boat keenly. Without the sailing I saw much less of my dad. He died just a few years later at age of 49. With him gone, I realized in his quiet way he had been the glue that held my family together. I'm very grateful for the time I had with him and his leaving when I was just 13 was sharply painful.

Once as an adult I had a powerful dream where in a storm I go down to the Ontario beach expecting to see crashing waves and discover instead three small barrier islands have magically appeared 100 yards off shore. There's a small sailboat moored behind the middle one, bobbing happily up and down in the protected waters waiting for me. The island felt like guardians, making it possible to negotiate the rough waters.

There are many literal and figurative storms that sweep through our lives. For me the image of rough water comes a little too close to home. I need to keep the feelings I associate with it at arm's length. Sheltering islands can come in a lot of forms. One wonderful example is a partner who knows how to be a genuine friend. A personally meaningful job, like painting, is another.

There are lots of rough, cold waters out there. Painting sheltering islands helps me feel centered and safe, but also intrigued and excited- they make all sorts of great things possible. I'll be painting islands for a long time to come.


  1. Hi Philip,
    Long, irrelevent story as to how I stumbled upon your blog. Regardless of how, here I am and need to tell you it struck a chord in that I, too was affected by an island, permanently and profoundly last Summer. Visited Monhegan Island, ME for a week. Felt a physical connection to place that was undeniable and real! I have arranged to return for four weeks this Summer, knowing it won't BEGIN to satisfy this urge to paint every square inch of it- During different seasons, times-of-day, weather conditions... I'm hooked! In other words, I see your attraction for sure!


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