One of the galleries in the Saginaw Art Museum
The art shippers came today and loaded 50 of my paintings onto the largest truck in America. They're taking the traveling exhibition Unbroken Thread: The Art of Philip Koch out to the Saginaw Art Museum in Michigan for its Dec. 9 opening (the show runs through Feb. 19, 2012). You can see a preview about the exhibit that Midwest Gallery Guide magazine will run in its December issue on the "News" page of my website. I'm excited to see the work in the Museum's big spaces.
The "Thread" from the exhibit's title runs back into my history and into American art history. It's a thread that ties me to the American landscape painters from the past, especially the Hudson River School. The impact their art had on me in my early days can hardly exaggerated.
Arriving in 1970 at my graduate program in painting at Indiana University I was burning with excitement to become a "real" painter. I'd mastered some hard won drawing and painting skills without a clear idea of where I wanted those skills to take me. Some of my first paintings upon arrival were attempts to paint imaginary planets. As I hadn't spent much time on such worlds these early oils were a real jumble.
Amazing as it seems to me now, at the time I had no idea what 19th century American landscape painting looked like. Fortunately the Indiana University Art Museum had a few excellent examples,
in particular a to-die-for little John Frederick Kensett coastal scene. Intrigued by that one oil painting I rummaged through the school's art library and found not only other great Kensett's but lots of other painters who spoke to me. Looking back what I was responding to was how much these old American landscapists had painted a world that looked ever so much like my boyhood home on the shore of Lake Ontario right outside of Rochester, NY.
I didn't really want to paint just like these old guys- they could be too dark and way too detailed for my eye. But these paintings had something else- a remarkable emotional connection to places I felt I knew well. The lake shore by my house was cold and rocky and could easily be mistaken for coastal Maine, one of the favorite subjects of the Hudson River School. And they had painted every corner of the New England forests. I'd grown up right next door to New England in upstate New York and those forests hadn't stopped at the state line. They blanketed my hilly neighborhood.
Most of all what I'd been looking for was a tradition I could personally relate to. These painters had painted a world that felt deeply familiar in a way my imaginary worlds never would. They put a strong steady new wind in my sails. It has taken me far.
Here's one of the pieces I sent off today, West from Monhegan, oil on panel, 28 x 42", 2009. It's the island 12 miles off the coast of Maine that has been painted by so many of a later generation of American artists- Edward Hopper, Rockwell Kent, Robert Henri, George Bellows, and so on. This is the view looking back from Monhegan Island towards the mainland mountains near Camden, ME.
For the last 15 years or so I've adopted the practice of the older Hudson River School artists of basing my oil paintings on plein air drawings I do on location. As long time readers of this blog know, I never use photography as a source. Others can employ the camera, but for me it drains some of the magic of the experience. Working just from drawings and memory allows me to be free from the constraints of the actual observable colors that confront you.
Here's the drawing I did standing next to Monhegan's one room school house that served as my source for the above painting.
West from Monhegan, vine charcoal, 8 x 10", 2006
Another painting in the Museum show is Otter Cove, oil on canvas, 44 x 55." Otter Cove is a spot on the Atlantic side of Mount Desert Island. It's a place Thomas Cole and Frederick Church knew well. 2008 and below that is the vine charcoal I drew at Otter Cove that inspired the larger oil. As you can see, I like to move trees and islands around.
Mt. Desert Island, vine charcoal, 7 x 14", 2003
Both of these two charcoals were packed away in these heavy cardboard boxes along with the 33 other smaller works headed for the exhibit . Here they were this morning patiently waiting for the art shipper to arrive. Now that they're gone, boy does the studio seem big again. Guess I'll just have to paint something.