My Gratitude to Some Artist I'll Never Know

Philip Koch, Clearing, oil on canvas, 30 x 60 inches, 2022.

I was looking at my painting above, Clearing, Even a complex painting has to begin simply. Remembering how it started in my studio with me experimenting with different compositions of its basic flat shapes. At this stage it feels like arranging cut out colored paper on a flat table top. You can express a lot even with that.  I fell into reverie about my early days when I was an abstract painter.

When I studied painting at Oberlin College probably 90% of my canvases were simple colorful abstractions of flat shapes. At the time I hadn't seen how deeply ingrained this habit had become in my practice.

Something changed when I got to Indiana University to start their MFA Painting program. 

It's funny how sometimes we learn the most critical lessons from things that at first seem modest and unremarkable. I was visiting the studio of another artist in the program. In the corner was a small and not very striking landscape painting that had been left there by the studio's prior inhabitant.  I don't have an image of it but it looked like this:


It really was just that simple. It only tried to do one thing- create a deep space. The unknown artist had carefully broken up the forested edge of a field. In real life the woods would have flowed in a continuous line back to the horizon. Instead the painter created three separate groups of trees. Each group was a different flat shape and overlapped the shape in back of it. And the artist had given each flat shape a subtle but obviously different color. 

I had one of those moments when a lightbulb went off in my head. The little paintings said "you can carve out a deep space too!" On a gut level I realized a new door was creaking open. The moment felt so special.  I didn't want to talk about it and spoil what felt a little like magic to me. The woman whose studio I was visiting didn't understand why I was so taken by this admittedly unassuming landscape.  With disinterest she explained "I'm just keeping it until I can paint over it." 

I thanked her for the studio visit and left. I suspect that unknown artist went on to paint much stronger pieces. A few weeks later I myself began going outside to face the challenge of painting the deep spaces of the southern Indiana hills. Whoever that unknown artist was they will always have my gratitude.

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