Slightly mineral, the fresh morning air arrives cool from a slight breeze off the Shilshole Bay. After moving around and traveling so much recently, I feel I need to sit still for a while. I take a thermos of strong coffee to the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks, locally known as the “Ballard Locks,” where I plan to think and look at the water. They’re curious, the Ballard Locks. Here, Seattle’s main freshwater lakes, Lake Washington and Lake Union, mix and mingle with the salty inland sea of Puget Sound. The Ballard Locks connect the bodies. They are intricately engineered to move hulking commercial ships, tugs, and barges—as well as smaller pleasure crafts and kayaks, up and down a 26-foot elevation. But this infrastructure was also designed to prevent damage to the freshwater ecosystem and salmon. The locks are an important part of the region’s maritime history since 1916, and with more than a hundred thousand boats, over a million tons of transported cargo, and more than one million people visiting annually, the Ballard Locks are also an intricate mix and mingle of human life.
I wanted space to think because I had just crossed the country once again, in a move that brought me back to the Northwest. And after the disruption of a move, the clumsy orchestration of one big truckload of life to a new one, my entire studio ultimately remains packed away in storage. I lived here years ago and was forever changed by the area’s integration of life, nature, and water in its endless forms and dramatic hydrologic cycles. Though much has changed here, I feel it all anew. At the same time there is an undercurrent of feelings and new ideas that are too inchoate to process straightaway. A rich budding often emerges during travels, especially during a proper residency where the destination is designed and well equipped to produce work. Moving is very different. These are exciting changes. They are also unsettling, and render a studio practice difficult to set in motion.
This early in the morning the Ballard Locks are calm, emptied of their usual tourist buzz, but water traffic is always steady. The bells ring out urgently to the metal locking gates. “Watch your lines!” call out the Corps workers as a strange orchestration cycles through—boats and ships, lines-throwing and tying lines with the rise and fall of the water. All the while local commuters, bicyclists, and runners cross and pass. Me too. I make my way, looking down for seals and salmon near the edges and then I sit down and look at the water. After a few moments, I take out my paints. I have to think, and I need to think in colors.
When traveling, I invariably pack my old tins and a few small sable brushes. Watercolor is a medium I take seriously by others—Homer, Wyeth, O’Keeffe, and my mentor, Grace Hartigan. It’s undervalued a bit in contemporary art, but I like that. As a dark horse of art, watercolor handles like a private, immediate conceptualizer; capable of grabbing moments, laying out ideas in color. And though very difficult to command perfection—often it works better without—this water-soluble medium is extremely complex in its economy, without the pressure of finished work. Watercolors slow me down, bring me back to the wildness of materials at an intimate scale. It is intensely personal; at once vigorous and then startlingly tender. All, it seems, at the palm of the hand. Particularly, the medium’s uncertain expressiveness draws me into it. These are the properties embodying the idea of letting go. Their inherently inchoate attitude allows for the necessary sprezzatura I need begin again. But especially here.
I have been just watching the water, deep in reflection, when the all-encompassing sensation of shifting internal layers take hold. Water and its ecosystems, the mystery of unseen aquatic life: it is an all-encompassing maritime experience immediately stirring a series of deep chords. Submerged, there are immediate circumstances and memories. It seems appropriate that the freshwater separates and intermingles with the sea’s saltwater inner-workings right here. This is the undercurrent, I’m thinking, it moves on with or without me.
I’m stirring my tins with water. I’m laying out brushes, a rag, everything that fits into a small pack along with a few books. I peer down into the water, poised. What I’m trying to do is discover something ultimately ungraspable. I attempt, and probably fail, to orchestrate space and time in an attempt to capture the elusive lyrical nature of water, of underwater, the indifferent forms of the otherness involving disparate aquatic habitats unforeseen. It takes just one small painting and I am lost in it; lost in the rushing, forever swirling flotsam that in pale yellow rose blooms continuously curl in outwardly reaches.
When I sit up, I face the arched spillway that maintains the water level of the lakes. This is where young salmon pass safely downstream through smolt flumes. I regard the little painting I just made. It’s curiously satisfying—the first of many to come, mysteriously unforeseen like the under-passing aquatic life. On the opposite side of the locks there is a twenty-one step Fish Ladder. This ingenious system allows safe passage around the locks for the arduous migratory journey of spawning salmon. Adult salmon swim from the ocean to the tributary streams. They pass around the locks and continue to Lake Washington and Lake Sammamish. It seems they are always on the move. Pacific salmon hatch in freshwater rivers, streams, and lakes before migrating seaward as smolts. At the end of their life they return to fresh water to lay their eggs, and the cycle begins again.
I understand the time it takes to throw oneself, heart and soul, back into the flow of a healthy studio practice. In coaxing a habit of work, I have returned to the unique vocabulary of watercolor: painting backwards, transparency, effusive blending, and embracing expressive coincidences. Work is a garden one needs to cultivate. It takes a concerted effort and loving commitment. It is never very easy. Otherwise, why would it be worth it?
The water is complex enough; surface tension shifts, contradictory currents pulling underneath. It’s continuously changing. As I try to understand through color, shape, implied movement, it remains evasive. What’s important in understanding water is that it takes compassion for the unseen. Often its design suggests clarity. It lets you glimpse beneath the surface, but only momentarily; the water always changes its mind. And sitting, looking deep, thinking and painting, there is much more.
A Great Blue Heron swoops low and vigilantly against the cold rushing waters, turns from slate-gray blue to burnt umber and chestnut against the green tinge of lock water. The heron lights on the southern, Magnolia side where just the other day I stood beneath a great rookery of slightly swinging nests located high above the pathway. All day long they fly overhead. Now, thirty-feet below the Fish Ladder switchback, the heron stands quieted to the edge of dark swells. The dominance of this oddly prehistoric-looking creature in its natural hunting arena is captivating. Far above, urban foot traffic teems with bicycles, buggies, runners, and gaggles of tourists. In the close water breeze the heron’s long shaggy plumage transforms into a 1920s Flapper dress. Meanwhile, behind me, the locks fill up and let out, rise and fall, and bells urgently growl. Directly to the west are indifferent forms: the Salmon Bay Bridge, a single-leaf bascule bridge, falls from its counterweighted, upward position. A train crawls through its steel through-truss and crosses the canal, carrying a large airplane fuselage that looks like slow-moving rocketship. A seaplane passes over.
The whole time I’m watching, I’m thinking: this all about the mix and mingle. Ostensibly, I’m attempting to make this small slight painting embody an actual marine ecosystem, they way it coexists with freshwater habitats, and, with us. I’m immersed in descriptive color, sudden limpidity, and the intimation of contrasting movement. I am working wetness, vastness, translucency, and the unseen spectacular natural forces. Because … perhaps there is a further level of symbolism here? Then I think, after several paintings—am I really able to coax this much of a mere watercolor?
Sometimes, when I am deeply involved in the studio, painting, I really do believe it. Right now, I am so inside its careful consideration that I am comparing human conflict to the sea, and a tidal of emotion mixes with part of human nature. I believe it. I am attentive and emotive with the only visceral response I think I really understand, through the poetic language of paint. Isn’t it true that water is the most common symbol of the unconscious? It is a lucid form, a sensory theme, that constantly fluctuates between the internal and external, the personal and the public. And it becomes a liminal set between human and non-human, physically and biologically taking us to the underworld. And the extremity of coexisting ecosystems is allegorical to the frequency of human struggle. Painting water with watercolors provides a commentary on the universality of experience and value of the recognition of this tolerance. Empathizing with water by being mindful to look close is metaphysical and transformative. However, I’m an artist, not a scientist. I’m not positing how environments are held together–though I can’t tell you how often I feel I am a scientist of some sort, asking what can be obtained from intensive observation and emotive expression!
What begins as an intimate exploration of the actions of water and aquatic life emerges as the relentless forces of reality, both man-made and marine, through the daily practice of beginning again. What this entails is the allegory of exhaustion, the resultant and lucky unreliability of perception, and a willing embrace of continuous uncertainty. As I paint, I’m discovering something new. It’s both an intensive environmental dispatch of the mix and mingle of fresh water and the salty sea, while also an immersive interchange of nature within the trajectories of the human sphere.
Once, years ago, I abashedly allowed my mentor, Ab-Ex Painter, Grace Hartigan, to have a look at some of my watercolor ideas. She scoffed at them and said, “Do what I do, Rob, take them in the shower with you.”
Endurance and the Art of Guido van der Werve: Nummer veertien, home
For me, the act of running is pure and sublime. Minimal in preparation, the simple tying on of a pair of sneakers and slipping out the front door makes the ordinary a bit wild. Even the short distances I run, hovering around five or six miles, are always a worthy journey because of the chance at the unknown. This active contemplation in nature often brings me home drenched and sour, my legs scratched and briar-laden, sneakers caked with mud. But the pace allows the mind to wander, and in endurance is solitude. The act brings one with nature; in a way, we become wild. I return exhausted always, but complete.
Guido van der Werve is an artist/composer/filmmaker who, through the need to create an autobiographical work, became interested in mountaineering. His ultimate goal was to climb Mount Everest. For Mountaineers it is necessary to acclimatize at the base camp of Mount Everest (5,400 meters) for two months to improve the blood’s capacity to transport oxygen. This seemed the ideal time for van der Werve to work on this autobiographical work. For him the possible looming near-death experience could trigger a deep, reflective mood. In preparation, he summited Aconcagua in Argentina, the highest mountain outside of Asia (6,962 meters). It was a certain test of high altitude, but the experience was not pleasant. Said van der Werve of the experience:
I had expected it to be tough, but the lack of oxygen made me feel terminally ill. I think I was looking for wisdom during this period and was hoping to find some at the summit. I had heard the stories: “If you make it to the summit, you realize it’s all worth it” and “You climb up a boy and you come down a man.” After two weeks of pain and suffering, we finally reached the summit. Besides being completely exhausted, I didn’t feel anything. I decided to leave my Mount Everest ambitions for what they were.
After resigning from the possibility of coaxing out a reflective mood with a near-death experience on Everest, van der Werve created the exploit artificially by composing a requiem. This would become the soundtrack for Nummer veertien, home, Guido van der Werve’s most recent work—a 54-minute poetic film, intertwining his youth in Papendrecht, Netherlands with the lives of his childhood heroes, Frédéric Chopin and Alexander the Great. All is told and structurally based on van der Werve’s lovely classical requiem: three movements and twelve acts.
The movements correspond to the three disciplines in the triathlon (swim, bike, run). The twelve acts follow the classical structure of the requiem (1. Introitus, 2. Kyrie Eleison, 3. Gradual, 4. Communion, 5. Sequence, 6. Tract, 7. Sanctum, 8. Agnus Dei, 9. Offertory, 10. Libera me, 11. Pie Jesu, 12. In Paradisum). I didn’t use the original mass text but wrote my own libretto. The texts are based on my diaries, experiences, memories, and the mass text itself. The twelve parts of the requiem are all in a different minor key so the requiem becomes half a book of preludes. The musical theme consists of the notes d.e.a.d.
As a young pianist of twenty, Frédéric Chopin filled a silver goblet with soil from his boyhood home of Warsaw and embarked on tour of Europe. As war broke out, he was never to return. In Paris he settled in self-exile where, for eighteen years, he composed music based on Polish folk melodies and musical structures: Mazurkas and Polonaises. When Chopin lay dying in Paris, 1849, at the young age of 39, he was longing for his homeland and asked his eldest sister, Ludwika Jędrzejewicz, that his heart return to his beloved Poland. He died soon after and, dutifully, she had the organ removed, preserved in excellent cognac, and wax-sealed within a crystal jar. After spiriting the package beneath her skirt, she stealthily passed Austrian and Russian border guards to eventually rest her brother’s heart in a pillar at Warsaw’s Holy Cross Church. It bears an inscription from the Book of Matthew 6:21: “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”
Nummer veertien, home is a loving, endurance journey of promise, solitude, and resolute longing. The film, expressed by van der Werve’s soulful requiem, also acts as a visually voluble cinematic interlude of sublimity. It begins with piano and a slow cascading movement down the pillar to Chopin’s heart’s grave. Steadily the scene pulls back to reveal van der Werve in a forbidding rubber wetsuit at a Steinway grand. Atop the piano sits a silver cup (a vessel he will subsequently fill with the soil of Chopin’s boyhood home). Continuously the scene opens to the ensuing violins, then the entire orchestra spanning the dark hardwood pews of Holy Cross Church. As if the camera is attuned to adagio the interior expands vertically to balcony, pipe organ, and the succeeding choir. All twenty string instruments and a forty-piece choir is framed in a brilliant uninterrupted sequence; movement matching the score—a cinematic motif and foreshadow of an arduous passage to come.
The visual journey is also an actual extreme performance on which the traveler has shed everything extraneous. Stripped down to the essentials, the self is reduced to its barest rudiments, leaving just the baggage of thought. At the end of that opening scene, van der Werve, stands from the piano in his rubber wetsuit, takes the silver cup, and parts the orchestra. Comically, and yet with complete earnestness, he runs up the road to step into the river, and to begin swimming 26.6 km. The breadth and depth of the river engulf van der Werve. He plies heroically against its aggressive, muddled water. The entire duration of the actual journey took van der Werve over three weeks, a triathlon covering more than 1,500 kilometers—seven times the length of an Ironman. From the Church of the Holy Cross in Warsaw to the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris, he swam 27 km in two days, cycled nearly 1,400 km in eight days, and ran the remaining 289 km in seven days.
I’ve been running from the age of sixteen, but never in a very structured way. In 2008, I finished my film “number twelve” and, after working on that project for two years for fourteen hours a day, I needed some distraction. I started running to clear my head and soon I found myself running daily. In 2009 I ran my first marathon, in 2010 I ran three marathons, and in 2011 I ran 100 kilometers around my house in Finland. Last year, I started doing triathlons. Running gives me the structure to organize my life, it helps me to stay clear in my head, and by running you produce endorphins and other substances that make you feel good. I never saw races as goals, but I always enjoyed the running itself. I always think it’s a pity that the race is finished, I would rather continue. For this reason I started doing longer races and I’m currently training for an Ironman triathlon.
Adequately capacious, clear and brilliant, the landscape broods with sublimity. Spring is sweeping in, emitting an even light that stirs up the deepest colors, the richest shadows. It’s a different kind of saturation, a light that is water-soaked. It’s a landscape that is heavy laden with weather. This sensitivity is expressively captured in cinematography, offering paths through the landscape where the journey becomes implicitly mythic, steeped in van der Werve’s haunt of heroes. Landscape is not just a backdrop, it’s a living character. It is simply an amplification of the way that environment lifts the soul. The roads winding through bucolic melancholic fields are threads of a story—the rivers and streams are coruscating surfaces that are doorways into other worlds. These doorways become literal when the film moves to the artist’s birthplace. Laid out in a grassy lot along the river, the entire orchestra plays. The moody weather brushes the trees, early in bud, and accentuated by a burst of forsythia behind the cello section. Far right, van der Werve enters in a dark suit completely on fire. He crosses in front of the orchestra and straight into the river to douse the flames.
These volatile tensions mark the film as nearly as comical as it is poignant. The series of calamities represent epiphanies that embody a bittersweet coming of age yearning. The admixture of the outlandish, literally explosive moments are appropriate as van der Werve plays them deadpan. The comic underlies his earnest, careworn demeanor. These explicable metaphors create a wild actuality that leaves us pining for something left in our heart—that place we try to get as far away from as we can; the landscape of family, friends, scents, sounds we dote on through our entire lives. Home.
I abstracted a few important childhood memories to integrate into the script. Abstracting my personal memories and experiences is a process that I always apply in my work. I try to make my work as open as possible by doing this; I abstract the narrative until only the mood is left. Mood is a medium that everybody can relate to and, more importantly, everyone has their own relationship to the mood. The artist stops being important.
As a distance runner, I feel the endurance and solitude in Nummer veertien, home. When van der Werve finally reaches Paris, framed against the teeming traffic and the city-ambient noise, he is dreadfully worn. He rests on a iron gate, sweat-drenched, pain-squinted. This is where the oneiric and metaphysical become realistic: his tired slump, the heavy breaths. It feels like an ending and brings to mind Chopin’s Prelude in E minor Op.28 No.4.—heart beating and breathing, despair at the same time searching, slowing relenting, but with resolve. Incidentally, it was one of the pieces played at the composer’s funeral.
When I’m running my mind is blank and when I stop, I’m confronted once again with my thoughts, demons, and everyday life. For this reason I don’t run to finish, but see the finish line as a starting line for the next race. I think that this is the reason why I couldn’t understand mountaineering. I would rather circle the mountain than climb it. I’m not interested in routes from A to B but more in the distance in-between.
Reaching Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, where Chopin’s body (sans heart) rests among luminaries such as Oscar Wilde, Sarah Bernhardt, and Jim Morrison, van der Werve places the silver cup of Polish soil and simply moves from the screen. Is he more of an embodiment of his accumulated miles, swimming, biking, running; is he the incarnation of enduring forward motion? The Art World’s cinematic poet of willpower, endurance, struggle and solitude, Nummer veertien, homeis a performative feat of self-containment and a yearning to a return to innocence through a harmony with nature, and a continuum of the push and pull of the homeland.
Images: Film stills from “Nummer veertien, home” (2012).
See it here in its original form at the Michigan Quarterly Review:
I like to think of drawing in Martin Heidegger’s use of the Greek term poiesis, or the process of the thing blossoming out of itself like the opening of a flower bud—or, even more pointedly, like the melting of a frozen body of water and the ensuing rush of waterfall. Poiesis is the process by which burgeoning creativity passes a threshold and is quickly released into fruition.
Robert Sparrow Jones, “The End of Islander,” Graphite on Arches Paper, 6″ x 5″, 2013
In the studio right now there are a few unfinished canvases leaning against the wall. Through the windows, the west Michigan snow has been falling on and off for the past few days. Every time I shovel the walk, a few hours later it has filled up again, leaving only a trace of my boot prints and shovel scuff. In front of the easel, solitary, self-possessed, I am tending to the third in a series of drawings. I say “tending” because I am allowing each of them to grow without exactly understanding why or where they might take me. They are mysterious and liminal, and yet upon completion I find them as satisfying as a finished painting. Drawing is a discipline that has always been the core to my practice. In the studio, drawing is sometimes feral and filled with the thrill of uncertainty. But it is also as curative as nature itself. The process stirs the imagination and always makes me feel I have been deployed on some old-worldly scientific expedition. However transitional and fragmentary, or complete and accurate, the discipline is a universal to many different artistic outputs. In my work, drawing is inseparable to painting.
Robert Sparrow Jones, “Tommygun,” Graphite on Arches Paper, 4″ x 5″, 2013
Each painting I make starts as a complete drawing on the canvas. I think of my paintings as drawings because of their continual use of line on top of the design. Conceptually, painting and drawing connect with me differently, but drawing is a parallel to the work, and not separate. Discovering drawings by artists as preliminaries to further works can be an exciting prospect like an archeological dig. Idea sketches from Louise Bourgeois, Joseph Beuys, or Wyeth; whether these are dashed off, furtive in shape and form or furious in labeling and writing (the best kind!), they feel imperative because we are able to experience the artist’s thought process. It’s especially important because we are made privy that with any work of art, from a postulation of Smithson to the emotive sketchbook of Käthe Kollwitz, it takes many errors to coax an idea into existence.
Robert Sparrow Jones, “Master’s Pond,” Graphite on Arches Paper, 4″ x 4″, 2013
It is through these intimate works that we are able to witness the simplification of an elaborate concept because the visual language of drawing is direct and primal. It’s a visual ontological process directed from the mind, the heart, and straight to the hand. With this intimacy in mind and artists aside, some of the best drawings I have ever seen were the ones created and given to me by complete strangers in the form of directions. These are true formative works because the creator attempted to explain something with just enough visual description that in turn, something of essence is left behind. These take the form of oblique scribbles on the back of a receipt, a quickly ripped tear-shaped notebook paper containing a slopping list of directives, or a glossy sliver of magazine, blue ink in the margin, a meander of lines leading to a tiny square and a inadvertent thumbprint—each contains something pure and spontaneous. Beauty buds in the haste and the informative. Ideation should always be this concise and rewarding. Many of those maps I have kept and found again and again.
Robert Sparrow Jones, “Hart,” Graphite on Arches Paper, 6″ x 9″, 2014
They end up intact, as a bookmark for Flaubert, or at the bottom of my bedside table drawer under loose change and a pocket knife. As urgent as the notes are made, their meaning, for the life of me, has been all but lost. They are still so compelling that one can make a painting directly from them. My own thoughts dial around their archaic symbols and half-words, the key of which had been pantomimed on a cold snowy walk or cupped into a rolled-down car window—If you see this, you will know. You can’t miss it; the catalpa tree on the left. There is a bend in the road, like this, like an elbow—all is completely lost. These thought details are the only remainders of brief intimacy.
Robert Sparrow Jones, “Birches,” Graphite on Arches Paper, 4″ x 6″, 2013
My first series of drawings came out of this. Since I was a boy, I have been obsessed and placated by the experience of nature. Because I was traveling through Spain I needed to create very small, intimate works. I was thinking of strength and fragility in nature. I felt the works needed to fit in the palm of a hand, slipped into a pocket or a wallet for a few weeks, risking wear from the passage of time. At such a small scale they were also haunting. As they developed as ideas the drawings became more intricate. Later on, in my frustration with the state of nature today, to escape into something, I begin to make larger paintings from these small works as a discourse on nature’s most vicious predators, mankind. I had to work hard to not lose the vulnerability and purity of passion the smaller drawings embodied. Before that, all the drawing I had done was surreptitiously covered up with paint, like the snow on my Michigan walk. I enjoyed that it was like a secret, that if you looked hard enough you could discover the intimacies of wild thought. A craze of charismatic concentric circles dashing off the carnation of idea, arriving obscure, sullen, recalcitrant, and foreign. This would become a simple contour of a downward-cambered rhododendron bush. Later that bush would sprout into a tree, where the ghost of the rhododendron at its foot suddenly resembled an emptying pond.
Robert Sparrow Jones, “Signal to Noise,” Graphite on Arches Paper, 10.5″ x 13.5″, 2014
Or better, the active afterimage of a torso and leg I could not get right. Sometimes ideas can be difficult to tame. Obsessively, I reconstructed them over and over again so that movement was better captured than accurate form. All stages remain as design architecture. Stumbling awkward textures fill passages with inadvertent and useful scumble. It forms character in the work. Each painting still begins as a labor of graphite, because it is an immediate and inaccurate way of fumbling into a more sophisticated, emotional work. Tidying up isn’t necessary because subsequent layers added in the various viscosities of color material show the underneath as a trace of something true—like those once-dashed-off maps through the gracious hands of accosted strangers. As controlled as they may appear, my most recent series of drawings are very wild to me. Sometimes drawing feels like the only lucid cerebral space. A door opens to the magic when the mind is churning out ideas and there is nothing in between—kindness, forgiveness, humility. Even though creating new work should breed some new discourse, I think we should not be encumbered with such heaviness—only perfunctory notes, as a drawing practice is less about the outside as it is internal. Poiesisin drawing is harboring concepts and letting go, allowing for the bloom of the flower to unfold and form into its fully-realized self. Because later it is about discovering harmonies and mending our connections to the world incarnate.
Robert Sparrow Jones, “Swan, Swan II (Cygnus atratus),” Graphite on Somerset, 22.5″ x 30″, 2015
Robert Sparrow Jones, “Archer,” Graphite on Arches Paper, 6″ x 9″, 2014