Before I knew I was pregnant, I went on an adventure with a group of sound artists into an abandoned slaughterhouse in Commerce City just north of Denver. My colleagues were inspired to create work in the space after hearing about out creative sessions in the blast tunnels of the Titan missile silo. They wanted to make music while channeling the charged energy that filled the space. While they produced music through practicing a style of Tuvan throat singing alongside drums and a didgeridoo, I wandered the haunted spaces convening with the ghosts of the animals who met their demise to meet the insatiable demands of a national diet centered on industrial meat. I photographed a series of interiors that I later used as source material for this set of mixed media paintings created in the first years of Thatcher Gray’s life, when I was exploring the industrial food machine. Integrating paper that I had shot with a shotgun and run over with my truck to print tire patterns with fresh tar, I painted the equipment with with watercolor and colored pencils to pay homage to the life lost here.
The landscape conveyed in Crop covers a widespread smattering of Intercontinental Ballistic Missile Silos, the largest of which are the now defunct Titan missile silos. One Titan was built east of Denver. The federal government acquisition of farmland to build this massive structure that was put in operation for only a few years. Then they took away the bombs and gave the land back to the farmer. Dismayed, he dug out an access hole through which we would enter and explore this monument to destruction. It breaks my heart to think of the immense amount of resources that went into the construction of this under ground complex which now lay in ruin. In 2007 a group of artists convened in the blast tunnels to create and record music in the unique acoustics of the spaces. Their works were imbued with the energy of the space which made for haunting explorations of sound. Some of these were turned into a sound installation that I included in the curation of a duo of exhibitions on genocide for the Mizel Museum and as a site specific installation for the International Society of Genocide Scholars in Sarajevo, Bosnia. I brought with me a set of high powered spotlights and photographed the spaces. When I started creating work about the industrial food complex, these seemed a good fit because the chemicals that are used in industrial agriculture were actually born out of war. The fixed nitrogen developed in making bombs in the world wars was re-appropriated to make fertilizer after the wars’ end. It was fitting to add these to the overall series exploring the complexities in the way we grow and consume food today. Painted with acrylic on canvas when Thatcher Gray was very young. I had shifted to using acrylic to reduce fumes from oil paint while he was a baby. I’m not wild about the medium so it was not a lasting conversion.
Motherhood changes us. For me, the arrival of Thatcher Gray caused a shift from explorations of the long term impacts of war to an internalization of how we nourish ourselves. Internally, I was growing a child, nourishing him within then using my body to feed him, so I became acutely aware of what I was putting in my body. As he started eating solid food, I became obsessed with where that food came from, how it was grown and the load of chemicals that could potentially add to our body burdens. We started growing our own food. Before creating artworks that emphasized solution oriented practices, I explored how to represent the impacts of petrochemicals. This series of mixed media works on paper integrated a base texture made from a silkscreen print of collaged plastic that I had singed with a blowtorch. I transferred photographs of the oil refinery in Commerce City, just north of Denver. These photographs were taken during a rainstorm while Thatcher was safely cuddled at home with grandma. They are abstracted by the movement of my car as I was driving by. Generally I like to compose landscapes with slow consideration, but this particular afternoon I was confronted by hefty plain clothed security guards within 3 minutes of stepping out of my car, even though I was on a public avenue. The angles of the drive by photographs coupled with the often blurred motion recorded by the camera added a dynamic quality to the compositions that are similar to the textures wrought by a shotgun blast, both processes being slightly out of control. Into this foundation, I painted out aspects of the industrial landscape with oils to highlight the skewed angles and add atmospheric depth.
I was only able to compose two images of the Commerce City Oil Refinery in the rain before being asked to leave by plain clothed security guards. I felt compelled to create these landscapes of the industry which drives our mobilities-centered culture as the start to an exploration of how petro chemicals dominate our era. They are painted with thin veils of oil paint interspersed with drawings made with conte crayon on unstretched canvas.
When I was pregnant, I had the opportunity to listen to one of the impassioned speeches given by Vrnda Noel in Denver. Mother of a combat medic in Iraq, she shared deeply emotive stories of what was happening there based on letters written home by her son. She had made him promise to write about his experiences in minute detail. Ultimately this ended up being cathartic for him as there were many traumatic situations that he was able to let go, and then forget. The speech she was giving was during an anti-war rally outside our local senators’ offices and I was struck by the expressions of love, sorrow and fear that passed through her delicate features. After his return to the US, they created a number of participatory creative projects that spoke to the impacts of war and the process of healing the mental wounds from it. Empty army boots and civilian shoes installed in Civic Center Park represented the growing death toll on both sides of the conflict. The combat paper project helped Vets transform by encouraging them to purge frustrations by destroying uniforms, then use the pulp to create artworks. Their practices inspired some aspects of the community work I’ve developed over the years since.
This series of portraits was included in the very first exhibition I had after Thatcher Gray was born. I created them while he was in my womb, and the process allowed me to consider this relationship between a mother and her war torn son. Shreds of oil paintings that I had torn apart with a shotgun were used as the base of a collage, which I then laid hot coals atop to produce a speckling of charred board across the picture plain. Pencil drawings depict the range of expressions that passed through Vrnda as she spoke with determination about her love for her son, and as an extension, all of the other sons affected by war.
One of the most shocking effects of climate change out west is the explosion of the pine beetle. Without a period of deep freeze across a full month of time, the beetles were not kept in check by the normal cycle of the winter season. So they spread like wildfire and killed huge swaths of lodgepole pines. Whole mountain ranges became cloaked in the rust colored dead forest. Because of the dry climate, this led to mega-wildfires. Where fire is essential to the cycle of the forests in the west, these super fires wrought nothing but destruction. The lumber is still good, but the market became quickly saturated, so landowners had a hard time finding ways to clear their dead woods and still make ends meet from the clearing. The Lazy Shamrock Ranch has a tree farm in the higher elevations of the ranch. The trees were infected and ultimately logged out to make toilet paper. We enjoyed several bonfires of slash over the years it took to clear the wood. By the time they had cleared the breadth of their tree farm, young trees started growing. It ends up that beetles target trees that are tired. Development disrupts the natural cycle of fire, so we end up with aged forests. When the young trees are growing, even in an outbreak of pine beetle, they produce enough sap that the beetle cannot burrow under the bark, so they thrive. I made these four oil paintings on canvas as intimate portraits of infected trees. I was heartbroken to see such dramatic shifts in the landscape, but I also realize we are experiencing great changes in our time.
en plein air
My father spent over 50 years working at the Lazy Shamrock Ranch. Ultimately he became known as the master irrigator throughout the ranching community of the Blue River Valley. We would join him in the spring time when the snow melt run-off was at its highest, so that he could direct the water, spreading it across the meadows to give the grass a good soaking before the summer dryness would set in. In good years, a monsoon season would water the fields later in the season, so this gave a good start to the grass being able to thrive and feed the cattle. It was here that I had the space to work with a shotgun and create textural foundations to my paintings. This series was created in my favorite aspen groves. These areas were magic for me when I was growing up and to this day, when I think of my absolute favorite places, it is the aspen grove which brings me most peace. The shimmering light filtered through quaking leaves, the soft and smooth white bark, the familial nature of the groves and the wildflowers that abound all come together to make an ideal landscape. I would spend days lost in my imagination while wandering with the fairies and sprites who inhabit these groves. By this time in my life, I camped out alone to have the solitude to create these paintings of my most favorite place on earth.
en plein air
After irrigating on the Lazy Shamrock Ranch for over 50 years, my father was asked to restore an old network of ditches that had fallen into dis-use at the neighboring Shadow Creek Ranch. Because the Flanigans were keeping some of their cattle there, they urged my dad to take the offer as they knew that he would grow more ‘groceries’ on which to sustain the large herd. Shadow Creek was taking a unique approach to ranching. They had subdivided a portion of the ranch to build luxury homes then hired ranch hands to run the operation. Part of the package was the use of little hunting cabins perched high above the ranches. Instead of commuting back and forth, we stayed together in one of these little cabins for a while during his time working there. Cooking over a campfire, sleeping out under the stars, waking up to spectacular views of the Gore range and exploring the immediate woodlands were sheer delight. I created a series of plein-air paintings of a nearby forest hollow that was filled with fallen trees. The tangle of massive trunks was visually appealing. The cool shadows of the forest in this area offered a respite from the glaring early summer sun. I felt dwarfed by the size of the piled up wood and it brought me back to my childhood and the awe that I felt by these landscapes. These works are small scale oil on card.