paintings, photographs, and text by Jessica Ives
Painting is a matter of getting out to nature and having some joy in registering it. If you are not going to get a thrill, how can you give someone else one?
Do you see this photo? I love it, but that doesn’t mean you have to. I took it myself and it is not at all an example of photographic finesse. In it — look closely — is my husband, all thirty-four years of him, neck craned up with an expression of delight as he slips down the watery rockslide at Screw Auger Falls in Grafton Notch State Park. The early August light is dazzling but soft. The mountain water is screaming cold, I can assure you. And the bathing suits of kids bedazzle an otherwise ocher and peter-pan-green scene.
I have a second photo that shows my husband walking back up the falls for another ride. The moment in this photo has become a painting. There he is, slightly off balance in the rushing water. He is playful. He becomes a sequin in the scene just like all the other kids. He’s a big kid.
Screw Auger Falls, located in Western Maine close to the New Hampshire border, is a magical place. I took my turn dunking in the frigid water and bursting back to the surface with squeals. I slipped down the slides with the other kids and, also like the other kids, nearly cracked my tailbone scrambling back along the slick granite. I lost track of time as the forceful rush of water filled my ears and I was immersed in gratitude, joy, and deep care for a place I had only just come to know that day. Of course, I can acknowledge these emotions on conscious terms now but in that moment I was, simply, in that place.
My experience of timeless presence was bookended by wielding my camera on the one end, and on the other, by a jolting moment I shared with my husband. At one point, sun drenched but goose-bumped, we both looked up from the falls and noticed a large, awkward audience of adults sitting along the dry rocks nearest the parking lot…waiting…watching…silent…mostly expressionless. It made me sad to think that all these adults — some surely my peers — no longer felt a visceral tug to the waterfall’s beauty and power. I was reminded of Alexandra Horowitz’s words in her book, On Looking:
Part of normal human development is learning to notice less than we are able to. The world is awash in details of color, form, sound — but to function, we have to ignore some of it. The world still holds these details. Children sense the world at a different granularity, attending to parts of the visual world we gloss over; to sounds we have dismissed as irrelevant. What is indiscernible to us is plain to them.
Kids jump, fall, dunk, roll, splash, slide, and scream. With their full bodies they inhabit and truly live in places where adults seem content to sit back and observe. Show a kid a waterfall, a mountain, a lake, a culvert, even a puddle, and do what adults do best: watch what happens and what it means to be alive in a place. Curiosity calls. A child comes to know the world through their whole body. Play and exploration trump the eyes, the brain, fear, memory, and anticipation.
I recently listened to a Jewish rabbi who pointed out (with humble irony) a Christian idea that has become pervasive in our culture: we believe that if we wait and suffer in the present we will be rewarded with happiness in the future. This is called pie in the sky theology. Or retirement. Or any diet, for that matter. The rabbi contrasted this characteristically adult expression of faith with a more childlike belief: happiness, like heaven, is at hand.
No matter how close we sit to Screw Auger Falls, suffering on a hot August Day, it’s not going to erode itself into our rocky hearts in an afternoon’s time. We’re better off slipping and sliding like a kids into its misting, dousing, and ultimately drenching presence — because let’s face it: it was a long-ass drive to get here and we might not make it back.
As a painter of representational subject matter I am very much expected to be an adult artist, waiting and watching, studying from a distance the landscape I wish to paint. I must know how the light at certain times of day can effect a backlit barn. I must remember formulas for mixing a variety of leafy greens. I must be concerned with creating a compelling composition. There are so many ways I can use my adult eye to stay dry, to protect myself from the waterfall of heaven happening right in front of me. And so, in an act of childlike rebellion, one day I decided I would no longer set up my easel and paint en plein air, right in front of my subject.
Currently I work from the memories I have of places I fully inhabited through biking, hiking, swimming, or otherwise playing and exploring. While working in the studio the adult professional in me still scolds, “You can’t paint a thing authentically —the light! the color! — unless you’re standing in front of it.” While precise light and color are part of the truth of a place, the kid in me retorts, “How on earth was I supposed to just stand there and watch when this place compelled my entire body to experience it?” Running through a field to feel the tall grass whip and rip at my thighs will give me vision for a place that looking alone cannot provide. Suffering scrapes when I miss my foothold bouldering granite outcrops will also give me this vision. So will the cold slap of the water’s surface on a late September afternoon, jumping in for the last swim of the season.
The body is intelligent. The body frees the eye from purgatory and, like a child, rushes headlong into heaven and happiness.
In early September my husband and I parked our car on the snarled shoulder of a country road. We hiked through the woods to a small black ribbon of a river, riffling in the late afternoon light. I hadn’t come prepared — neither had my husband but that didn’t stop him. Stripping down he dug his toes into the mossy bank. He jumped, and as if in slow motion the water’s surface held his body on a pillow before breaking open. There was a quick in-breath of chill and refreshment. He sank. There was quiet sunlight…and then my husband resurfaced a child.
He played and somersaulted in the secret swimming hole of his youth. His body, having once recreated here, was now re-created here. His body remembered and, indeed, was re-membered to this place. If the prophet Isaiah saw “the trees of the field clap their hands,” then my husband felt the arms of the river embrace and welcome him home.
Robert Frost wrote that a poem “begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a lovesickness. It is never a thought to begin with.” As I sat on the bank, dry and watching my husband swimming in heaven, I felt homesick — and I felt compassion for the adults at Screw Auger Falls. Oddly enough I also felt hope. Maybe, just maybe, I could make a painting, like a poem, from this experience anyway.
I started painting when I was fourteen. I set up canvases on my family’s river dock and painted the water I swam in daily. I was in love with the work of Wolf Kahn. I was learning to see and be in the world.
I went to art school far away from my floating studio. In New York City I painted the Maine landscape from memory to soothe my homesickness. I went to a Roni Horn exhibit in Chelsea once and was struck by the incorporation of a certain phrase in her work: “To see a landscape as it is when I am not there.” Could a landscape be more real in its absence, through memory?
After school I returned to Maine and lived on the same river where I grew up. I tried adjusting back to plein air painting but found myself instead sitting inside at the dining room table, setting up my palette and canvas and capturing the river as seen through a window. Gridded panes filtered the frustration I felt trying to stand still in front of the landscape I had missed for eight years and now, more than anything, wanted to move through, jump into, remember, and be re-membered by.
I joined a long distance open-water swim group and some days it seemed I spent more time in or around lakes, rivers, and bays than I did out. I painted when I was too exhausted to keep swimming and when it rained. If people ask, as they sometimes do, how it is I paint water so naturally, the answer can be found in the miles of aquatic memory stored in my body.
In New York City I painted Maine from a visceral feeling of homesickness, from childhood memory, and from a child-like experience of place. Now back in Maine, I was no longer suffering from homesickness but from lack-of-motion sickness. I needed to be under the water, on the mountains, in the trees. My happiness, my health, and my art — the unique expression I alone could bring into the world — depended on it. I put my faith in heavenly places, in the possibility that a landscape could be as real to me in the studio as it was hours or weeks from my actual, full body experience of it. I also bought a waterproof, smash-proof camera.
Even when painting en plein air an artist must look away from their subject to mix color, to touch brush to canvas. In that moment, however brief, memory must be depended on. Are there degrees and durations of visual memory that are more authentic than others? And is visual memory superior to body memory? I wonder.
In Damariscotta Mills, near where my husband and I live, there is a bridge that separates the lake from the mill pond. It’s great for jumping and from it, all summer long, kids swarm, buzz, perch, and then leap, over and over and over. Jonathan and I go to participate in a heavenly place — in the sensation of flight, the smacking reality of water, the refreshing depths, the desire to get out and do it all over again, the play. Our hearts are happy.
Parents and babysitters sit on the grassy bank and watch. Jonathan and I leave the cacophonous scene eventually; it’s time for our long swim around the far island and back, into depths where most children aren’t allowed to venture. I slip into a freestyle stroke and in my quieting, solitary thoughts I wonder: “Are we just big kids refusing to grow up? Does heaven really require suffering? Do my painter friends think I’m crazy and irreverent? Am I making my work all wrong?” But then I remember the words of the painter and great teacher, Charles Hawthorne:
Don’t try to be an artist all at once, be very much of a student. Be always searching, never settle to do something you’ve done before. Always be looking for the unexpected in nature — you can have no formulas for anything; search constantly. Don’t learn how to do things, keep on inquiring how. You must keep up an attitude of continuous study and so develop yourself. I don’t know a better definition of an artist than one who is eternally curious. Every successful canvas has been painted from the point of view of a student, for a great painter is always a student.