THE ENDURANCE OF WONDER

A Commentary on the artistry of Kes Woodward's
northern landscapes

by

Shaw Smith


For the traveler returning home there awaits a rediscovery of things familiar and yet different. The sanctuaries of the familiar are not so much altered as we who are amended by the experience of leaving them. Seeing the familiar in an unfamiliar way, we filter our new experiences with comparison. Sometimes this encounter with the familiar allows us to become lost in the Freshness of wonder, surprise, and discovery found where we least expect it. After an absence of nearly three years, Kesler Woodward returned to his Alaskan home with a keen eye for the familiar light to find something which he had never seen.

In the spring of his return, he began to work in his familiar way, seeing the landscape as surfaces for the play of light and the habitat of the trees, a living presence of personality and character. The spacious confinement of the northern landscape, where life is reduced to the primal functions of natural systems, demands his vigilance. What he rediscovered was the light of the northern exposure which, unlike equatorial light, changes in monumental gradations, a world in which everything counts more.

But, lost in the freshness of wonder, what he discovered in an early September snowfall was something rarely seen. The dramatic convergence of late summer light and early fall snow "disrupted everything" including the dependable cycles of the northern winter, a climatic treachery where nature indifferently permits endurance and survival. Leaves, normally turning colors in middle August, were trapped in cotton coffins on the branches of the fall freeze which entombs them until spring.

In the North, Kes faces many trials, but the snowy landscapes of Alaska provide both an anchorage and adventure, a "symbol of what he likes about the North" in its "harshness and animal presence." For the artist there is also the challenge of the converging systems of realism and abstraction which, like the apparent anarchy of the interlocking summer light and fall snow, summon an all-over unity within its uncharitable beauty. Through the familiar imagery which captivates him, the process of painting offers a trial of endurance. Wandering into the untouched landscape of the canvas, he paints abstractly "until I am lost" and then steps back "to find where I am going." The returns of this journey offer three different directions-some familiar, some not.

The first is found in Spring Light-West Ridge and Tangle where a careful winter walker stops to examine the snow-blown ridge with its infinite varieties of snow, trees, and bark. The marriage of the visual order and the natural anarchy of the branches blends the snowy impasto which define the surface, with a few indistinct tracks along the trail. This condensed unity crystallizes within the penetrating cold of the windless silence. The snowbanks remain barely disturbed for months and the traveler, delighting in the color of light, can ponder the covered tracks in the late afternoon. This meditation extends a sense of renewal despite the heavy permanence of winter, where through the impasto and the streaks of white, the artist celebrates the return of visual relief as the light asserts its sculptural powers.

The second direction edges toward abstraction as in September Snow where in this early fall snow we are reminded that winter dominates the blooms of summer. No longer on solid ground, we float in mid-air and suspend our disbelief before the event where the snow clings to the green and yellow leaves, dozen in nature. Deprived of light, the colors of the interrupted seasons linger in the branches. In First Snow-September the heart-shaped leaves are suspended around a pink, gray and yellow trunk, a witness to the enduring relationship of painter and nature since the space which dominates is the expanse of the canvas rather than pictorial depth. The suspended viewer reads the surface of the trunk and then distance. This correlation between the degree of abstraction and the suspended point of view confirms the artist's interest in surface over space. He makes the transition from ground level to "looking up at eye level" into an "abstract skein of branches," a poignant moment considering the snow-trench existence of daily life in the northern winter.

The third direction returns to the more familiar abstraction of Woodward's Birch Portraits. In Birch Portrait #52, three trunks of yellows, greens, pink, blues, oranges unveil stages of endurance. Peeling, despoiling, and aging mark the character of each tree while the artist's stroke denotes different systems in the clarity of the right trunk, the loosened stroke of the middle, and the exposed gesture of the left, where the stroke echoes the sympathetic processes of the palette and nature. Beneath the crunchy impasto, the spaces, like the light, become objective. Projected from the white background and blue underpainting, they animate the abstraction with actual rather than natural light. Woodward uses a small brush for the expansive, all-over surfaces of his paintings as a "way of getting myself to slow down," another form of endurance where one must conserve to survive the winter. By "tricking himself to get detail with a small brush," he insulates his feverish desire "to make big abstract paintings too quickly." This necessary self-discipline with the small, loaded brush operates like a micro snow-groomer leaving a rich impasto as "a pattern to the all-over surface unity."

His abstract systems are based on his knowledge of nature. While they are still different from nature, it is "essential to respond to something." For the artist, the traces of experience, where you go and where you return, reflect the "host of things which can happen to you in life." Like the bark, lives reflect the return from journeys.

As a student of science turned artist, Woodward artfully analyzes the systems of nature which weave through these birches. These are places which grant points of return where he recovers the "renewed wonder in light and trees after several years of being away." Surely a continuing testament to the endurance of wonder.