Sky Burial, the largest and most labor intensive piece I’ve been working on for Artists of Hawai‘i 2015, began at a place called Brush Creek Ranch, near Saratoga, Wyoming (that’s me in the studio at the ranch in the photo above). As one of eight Artists in Residence at the Brush Creek Foundation for the Arts, I spent a month during the summer of 2012 exploring the Platte River Valley and working in one of the foundation’s creekside studios. When the artists arrived in early July there was a hummingbird feeder hanging outside the kitchen window, and every now and then a hummingbird would come to drink. Everyone thought it was the sweetest thing, seeing them hovering and darting around out there with their teeny wings and their iridescent fairy feathers.
We kept feeding them, and as the days went by more and more birds began arriving. We went from filling the feeder once every five or six days to once every few hours. By the third week they were swarming. They would fly right into our studios and we’d have to throw dish towels over them so we could release them back outside. In these growing numbers they became tremendously aggressive, charging and dive-bombing one another, battling with their beak-spears. Their humming became loud and constant—menacing. It was wild to witness these creatures that simultaneously resembled both angels and warriors. I would call them shapeshifters, except that they weren’t one kind of being and then another, they were both at once.
One night in my studio I was working on a small painting, and I suddenly saw an image in my head. The image was of a giant, exquisitely tangled mass of hummingbirds and hummingbird parts, all converging on a bloody mass in the upper right-hand corner. The vision came through so intensely and so vividly that I knew I had to paint it. It felt as if it had been assigned to me. Everything about the image represented so much of what I had been questioning since the death of my twin brother. How could Ross, who was so radiant and beautiful and brilliant, also suffer so severely from mental illness and addiction? How can beauty, strength and grace be so inextricably paired with violence, fragility and destruction? This apparent dichotomy happens everywhere in Nature. It happens in ourselves. I didn’t know how to reconcile this incongruity, but I needed to give form to the question.
Upon returning to Honolulu I immediately began preparing paper for the piece. Using a roll of Arches 300 gsm cover paper, I applied six coats of acrylic gesso to the front and back of three panels. Everything was then wet-sanded by hand with water and sanding sponges. The result is a thick, highly burnished surface that can be both painted on and sanded back into.
Using charcoal, solvents, rags, sandpaper and oil color, I combined loose, inky washes with carefully rendered forms. For months I drew, painted, rubbed, wiped, sanded and stained. The piece began to emerge from this repetitive cycle of rendering and erasure, a process which parallels my own pursuit of reconciling creation with destruction, loss with recovery.
I struggled through so many versions of the piece, groping for solutions and often making poor decisions out of sheer frustration. At one point I lacked so much clarity that I just sanded out everything but the birds themselves, in hopes that maybe this would somehow help me see more lucidly.
About a year in I was moving the piece and accidentally tore a hole in the middle of it, which was unacceptable, so I started the the whole left panel over.
Eventually I turned the whole work upside down to see if I could figure out how to resolve the color and composition. I cut out pieces of paper in the shapes of feathers and taped them all over the piece. Three months after being flipped upside down the birds told me they were done, to please leave them alone. The final version of the work will be on display starting July 2 at the Honolulu Museum of Art.