September in the Land of Elsewhere By Sarah Freeman



It’s been an interesting month here at Elsewhere.  I’ve had moments of inspiration and moments of frustration, and I’ve learned where I am with my work and what I need to do next. And I’ve managed to meet some really amazing people along the way. Looking back, I wish I’d arrived with fewer expectations of myself, and more of an intention to be open to exploration, but perhaps this experience is what I needed to wake me up from the assumptions I’ve been operating under. Namely, I realized that I’ve been very focused on creating a refined end product, whereas I should be focusing on what I would like to say with my work, and why, and to let it flow from a place of deep calm, insight, and joy. Such realizations are all part of the process, and I’m glad that my month at Elsewhere allowed me to realize I’m right where I need to be.

Initially, I thought I’d make at least two or three very polished large paintings, in one month, but this isn’t what happened! I brought, and intended to finish, a large painting that I’d been working on for the last few months at home. This piece was based on a drawing from a photograph, and depicts a person standing in the the dappled light caused by the shadow of a tree. The dappled light creates an abstract pattern on the wall behind the figure, as well as across the person’s face, obscuring it. The feeling is that of an open, friendly confrontation, with a person whose face and gender is mysterious. The painting itself depends mostly on a smooth gradation from dark to light. You can always make a gradation smoother, so I spent a lot of time obsessively smoothing it out, more than made sense to. I included a couple detail shots so that you can see the way I work in oils. The texture of the linen is important to me, so the way I work is basically drybrush, in a process similar to drawing, or a highly refined underpainting. I often end up working with a tiny brush to make the areas that are slightly too light a little darker, and then lift out the areas that are too dark with a tiny bit of paper towel, until a smooth tone is achieved. I drove myself almost crazy on these little things, and it wasn’t until the month was almost over that I realized I’d been wrapped up in details, and I wasn’t close to finishing anything!

I resolved to finish the painting quickly, without the fussiness from before. And I ended up finishing in the last few days before the show, more satisfactorily than I thought I’d be able to do in such a short time. (I’ll probably still touch it up a bit once I get home, though not to the obsessive degree as before.) The experience made me realize I’ve reached a point with my work that is part of a familiar pattern for me from past years: I start out a project or technique loosely, then over the course of several months, I get tighter and tighter until the work becomes stiff and so slow to finish that I’m not even enjoying it anymore. And then I have to begin again, loosely and freely to start anew. I imagine many artists go through something similar. It’s been a valuable experience for me, and I know that once I get home, I will immerse myself in sketches and experiments, without concern about a perfect outcome. As my father said to me earlier today over Skype, “Perfection is the enemy of the good.” I’m not sure whether this statement is translated from Latin by some great past thinker, or is something that he just made up (you never know with my dad), but either way, it will be my mantra for the coming weeks.

I also began a new painting that I’d been planning on starting for a while. It’s a portrait of a contemplative young woman, based on a drawing made from life at my figure drawing group back home in Santa Fe. The portrait is within an oval, against a background of infinite ocean. The world outside one’s mind is infinite, and the world inside is infinite too. I wanted to convey the vastness of the nature and imply a comparison to the vastness of the mind, within a classical or timeless framework.  I didn’t finish this piece, so I’ll be finishing it up at home.

A serendipitous moment occurred here at the local bar.  I’d thought of making a companion piece to the aforementioned, of a young man’s portrait within an oval and mountains in the background instead of ocean. I had a specific face in mind for this young man — I wanted to paint someone with classical features, and was disappointed to think that I didn’t know anyone with the appropriate face to model. Then one evening, the other residents and I went out to a local bar (“The Rev”), and as we were sitting and drinking our beers, a young man walked in the door with just the face I’d been imagining earlier! After I worked up the courage to approach him, I tapped him on the shoulder and said, “I know this is weird, but I’m an artist and I’d love to use you as a model.” He was flattered and only too happy to help me out. I photographed him at the Elsewhere studio that weekend, and I ended up drafting out a basic concept for a future painting.

I feel I’ve grown more in the last month than in the past twelve. I won’t soon forget the people I’ve met here, or this very unique part of the country. The mountains and surrounding landscape have been inspiring territory for hiking and exploring, and I think the photos I’ve taken here will likely serve as a starting point for future artworks. I’ve also appreciated the connection I feel to the earth in this valley, as expressed through the farming and abundant local produce. If you like fresh food, September is the month to come! A local described Paonia to me as “Mayberry meets Woodstock,” and the comparison seems apt. It’s a small, friendly, traditional, isolated town with no traffic lights or chain stores or even cell phone coverage, rooted (as far as I can make out) in farming and coal, yet with a distinctively free thinking population. I wouldn’t have believed it had I not seen it. Most of all, I feel honored to have met the other residents that were here this month: Toby Liebowitz, Laurie Longtin, and Trent Davis Bailey. I’ve learned so much getting to know each of you, and look forward to following your careers.