Boundaries-Witnesses to Darkness

I was invited in January of this year to participate in a group exhibition at The Dalles Art Center, in The Dalles, Oregon. Planning for this exhibition took many turns, the biggest turn happening when the Covid-19 pandemic hit, and everything turned to shit this year. The exhibition was postponed until June, and then postponed again for August, and finally rescheduled for October. There is still some uncertainty about how publicly attended exhibitions will continue to work for artists and their audiences in this time of Covid. Oregon remains in Phase 2 of reopening, and I don’t see the fall and winter months bringing any sense of normalcy to the arts, as much as we have become accustomed to functioning in a pandemic.

Witness 1-charcoal on paper, 22"x30" 2020
Witness 2-charcoal on paper, 22"x30" 2020

For this exhibition, I created 12 charcoal drawings in response to the masks of Bill Rutherford. Bill is an 84 year old African American artist with some mixed heritage, notably Chickasaw, Chinook, and Caucasian. It is the Chinook and the Chickasaw that he speaks about with great reverence and respect and addresses in his wood forms. Bill is also my friend, and it has been an honor to know this flinty and deeply sensitive soul in the two years I have lived in Eugene, Oregon. For whatever reason, there are places in Bill’s creative landscape and psyche that resonate and overlap within my own, and I recognize Bill as a teacher and guide in my life, which surprises me given our differences in age and background. Since I was introduced to Bill by my partner at the Emerald Art Center in Springfield, I have created three bodies of work in response to this man and his artistic vision and the legacy of his life.

Witness 3-charcoal on paper, 22"x30" 2020
Witness 4-charcoal on paper, 22"x30" 2020

The very first question I asked of him at an exhibition of his wire sculptures of horses, after he spoke about anger being a shadow over his life, was how much anger continued to be a driver for his creativity. I was openly curious because there was a time in my life when anger was a strong force that I used to push past those boundary places that mark the edge of creative breakthroughs, and it was affirming to me to find an artist who understood how powerful a tool anger can be in the creative process. Bill’s parents were deeply involved in the Civil Rights movement in Portland. The injustices of both slavery and the failures of Reconstruction are subjects that Bill has addressed with harrowing honesty in his paintings. In his young life, serving in the Air Force during the Cold War and working for SAC, creating aerial maps that were used in planning for nuclear bombing runs, left their mark on this man and his worldview, which is deadpan cynical and laced with wry and sardonic humor. I see Bill as a trickster figure, a survivor, which seems especially poignant to me in this time of deep heartache, loss, and anxiety. What I found in Bill, the thing that resonated with me, was that ecstatic knowledge in the face of doom, creativity and life that blooms out of the threat of oblivion.

Witness 5-charcoal on paper, 22"x30" 2020
Witness 6-charcoal on paper, 22"x30" 2020

My original intention for this body of work, for the exhibition that was planned in January, was to deepen my commitment and arguments in support of the ecological concerns that have been the focus of my work for three years now, the extinction event we are currently living. I wanted to explore that boundary place between the human-animal and the natural world, in clay and paint and the things that bring me joy as an artist. As strange as it is to say, I feel a strong responsibility for people’s well-being in my art, and I have come to realize in my own artistic journey that using anger has the potential to create work that turns people away, whereas joy draws people close. Certainly in this time of endless affirmation and endless outrage making work that pivots on that knife edge of pain and turns people away doesn't seem like an effective tool to bring people together. But what does love look like? Sometimes I ask myself this question, and in this animal-themed work, I have felt that love looks like care and nourishing empathy and stepping back from that furious push and drive that marked my work for years, a drive that echoes the extinction drive that moves late capitalism in the 21st century. In asking Bill to participate in this exhibition with me, I felt he could address that social outrage through his masks with far more authority, and I could let the animals speak alone in my work. That might have been selfish on my part, but I knew Bill’s work, and in our conversations, he spoke about wanting to continue his own conversations with the masks he has been creating for 20 years since he first began examining his First Nations heritage, those old forms that often speak to him across a gulf and through the wood he chooses to sound them.

Witness 7-charcoal on paper, 22"x30" 2020
Witness 8-charcoal on paper, 22"x30" 2020

I found it hard to stay within that animal realm with the work that I wanted to create and still have the shape of my response make sense for this exhibition. An inner voice questioned what I was doing, asking me if I was being honest. Honest to Bill, honest to myself, honest to my work, honest to this time, not caretaking for my audiences as I have done to some degree in my animal work. I found myself procrastinating, shifting uncomfortably. When I am responding to Bill’s work, it is deep time and its attendant darkness I am hearing. Bill’s masks look through you. They are ashamed that they can pierce you, the viewer, but they do not hesitate to mark you. I wrestled with a number of approaches, even creating a series of plein air paintings that addressed the issue of deep time by exploring my response to light in the landscape, in an effort to lift the audience toward the sublime. But I found the light too bright for these ideas and for the time we live in. I wanted to shelter in deep time, I didn’t want to ignore this darkness. I wanted to add my music to Bill’s darkness, and not simply be another ego in a collection of egos gathered in an empty room. The calling to be an artist, the difficult work it entails, is a serious calling, and we would do well to remember this. If we are called from those deep places by forces and entities that speak across the depth of time to find an answer in the complex materials of this world and the life we live, they are better answered in silence and not chatter, in the humility of service.

Witness 9-charcoal on paper, 22"x30" 2020
Witness 10-charcoal on paper, 22"x30" 2020

So, at the last, when I almost told the art center director that I wouldn’t do the exhibition, I decided to walk in step with Bill and create masks. Masks in response to this darkness. I made my response to Bill’s dark heart in twelve large charcoal drawing, dense, black, dusty, energetic work, erased and pushed and erased and covered again and again moving back toward that ecstatic place, back toward fire, the fire of anger and outrage against all of the numbness that has threatened to swallow up my joy this year, numbness from disease and death, numbness from constant injustice, numbness from the relentlessness of corruption and mendacity and greed. I created them over three days, with compressed charcoal, a material I love for its elemental nature, and they burst forth like fire. Ironically, the completion of these masks coincided with the eruption of forest fires across Oregon, and the use of charcoal and paper felt especially poignant and timely as fire came within 20 miles of where we live.

Witness 11-charcoal on paper, 22"x30" 2020
Witness 12-charcoal on paper, 22"x30" 2020

Masks have a vitality that surprised me, and I found a welcome hand in choosing this form. That we contend with darkness in this life in the early 21st century is a difficult fact that most of us spend an inordinate amount of time alleviating with a digital pacifier. Art defies this darkness. Bill’s history of serving agents of our collective destruction during the height of the Cold War is alone testament to the continuing legacy of that darkness. This exhibition was delayed because of Covid-19, a worldwide pandemic. March has become late September, and I am not the same human being I was when quarantine was first ordered by our Governor Kate Brown.

The artist Bill Rutherford in my painting studio.

In that boundary line between light and dark we all make choices that influence the currents that move our lives. That river of life contains dark and cold channels. As a species, we have made weapons that can turn the only habitable world into a hellish waste of glass and sand. This is the boundary line on which I have created my masks. Witnesses to darkness.

The exhibition “Boundaries” will be on display at The Dalles Art Center from October 2nd to November 20 in The Dalles, Oregon. The exhibition will be available to see online through the art center’s website, and works are available for purchase.



Christopher St. John is an artist living in Eugene, Oregon.

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