Human Nature - About the Series
The inspirations for my series, “Human Nature," are my observation of nature, Dutch 17th century genre paintings, and my reaction to things happening in my life and the world around me.
I’m inspired by the mushrooms I find sprouting up around the woods where I live. They have a lot of character, with their variety of shape and color. As I did research on mushrooms, their biology intrigued me further. All the paintings in this series have mushrooms as their protagonists, supported by small animals, such as moths and beetles, as secondary characters. Although the theme throughout is human nature, I do not use humans to illustrate my subject. I want people to be able to imagine themselves in my paintings, so I have mushrooms take the place of humans, avoiding implications and limits that come with painting a particular human. As mushrooms mostly don’t have preordained significance, they are a blank slate with which I can create meaning. With their stalks and caps, mushrooms do have something that can be understood as a body. The challenge is to imbue the mushrooms with human characteristics through gesture and composition, without resorting to human features (though you may find a bit of a belly here and there). Although I paint specific mushroom species, I hope that most people can see themselves or respond to a human quality in a mushroom through the emotion I convey in the painting.
When I began this series, I felt the need to be a student of painting again. I had transitioned out of years of painting abstractly and felt pressure to “catch up” with my ability to render things realistically. I figured Dutch 17th century artists would be excellent guides in teaching me about technique, composition, color, and light. The Dutch Golden Age came about during a great flowering of Dutch culture, scientific discovery, and economic empowerment at the end of the Eighty Years’ War with Spain. Dutch genre paintings, with their depiction of everyday scenes of ordinary life, marked a significant turning point in Western art, away from biblical and historical subjects. It stirs me to see this elevating of domestic life to a subject of art – of seeing not only beauty, but something profound in the everyday business of life.
In the beginning of creating this body of work, I chose a different Dutch artist to study for each painting. Later paintings had more than one artist’s influence, as the lessons piled on. In particular I looked at interior scenes, the genre paintings, because I also wanted to paint interiors, to bring nature inside our homes. The view of a room provides a stage set on which a drama unfolds. Other later paintings explore sottobosco (forest floor) scenes, as well as more ambivalent spaces. I also chose to study Dutch painters because I am one myself. It was a way to confront my cultural history and learn from it. The Dutch painters who inspire me include Balthasar van der Ast, Ambrosius Bosschaert, Gerrit Dou, Pieter de Hooch, Gerrit van Honthorst, Gabriël Metsu, Frans van Mieris the Elder, Otto Marseus van Schrieck, and Johannes Vermeer.
While I look to history for guidance, my paintings depict my own time. The idea for a painting always starts with an emotional response to something that is happening in the world, either in my own life or the world at large. I then set about trying to visualize a scene that would convey this feeling. For example, in the painting “The Sick Child,” a mushroom rests in the lap of a larger mushroom, the same composition as a pietà. At the time I conceived this painting, the news was full of the migrant children crisis along the southern US border, of children being caged by ICE, separated from their parents, and dying while in custody. The plight of these children inspired my painting.
In my paintings, I try not to hit you over the head with meaning, but instead allow you to come to your own conclusions. All my paintings start with a feeling. An emotional response to something in my life gets the imagery going, and my paintings are like little stage sets trying to visualize that emotion. Although each painting in Human Nature has its own meaning, there is meaning in the series as a whole. The paintings depict some quality of human nature yet contain no humans. In our ability to observe and relate to non-humans I hope to highlight empathy, not only for the natural world, but also for each other. The paintings are populated by ordinary mushrooms, plants, and animals I find around my home. They are not sexy exotic creatures, yet they are also at peril, due to climate change and deforestation. I wanted to feature these smaller, commonplace beings, to show that they too have worth and beauty. A theme of compassion runs throughout the work. By feeling some kind of recognition of oneself or emotional response to my paintings, I hope there is the realization of the interconnectedness and value of life.