Seeing the Forest in the Leaves
I had the happy occasion a few years ago to discover paper chromatography. When and where I learned of it, I don't remember. Then I learned of its use in separating leaf pigments. This technique is very useful for revealing to students the colored molecules present in leaves that give them their colors at different times of the year.
Separating the pigments in a leaf (or pine needle or presumably any plant matter) consists of pulverizing the plant matter (mortar and pestle works nicely) and soaking the pulp in an alcohol like ethanol or isopropanol, found in vodka and rubbing alcohol respectively, if you don't have access to a chemical supplier. Methanol (wood alcohol) doesn't work as well as those two. Soaking for about an hour is long enough, then you can stand up a piece of paper in about 1/2 inch of the solution against the side of the vessel (paper towels or drawing paper work well). Capillary action will draw the alcohol and pigments up into the paper. The pigments will separate into colored bands depending on size and other factors. Once the alcohol has evaporated, you have an interesting set of bands that fade into each other.
Upon doing this for the first time with leaves, the painter in me couldn't help but notice that the strip of paper I'd used had an uncanny resemblance to a landscape. The different colors had an unmistakable quality that suggested tree lines, horizons and the effects of accumulated atmosphere nearer the bottoms of hills and mountains. This realization delighted me to say the least, in addition to my present and growing fascination with the multiple pigments that made up the color of any one leaf. The experience was multifaceted and profound on a small scale. This led me to intentionally exploit chromatography to produce an overtly landscape quality. I did this by scaling up the procedure larger pieces of paper in a primarily horizontal orientation. Additionally with certain micro-landscapes, I would use only one leaf type or color (sometimes only red maple as in the second picture from the right above).
This experimental journey has heightened my curiosity about the potential of using other plant material and pigments, such as flowers. The possibilities afforded by increasing the scale of these experiments also excites me. I'd like to see how large I can make these (22x30 inches for instance, the standard size of printmaking paper) to see what if any material limitations there are to the process.
Finally the issue of light-fast-ness comes to mind. Inevitable the sun will take its tole on the color as well as the oxygen in the air. The pigments in leaves have always been transitory, recycled from season to season. By trying to fix and preserve them I'm reminded of the constant flow of energy and matter around me and the inevitability of thermodynamics. My appreciation for the beauty of trees has taken on another dimension, the unintended result of micro-revelations. A page within a page of the Book of Nature.
Taken up into Heaven, on Earth
I hurriedly put on my shoes, without socks, grabbed my jacket, wrestled into it, it was raining still, and got my tripods should I need more steadiness than my arms offered. A trip to the airport that night wasn't on my radar, but then at my wife's suggestion, I left my papers and school work and took flight from the valley. I found myself again escaping my routine for something more profound, as though driving up this enchanted road ushered me into my imagination made real. Nothing was promised to me for my efforts and speeding and sliding on the road veneered with the fallen foliage (falliage?)
The sky atop the mountain was thick with a bronze mist, a mustard haze I'd only seen a few times before, but was keen to, for in the past it went before and announced shocking sights. I pulled in close to the fence that challenged my view, so that I could defy the limits of the barb-wire. Climbing to the top of my car for a view of the sky is nothing foreign to me. The wind was persistent yet diminishing from the recent rain storm, yet continually implored me to meet the ground via the chain links. I can only imagine sunsets on the gas giants of our solar system.
This sunset was one of a kind. It was a kind I hadn't known. I don't think it impossible that I should meet its species again, but I treated the encounter as a precious fleeting one. Each blink robbed me of fractions of seconds. Each picture and video stole from me time and attention in which the light could impinge on my vision. Ironically, in an effort to "capture" the experience via technology, I kept myself from total embrace.
My effort to relive the experience two days later culminated in the painting below. (See the time lapse as well)
What will you get up for?
I'm not really a morning person. What I mean is that sleep is so pleasant that there are few things that will rouse me from slumber and not become the object of my resentment. I never anticipated the fascination I would have with the poetry of the sky or the compositions of clouds. But here I find myself at the crossroads of the scientific, the sublime and sensory. There is something in the vocabulary of vapors that makes me forget the difficulty of pulling myself from the ease of sleep. It isn't hard to embrace rest, it seems rather to hold us.
July 6th, 2014 is when I took the photo for this painting. I was driving with my wife from Billings MT after my sister's wedding. We were on our way to Wyoming to see Devils Tower, a large igneous intrusion, leaving a tower of rock composed of vertical hexagonal columns, some 10 feet wide. My wife knows how enamored I've become with the colors woven into the changes from day to night and night to day. She woke me as we were driving so that I could witness and tell the story of my sight.
I had driven out of Montana for two or three hours before dawn and then been relieved by my wife, who alerted me to the growing spectral intensity. I awoke, from my nap, not disappointed that I was no longer enfolded into an unconscious state, but surprised to behold visions of a world, new and vast and beyond my expectations. The scale of the west dwarfs the everyday. One's visual journey to the horizon is unimpeded by the orogenic uplift. There were shifts in precedent. The soil of my knowledge of sunrises was overturned and tilled into insignificance as I was appeared to by the chromatic chorus I now found.
My lack of expectation proved to be fertile ground for fascination. The occasional car or semi-truck whooshed by, providing a point of reference, something to heighten the perception of the terrible colored wonder I encountered. Here were the products of progress rushing through the expanse of country we call "The West," still imbued with mythology and a rugged mysticism. The highest of human achievements are seen by many as our technological innovations, out cutting edge. But what evidences the fullness of our civilization more, our enthrallment and codependency with machines or our willingness and openness of heart to pair ourselves for a time however short, with a sunrise.
Maybe our highest calling and achievement is in remembering and communion with the primordial. The primitive and the essential and the perennial. Phileo with the fundamental, the foundational. We need to forget ourselves more often.
J0hn Hunter Speier
Recent work, and explorations of techniques, aesthetics and poetics.