This is a long tale and tail, as you will see. It has several segments.
Geologic time has become entangled in my head with my own mortality and the miniscule histories of places I inhabit. When I was working with the John Day Fossil Beds, trying to imagine millions of years of volcanic explosions that sculpted the Earth and captured skeletons, I thought I had encompassed an enormous time scale — the Cenozoic Era, 65 or so million years of movements of the Earth’s crust, of upheavals and drifts and tectonic plate movement. The Cenozoic is the era of mammals, of riotous foliage. At the very tip of the Cenozoic era, the Holocene Period, humanoids appear –our own time in history, our funny human shapes and adaptations and renderings of the world. There was little evidence of the Holocene in the Fossil Beds Monument area.
Later in my year of the Cenozoic, I was asked to do a piece for an exhibit called “It’s good to be green.” I started to think about the age of the Earth (4,500 million years), which was 4,435 million more years than the Fossil Beds encompassed. It was a staggering number. As I was working through ideas on green (i.e. “environmental ethics”) and the gentle world in which we live and the cataclysms that we can bring down on ourselves, I had a moment of clarity.
It really doesn’t matter in the long run what we humans do. We are but a wink in Ma Nature’s eye; she has survived far worse than our ruinations.
Even though the Earth will readily survive whatever toxic soup we envelop it in, humans may not survive. Or if we do, we will survive in an impoverished state, impoverished in natural imagery and experience and wealth of wonder as well as with fewer resources to feed and clothe ourselves.
So, the textile art I contrived took as its title: Not to Scale. Even if we are only a blink in Mother Nature’s eye, I decided to hope that we might extend our visit on the planet to a wink rather than a blink. One scientific wag opined that he was a Cenozoic patriot, a jingoistic lover of his own world, and was rather inclined to fight to keep it as it is. Not to Scale sets up the Earth’s 4,500 million years on one side of a 45-inch-long art work and the 65 million years of the Cenozoic era on the other. I too am a Cenozoic patriot and would like it if we could be responsible enough to our own kind to stick around a bit longer. The Great Beast advances. We should take measures.
As I was showing my family the art I had finished and was talking about its meaning and the meaning of life and existence and how I was going to spend the next two months of my life and existence, my daughter (who has her own scale of existence to contend with) suggested that my next big project might be to expand the 65 million years to 4,500 million years and make them To Scale. Having (visually) celebrated the Cenozoic in Not to Scale, perhaps I should visualize the entire history of our living quarters.
Hence, the modest notion of making visual illustration of the Earth’s billions of years of history, a 22-inch by 15-foot oil painted canvas.
I’m nothing if not ambitious.
And then, I reached that stage of despair which some of you will recognize — the point in a big project when you realize that the work you have done is not merely inadequate but boring and anxiety producing. In this case the anxiety was not just about the project but about my capability and my life’s work and the inordinate spans of history that humankind faces and the ruin that my daughter and granddaughter would be facing – well, you get the idea.
This state of mind, one that I always fall into at some point in a project, rarely extends more than a day or so. I circle the project and/or the ideas, and even if I can’t retrieve the work from its utterly failed state, I know that I’ve learned a lot from attempting it.
So, I ruminated, while waiting for the worst of the despair to pass. And my ruminations pointed out that not only could I never artfully render the time-line of the Earth’s history to scale, but that it was an impossible task to have set myself to. As my research showed, even at even the highest level of abstraction (or most dummied-down version of Earth’s history), the scientists disagree about the time-line. When it becomes give or take 50 million years, we are talking about a span of time equal to the entire history of the Cenozoic. Give or take 50 million years sort of wipes out the notion of scale, at least a scale my frail human mind can comprehend.
Moreover, while I was painting the Illustrious History of the Earth, I was also investigating (visually) the dog, Pocatello, who belongs to Mariah, the home-schooled kid up Basin Street, who lives in a trailer, likes reading but not math, and loves the photos of her little world that we have put up in the studio where I’m pretending to delineate the whole world and all its history.
I am surrounded by history; the building we are living in has a plaque reading “Hewitt State Bank 1906 / Later Neiagle Drug Store / Masonic Hall–chartered 1904”. Timbered mill remnants and mine tailings jut out from the hills surrounding the town; Teresa, who waits table at the Silver Saddle, has a son who works in a gold mine nearby.
What scale could encompass a century’s history of a tiny hamlet at a wide spot in the road, the dirt of which dates from the Cretaceous (the name of the era sounding fixed but the dates wobbling within a 20-million-year span), which is being dug up by a guy who wanders past my studio windows talking on his cell phone?
And so, I am reworking my notions of that long stretch of canvas; I’m trying to make it less boring. I’ve stopped reading about cyanobacteria and Rodinia and Pangaea. I’m just looking at the shapes and forms and movement, seeing that I’ve got a bunch of small panels with roundish things squirming and spurting that need to be pulled into a coherent visual whole.
What we know is never to scale; it’s always a confused, somewhat incoherent muddle of this instant of time backed by Cretaceous gold deposits. Art can only capture what it captures, stopping and fixing some tiny speck, an instant of vision scaling everything from the wink of the artist’s eye.
This blog has no questions — or it contains all the questions but no answers. Take your pick.
And here’s a link to a bit about Basin — also not to scale, but throwing in another soupcon to add to the muddlement.
Merry Christmas, everyone.