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Channeling Emily Carr and thinking about Place

Some of you already know that I’ve been copying Emily Carr paintings for the last week or so, attempting to understand more fully how she does forests and trees.

Emily Carr, Cedar Sanctuary, 38 x 26″, Oil on paper, 1942

I’ve learned a lot through this exercise [ including the rule that I must paint-over or otherwise destroy the copies I’ve made before someone comes into the studio and exclaims with pleasure over them. Such an exclamation forces me to admit that what the complimenter is seeing is a copy, causing embarassment all round.] Carr’s finding of shapes in the complexity, of making color within the shapes, and of “draping” her branches are all valuable for my own art-making thoughts.

However, during this process, I had other kinds of questions occur.

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Recent Paintings from the Willamette Valley

I feel as if I have been away forever. Life overtook my Art and Perception, although not completely my art and not completely all my perceptions.

So here’s an update.

After a long struggle with health and painting, I’ve finally revived and have been painting the landscapes of the Willamette Valley in western Oregon. The change of venue from the wild and awesome desert to the gentle scenery of the Valley was fairly traumatic and also the cause (I think; I hope) of some really bad paintings, now discarded. But I’ve kept a few and think I may be able to tolerate the pretty landscapes and conventional views to which I’ve been subjected. (I’m engaged with a group of plein air artists who always choose not to paint the snarky or sardonic.)

The paintings imaged below have been done since the end of June. The first four (through the Storm) were attempts to provide a sense of expansion outward rather than focusing into the painting. This outward away from the center is what I feel the desert does, and I thought painting sky and/or water might keep me in touch with that expansion of space so essential to desert painting.

Morning Fog in the Gorge, 12 x 16″, Oil on board, 2009

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The Void: painting the desert

As Steve noted not long ago, perception — how, as well as what, we see and record — is prime territory for this group. Some weeks ago I wrote about painting in the desert, the Great Basin to be more precise, and, even more specifically,  the Amargosa Plain just outside of Death Valley.

After having spent 6 weeks in the desert, perceiving and painting, mostly plein air, I am now back in Portland reading about desert perception in William L. Fox’s The Void, the Grid, and the Sign.

Fox has spent most of his life in and around a variety of deserts and back-of-nowhere lands, but in The Void he’s primarily concerned with the Great Basin, that large space between the Rockies and the Sierras, where water flows in, but never out, where there is no river coursing to the sea.  He says that outside of Afghanistan, this area contains the most mountain ranges (316) in the world, but there are also 90 basins, places where what little water exists is captured between ranges and sinks or evaporates. The best known of these basins is perhaps Death Valley, although that lies outside Fox’s attention. The place I was painting, the Amargosa Plain, is also just outside his wide-ranging travels. However, much of what he says is apropos of the Amargosa and Death Valley.

Death Valley at the Beatty Cut-off, March, 2009

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Green therapy, mud sketching on recycled paper!

The weather is been fantastically good, so in order to give an art lesson outdoors to the kids and enjoy the sunshine, I have taken them outside in the school playground/pound area for painting.


By dipping a paintbrush in the water pound, and mixing it with soil, you can create beautiful earthy shades, pretty much the same principle as watercolour.

By breaking grass and smudge it on paper you can make a shade of green, and by using a burned wood stick you can create some chalky black. Using only these natural pigmentations from nature you can create 100% organic art on recycled paper.



I have made two organic sketches, one that I prepared at home in my back garden and another one I used for a quick demonstration how it works for the kids.

Here are some of the results:

Age 9



Age 10

For more school art lessons check out my blog at Life of a Mother Artist
More to come…

Duck Fun

Walking to work I came across these beautiful waves and snapped them with my new point-and-shoot camera. I bought this lovely little Leica when I started walking to my day job because carrying a heavy DSLR camera in addition to my laptop on this 4-mile round trip had made me feel like a pack-ass. more… »

Landscapes and Conundrums

And now, at this point (day 30) in this particular residency in Beatty, Nevada, I am pondering a conundrum about my own landscape work. I haven’t quite enough distance to say for certain [pun recognized after it was made] but it seems to me that my interest in context and a sense of place interferes with my achieving a stylistic breakthrough, particularly with the set pieces that I love, like the mountains around Beatty.

As my colleague and friend David T would say: if he walked into a gallery with my landscape paintings, he wouldn’t think of them as being “by June Underwood,”just as “nice” (not a compliment) landscape paintings.

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Decorative Elements, Beatty Nevada

One of my preoccupations in painting inhabited space is to see how people perceive and decorate their surrounds. In cities, it seems to me, conformity sometimes rules — or perhaps there’s too much unconformity to make sense of a singular type of decorative decorum. Whatever the case, I find that peering at small towns and villages gives me a certain kind of data; both individually and collectively, people seem to want to dress up, decorate, make order of what lies around them. And in places with few people, it’s possible to suss out what that decorative impulse consists of.

A particular caution that I remind myself of — looking at what people do to dress up their trailer houses requires a disciplined mind. My goal is to neither romanticize nor to satirize. I allow myself no irony about individual choices, although lots of irony can abound when examining communal structures (like bridges and mine tailings). What I want is to see what’s there without indulging in judgment.

So what is the predominate beautification element of Beatty Nevada ( 220 miles south of Reno, 110 miles north of Las Vegas, population 1200, where the Amargosa River surfaces, just for a minute, before being swallowed by the Amargosa desert [a subset of the Mojave desert])?

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