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As An Artist
I ask myself a question as I do my morning chores on my farm, as I grain the pigs, as I put hay out for the cows, my cat at my feet the whole time. As I look around at this life, the one I have made; the life of an artist. At times, it’s a ship running into the rocky coast, battered by a winter storm. I ask at that moment, “will I survive, or will this be the last thing that my eyes see in the darkness of that night?” And in the same way that I was brought against that rocky shore, I am saved and brought to calm waters. My day in the sun. The beautiful warming breeze that smells of spring.
Life experience is what makes my art. And as an artist, I have made my life. I live on the mountain tops and in the deepest hole; my art is what takes me there. But also, in the end, it is my power, what drives me, what pushes me to live life harder, deeper, more loving. It pushes me to the darkest reaches of the forest and also brings me to the light in the meadow. I feel so lucky to be an artist, just as long as it doesn’t kill me in the end. I’m sure it will.
My mind sometimes tells me to live an easier life. Why put yourself through this? But my soul has more power, and pulls me into the dark. It takes me to that place, a place wonderful to tell, one of love and of heartbreak, feelings so beautiful to feel but also so far to fall. I’m so glad I found my art later in life – not that I haven’t been looking, I have. I used to draw all the time, then on to other things, always trying to find myself. I did not find my art until I was 47, but when I did I just knew I was home. The great part of finding it so late in life is my life’s experiences are what make my art so real to me.
I will tell you of one experience that makes me who I am. Do not read on if you don’t want to hear a sad but beautiful story.
I had a draft horse. Her name was Crystal, a beautiful black Percheron. She was the best. I worked with her for 20 years or so. I got her when she was only 7, which is pretty young for a horse. At that point she had already been worked so hard, and she had also foundered. If that happens to a horse it is in most cases the end, there is nothing you can do. So her feet were bad from this, and to add that with the work she was doing, she went lame all the time. Really she was not of any use to anyone. The guy that owned her was going to send her to the slaughterhouse. They make pet food of worn out animals like Crystal.
I remember clearly the day I thought he sent her. I had worked with that horse for a year, we were something together. We had that bond that’s unbreakable even today. In the end the guy just gave her to me. Well, with lots of begging on my part. With lots of love and care and effort, I had her for 20 years after that, and she was able to work with no real problems.
But at 27 she was old. It was winter, and I would get up in the morning and find her down, she could not get up. Many times I had to lift her with a tractor. It can kill a horse to be down, they can bloat or they can keep rolling until the stomach will twist, nothing can pass and the gases build and it will kill, slowly and very painfully.
One night late I went to check on her, and again she was down. I did everything I could to get her up, but you could tell that she wanted it to end. It was the last moments I spent with my friend. Because it was so late, no vet would come out, so I had to do it myself.
I got the gun from the house, and I went and sat for a time with her. I put her head in my lap, stroked her face and remembered our life together. Those last looks into her eye, I could be myself in the reflection. I cried, I said goodbye, I put the gun to her head and I pulled the trigger. She twitched her legs, kicked for a few seconds. The blood ran from the hole in her head, smoke from the gunpowder came out of her nose and mouth. I watched as the main vein in her neck pulsated with the still beating heart, but slowed more and more. I put my hand on it to feel the last bits of life in her slowly but surely come to an end. Crystal was gone. I laid with her and cried. I thought about how once by loving had I saved her from death, now by loving hand I brought her death.
In the end I find even if I had the money or it wasn’t late I still would not want the vet to put my horse down; it was something I needed and had to do. As hard as it was – and to this day it makes me sad – I will live with those last moments forever, but it also helps me remember all those years of good times.
It’s the things in life like these that make me who I am. When I find life almost too hard to bare I make my art: it’s my safety valve. It’s the release for me. But as my art saves me time and time again, my life is also the soil that my art grows from.
What I remember most
Oh, the smell. It’s the first thing that brands on your mind. If you’re not around it, or haven’t shot for sometime, the first time you open up those bottles, it’s like coming home. And to be in my makeshift darkroom, just a wooden box with a blackout curtain tossed over it, with the smells and the thick air, and to see that first image appear after I poured the developer – I will never forget it. It’s crazy to me how making an image can be so moving to one’s soul. Hell, it’s just a photo, right? ……but it just grabs you, and when it has a hold on you, you will never be free from it even if you wanted to. Just like farming or working the land has that hold on me too, never can I be far from the smell of new cut hay or the soil just plowed over, or the smell of fir boughs and pitch as I thin the weak and dying trees from the forest. Smells are the most evocative sense to me, and now I can add the smell of ether and collodion. The sweet smell of the silver bath. The smells in my life: they will be what I remember most, I’m sure, until the day I die.
A self taught hand made life, first plates
My dream of shooting wet plate did not come easy. It took over 6 months of dreaming, planning, working; wondering if I could ever do it at all. I am a farmer and logger by trade, but with the way I do things, they never made me much money. Plenty of hard work, mind you; but not much in monetary reward. So, with that said, buying any nice cameras was simply not going to happen, and just trying to pull 350 bucks together to get the chemistry was going to be a long shot.
I work with my hands, and I love to build things. Pretty quick I worked out that I could build a camera to get started. Not only would it get my foot in the door, but it would keep my mind on the ball as I worked to put together the money to buy what I needed. However, I was well aware that I would have no talent when it came to manufacturing lenses.
To find my lens, I went on ebay. Fifty bucks is about all I had to spend on one, and that isn’t much. I bid and bid on lenses, over and over again, just to lose out at the last second. I never really had an available fifty bucks, either; I was just hoping for the best. The farm gets most of any money I make: any farmer will tell you that – you have to feed the animals before all else. In the end, I managed it – I won a small lens, from Tony from England. So I started on my camera, making it from cedar, not for any real reason other than just because I have plenty of cedar, and I mill it on my sawmill.
Six months in, that is, six months after coming up with my grand plan, I had gathered a few bucks and got my chemistry in hand, but not my camera. I was still building it – still working out light leaks, for one. I had gone with a simple design for a sliding box camera – no complicated bellows and as few moving parts as possible. Nevertheless, the sliding box wasn’t sliding as well as it should.
I couldn’t wait any longer. I had my grandmother’s old Brownie, with its big crack in the case, and not in the best of shape. I cut some glass to just fit. The glass was a bit too thick, so the camera didn’t close very well, but damn, I didn’t care, I taped that sucker up anyway and shot a few plates.
Where it all began
As long as I can remember I have always wanted to be an artist. I think it’s just something in you: yes, some people do get up one day and say, yeah, I think I’m going to be an artist for a job. I feel like it has to come from a place within you, something we can’t put our finger on. A calling, as it were.
For me, it started when I was very young. The first thing that I wanted to be was a wood-carver – because my grandfather was a woodworker and I wanted to be just like him. He used to carve peach pits. Yup, I said, I can do that. So at 6 years old I sat behind the shed next to the two chicken coops we had and started carving. Predictably, it wasn’t long before I sliced my hand good. That was the end of my wood carving period.
As the years went by and I could see I didn’t fit anywhere – in school, in jobs, etc. – my wanting of my inner artist to come out became much stronger. I went from oil painting to watercolor, on to painted furniture, to fresco painting. I did love the idea of fresco: you use lime and clay pigments and raw earth colors, so it’s very much close to the earth. I like that; very dirty and hands on. In the same vein, I also tried pottery and even bought tools to be a stone cutter. I still kinda like all those things and play with them from time to time, but they just never felt like my art. Something was missing.
I have always loved photography, but didn’t ever think I could do it; it seemed so over my head. I’m not good at learning things, it does not come easy for me. What does come easy is to look at how something is made and kind of reverse engineer it in my mind. Like, I see a barn, and I can build it. I can put a transmission in a truck on the side of the road in the pouring rain if I had to. I can drive a team of horses. I’m very hands on, and I can see a problem and fix it before it happens. But to learn a modern camera? Nope, that’s too much for me to take in. But one day when I had just turned 47 it just hit me, make a camera! And shoot old fashioned style wet plate collodion!
I had loved the series “The Civil War” by Ken Burns, and have always loved history. Photos from that time just stand out to me. I feel who those people are; there is just something about those images that is timeless. I wanted to do it, but could I? I knew nothing about any of it. That was the beginning, that’s the start of my wet plate journey that is just turning out to be the most beautiful ride.