Conjured Ghosts

At twilight, a trestle bridge between Whittier and Cherokee- a span of rusted steel, old timbers and stained concrete across the Tuckasegee River. The steep banks are choked with kudzu, dotted with the hulks of old cars.

Most of my paintings begin with places that don’t need a visible ghost. The settings feel quite haunted enough. But the ballad series offers a new pleasure- by placing the figure in the landscape I can be a film director of sorts. The location has been found. What viewpoint will I take? What will I add and subtract? The cast are ready to be pulled from my imagination.

At first there was a form under the trestle, then only a pile of clothing. These choices were abandoned for a figure walking away from us along the railroad tracks. Then an older sketch came to mind.

I use this study as an inspiration for the figure on the trestle.

She stands far enough out on the bridge to be in danger: should a train arrive she would surely have to jump. In ‘Albion’s Seed: Four British folkways in America’, David Hackett Fischer talks about the ‘nescient fatalism’ shared by backcountry people. Her stance is certainly fatalistic.

Bonnard, Vuillard- they show us how to make the viewer see objects out of turn. Both capture that momentary confusion of shape and form before our brain solves the puzzle of seeing. In the dusk, the woman is the last thing to be discovered. Is she even there, or is it a trick of the light?

Pattern– the pattern here of the leaves- I’ve found such passages in a painting more and more important. But you can’t just tinker. You need to get lost in the paint itself, always mindful of the idea behind the painting. I’m reminded of those intricate musical pieces where we wonder if the virtuoso will ever find their way out of such a forest of notes. That is how the painter should lose himself in paint.

Such passages can hold something magical. Klimt’s figures are expanded rather than diminished by the designs that surround them. I’ve come upon old paintings of mine and remembered at once a melody that was playing in the studio, or something weighing upon my thoughts on that day.

This is one kind of conjured ghost. The figure on the bridge is another.

This was the first of four paintings that would become the ‘Young Hunting’ series. All four were complete before I went to the Child Ballads in search of a song to connect them. This is an odd but satisfying way to work. The documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman liked to drop himself in a situation and learn as he went. This captures the first impression, which is a different, but as valid a truth as the last.

This painting is currently on display at Evoke Contemporary in Santa Fe, New Mexico.


Young Hunting (performed by Greg and Lucretia Speas)

Young Hunting (Murder Ballad Monday/Sing Out Magazine)