In a Christmas day post I lauded an artist named Barbara Medaille and her landscape called For the Firefighters.
Because so many friends and readers responded to the painting, I followed up with a few questions, to which she graciously responded on the phone and in email. (The result is blended together in the continuation below the virtual fold below; as I told Barbara, if I got something wrong, she can just go to the comments and set me straight!)
"For the Firefighters" was a painting I’ve been waiting a good deal of my life to see. I encounter so many California landscapes that are pretty and representational, both of the beauty of our state and of its factual appearance, but fail to catch the underlying drama of our landscape. As Barbara says, California is far less stable and unchanging than it sometimes appears.
You can see this drama, I think, even in her landscapes which aren’t obviously threatening, such as this one, called West County:
Q: How long does it typically take for you to complete a painting, from start to finish?
Medaille: It varies so widely. I’ll start a painting and leave it until it suggests something to me about where it’s going. It’s kind of a collaboration between me and the painting, and what it evokes for me. I’ll leave it alone until I find something in it. Sometimes a painting will just arrive, but more often than not I’ll hang it on a wall for a while and wait. I don’t have a firm number. I’ve even gone back to a painting I thought I had finished three years before.
Q: It sounds as if a lot of the work arrives in the process.
Medaille: It all arrives in the process. I don’t think I set out with a definite idea in mind. I paint places that have moved me greatly or frightened me or inspired awe. If I try for something very often it’s dead in the water by the time it arrives.
Q: You mentioned that you grew up in Los Angeles, and were informed by that landscape. Talk a little about where you live now, and how California has influenced you.
Medaille: I live in Northern California now, in Healdsburg. I grew up in West L.A., but my dad had horses he kept at Will Rodgers State Park. I remember him having to load them up and take them out to the beach to get them away from a fire, I can’t remember which one.
I’m not sure when the allure of fire began for me, but God knows they were part of the landscape when I was growing up in L.A., Malibu, Bel Air. Always burning up. And then the ensuing slides. "Debris flow" in the San Bernardino mountains. Everything in constant motion. Earthquakes, too. Nothing stable.
In a heartbeat, all that was familiar disintegrated.
I did a whole series of paintings about the Oakland fire. I remember a couple really wanted one of those paintings, but they had kids, and it was too frightening. It’s always been that way in California, but not just in California. I was very moved when I read about the death of fourteen firefighters in Glenwood Springs, Colorado. I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with fire.
Q: Can you talk a little about your memories of L.A.’s landscape?
Los Angeles is always dry, no matter what the "come-latelies" (in the last 50 years) might think. When I was a girl, I rode a horse along/in the dry L. A. River bed. It was wide and open and looked to me like anything could happen there. Often dad would take me into the high country, the Eastern Sierra and western Nevada where I fell in love with the land forever. And sometimes we trekked out into the desert just to look around.
Q: Are the dangers of this dry land a fact that California painters understand especially well?
Maybe in terms of landscape, but it’s not just California. It’s true in Idaho, in Montana, in Colorado too. We Westerners are very aware of fire, but I don’t think it’s a regional thing, to be enthralled by danger. These are things over which we have no control. We pretend we do have control. We pretend it’s okay. But these forces of nature are not going to be controlled no matter what–and I like that! I don’t want to be glib. I don’t want to be in favor of living in remote and inaccessible places in the event of danger, but hell, I have lived out there…and I think it’s enlivening.
Q: Can you talk a little about other artists who have influenced you?
Are you familiar with the photographs of Richard Misrach? His work fascinates me because it incorporates the mess we humans have made and the residual beauty therein.
[It so happened that the LATimes (reg. required) just ran a long and thoughtful piece on epic art of the West, which concludes with a look at Misrach and his work in the desert.]
Q: A good deal of Misrach’s work seems to be about finding beauty in the natural and the unnatural world that others may have overlooked. Does that make sense to you?
I think of another photographer, I can’t remember his name, but he too went out into the desert and Western regions and photographed old mining equipment left to rust, along with slag heaps and waste ponds, and he photographed it with such love that he found a beauty there. He even hand-colored the prints. This is what humans do! We can’t avoid it.
I once got into an awkward discussion with a photographer, who said to me: "You painters can do whatever you like; if there’s an ugly tree, you can just take it out," and I told him, you don’t have a clue about the process! Who is to say that tree is ugly? Look at Sebastian Salgado and his photographs of the miners in the diamond pits. It’s beautiful and it’s horrifying…
Q: It sounds as if that blend of fear and beauty is central to your work.
I would say in essence that we humans tend to miss so much because of our fear.
I want to try to look at all the scary and frightening things. Much will remain dark. And even remain terrifying, but I do not want to look away.