The Art of the Palette

Art can be made out of land in many ways. One is to build a highway. These art projects often are a form of politics. Take the highways of Eastern Washington, for example. Those are built to lead from town to town, factory to farm and back, and to a few nuclear plants and hydroelectric dams for good measure. These are the highways of the very romantic dreamers who live in those parts. They are peole very enamoured with building machines.

Living with The Machine

A fly-fisher, complete with regulation ball cap, trying to get away from it all under the bridge at Okanogan, Washington. Whew.

In keeping with that type of artwork, the men of Eastern Washington are busy turning both towns and the land into machines as well. They’re getting pretty good at it. To date, they have been so successful at this massive art project that you can drive for miles and miles and miles without finding a place to stop to admire the view, because, well, it’s the wrong aesthetic.

As They Say in Southern Washington

At least this sign is posted at a rest area, which has parking, although you have to pay $10 a day to use it. I think you can guess that no one does. Imagine the frustration! If people would just, like, you know, get with the program, eh.

New uses for the land are the ones that count here politically — or at least the ones that were new until this century. Now, only the older highways, built by a previous political generation, have ample room for a traveller to stop without getting, like, sideswiped. And what do you see when you stop? Aha!

Buck and Geese on Lake Roosevelt

Near Daisy, Washington on Route 25. This image was made just after he got out of the water, as those geese were bearing down on him big time. Obviously, he knew about geese. That fly fisherman in Okanogan needs to make a day trip, I think.

Other than the art of dams, highways, and wheat fields cropped right up to the asphalt of the highways and the front steps of farm houses, perhaps the greatest art that has been made out these landscapes has been Frank Herbert’s Dune. Out of these coulees and arroyos and salt pans, Herbert made a classic of literature.

Long Distance Trucker Scooting Through Frank Herbert’s Dune

On his way to the sequel. It’s like a different planet.

Thing is, Herbert wrote Dune fifty years ago. In the time since, it has become clear that the ways in which he represented the landscape in fiction, are perhaps the most appropriate for representing it in that other set of metaphors that is commonly called reality. For instance…

Sci-Fi Landscape

If the moon were given just a wee bit of water, and it stored it underground, and it escaped to the atmosphere in the form of alien life forms that were very efficient at reducing their rates of transpiration to keep it underground where it belonged, it would look like this. Dry Falls State Park, Washington. Only Speculative Fiction offers the tools to adequately describe this landscape.

Another form of art that can be made out of the land is created out of a palette of 1970s-era back-to-the-land dreams. Here is a moment created out of moose antlers, non-functional fenceposts, birch twig chairs, and a fire pit, as part of a wild-crafting farm.

Agricultural Product of a Different Kind, Coyote Sleeping, B.C.

In the art of wild-crafting, agriculture produces more than just products that you can eat. Some you can just, well, sit in. Don Elzer’s Wildcraft Forest is located East of Lumby on the Cherryville Road. Here’s his catalogue.

In the context of this kind of art, agriculture starts looking a lot like the Grand Coulee Dam itself: a product designed to meet the utilitarian needs of a utilitarian civilization with the massive political problem of millions of starving citizens. The answer? As one old communist from the 1930s, the era of the Grand Coulee Dam construction, told me in 1978, “Art is a luxury.” Well, look…

Monument to the Workers of Grand Coulee Dam, Grand Coulee, Washington

Woody Guthrie was hired by the Bonneville Power Administration to write songs that would get people behind the project. The champion of the common man sold out the river for $10 a song. There’s some great footage here. The above monument is, strangely enough, in a Native American town. It’s a strange form of art that calls other art a luxury, but costs billions to build itself.

If you don’t think that’s Sci-fi, try this:

Display of Water from the Entire USA at Grand Coulee Dam…

… with beauty pageant ladies pouring it over the concrete. It’s like launching a ship, eh, but one that doesn’t move.

Here, you can read the text (Well, OK, if you squint.)

And They’re Not Afraid of Heights, Either!

Me, I don’t like the look of that crack!

There are many other art forms that are made out of the land, but they all include the ability to apply certain principles of writing, and the first of those is that you have to actually see what’s in front of you. One way to do this is to get out your eyeshadow, your lip gloss, and even your interior decorator’s wall palettes and have at it. Those things have delicious names. You could build worlds out of those names. The thing is, back in the teens of the last century, when watercolour painting was predominantly used as a recording device for accurate colour of medical ailments and horticultural samples, it was also making inroads as an art form deemed suitable for women, and even its first inroads into the art scenes in which it could hold its place with oil paintings. In that context, the work of a watercolour painter was to see colour in the landscape, colour that had never been see before, to recreate it accurately on the palette, and then to apply it so that it would be available to everyone. It is exactly the same work that the chemists of Germany did with the colour ideas of the poet Goethe, but worked out in a different metaphor. In both ways, the sum of human knowledge and the depth and specificity with which people could respond to landscape would be increased. There is, however, no reason they need to remain independent any longer, and they aren’t, really. Here’s a classroom, in which a group of writers is being guided away from the primary colour palettes of their childhoods into the sophisticated, trained eyes of landscape writers…

Writing the Land…

… Outdoor classroom at Thompson Rivers University, Kamloops, BC

What I tried to show people was that if they choose a colour palette, they’d be able to describe landscape within its social and historic contexts, to provide rich narratives able to connect in any practical direction they needed, rather than rather limited, personal narratives that got bogged down in the 19th century emotional and moral responses that are often still the stock-in-trade of North American culture. Those are not bad things, of course, but they’re a heck of a lot better if they can lead to positive action and change, with the ability to dynamically respond to unfolding circumstances. Colour work helps with that.

Feral Grape Buds in the Spring Sun

Those buds are many colours, but brown is the least of them. 

It all depends upon where you want to go. Want to stress the fruit that will come out of the vine and how the grapes are an expression of the nature of the whole plant? Then choose berry-flavoured paint or eye shadow samples, or create your own palette and work from that. Such a palette might look like this:

Grape Bud Palette

Grandmother’s Silesian plum cake, grape stained fingers after pressing down the cap on fermenting grape must, President plum in the back of a Sikh farmer’s pickup on a old Portuguese farm, cinnamon stick, rotting apricot… (one can go on)…

You’ll get one set of connections out of that, and will soon find yourself deep within the life of the plant, and your life with it. But it’s not the only possible palette:

Grape Bud Palette 2

Wasp nest, wasp wing, ant chitin, hard pan, stainless steel truck bumper, forest fire ash… (one can go on)…

Many other palettes are possible. That’s what I’d like to add to our curriculum today: our ability to farm the land is inseparable from our ability to describe what we see, because our descriptions provide the pathways for further thinking and elaboration of any kind. They are the first step in social, technical, and aesthetic processes, and provide doorways through which new processes can be admitted, old ones put into context, and cross-boundary fertilizations can be made. In short, a curriculum not founded on these principles will rely on the principles laid down along these lines in the watercolours of the past and in the attitudes of the past in which they were brought to light. We’re not going to effect change that way.

A Palette of Colours, Dry Falls State Park

None with a name. It’s about time. Go ahead, give it a go!

1 reply »

  1. Great post again!Your posts make me think, so I nominated you for VERSATILE BLOGGER AWARD -
    Actually I did it a couple days ago,but don’t know whether I informed you ,anyway ,now I am sure you get it 😉
    All the best,Tamara


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