Trek Lexington in conversation with David Pettibone

  1. Where did you grow up, and when did you become interested in art? Do you remember the moment you knew that this was the career you would pursue?

Phoenix. My family’s house is beside the largest municipal park in the United States. At the time, we were one of the only houses in the area and I had free reign to explore the desert. We had coyotes scale our fence while the family grilled in the backyard. We had gila monsters and countless close calls with rattlesnakes- my dad would grab a shovel, gently scoop the snake up and carry it back out to the desert. Not the usual relationship between a rattlesnake and a shovel. I remember tortoises, herds of javelinas, tarantula hawks, scorpions, a Colorado River toad the size of my head. Things are different now. Our house is surrounded by more homes and the wildlife that remains has been pushed further into the park. I recognize the irony of both enjoying that connection with the desert and being part of that movement to develop it into the suburbs.

Like many artists and non-artists alike- I’ve always drawn and painted. I think it’s part of being human. I do recall, once when I was a kid, being in the back seat of the car on a family vacation to visit an old mission outside of Tucson. I decided, for whatever reason at that moment, that I wanted to be a better artist than Picasso. It was the type of naïve epiphany only a kid can be excused for. Being an artist now, I’d like to ask my childhood self what exactly I thought that meant- to be a better artist- as it can mean a lot of things. Richer? More popular? A better painter?- at what?- at painting Picasso’s paintings?

  1. A few years ago you moved from New York to Alaska – what inspired you to make that move, and how did it affect your work?

I moved to Alaska for several different reasons. Part of it was just that it was time to leave New York City. New York is a wonderful place. I met some incredible people, especially through the New York Academy of Art community. The talent in NYC offers unlimited inspiration and art is everywhere. But I came to the conclusion before I moved to NYC, that the successful life of a painter was a life spent painting. Once in a while, you take inventory of where you are at in your life goals and it became clear to me that I needed to leave if I was going to be able to paint as much as I wanted.

I also wanted a more active relationship with Nature. Towards the end of my time in the city, often the highlight of my day was walking my dog through the park, admiring the trees and people’s gardens and thinking about one day living somewhere where Nature was not a place to go to but a force to exist in. In Alaska, it is possible to live on the side of a mountain where you have a view of glaciers, the ocean and an active volcano. My first year here, I had all of that plus encounters with bears, wolves, moose, a wolverine, and a lynx, sometimes while painting.

If you’re a painter, you’re in the Nature business. For realists and other representational painters, this is obvious. But even abstract painters can’t get away from it. The Abstract Expressionists were making paintings that were as much about Nature as the landscape painters of the Romanticism era. Even our medium of choice is composed of the very basic elements of Nature. We use ground up animal, vegetable and mineral. We mix it with vegetable oil and turn it into things like the Mona Lisa. My favorite painters seem to understand the relationship between the medium as the basic elements of Nature and the ability of that medium to, once again, depict Nature. It is in the physical and implied textures and volumes of a Freud, Velazquez or Constable. So part of coming here, as well, was to be closer to what I see as the very foundation of painting.

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How the move affected my work- I’d say, instead of making paintings about Nature, I am painting Nature. It would almost be dishonest of me to not paint the trees and mountains as they are such a significant part of my experience here so far. Painting can be a tool to better understand something, a way of researching a subject. That was how I approached the Beekeeper series and the Subsistence Whaling series. That’s also how I see my current work- a way to better understand this new environment.

  1. Tell us a bit about your current project, “Year With a Tree”.

I came up with the idea for “Year with a Tree” before I left New York. The idea was probably a bit of a reaction to the city pace. Trees have the reputation of being permanent, quiet, inanimate objects- potentially boring to some. (Though none of that could be further from the truth.) It was a bit of a fantasy, the idea of slowing everything down, being able to spend an entire year painting one tree, over and over, and getting to know its nuances. I thought a lot about Morandi and his bottles; also Antonio Lopez Garcia’s work, particularly the film, “El Sol Del Membrillo”, which follows the painter as he attempts to paint a quince tree and its growing fruit. I thought about Constable’s “Study of the Trunk of an Elm Tree” and Lucian Freud’s comment that Constable had managed to paint the tree’s portrait. When the Anchorage Museum invited me to exhibit, I took that as the excuse I needed to actually do the project. The idea has evolved since coming to Alaska.

The series is as much about telling the narrative of the changing weather and the seasonal shifts as it is about painting a portrait of the tree. Something I discovered soon after moving here was that the weather seems to shift by the minute. As the sky changes, the light changes and so the color changes and, eventually, the entire environment. I became interested in trying to capture these changes in real time (from observation), first on the same canvas, and later, within my current, year long project.

Part of the way to tell this changing narrative is to allow the same elements that affect the tree to also affect the paintings. So if it’s raining, that part of the story is literally recorded by the pockmarks within the paint film. Same with the snow, plant debris like the seeds of the cottonwood and the occasional insect. In addition, I am recording my walk to and from the tree which is about a fifteen minute walk along a couple of trails from the Eagle River Nature Center. Eventually, I will have a year’s worth of video of that length of the trail changing from spring to summer, fall to winter and back to spring. The exhibition will take the form of four major seasonal paintings of the tree. Each painting is made up of six canvases that I bring to the tree and work on individually. These canvases come together to form one large 72”x108” painting of the tree that describes various weather conditions within a single season. In addition to these, there will be numerous small studies that tie the seasons together.

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I think by moving here, I have become more sensitive than I used be to the changing climate simply because the reminders are all around. 2016 was Alaska’s hottest year on record. You can literally watch the acceleration of the receding glaciers. The Arctic has lost half of its ice and entire villages have to relocate due to the threat of erosion and rising sea levels. With the climate in Alaska warming at twice the rate of the rest of the U.S., Alaska is the canary in the coal mine. I consider this series to be documentation of our changing climate. I want more people to pay attention to what is happening to this canary.

  1. You are incredibly dedicated to plein air painting, weather conditions notwithstanding. What are the best parts of plein air painting in the Alaskan winter? What are the worst? What have you discovered, either about yourself or about painting, through the course of “Year With a Tree?”

In terms of the winter highlights- the snow and how it changes the landscape, it weighs down the trees, clings to the trunks and covers everything. Even the mountains that surround the valley seem incredibly soft. Also, the quietness that the winter provides. The moments that strike me the most are when I take a step away from the painting and just look around. When I’m painting, sometimes I forget what surrounds me and it’s those checks that still blow me away.

I honestly can’t think of a negative that comes from painting outside in the winter here. If you are prepared for the cold, it isn’t a problem. You wear lots of layers on everything, you learn some tricks like standing on cardboard and skipping lunch so the blood stays in your limbs. In fact, the expected bite from the cold, as long as you’re prepared, becomes a welcome part of the ritual.

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I find that when I try to describe why I paint from observation, some take that as an argument against painting from references. Which is not at all the case- I’ve used my own photo references in both the Beekeepers and the Subsistence Whaling series. So I hesitate to try to explain why painting from observation is important to me. Everyone comes to their painting process on their own. I think for most painters, the most rewarding aspect of the practice is the process- whatever that ends up being. If we didn’t see something in the process worth dedicating ourselves to, I don’t think we’d do it. There are more efficient and less labor-intensive ways to get your creative point across. There is something ritualistic about the painting process and everything about “Year With a Tree” plays off of that- from the idea of spending a year painting one tree, to the walk through the forest to get to the tree, to the painting process. Also, I think similar to the idea that the medium itself is as stripped and bare as it can be, (again, being the ground up elements of nature) painting from life is equally as stripped and as bare. I had been looking for a reason to work from observation within a series for a while and Alaska has provided that reason.

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  1. If you had a superpower, what would it be, and why?

This is a trick question. The ability to grant world peace. I have no idea. Flying would be a lot of fun. Or maybe I should say being really good at painting.

Thank you for the opportunity, Trek Lexington! That was a lot of fun.

img_9431David Pettibone’s website

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