By Elsa Bekkala
Art parallels farming
I am the daughter of apple and dairy farmers, so I have found myself inspired by the land no matter where I’ve painted: Detroit, the Island of St. Croix, the mountains of Spain, the Great Basin Desert and even New York City. My strength and inspiration have come from my roots on our family farm in Michigan.
By necessity, those who farm are required to be inventive and creative in order to thrive. They must be keenly aware of that which surrounds them, and ready for the challenges presented by Mother Nature. It is the lessons of farming that have inspired my creativity and oeuvre as a painter.
At the same time farmers prepare the soil in the spring for planting, the cool weather is an excellent time for artists to stretch their canvases in preparation for the year ahead.
In the same fashion as farmers, I have chosen to work largely with what nature provides. Quality canvases are linen manufactured from the flax plant, and I stretch those onto wooden frames. The first ground is made from rabbit skin glue. The best brushes are made of wood, and the hair of various animals.
To increase fluidity of oil paints, I use a standard mixture created from turpentine, linseed oil and dammar varnish. Turpentine is squeezed from the wood of pine trees, linseed oil comes from flax, and dammar varnish is a resin from Asian trees.
I paint with oils and these mediums because they are generally materials that have been tested for their quality over hundreds of years. Acrylics are a fairly recent invention and have not been around long enough to adequately test their colorfastness or longevity.
There is a saying: “Many are the paths to the top of Mount Fuji.” And many are the ways of artists and their materials, as are the ways of farmers and their land. My father’s connection to the land was so powerful he referred to his own skin as bark and blood as sap. I find myself working to retain that kind of closeness to the land and my materials.
Art connected by community
There are so many influences that emerge in the work of creative people, it is difficult to sort them out. Initially, it is the influence of our parents, but that rapidly broadens through reading and acquaintances. During my years of teaching painting, I have observed there are many curious influences as well. For example, if a person has learned to embroider, sometimes their paint strokes are like small stitches; if they have learned to weed, paint strokes can resemble blades of grass. Artistry is not the domain of a few and can be developed through reading, observation, exploration and listening. If artistry is to live within a person, he must nurture imagination and inventiveness, whether he is the observer or creator of the art.
When painting connects with a community, there is little urgency for long explanations. A successful painting has a voice of its own and still retains a quality of mystery.
Materials and techniques
Quality is important to me, as it must be to artists and those who work the land. Sadly, following the early sixties, many American painters have neither taught, nor learned the craft of painting. There are too many works of art that have already been, or soon will be, lost forever due to poor workmanship. Watch your works over time to see if there is deterioration in your surfaces, or grounds. This is the same way a farmer cares for the land.
My ancestors, the Sami, are on record as being proud to have lived in Lapland for thousands of years without having left any sign of their existence. Since I have paid attention to quality, I see no deterioration on my linen canvases over the 35 years since I made my earlier works. One of the most intriguing supports I have experimented with is copper. There are few historical examples of oil on copper, but those I have seen afford astounding detail together with a curious glow from within.
Education of the artist
Cities are justifiably proud of their schools of higher education, but here in America, there is little time for the young in the city to develop widely varying interests. Jane Austin wrote that in the country there was more time to read and become better educated than was possible in a city environment.
Having lived in New York City for 25 years, I have noted how easterners journeyed across the Mississippi, explored our country and came to “know” the land. Today, folks fly across the country and never come to know the land. The added dimension of wariness toward strangers in a crowded city makes it necessary for parents to continually accompany their children. Young people are not allowed to play outside alone. How does the thrill of being allowed to freely explore nature make exploration a life-long pursuit?
Finally, it is not enough to own and use your materials well. Your subject matter needs to come from your own passions and identity, or it will not have much resonance for you, or others for that matter. If you simply follow trends in art, or farming, where is the soul of the artist?
What: Elsa Bekkala’s “People and the Land”
When: Oct. 19 through Nov. 29
Where: Janice Mason Art Museum, Cadiz
Info: Carol Niswonger, 270-522-9056