Throughout her year as Burchfield artist-in-residence, Janelle Lynch will share her thoughts and impressions with us as we share her journey into the spirit and work of Charles Burchfield.
Transcript of the talk by Janelle Lynch, Burchfield Penney Art Center 2013 Artist-in-Residence, on July 25, 2013 at the private viewing of her work-in-progress.
I’m honored to be artist-in-residence here and very grateful to Peter and Ilene Fleischmann and Peter and Joan Andrews for their generous support. I’m eager to share my experience so far, but before I do, I thought I’d offer some background as context for my project.
I was introduced to Burchfield’s work in 2006 after I started a new body of work in Chiapas, Mexico that represented a different way of seeing and thinking visually. I was anthropomorphizing tree stumps in a forest and, while the vision was true, it was unusual. I had a lot of doubt. I made three pictures and returned to New York, printed them, and showed them to a colleague who is an art historian and librarian. He, in turn, showed me books of Burchfield’s work and there the connection was made—one that has enriched my life and changed my practice.
I noted some commonalities that we shared: a reverence for the natural world; an inclination to animate it; an appreciation for the expressive potential of light; and a solitary temperament. There was also an overarching quality that I discerned, which was Burchfield’s apparent commitment to his creative freedom and artistic vision. That inspired me and gave me the courage to return to Chiapas to pursue the project that I call Akna, a series of portraits of tree stumps that explores the theme of regeneration. Josephine, an image from Akna, is in the Burchfield Penney collection and was on view during the 2008 exhibition for the inauguration of the new building. In the years since then, a commitment to honoring my vision has become the cornerstone of my own practice.
My process is highly intuitive. I don’t, for example, begin a project with an idea and attempt to illustrate it through photography. Rather, I make images of what I viscerally respond to. And I begin by establishing a relationship with a place, at first without my camera. This follows another one of my important influences, Wendell Berry who, in an essay The Unforeseen Wilderness urged landscape photographers to respect nature by creating a relationship with it before taking pictures of it. That’s what I do. I get to know what it looks like, as well as its sounds, scents, and textures—and myself in relation to it. In this process, my vision begins to shift—it becomes more nuanced, heightened, or perhaps photographic. That’s when I begin seeing potential pictures that I want to make. Then I get my camera.
I use a Deardorff 8-x-10-inch film camera, similar to the nineteenth-century model. It’s big, heavy, wooden, and fragile, and demands a meditative approach that compliments my intuitive process. To see through the ground glass view- finder—that’s 8-x-10-inches—I have to cover my head and the camera back with a dark focusing cloth. Doing so also blocks my peripheral vision and sound to some degree, and creates a dark, private, intimate space. In the sometimes up to an hour that it takes for me to compose and focus the image, a mysterious transmission occurs between the subject that I see through the lens on the ground glass and myself—all that I bring to that moment—my response to the subject, the place, the time, my personal history, my references all meet to create an image. As I work over time and print and study the pictures, that’s when the themes begin to reveal themselves and I make discoveries about the subject, the landscape, photography, and myself.
For example, the work in my first book, Los Jardines de México—five years of work from Mexico City and Chiapas—revealed concerns about the life cycle and representations of it in the landscape. I looked at loss, death, life, and regeneration. And in the four years of work in Barcelona that followed—the subject of my forthcoming book—the interest continued but focused around an inquiry about what remains after absence and loss, what persists in being, what intangible presence continues despite a physical absence?
And it’s the theme of presence that brings me here to the work that I’m doing for the residency.
In January, when I was waiting for Buffalo’s temperature to rise above 20 degrees, I immersed myself in literature related to Burchfield—Nancy’s beautiful, insightful writings; Burchfield’s published journals—I looked at books of images and found myself especially drawn to Burchfield’s painting, Solitude; and I read Annie Dillard’s book, The Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Dillard, like Burchfield, was inspired by Thoreau. Her book is a meditation on the year of solitude she spent in the Virginia landscape, reflecting on the art and act of seeing and communing with nature. And so it was with that mindset that I made my first visit here in April and began studying the landscape across the street from Burchfield’s former home in Gardenville, what is now the Charles Burchfield Nature & Art Center, and I made a few pictures. One of the large horizontals on the table is one of them. The rest of the time, as it sleeted, I was here, first in the archives with Tullis, who so generously and kindly made himself available. He removed Solitude from the collection and brought it into the study center where we looked at it together, as well as related drawings and journal entries that referenced the theme of solitude and Thoreau. He even played me a Leonard Cohen song that he connects to the painting! Tony introduced me later in the week at the launch where I met many staff members who so warmly and enthusiastically welcomed me and wanted to know about my project. That evening, Mia organized a book signing of my first monograph, Los Jardines de México, so I was also able to meet members of the larger community. On Sunday I joined Tony, Alana, Mary, and a busload of other Burchfield admirers for Nancy’s tour of Burchfield-related architectural sites in the city, and I left Buffalo that Sunday afternoon feeling so moved by my reception here and by the staff’s trust and willingness to support me as artist-in-residence and also so fortunate for the chance to further explore my kinship with Burchfield.
Although the plan was for me to be here four times over the course of the year, once each season, I was eager to return. I came back in early May and once again my visit was marked by the incredible gift of freedom and time to explore in my solitary way in the landscape all the while aware that the staff was here, solidly behind me.
When I’m in New York, it’s been important for me to stay connected to the project, so I’ve been keeping a blog on the center’s website, thanks to Kath and Alana. I’ve also been working on my property in the Catskills, where I have my studio. Burchfield said that he often found inspiration in his backyard, so I went into my backyard to make photographs there, too. Although the landscape is different than at the Nature & Art Center, the essence of the vision is the same.
I returned in June for my third visit and found that my research interests were organically shifting. I talked to Scott about the relationships that Burchfield had that he felt inspired, nurtured, and supported by. Scott suggested that I read Alana’s thesis, about Burchfield’s relationship with his wife, Bertha, and his letters to her. And Scott also suggested that I read Burchfield’s correspondence with Dr. Braasch, an important patron. On my fourth visit in early July I found myself calling my partner and asking if he could find work here so that we could move to Buffalo! And now this lovely reception is yet another example of the generous, supportive presence that has defined my experience here as artist-in-residence. And the magical thing is that it’s revealing itself in the work! These pictures are portraits and self-portraits that convey through the landscape, through photography, my experience here accompanied by Burchfield’s silent presence and the community’s very active, generous presence.
Thank you for being here.
Janelle Lynch is the 2013 Burchfield resident artist. She has garnered international recognition over the last decade for her large-format photographs of the urban and rural landscape. Widely exhibited, her work is in several public and private collections including the Burchfield Penney, George Eastman House Museum, the Brooklyn Museum, the Newark Museum, the Fundación Vila Casas, Barcelona, and the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo, Salta, Argentina.