cleaning the studio...

...and other adventures in art

If you’ve read this blog over the past year, you’ll know that I’ve been doing some pieces based on the Iceland landscape. I’ve never blogged about why I started working with that landscape to begin with, and, as a side note, why I haven’t posted since October 2.

Original artwork by Barbara Downs, Talisman (V), Charcoal, Chalk, Wax, Pencil on Paper

Talisman (V), Charcoal, Chalk, Wax, Pencil on Paper, 38″ x 50″, 2015

It starts with this…my sister Carol and I fell in love with Iceland several years ago when we went there specifically to ride Icelandic horses. We loved it for similar reasons (which had little to do with horses): a certain resonance that we found within ourselves for its overwhelming space and sky and land, its weather and its people, and with all those things that make Iceland what it is.

So we went there when we could. Again and again. In the summer, in the winter, in the seasons in-between. When we were there, I photographed that landscape, and I collected materials, and I contemplated the horizon.

I found myself generally frustrated with my attempts to approach the landscape from an artistic perspective. That land and sky are already full and complete and wholly contained within themselves. And they are big, in spite of the notion that Iceland is a small island in the middle of a big ocean. Every vista was expansive. Around every corner was a new perspective, just as heartbreakingly-beautiful as the last.

My sister and I were mesmerized by the land and sky and ocean, but my paper and canvases felt too small for the task at hand. Every time I tried to work with it, I ended up gazing around in wonder and getting side-tracked with the sheer beauty of the place.

Then Carol was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. With treatment, she could gain some time to do those things that she needed to do. Spending time with siblings and parents was first on that list, but Iceland was also on that list. During our medical trips to UCSF, hoping to be on the positive side of the statistics, we talked about Iceland. Sometimes we just silently crossed our fingers. But that got me thinking…if Carol can’t go to Iceland again, maybe I can bring it to her.

So I started my drawings of Iceland, focusing on buildings and the horizon line. I knew I couldn’t bring the immensity of the landscape to her, but I could bring her some familiar views.  I imagined that I would be able to surround her with Iceland, with drawings on every wall and spare corner in my studio. Mind you, it’s not that I exactly envisioned that this would happen in “real life”…it’s not like that. It’s not that literal, not that direct. It was the intention of the work though. It was the impetus, the genesis, the seed of an idea.

Originally my buildings had no doors, and Carol noticed and mentioned it to me. It didn’t bother me; the door seemed unimportant to the drawing. But one night I woke up in a cold sweat as I realized that having no door meant that we had no entrée to that world again. Acting on that feeling, I added doors to all the drawings the next morning, wrote this post (here), and changed the name of the series to “Talisman”.

It must have worked, because we went back to Iceland three times last summer. Back home again, ten months after her diagnosis, Carol passed away, on October 10.

The Iceland work (here) continues, in drawing and painting and mixed-media form. The place now has a deeply layered meaning to me, all tangled up with the person that I’m missing. — Takk fyrir Carol, og megi reiðtúrinn aldrei enda.


photo of cairn in Iceland

Carol making a cairn in Iceland