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541.787.4395 (Pacific Time Zone) kristen@kristenoneillart.com

Common Ground – Artist Statement

I have wanted to go to Ireland since college. Someone said to me, “There is a green in the spring that is like nothing else.” I felt a pilgrimage to go find that green. After my divorce I decided that life is short, and I better get to doing these things I want to do. What was standing in my way of Ireland? Other people go? Surely it must be achievable. I decided it was money, time, and a passport. I got my passport first. I arranged with my boss my trip time. I saved up money for a year. I had my new luggage, my travel art supplies, and my plan. All my reservations. Seat on my flight picked out. The problem, which I could not foresee months earlier, was that my flight to Ireland was scheduled for March 23, 2020. I did not get on that plane. 

As the world descended into chaos, my daughters needed homeschooling, my life changed, there was this ache of a whole series of paintings of Ireland not made. What was I going to paint? I was so stressed out being a single mom of a child doing kindergarten from home. My daughter couldn’t attend her 5th grade graduation ceremony. Illness, and loneliness everywhere. And here I was, missing my missed vacation. But you know what? Our struggles are valid no matter their size. This isn’t a comparison. We all go through things. And the loss of this dream was hard for me, and so was the loss of the plan. But I made one critical mistake. I said, “What else can go wrong? I can’t handle one more thing.” What was I thinking??? 

That night a huge lightning storm set afire the mountain I grew up on. My mom fled. My family waited to see if the house would burn down. The fire merged with other fires and became known as the CZU Complex fire. It took out hundreds of homes in the Santa Cruz mountains in California.

I watched as fire maps updated. Sometimes they would show the house as destroyed. The mountainous terrain confuses the heat readings of the satellites. Fire fighters informed the close-knit neighborhood that they weren’t coming. They had bulldozed a fire line on the other side of the neighborhood and would come back to defend that fire line if needed. The fire was too big, and they were stretched too thin. Through a miracle of teamwork and conditions, the neighbors organized into a band of firefighters and won their battle. 

Next the Almeda fire and the Slater fires swept through communities closer to me. Fire was here. Fire was making its presence known. Fire could no longer be ignored. 

I turned my art to fire. 

I started working with encaustic, to incorporate heat into my art making process. I traveled to forest fire sites and grabbed charcoal from the forest floor. Often, I had been to the same places before, and was able to compare with photos the difference. I listened to lectures on fire, old growth forests, and land management. I sought out situations where I could be the most ignorant person in the room, soaking up knowledge and asking questions.

My series nearly died again. “What are you working on?” Forest fires! “Oh. Who wants to see more of that?”

Would anyone want to see my art? What if we all just needed escape. I struggled on. 

This series was so stubborn. So hard fought. Other series just poured out. Not this one. Like fire itself, I had to befriend the struggle.

I saw another artist’s work about the Almeda fire. She mentioned that she was coping with the loss of it via her art. If that felt fully acceptable to me for her, why wasn’t it acceptable for me? What was this block that insisted on being present?

Was I afraid? Afraid of not making powerful enough work to meet the subject? Yes. Afraid to oversimplify. To minimize someone else’s journey. Yet, to speak of my own journey. My own experiences. 

I had a subject block. I also had an approach block. The last two series were from hiker’s photographs. And previous were my own experiences hiking in the woods. Here I could not lean onto someone else’s journey. I wanted to incorporate the feelings. The sketches. The visits. The moments. The brevity of the landscape that we are so easily tricked into thinking, “This. This is the way it is, the way it has been, the way it will be.” 

The way through was to dive into non-committal sketches. Growing from these sketches I would take the impactful and plan out paintings. I moved. I had to have my studio packed up for over a month. This time allowed me to focus on these sketches without the pressure of the painting.

This decision made me brave enough to approach the art making and work through my block. Then reading the paper I saw an amazing photo. I wrote the editor of the Grants Pass Daily Courier for permission to paint his photos. He gladly and generously gave it to me. All the Kalmiopsis Wilderness works are inspired by that gift. 

And when it was time to paint, the ideas had a way to flow through me out into finished pieces. Working larger than the sketches, I could be bold with my strokes, and capture the emotions of the stillness after the fire swept through. The passion of the flames in the moment. The recovery and the beginning of the next cycle for the forest with the green that only spring can bring.

And so, with the original plan to hunt spring green in Ireland, I ended up hunting the spring green of my West Coast home.