Lamborn Mountain rises 11, 397 feet above sea level, and almost 6,000 feet above the valley. The two peaks are part of a laccolith—where hot magma oozed up and intruded the Mancos Shale, an organic-rich clay layer, and baked it into coal. Erosion over the millennia has removed a lot of the Mancos Shale, revealing the igneous core of Lamborn Mountain.
Nearby and up the road, the geological picture includes three coal mines, though they’re not in this painting. But chances are good I’ll be taking my camera up the road toward the mines in the very near future.
Spring run-off was pretty incredible this year, starting in mid-April with more snow meltwater than anyone has seen in 40 years.
It still freezes around here in mid-April, though not hard enough to freeze the water in the irrigation pipes, it got cold enough to turn it to ice cubes as soon as it spewed out the gates. There’s just a little snow left up in the high country. Now our hopes are on the monsoonal rain.
Lamborn and Landsend are photogenic at any time of year, or day. And totally paintable, though I have not. Yet.
I’m a big fan of crows. Ravens too. I’m not alone. Googling ‘crow’ gets 113,000,000 hits; ‘raven’ gets 116,000,000. By comparison, ‘eagle’ gets 382,000,000; ‘sparrow’ 52,900,000.
Crows poll somewhere between eagles and sparrows, though not all 113 million hits are from crow lovers—some people like to brag about killing them. But that’s another story for another time. Nonetheless, crows and their raven cousins have accompanied human civilization since we showed up. And they were here first.
They’ve been here ten times longer than we have. Compare the oldest corvidfossil at 20-25 million years to the mere 200,000 years ago that the first Homo sapiensappeared.
Crow and Raven have been with us since our beginnings and made a large impression on our earliest ancestors–for the stories they inspired, as well as a place in the stars. One of the oldest named constellations, Corvus (the Crow or Raven) refers to an old story, already ancient in the time ofAesop:
Corvus, the Constellation
Crow was Apollo’s sacred bird who he sent to fetch him some water from a nearby spring. Crow flew off with the god’s ceremonial crater in his claws. But instead of filling the crater with water, Crow perched in a tree and waited for the figs to ripen. After gorging himself on figs, he remembered his task, but rather then returning with water, he brought Apollo a water snake and a story about how the serpent had kept him from filling the cup with water.
Enraged, Apollo threw Crow off Mt Olympus and into the heavens. He set the water snake (Hydra) to guard the cup (Crater) of water from Crow (Corvus), doomed to be thirsty forever in plain view of the Crater full of water.
Water, a snake, a cup, and ripe figs. Somehow I think the anger of the god at the disobedient crow was the very least thing this myth is about. The real meaning of the story, the one that earned it a place in the stars, has been lost.
Many of the old stories are like this one—full of symbols that no longer carry the meaning they once did. It’s high time, I thought, to re-tell the old tales, about First Crow, First Raven, and First Human. Though obscure, what is clear is that we’ve come hand-in-wing down through the ages, together. Not always in friendship, but constant companions, nevertheless
Crow and raven brains are wired like ours. They assess. They dream, they plan, they make tools. They observe us as curiously and perhaps as critically and judgmentally as we observe them. We no longer revere them as gods, we might well remember that at no time in the history of the Earth have they ever thought so of us.
In that light, I imagined myself to be a crow, observing the human species. From the very beginning when the poor hairless creatures shivered in the darkness … until Crow (or was it Raven?) taught them to make fire. Ever since, with Crow’s oversight and over Raven’s protestations, human civilization lurched haplessly along.
I wrote a series of stories about the interactions of our three species. Down through the ages, imagining the way it might’ve been.
First Crow, First Raven, First Human, the stories…
First CampfireThe sound of the humans teeth chattering on the ground below irritated Raven, and he couldn’t sleep…
Alchemy reigned at the time Johannes Vermeer painted Girl with a Pearl Earring in 1665. Back in that day, before the Periodic Table of the Elements—which didn’t show up in until 1869—painters made their own paints from the powders of ground minerals by mixing them with linseed oil.
The pigment in the blue scarf around the head of the Girl with a Pearl Earring, for instance, was made from lapis lazuli, a beautiful but rather expensive mineral to be grinding to a powder. Unfortunately, linseed oil made the fabulous blue color of this beautiful mineral a bit cloudy.
Linseed oil did that to most of the mineral powders, but there was no way around that in 1665. The mineral powders would be chalky-looking and would not flow onto the canvas smoothly without being mixed with linseed oil.
Better Living Through Chemistry
The Periodic Table going public in 1869 moved the job of creating paint from artists to the laboratory chemist. These days, few artists mix their own paints, or even know what’s in them. I’m a big fan of chemistry, for without it, there is nothing. No rocks, no clay, no paint. And I wonder how they make vivid yellow as well as intense red paint from the same thing. Not a mineral, but an element from the Periodic Table: Cadmium.
Modern painters can thank French artist, Yves Klein and a few French chemists, who created a rich luscious blue paint that retained the brilliant blue hue by suspension of the dry pigment in a synthetic resin, avoiding the murkiness of linseed oil.
They called it International Klein Blue. Yves Klein used IKB, as this patented pigment is known, to paint Blue Monochrome, part of a series of one-color paintings he had been creating for several years.
IKB represented something profound to Klein: le Vide-the Void. Not a vacuum or terrifying darkness, but a void that invokes positive sensations of openness and liberty, a feeling of profound fulfillment beyond the everyday material world. Standing before Klein’s huge canvases of solid blue, many report being enveloped by serene, trance-like feelings.
That’s how the Southwestern desert landscape makes me feel.
The iron-stained colors of my native land inspired me to make paint from it, in the old way—grinding the minerals to a powder and mixing them with linseed oil. Perhaps because these paints are made from desert clays (see my previous blog Desert Paintings), linseed oil did not make them murky.
I can easily lose myself in Earth’s landscapes, especially the rocky ones. The textures and colors tell a story of chemistry, weathering and erosion. And, if providing a scenic backdrop to my life is not enough, I understand these rocks well enough to make pottery and glazes from them.
The color palette is generally limited to oxides of iron: brown, reddish-brown, tan, yellowish tan, greenish tan–e.g. Earth colors.
Occasionally a little copper shows up, coloring the clay softly green or blue. Pottery glaze colors depend on these denizens of the Periodic Table. And so did paint, once upon a time before IKB.
I started with several gallon-size zip-lock bags of reddish, greenish and one highly yellow clay. The colors are the result of a certain degree of iron oxidation, and finely ground turquoise, which is a copper mineral.
I sifted out all the rocks, twigs, animal bones and other detritus, and let the colored clay settle in large jars of water. After siphoning off the excess water, I poured this clay slurry onto large pieces of gypsum board to dry. The mud cracks were amazing art pieces in themselves.
Painting with Clay
After the clay slurry completely dried, I crushed and sieved each into a fine powder. I added a little linseed oil to the colored clay powder and in a frenzy of inspiration, I painted
What else can I say? Inspired by rocks, enchanted by Earth’s landscape…
Twenty-five years ago, I read the entire volume of the making of Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party, a tribute to the spirit of womanhood in the incarnations of 39 women, from the un-named Primordial Goddess, through the millennia of human history, culminating at Georgia O’Keeffe. I rejoiced to hear that the art piece had found a permanent home at the Brooklyn Museum, and resolved that one day, I would visit the museum and see this great art work up close and personal.
Before I ever got to the Dinner Party, the current exhibition by an African artist, El Anatsui, took my attention, my astonishment, my reverence. Gravity and Grace, a monumental work of art composed of metal shards from the urban landscape.
Ugly litter; breathtaking art.
See the exhibition October 25, 2013 — February 9, 2014 at the Des Moines Art Center
“He won’t want to run into Charlie either,” Floyd said.
“Absolutely not!” Willy agreed.
“No–sirreebob,” Floyd shook his head emphatically.
“No way, Jose!” Willy said.
“Under no circumstances!”
“He’d be real sorry.”
“Might as well just throw himself off a cliff!”
“Sooner he should cover himself with honey and sit naked on an ant hill!”
“Better he should shoot himself at sunrise every day for a week!”
“Or boil himself in oil!”
The two crows looked back at Minnie. “Nope, that’d be something he wouldn’t want to do. Run into Charlie!”
Floyd and Willy were born in the projection booth of the drive-in theater and spent their formative weeks watching movies. Armed with a dramatic flair and a taste for worldy cuisine, the brothers take off for the highly urbanized neighborhoods surrounding Downtown and the University.
But it was Heckle and Jeckle, beloved cartoons of my childhood, who inspired my characters, Floyd and Willy. Even my brother thought so.
Floyd and Willy are their own crows, however. Taking after no one but themselves, their adventures comprise visiting trash cans behind the exotic and mundane restaurants near the university campus, and watching game shows and movies from the windowsills of student apartments. That, and spying for Charlie, the blue-eyed patriarch of a great (as in famous and huge) crow family.
Still, it is only right that I give credit where credit was due, to Paul Terry, the cartoonist behind Heckle and Jeckle. Carried away on a wave of nostalgia and the endless tides teeming with Heckle and Jeckle links on the internet to every possible subject that has ever existed in thought, word, deed, or image, video.
Heckle and Jeckle’s wear white vests. Crow’s feathers are all black. Heckle and Jeckle’s beaks are yellow. Crow beaks are black. Is this some form of artistic license, giving crows white vests and yellow beaks? I frowned, pursed my lips and re-googled.
Heckle and Jeckle are postwar animated cartoon characters created by Paul Terry, originally produced at his own Terrytoons animation studio and released through 20th Century Fox. The characters are a pair of identical anthropomorphic magpies …
–Excerpt from Wikipedia
Whoa, wait … MAGPIES ? They don’t look exactly like the magpies mawing down on the Nanking cherries outside my window. They have the white vests all right, though their beaks are black. Unlike the yellow of Heckle and Jeckle.
As it turns out, there are several kinds of magpies. Black-billed, mostly. And like crows, very intelligent. Magpies, for example, passed the ‘Mirror test’ (recognizing themselves in mirror) before their cousins, crows and ravens did. Click here for more…
All of which is beside the point of Heckle and Jeckle having yellow beaks. It matters somehow, even though they are cartoons, that these two have some connection to reality.
“Found only in the Central Valley of California….” That’s what the Wikipedia article says.
That explains a lot. Irresistibly close to Hollywood, the two magpies (will I ever get used to it?) Heckle and Jeckle winged it to fame and fortune.
I’ve since watched many H & J cartoons on YouTube, remembering some of them. It’s been many decades. Every one of them opens with: “Heckle and Jeckle, the talking magpies in….”
But I couldn’t read then, back in the day. How was I supposed to know?
I can’t believe I am alone in this. But not many people are copping to the same childhood belief, that Heckle and Jeckle are crows. It’s not as bad as finding out about Santa Claus, or the Tooth-fairy. But still…
I know there are others. You know who you are. Believing in crows all these years. This one’s for you: