Sunday, May 15, 2016

Grassi Lakes, My Spiritual Place

Upper Grassi Lake, May 9th, 2016

It's easy to be smitten with Grassi Lakes. The mountain jewels are nestled in a gap between Ha Ling Peak and Rundle Range. There, in 1990, above our then home in Canmore, Alberta, after exclusively painting only indoors - for twenty-five years - I ventured forth to create my very first plein air painting ... 
Grassi Lakes #1 MYSTERIOUS DEPTHS   12" x 16" oil on masonite completed in three hours, September 26th, 1990

The abstractness of Mysterious Depths disturbed me. It's simplicity looked like child's play so I hid it away in a closest. It was eighteen months before I found the courage to paint on site again.

Meanwhile, retreating to the studio, I painted Lady of the Lake (aka Margaret Discovers Alice Lake) featuring Maggie Ecclestone (at the Lower Lake) for the juried exhibition Return to Exceptional Pass hosted by and held at The Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies (Banff) in January and February 1992. 

LADY OF THE LAKE (Maggie Ecclestone) 1991 studio oil on canvas 24" x 40"

After I had faced my fear of plein air painting I went out often, returning to Grassi Lakes a number of times which resulted in a series of 13 oils painted in 1992 and 1993. 

When working on site I simply don't have time to fuss with details. Plein air painting enabled me to let go of my obsessive realism. The new approach carried over into my studio work as well - it too became more painterly.

Painting on the shore of the Upper Lake August 4th,1992

Grassi Lakes #8 WHERE ROCKS MEET WATER   oil on canvas 12" x 16"   September 2nd, 1992

Grassi Lakes #11 SPRING AT GRASSI  oil on canvas 16" x 12"   May 9th, 1993

Painting the Upper Lake from the gully, August 27, 1992

Grassi Lakes #6 FROM THE GULLY  oil on canvas 16x12   August 27, 1992

Often I was joined by other artists but my most regular companion was Zelda Nelson (1943 - 2015). Below is the painting of a tree stump by the Upper Lake that she gave me ...

"WANAGI" - soul, ghost, spirit - watercolour 1992  5x6.25 by Zelda (who was Zelda Henricks at the time) 

FIREWEED AT GRASSI LAKES   1994 studio watercolour 7" x 10"   collection of Mary Shilabeer and Tom Matier

My favourite vantage point of the Upper Lake is captured in the small watercolour above. It begged to be painted larger and so in the spring of 1995, I used it as the study for a 4 x 6 foot canvas ...

FIREWEED AT GRASSI  in progress   4 x 6 foot oil on canvas  April 1995

My studio at home was too small to accommodate such a large canvas so I approached the Canmore Artists and Artisans Guild about using their gallery space weekdays - because it was only open at weekends. Fridays, I'd move the large canvas behind the wall (above) and reinstall whatever art was part of the current exhibition. I really don't recall why I put the painting on hold for so many months but I was motivated to finish it for my solo exhibition Saltiel, Routes Without Limits which showed at The Whyte Museum, Banff from September to November 1997. To this day I still enjoy the curator's written description about the style which emerged as a result of plein air painting "... subsequent paintings continued this distraction of abstraction."

FIREWEED AT GRASSI LAKES   1997 oil on canvas   4 x 6 feet   collection of Carol and Gord Godfrey 

Beyond the plein air series and into this century I painted several more Grassi Lakes paintings. Although it's been a number of years since my last (below) I'm certain I'll paint them again.

GRASSI IN APRIL #25   2007 oil on panel    12" x 24"  collection of Susan Dorion and Jim Wilker

A little about why Grassi Lakes is my spiritual place. At a time when things were rocky in my life, I sought an outdoor place where I could have solitude. Somewhere beautiful. Somewhere that was quiet and easy to reach. Somewhere that I could meditate. To be there alone was possible then, but today it's such a busy place that at almost anytime of day, any day of the week it is overrun with people.  Weekends are simply impossible. In 1993, before coffee or breakfast I power walked the 2.2 kms up to, spent twenty minutes at and power walked back down for 41 consecutive days. The only reason my ritual was interrupted was because of a painting expedition.

Getting into position at the mouth of the shallow cave above the Upper Lake May 9, 2016

In my happy place, May 9, 2016

View, of the Upper Lake looking down from the mouth of the cave, May 9, 2016 

View looking up to Ha Ling Peak from my perch in the cave, May 9, 2016
A Great Horned owl returns each spring to nest in the higher cave.  Happy to see her, but her young were not visible on May 9, 2016

Visiting the lakes wasn't always about painting or meditation. Many friends and family have been there with me enjoying picnics and fun times. In 1993 I began a circle of stones which I recessed into the earth to make them flush with the surface. Over time, I added other stones. This was my way of honouring all who had accompanied me there both in reality and in spirit. The circle is next to an uprooted, decomposing tree root where the water rushes between the two lakes. Today it is so overgrown that even I can't find it but I know it is still there buried in nature and in time. 

My circle of stones July 9, 1996

My circle of stones identified

We don't live in Canmore now and it's often weekends when we visit. However, last Monday, following an unseasonably sunny and hot weekend (which, I have been told, saw outrageous traffic at Grassi Lakes) it dawned overcast, snowy and cold. At 8:30am Bill and I went to the lakes anyway. It was a sublime gift to find only one car at the trail head parking lot and nobody at the lakes. It wasn't until we were about to depart the lakes that we saw another couple arriving. Coming down the trail we met a number of people hiking up. 

I am most grateful for this recent visit, it was a most precious gift of divine intervention.