As a poet-painter immersed in Nature as my initiation to re-collection and reflection, I also am a researcher (PhD) in the impact of tactile perception on the creative process. In my artist practice I walk as a Forest Flanuer* exploring the landscape in a random manner based on tactile attraction. I have found an incubation period of 15 days+ is vital to a long term tactile memory to draw on in the studio post walking. I am deeply interested in the variety of tactile experiences in the field as our daily lives seem to be attached to a mono-tactile screen cold interface. I believe the loss of tactile inputs from Nature diminishes our empathy and the more tactile perception opportunities we have the more reason to ‘feel’ akin to the Earth.
*Forest Flaneur = random walking in nature utilizing tactile perception. (Ruiz-Scarfuto, 2018).
FIELDWORK Q&A – June 2019
How is fieldwork part of your practice?
Fieldwork in my current discovery of tactile perception is essential to the creative process in order to gather my inputs for a colour palette and deeper understanding of the poets that I study in situ. These poetic landscapes are inspiration points researched prior to the fieldwork and then once in the vicinity, I randomly follow the poet’s footsteps to get a ‘feel’ of the geological crevices, rock formations, flora and fauna that add value to my final project. I use small pocket-sized sketch pads for notes. I am not a landscape painter in that I do not create on site nor use the elements of the landscape in collages of found objects. I follow the sheep in the sense of ‘grazing’ on the natural elements with tactile attraction.
How would you describe your fieldwork activity?
My practice in the field is an intuitive quiet walk that begins with a pre-survey of the landscape without tactile inputs. Once the non-tactile walk is complete, I return to the area and allow the natural elements to call me to them. I do not plan the tactile walk and allow for forward, backward and re-stepping the area touching those elements that attract me. This tactile walk tends to focus on details of the landscape that were missed or omitted in the prior survey non-tactile walk. I explore especially with the forefinger that registers the heart beat and pressure of touch deepens the memory input. This is not a kinaesthetic study of movement, but rather a haptic method. However, the reflection of time before studio work is started in the form of visual art and poetry allows for a long term memory to set in from the fieldwork activity.
How are you currently sharing your fieldwork?
I share my work in public art installations and collective shows as well as literary magazines. In addition, I created an open website (Re-Bound) dedicated to my fieldwork and post studio process based on this fieldwork. The interactive installations are very rewarding encouraging others to walk the poetic landscapes to stimulate creative works. With people living near the fieldwork area, I have co-created with the participants to achieve a combined workshop/installation that includes their ideas in the final show. This type of cultural/natural heritage landscape interface is exciting to share as they know the landscape as well as I or even more having grown up there, especially the young people. Their tactile memories are fresh from childhood play and yet embedded in their long term memory for instant recall. I find the fieldwork a bridge to their cultural heritage that shaped the poet as well as my new 3D poetic canvas that adds to the collective memory of the landscape.
Ode to Mt. Tam & Gary Snyder, 2015
Mt. Tamalpais is located outside San Francisco within a day’s trip. Gary Snyder initiated a walk around the mountain as part of his Zen practice from Japan. Snyder wanted to open the mountain to urban dwellers nearby in San Francisco and Berkeley so they could appreciate the watershed that brought them water. It is the highest peak in the area and is a single mountain rising from sea level. Muir Woods is part of the protected area which pays homage to John Muir’s walks in the redwoods. Snyder decided to “open the mountain” and walked for a day chanting Buddhist mantras with other poets on Mt. Tam. He created a poem dedicated to his walk. I took two walks around the mountain. The fog has a way of embracing like mother’s arms and isolating one from the city life on the edge of the mountain. Once inside the mountain’s domain, I felt the inner essence through both the visual and tactile sensations. It was after the tactile walk that I wrote the most profound poems in homage to Snyder and Mt. Tam. The non-tactile studio work culminated in showing the work in a group show in the Calabi Gallery in conjunction with a symposium on my creative process with two other painters. I mounted four sections of the Mt. Tam palette and called it Ode to Mt. Tam and Gary Snyder, Study I. The final 3D poetic canvas was mounted on recycled redwood with the palette of Mt. Tam collected during the two walks. I combined all with a centre piece tin roof covering in homage to Snyder’s cabin life on Mt. Tam, circa 1940, to coincide with the style of the Pacific Northwest America.
I went to Northern California to study Gary Snyder to study his biography and interviews from libraries along with his poetry focusing on tactile inputs. Previous research on-line gave me insights into his works. Snyder’s poem Rip Rap had been partly inspired by his burden lifting and placing rocks as he participated in building a trail in Yosemite Park. Snyder’s tactile perception was deepened during that time of his life according to an interview published in the Paris Review (Weinberger, 1996).
Furthermore, Snyder believed in the act of walking as a meditation. His broadened awareness of nature and its role in poetry were due to his experiences in Japan, where he studied 12 years in a Zen monastery. His poems and letters of correspondence with fellow poets gave me insight into his philosophy as a Buddhist poet. He was raised in Oregon. He attended UC Berkeley. Briefly, he lived on the slopes of Mt. Tamalpais (Mt. Tam) while in the San Francisco Bay area. However, he eventually settled in the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range (White Mountains in the North) in eastern California, for the latter part of his life. The Sierra Nevada Mountain Range runs along the Eastern border of California from North to South along Nevada. It is the same name as the original Sierra Nevada in Granada, Spain meaning “snowy mountains.” The search for Snyder’s poem for this project encompassed a set of poems from the Sierra Nevada Mountains. I found a reference to rock paintings from a tribe mentioned in Snyder’s poetry. It was located near Little Lake in Southern California on the lower side of the Sierras Nevada Mountains (Van Tilburg, Hull and Bretney, 2012). I had already identified the tactile connection to rock art. Fascinated with this historical thread as it played out in Snyder’s work, I continued on my quest for the poem that could be linked around a path in the Sierra White Mountains. Nonetheless, not one poem could satisfy my vision of walking in his footsteps in that location.
Finally, a poem appeared in his collection about mountains that was directly related to one of his walks. The poem is called The Circumambulation of Mt. Tamalpais. It was a poem dedicated to concept of “opening the mountain.” Snyder along with other poets from the San Francisco area participated in giving homage to Mt. Tamalpais. They chanted while walking around the mountain in order to clear the mind. Mt. Tam served as part of the watershed for San Francisco and Snyder knew its significance for the whole area. Jack Kerouac wrote a fictional novel as a loose account of the experience, Dharma Bums (Kerouac, 1959), which expressed his time with Snyder’s at the cabin on Mt. Tam. I decided to utilize Mt. Tam and began to determine how to approach walks on Mt. Tam. Snyder had marked the path by dividing his poem in ten sections linked to landmarks around the mountain.
Walking in Snyder’s Footsteps:
There had been a continuum of walks every year after Snyder’s original homage for 50 years, marking its anniversary, at the time of my fieldwork. Documentation of these various walking events was published later in the form of a photo journal and there was a path to follow (Davis and Scott, 2006) that I could utilize as a guide. However, to my knowledge, no 3D sculpture had been made in his honour using this landscape as an inspiration. My final project was to produce a 3D poetic canvas. In the back of my mind, I wanted to meet Snyder and have an interview. I attempted to contact him about his tactile perception in the creative process of writing poetry and walking as his inspiration. Nevertheless, he was reclusive and my emails to University of California, Davis had no response. I continued my project to walk in his footsteps in Mt. Tam relocating myself to the San Francisco vicinity for the summer.
Walk 1, June 2015:
My non-tactile walk to Mt. Tam began with a long view from the road, located just north of the Golden Gate Bridge in Marin County. The mountain’s presence overtakes anyone who travels north of San Francisco. I was travelling south from Santa Rosa and it had the same effect. I was enamoured with this single peak protruding from the clouds of fog. Up the mountain, my first impression was a fog that engulfed the artist. It filters the light on the natural elements.
Patches of colour revealed themselves as the fog swirled around me. The silver plate was broken by an intense yellow seeping in from a meadow. My view was a partial view of the whole meadow due to this blanket of fog. The fog on Mt. Tam is not a mysterious impression as in other situations I had encountered. It was rather like mother’s arms caressing and suspending you in mid-air. This was how I could feel the essence of the mountain that day, wrapped in the mist. Along the path next to the meadow, the robust Madrone tree attracted me; contrasting ruby red trunks with the forest green in the background. By the end of the trail, I witnessed the rare call of the Raven. I was overwhelmed with these visual elements on the walk and did not pay attention to the path carved out by Snyder. I absorbed the non-tactile perception of Mt. Tam on the upper point near Desolation trail without tactile inputs.
In the Studio (Visual Walk):
After the Snyder non-tactile walk I waited 15 days before actually creating the landscape palette. I had experimented with different colours from a wide variety of pigments, but in the end I preferred mixing the primary colours and white to achieve the effect of the palette. I felt that I had more control of the palette drawing on my sensory memories of the walk during the process of combining colours. I had forgotten to buy a tube of black for the raven, and so the journey began to recreate this colour. How to create it for the raven that was not exactly black? I started with cobalt blue and went towards adding white and until it became grey. It was quite a challenge to reach the dark shade of grey desired to match. Once I had the grey, I went back to add blue to finally get the sense of a shade of black. It was like a Flaneur experiment in a circular path. I had remembered that it was the dark blue colour of indigo on the verge of black yet never quite reaching the colour of black like a crow. I was astonished with this revelation. The yellow of the meadow was also a deep meditation into the sensory memory of the fog and elusiveness of the meadow shifting in and out of my vision. The colour of the Mt. Tam fog was a delicate experiment to achieve. I wanted to re-create the calmness that overtook me with its enveloping mantle.
Walk 2, August 2015:
The tactile walk on Mt.Tam began on the trail prescribed by Snyder in the selected poem just outside Muir Woods. This time I approached the mountain from the seaside via Green Gulch, Zen centre. Once I had found the fourth station of the poem near the non-tactile area, I settled into the tactile walk. Here the woods are the prominent feature engulfing the eyes with a solitary appeal.
However, my surprise came when I touched the young redwood (Sequoia) trunk. I had been walking in these types of woods several times over my lifetime. Hard and dry redwood trunk chips are used in landscaping for ground cover all over California, my native home state. On this day, touching the live young redwood trunk was a huge surprise. I had assumed it was dry and hard. In contrast to my other sensory perception, it was actually soft, spongy, and a bit moist. The older Douglas fir tree trunk next to the Sequoia redwood was dry and hard. Sequoias are known to live a long time, up to 1000 years or more. I was taken aback by the sensation that did not match my previous perception. It was so inviting to stay there for an extended time enjoying its aliveness! The forest floor was soft suede brown and drew me into its powdery plush carpet. There I rubbed the delicate pigment onto my sketchpad. It was not a dry sense but rather a fine fresh sensation like the back of a wet wooden spoon.
As I headed out of the woods, the sunshine burst onto the meadows. There was no fog that day unlike the day I took the non-tactile walk. I doubled back to check the trunks of the Madrone trees. They had begun to shed a thin red surface layer of their trunks. However, some trunks were still intact and a remained a smooth robust red similar to the non-tactile walk. I had wanted to touch them since my last non-tactile encounter. It was such an elegant sensation to stoke these trunks. In the non-tactile walk I saw them as “ballet dancers” of the woods. On this tactile walk they were rounded and bending low enough to take a nap. Their fire red colour emitted warmth visually, yet they were cool in touch. Just before leaving this group of trees, I came upon a banana slug. Even though I am not at all attracted to touching slugs, I paused to admire its bright yellow colour in the muted brown leaves, almost hidden. I dared myself to touch it lightly. Instead of a slimy sensation, a soft roughness amazed me. It was so beautifully placed in the composition of the forest floor. Painting it later was one of my favourite palettes in the Mt. Tam tactile collection.
Once again, I was on the trail to find the Serpentine rock outcrop in station five as described by Snyder in the poem. I walked through the meadow and up to the ridge. There I came across a delicate stunning pink flower next to the Serpentine rocks. It was so delicate that I had to be extra careful to capture it only slightly within my palms. Its bright magenta hues radiated as they touched the lines of my inner fingers. It was amazing to experience this flora pigment in the sunshine.
The most dangerous part of walking around rocks and grass in California is rattlesnakes. I stopped at a picnic table for lunch instead of hanging out and sitting on a boulder. Snyder and friends had the same agenda, and it was incorporated into the poem. Just after lunch on the way to Collier Spring I stopped to look for Rock Springs. It seemed strange that there was no signpost and yet I was in the vicinity. Finally, I noticed a group of water plants and was delighted to have found it, no sign at all. Standing there contemplating, I suddenly heard a rustling. I thought that maybe it was a lizard. The sound persisted, and it was too loud for a small lizard.
I ventured to the other side and there were two snakes dancing vertically! These were rattlesnakes; I saw their tails. Well, slowly backing away I managed to get back on the trail safely. No wonder the signpost had been removed. A whole family of snakes had taken over Rock Springs due to the extreme drought that summer. I did not dare touch these creatures, and that is the closest I had ever come to a rattler, yet alone a whole tribe! However, it stuck in my memory and I did add it to the palette.
In the Studio (Tactile Walk):
The tactile studio palette was begun 15 days after the walk. It was the same season as the non-tactile walk but the weather conditions modified the colour palette. The pink tactile memory was so bright and yet the redwood trunk was so shadowy. The sun played a major role. The slug nestled in the forest floor drew out a range of colours. This tactile studio palette was different from the non-tactile palette in that I was using a variety of brushes given to me by my mother. I enjoyed the tactile differences of the round soft Japanese brush for the fog. I explored a swirl technique with a long process for the redwood tree palette. The spongy redwood palette was difficult to achieve and took several canvas washes with white and then it turned out to be just right with a special sheen.
The engraving on the heritage roof tiles for Snyder was carried out in the studio at University of Sunderland for the solo show at the Design Centre in March 2017. Samples had been tested in Spain and wonderful textures arose from this process. The engraving removed the rust of years and I was able to reach the original texture of the tin. In addition, the tin responded to the light differently than the other materials. The angles of the light rays on the tin produced varying effects.
In the engraving process for the 3D poetic canvas, I loved the feel of handling the roof tile. I moved my finger pads over the relief of the design to find the exact spot to engrave. In doing so I was drawn in by its visceral effect on my fingers that galvanized tin emits. It is smoother than it appears. Its dimensions were at times challenging with all its curves and indentations. I had to work with them carefully to be able to fit all the letters on one area to complete a word. In some aspects, the galvanized tin roof was not a “hot tin roof” as described in literature from Southern states, but rather a cool protective cover for the rain of the Pacific Northwest.
In the Studio (Writing Process):
The writing process for Gary Snyder was interesting for this non-tactile walk to Mt. Tam. In some ways the landscape was known to me, but the location was new. Mt. Tam had always been a towering mountain in the background of San Francisco Bay and yet I had never been there walking. My experience on the mountain was both inspiring and emotionally charged with Snyder’s footsteps and the essence of the mountain. Snyder was a long time historical poet from my past and merged with my present. I suppose that is why I wrote the Ode to Mt. Tam and Gary Snyder. A raven is hard to see up close and its presence was a gift. I was moved to jot down notes concerning its particular sound (clicks) and its wing colour. The Hindu names in Snyder’s poem inspired me due to my prior knowledge, especially the Goddess of Knowledge and Creativity; Sariswati. The fog played a major role in the lighting and visual aspect of the walk as it rolled over the landscape and yet I did not write about it. I am surprised.
I combined chants and historical notes of Gary Snyder in these poems. I began the writing process after a 15+day gestation period. I had read several letters from Snyder to Ginsberg for research. Whalen also practised Zen and joined the walk with Snyder on Mt. Tam. My re-play tactile poems considered these elements and added the value of the tactile perception. I re-wrote some of the visual poems after the tactile walk and noticed some interesting changes in the choices of vocabulary and omissions. I discuss this in the writing process. I was very satisfied with the metaphors and overall ease to which these poems were created post walking. I especially like the napping Bengal tigers on the Madrone trees in this poem.
The writing process for the tactile walk was rapid and spontaneous creating an interesting configuration for all the poems. The unit became a beautiful spiral of words that just seemed to unravel from within me. The tactile process during the walk hit me in such a surprising way that the writing seemed to write itself with an inner voice speaking from the aliveness of the mountain. I felt part of its sediment and I expressed my sediments as such. In addition, the format of the ‘beat’ poets came through quite naturally in word separations or the play with symbols. For example, I expressed Yellow >No.2 pencils and Be Snyder tween Ginsberg whereas the non-tactile walk poems were more direct. Yellows passing in the fog and Snyder and Ginsberg show this contrast. The texture can be felt in these tactile poems. The reference to the “No. 2 pencil” was what I was holding while writing down the poem and the tactile perspective was incorporated into the colour of the meadow. The raven poem had also been transformed by the tactile walk. The tactile poem focused on the concise texture of the ideas.
Synopsis of Mt. Tam & Snyder Fieldwork
The Snyder case was a surprising tactile playground with the redwood tree trunk and slugs in the forest. Mt. Tam provided a varied weather contrast in the two walks with sunny and foggy days. The tactile walk tapped into a stronger vocabulary bank for the final poetry with a benefit of long series of “concrete poems” that appeared at random. The palette was varied with the colour filters of the day by clouds and water content in the air.
Snyder’s Mt. Tam tactile walk transposed my entire concept of a redwood tree trunk. Given the fact that I grew up in California surrounded by dry, hard, redwood bark used in landscaping, it was astonishing to touch the living tree trunk in its indigenous soil. The tactile walk of this research project prompted a slower Flaneur walk to meander and touch the young redwood trunk rather than gaze at the height of the trees on previous walks. The trunk’s “spongy” tactile essence bounced back on my fingertips and the contrast with the Douglas fir tree trunk adjacent was remarkable. The tactile studio work in the palette was a long process to reach this sensation of the redwood trunk in order to understand its aliveness rather than dry chips of redwood trunks. The poetry was a stream of meditation in the post tactile studio work that played on the Zen concept of Snyder and the walk around the mountain. The tactile walk took me into the depth of the forest off the beaten path and meandering across the meadows on a sunny day. It seemed like a timeless walk and studio work for the palette reflected this aspect as well. In contrast, the poetic re-play was fluid and quick. I was able to write it in just two sessions from the notebook to the computer and its creation was spontaneous like a golden thread weaving itself onto the page in a set of poems with a visual pattern on the page.
Ode to Mt. Tam & Gary Snyder (2015)