How Landscape Art Evokes A Universally True Human Experience

How Landscape Art Evokes A Universally True Human Experience

Talented artist Rebecca Coffin Anderson hopes landscapes and the concept of 'place' can spark important conversations that bring Americans together.
William Newton
By

A few months ago, Virginia-based artist Rebecca Coffin Anderson was already a remarkably busy woman. She and her husband have three highly active children ranging from 4th to 8th grade, and the family was in the process of looking for a new home. She was teaching classes, recently held a joint exhibition of her paintings in a DC-area gallery, and was trying to find the time to work on her next artistic projects.

Then, just as happened for everyone else, things changed overnight. There were no more back and forth school runs and household shopping errands. Homeschooling and social distancing were the new order of the day. House hunting became difficult logistically. Amidst all of this, you might well think: who has time for art, in a time of chaos?

Art Needs Devoted Time to Prosper

As it turns out, like many artists trying to continue to work during this unsettled time, after the first few weeks, Anderson discovered that she had more time, and indeed more reason, to focus on her art than she anticipated.

“Before all of this,” Anderson reflects, “I had to block off time from my responsibilities in order to try to make time for art.” At first, figuring out how to care for herself and her family took getting used to. “But now,” she finds, “a lot of the things that I used to do have been eliminated because of the lockdown. And this has given me much more time for art within my daily schedule.”

A typical day in what passes for the new normal has Anderson starting her children on their school assignments, then moving on to a joint project, and at some point, heading out together to look at nature. It’s important to her that her children see and examine things that are beautiful in the real world, not just on screens or on paper. The new schedule has also given Anderson time to work on her art, while still ensuring that she’s available for direction as needed.

And she makes sure that she’s taking the time to interrupt herself, while never taking for granted her ability to do so.

“In the past, all of those times that I thought were just busy-ness, taking me away from art, were actually times for my brain to stop what I was doing, focus, and think, so that later I could go back to the art,” she says.

The fact that she can work on her art while stopping and making herself available to her children as needed, has been helpful for everyone. Yet she also recognizes that many people have not been as comparatively fortunate as she has been over the last few months. “I know my situation is not universal,” she admits, “and I’m grateful that I have the time and space to do what I do.”

Celebrating Shared Experiences

Anderson’s approach to thinking about art in general, and in creating her own art in particular, impressed me long before the present pandemic. Her work differs significantly from what I typically have to endure when looking at or reading about most current art trends and exhibitions. Whereas the art establishment at present is primarily interested in exploring feelings rather than in promoting ability, Anderson believes that the artist is someone who, first and foremost, must be committed to honing their craft through diligent practice, seeing, and study.

“Even if I’m not feeling drawn to a particular project,” she explains, “I’ll make myself go sketch or paint as part of an exercise. Building that into a longer-term project helps you to build scope as an artist.”

Her work is typically informed by places and things that reflect her own choices, rather than market or media demands. “I’m not trying to create popular art,” she states. “I’m never trying to be culturally relevant. What I want to make in my art, is art that is relevant to human beings. I want to make art that gets at our shared human experiences, as we try to pick up on the imperfections of human life and experiences.”

While our current crises haven’t had an overt impact on Anderson’s work, their effects most certainly have. After the first few weeks of isolation, “I knew I had to get down to the studio and keep working,” she says. “I’ve tried to be more disciplined in my work than I was the first few weeks.” And to me, perhaps one most fascinating thing about that discipline is how Anderson goes about obtaining some of the materials that she uses in creating her works.

The Powerful Concept of ‘Place’

Like artists centuries and millennia ago, before the advent of commercially-manufactured paints, Anderson goes out and collects natural materials to create her pigments. She has a particular fascination with investigating the possibilities afforded by the use of different types of rock, which she will break open or pulverize searching for different properties.

“I’ve always loved rocks and science generally,” she explains, “and I’m always curious about what things are actually made of. You can use a single material in many ways, once you understand what that material is capable of becoming.”

For Anderson, the process of turning the materials she finds into paint can be just as absorbing a creative process as actually putting a brush to canvas. “I would have whole days where I would make and test paint,” she recalls, reflecting on her recent work. “And I wouldn’t use the result unless I was certain that I had a good use for it.”

An intriguing example of how Anderson puts this into practice involves her style of landscape painting. Landscape, she notes, referencing writers on the subject such as Robert MacFarlane and Nan Shepherd, is something that doesn’t exist outside of human vision. We can only see what we see from where we happen to be. Yet we all know that a hill or a pond is not visible from only one spot and nowhere else.

In the case of Anderson’s landscape paintings, they aren’t necessarily representational images—at least, not in the straightforward way that we might expect from said genre of painting. In creating these depictions, she makes use of natural materials which, in many cases, she obtains from the sites themselves. Thus, a painting based on the meandering layout of the James River may, in part, be created using from materials gathered from along its shoreline.

“Using different pigments from these places helps me to try to get a different texture or gradient,” she explains. “What I want to achieve is getting that sense of layering back in there, back into the object representing the place.”

Tied to this understanding of “landscape,” is the related concept of “place.” As Anderson explains, “Place is not static. It’s actually a concept layered in meaning, and human interaction with a place is also layered.”

Anderson uses her style of landscape painting to evoke a sense of place. It’s a sense which we understand instinctively as children, and yet so many of us long for but have difficulty finding as adults. This is part of what I find so fascinating about her work. When Anderson creates a landscape depicting a place, the pigments she uses, in a sense, are the place which she is representing.

Bringing All Americans Together

Right now, of course, “place” is a fairly relative concept for most people. We’re only starting to reemerge from confined places into slowly reopening ones, and we’re doing so in times of great insecurity and uncertainty.

For Anderson and her family, this is now being magnified by the reality of packing up their household and moving to a new home, set in a new landscape with a new sense of place. That means there will not only be lots of adjustments to be made, but also new forms of art to be created.

As to the question of what art can do for us right now, given all that is going on in our country at the moment, Anderson sees art as a way to connect, rather than divide us. “Because art is nonverbal,” she explains, “it can serve as a bridge between the conflicting things happening in America at this time.” She believes that landscape is one way that we can all be brought together, whatever our circumstances.

“Landscape, no matter how much we may manipulate it, resonates with people at all times and places. Your immediate reaction to being out in a landscape is a universal human experience that is individually true, and yet at the same time outside of us as individuals,” she says.

While no two people will look at a landscape the same way, whether it’s observed in real life or on canvas, that difference adds layers of meaning to the experience of looking. “It highlights things that maybe were easier to ignore beforehand,” she posits.

In the end, of course, all art is dependent upon what you choose to make of it, which in turn depends on how you react to it. Yet in Anderson’s case, her art is something more than just seeking a reaction. “I’m trying to evoke not just a resonance, but an experience,” she explains. “And that’s a way to begin a human conversation again.”

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To learn more about Rebecca Coffin Anderson, please visit her site at https://www.rebeccacoffinanderson.com/

William Newton is an Art Critic at The Federalist. Newton is a graduate of the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service, The University of Notre Dame Law School, and Sotheby’s Institute of Art in London. He lives in Washington DC. Learn more at wbdnewton.com and follow on Twitter @wbdnewton.
Photo all artwork by Rebecca Coffin Anderson

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