Selected fragments of letters written in Ballycastle, Co Mayo, Ireland—to family, friends and a few collectors in America, beginning in 1994—attempting to explain to them, but really to myself, what working all summer (for 8 or 9 weeks) on the that volatile coast was about; and why my paintings and attitude toward painting, had undergone a gradual but obvious shift. In the autumn/winter of 2000, aware that the urgency of the moment tended to obscure clarified memory of the past—and concerned in moments of uncertainty about reactions to the new work—I requested copies of many of those letters, to revisit the course, and to examine the form and direction of my own thoughts.
To Ray Roberts, July 11, 2000
"It’s like I never left—back at this window, bug eyed after a day of many complicated moments with paint, now waiting for dusk to approach, eating my dinner with a good Cote du Rhone…The first week here was a random blur of fits and starts, a lot of bad paintings, all bullshit, jumping around like a monkey, unable to make sense of anything or make peace with any spot. Regardless of weather, the first week is always a knot of confusion—what to do, how to do it, blah, blah, blah. Regardless of having been warmed up from Indiana, in this landscape none of it is/was worth a damn – straight back to start without a clue. Even after seven years I’m still, if not more so now, leveled, reduced to a pip squeak right from the start. No wise guy, I know my stuff business allowed here. If anything, memories of past summers just make the engagement more difficult—they become increasingly high barriers to overcome, a kind of horse jumping range. Getting rid of expectations, leveling the ego and blasting performance anxiety out of the ring are the first orders of business here. But only to be accomplished by falling repeatedly, getting up and starting over, which translates: making a big —-ing mess with the paint. It’s a materials based process, working though or establishing connection here – not an intellectual thought process that can be resolved in words…..After a while something begins to happen – one day after about a week, the paint seems more malleable, the will seems to have established a beach head and in general everything seems more fluid. We are talking increments, but little things add up to bigger ones and one is grateful around here for crumbs. Enough crumbs and you have a loaf."
To Gordon Loos, July 11, 2000
"At this point in the summer, deep into the courtship, somehow the landscape begins to soften… (or maybe I do), so that the line between the brush and what is "out there" has shifted considerably from a month ago. It seems that I can … challenge the landscape (through will) with the brush and paint. Or, rather, what I can make in paint feels as real if not more so than what is being painted. In other words, the immensely intimidating power of this place is no longer dictating in a way that leaves me stunned and totally frustrated. I actually now have a chance to find a foothold (barely) that feels more secure every day. Not that I am feeling confident, that would be pushing it, but at least, like a player who has gone through spring training, am ready to engage."
To my family, July 24, 1999
(describing a friend’s recent arrival):
"His first full day was vicious—wind howling 40 mph all day—sky going nuts with silvery mists, moving walls of water appearing and disappearing, hillsides and broad swaths of land playing peek a boo, sun doing a wild stage show through it all and with a force that left him stunned. He went out into all that sound and came back so mixed up, almost shell shocked. The night before after a long day of travel to get here, as wind was howling, _____ asked, "Is this a gale"—I said "no, just normal…"
To Gordon Loos, Aug 6, 1998
"Two days ago I received your letter with poem and read them out on a magnificent stretch of rocky coast bathed in brilliant sunlight, immense waves crashing up onto long shelves of rock outcroppings stepping out into the sea and brilliant white foam spraying all around. The scale of the whole thing would have been quite threatening had we not been secure on protected rock as observers, unlike the fate of Odysseus, clinging to a wrecked mast washed up on a stretch of abandoned coast. (I’ve begun to reread the Odyssey to Nate so this stuff is on my mind.) Anyway, the moment, the brilliant sun (following a month of rain) and your letter were all of a piece—and the envelope never made it to the vestibule floor, as I accidentally ran into the Postman outside and he handed me the letter."
To Fran McElroy, July 11, 1998
"I saw the sun for two hours on Saturday, but that was about it. Every day has been on the flat, undramatic side, with a few exceptions when big black clouds rolled in. Yet even within this narrow range of mood, the place is getting under my skin and although I know what happens when sunlight animates and electrifies these fields, I am trying to deal with what I have and maybe just have to sit a bit stiller or look a bit harder to find the important cards in an otherwise dull hand. Only one day, yesterday, has been actual rain, real rain—the other days have been pissy—lots of water in the air, and quite cold and of course, cloudy. It’s driving the farmers crazy—the wettest June in recent memory, they claim July is following along. Last year it was also cloudy in a dull way often and I was cussing and stomping around and the day the family arrived, the sun broke out and we had two weeks of the most glorious days imaginable."
To Ray Roberts, July 2, 2000
"I really feel at home here, sitting in front of this all too familiar window looking out into a space that is now so much a part of my daily imagination in Philadelphia, so much a font of ongoing daydreams both before and away from paint…..Woke up with a glare coming through the bedroom window which brings in morning light line a pale luminous Rothko. When here, I can’t get that man off my mind—I mean not the man himself, but the tonal pulse or presence of his work as a kind of…. metaphor for and commentary on the nature of human feeling and response to visual sensation. Here, the forms of earth and sky and sea are so large, sweeping and grand—breaking down into those simplified but mysterious component relationships—somehow the connection to Rothko seems obvious."
To Pam Pittenger, July 6, 1999
"I come here with a head full of anxieties, desires, expectations, and all that—and then in order to really meet the land, to begin the responsive encounter, I have to learn to let it all go, give up what I want, so that I can start to see. For lack of a better word I call it "tuning". It usually takes me the entire time to feel tuned and then it’s all over. Such is life. The first week is usually a blur of frustration, beating the head against the wall, feeling clumsy and inept, but gradually by the end of the second week, which is exactly where I am now, the breathing is evening out, the touch is getting lighter, small subtle things are looming big and powerful, the whole place begins to roar, the sound of light rain is incredibly beautiful—and I begin to suspect that the trenches are getting dug and I’m settling in for the duration……When I first arrive everything looks nice, but not as intense as my memory dreams were throughout the year, based on the heat of passion that culminated with the previous summer and gave birth during the year to the need/desire to return. I leave at the end of August in an almost drunken, delirious state that simmers down and gets transformed over the course of the year, and when I finally get back, hmm, it seems alright but not as I remember. And I wonder if I can possibly lift the torch, find the strength to do it all over again? Perhaps it’s time to find a new, more dramatic, more powerful landscape. But piano pianissimo, as they say in the opening of the Barber, the place creeps up on me revealing its splendors."
To Gordon Loos, July 23, 1998
"Evening now, following…. a partially magnificent day. Morning began as intermittent sun and rain, of which I got my share of rain as usual, but managed to wrestle a painting out of an otherwise frustrating few hours. Funeral for a recently dead man whose wife I know; then more rain during which I caught a few winks on the couch, and by 3:30 PM, sun and clouds were gearing up to do an all too familiar theatrical number that I have not had much on this trip so far—but in the past spent days drunk in ecstatic bliss marveling at such atmospheric wonders. Painting at those moments doesn’t come easily though—it’s usually a wild goose chase, working and reworking everything many times, trying to resist the urge to quit, but I now know not to let go and with a major dose of concentrated focus, can often pull something off. It often gets to the point at which I cannot even see the painting anymore, nothing is making sense—I’ve been too close to it all, so caught up in a million decisions that I literally need to just stop and come back to it the next day—there is nothing else I can do at that moment, the fuse is blown."
To Fran McElroy, July 1998
"You probably caught site of it on your way down to Shannon, but as you were leaving, we had a morning of spectacular weather, just as you had seen on your arrival. Now however, the past two days have been constant mists, showers, strong wind and all that, but of course, of the most exquisite tone and muted chroma. My friend from New York just left—he stayed for two nights at Enniscoe House and had me to dinner both nights. So I woke up early this morning (after going to sleep quite late) and ran into town and back in an attempt to burn off more than a bit of overindulgence. I have 2 ½ more days of painting before my family arrives, which of courser I much look forward to, I begin to miss my young children in an almost painful way. Anyway, I hope that I was not too distracted by my work when you were here—every moment always seems like a critical stage, especially as things are beginning to take form and I can begin to see evidence of what may be happening."
To Ray Roberts, sometime in the mid to late 90’s
"Try and find the sun here—you’d have a better time finding transvestites in the Pope’s reception room. It has been going on day after day—clouds, leaden sky, rain, more clouds—this is hardly an unfamiliar story by now. Ah, but the moments, those brief glimpses of paradise on earth that make it all seem worthwhile. Even if I cannot paint those transient moments of exquisite fleeting beauty, at least I can pull over on the side of the road and hang out the window drop jawed… Those precious moments are set like jewels in extended stretches of grayness that all the locals know as normal. You’ve seen that silvery luminosity—it is as seductive as the sun and much easier to find."
To Nate Shils (then three years old), 1994
"The clouds come and the clouds go… Yesterday I was up at 7:00 to see a beautiful blue sky, so nice and clear, but by 10:30, full of dark and heavy clouds. So I cannot be too fussy, you now? I painted all day and got wet a few times from rain. But remember, rain dries. The sunsets and early evening skies have been fantastic. Last night coming from town at 11:30, the sky looked like someone had spilled a bottle of black ink on white paper and brushed it around."
To Ray Roberts, sometime in the mid to late 90’s
"Rain falls this morning so I don’t feel desperate to get out and can actually pause long enough to write something. Thursday will be a month that I’ve been working, boy has that slipped by—it has been the usual process of wrestling not only with what is out there but with my self as well. Should I do this, do that? Blah, blah, blah. I usually begin by running in one direction like crazy, then pause and for whatever stupid reason, doubt and censor that, and start off in another direction of attack, only to find that I come back to the original place of departure, which clearly indicates that I should have trusted myself in the beginning. Sounds good on paper. But at least by now I’ve accumulated a body of work that becomes in a sense the guide as to how I should continue into it all. The developing collection of paintings creates the reality that provides an encouraging foundation from which I can look out (and in), and try to make sense of how I’m to deal with the encounter between my own responses, aspirations and desires and this taskmaster of a landscape."
To Gordon Loos, December 16, 2000 (on a winter trip)
"…so for much of the day the sun is raking, quite low with a constant late afternoon early evening warmth or glow. And not only in its effect on the land, but in/on the sky as well—the clouds, for most of the afternoon have the feeling in form, tone and chroma, of the few hours before sunset. It’s all a very strange business—while in the summer the day feels endless as if many days were being packed into one—now it always feels like its coming and going quickly, and all day long there is a quality of urgency that one usually feels as a beautiful summer day is building to a close—that shimmering, almost trembling light—an indication that the curtain is soon going to drop…"
To Ray Roberts, June 13th, maybe 1996
A wipe out of a day—immense downpours, big drops the size of hailstones. Massive black clouds churning across the flat fields like a hologram of bread being kneaded—folding, unfolding, turning inside out, quite unearthly—and moments later it’s gone, voila, evolved into something else. Last week my dealers would have crapped their pants—blue skies every day so consistent it almost got boring. Lots of paintings but I’m afraid they are just a bunch of pretty pictures and rather trite. Last few days have been more atmospheric—in Ireland, on this coast, it’s hit and run—get out early and work fast because it’s hard to know what is coming along. Sometimes I don’t make it and everything gets thrown into the car as the rain pounds—and the painting may actually benefit from the frenzy of the moment—a bit of distance often helps things fall into place more easily. Strange, that a painting done in response to a particular place can more easily be resolved away from that place. That paradox has to do with the idea that "the moment" may breed strong feeling, but not necessarily the finished response in paint. Increasingly, over the last few years, I can never finish (whatever that means) or make any sorts of conclusions about anything all at once, but need to bring them out numerous times for reconsideration and adjustment."
To Gideon Shils (then five years old), July 2000
We’ve had a couple of beautiful sunny days, the kind that would take you to the beach. Windy though. Don’t forget to bring a sweater and boots….Someone at the bank in Ballina referred to this area as "a bit bleak", and I said, that’s just how I Iike it. She meant, no clubs, restaurants, posh shops."
To Milton and Rhea Shils, July 17 1999
….small fields of irregular proportions, divided by hedges and masonry walls, a multitude of warm and cool greens, some fields just cut so rather bright yellow for now—the bay leading out to the sea on the left with a gently curving swath of beach and in he distance, maybe 1 ½ miles as he crow flies, a minor mass of tiny buildings towered over by the…church…..Having sat at this window for five summers….nevertheless, the simplicity of it all is deceiving and there is somehow a mystery that has only just begun to unfold…..