"Getting" It

"It's really cool to watch people looking at your work, especially when you can tell they get it." (Lee Secrest)

The invitation to Lee Secrest's Art Gala, showing some of his work

The invitation to Lee Secrest's "Art Gala", showing examples of the wood forms and objects he creates. He sometimes incorporates stone, as seen in the vertical slab, and other materials into his wood pieces.

In July Pat and I, along with friend Laurie, went to the "Arts in the Park" show in Kalispell, about 50 miles (93 km) north of our home in Polson, Montana. This annual show is hosted by the Hockaday Museum and is held in Kalispell's Depot Park. It's usually a very good show in a nice, mostly shady venue, which is a Good Thing because it always seems to be held on the hottest weekend of the summer.

We were a little disappointed in this year's show — as I mentioned in last month's article, some of our favorite artists did not participate, and although a number of photographers had exhibits, we found most of the work to be mediocre or repetitive. We did meet some artists who were new to the show, including Lee Secrest, an interesting character who has a studio in Polebridge, MT. We'd learn later his place is not so much IN Polebridge, which sits at the northwest entrance to Glacier National Park, as 20 or so miles (37 km) north of Polebridge, which means Lee lives and works nearly in Canada.

Lee does a number of things, but at this show he was displaying forms and objects he shapes from character-laden chunks of trees. We fell in love with Lee's work, and decided to buy one of his pieces. However, we'd managed to leave the checkbook at home, and Lee wasn't equipped to accept credit cards. We were considering a drive to Polebridge to pick up the piece, when Lee handed me the invitation shown here.

As you can see, Lee's wood forms and objects are very abstract, very sensual. They beg to be touched. This "Art Gala" was to be held the next Saturday. Not that we need any, but it was a perfect excuse to go to Glacier, and to spend a little time at Bowman Lake, a place we'd not visited in years. We accepted the invitation and determined to remember the checkbook.

Is This Some Kind of Joke?

We had some business in Kalispell, and arranged to take care of that in the morning so we could go from the city to Glacier. We took the North Fork Road from Apgar to Polebridge, got coffee at the Mercantile, and then spent a nice afternoon watching Bowman Lake and the mountains surrounding it. It's a beautiful place, the day was warm, and the coffee was excellent. Thinking Lee's place wasn't far, we stayed until nearly 4:00 before heading north. After driving about 15 miles (28 km), and coming to believe we'd gone too far, we turned around and went back to the Mercantile. I asked for directions, but got only ambiguous instructions to a place that may or may not be Lee's studio.

The wooden orb we purchased from Lee Secrest, displayed in our kitchen

The orb we purchased from Lee Secrest. It's Ponderosa pine, about 18 inches (46cm) tall, and has fascinating color, grain, and knot patterns.

Back on the dusty, washboard road we drove north until we were not far from the Canadian border. There's only one road, so one can't get lost. But we'd driven much farther than I expected to go and still found no sign of the studio. Just as we'd begun to think the invitation was a bad joke played on unsuspecting art lovers we encountered a helpful sign, turned into the side road, and found the studio. As is true of Polebridge itself, this is a place far off the grid, with no electricity other services. Solar panels and generators keep the lights on, and giant wood piles, often supplemented by propane gas, provide fuel for heat. It's also stunningly beautiful. Lee lives and works on 20 acres of forested wilderness on the north fork of the Flathead River. Quite the environment to inspire one's creativity.

It was a fine party, with good food, interesting people, and a lovely setting. We spent quite some time talking with Lee, learning about his background and how he came to work in the media he does. His wooden forms are unusual, and probably not suited to everyone's taste in art. Lee could tell we were very enthusiastic about them. At one point in the conversation he said, "It's really cool to watch people looking at your work, especially when you can tell they get it."

I've thought about his comment several times since that evening. As I mentioned, Lee's work is not for everyone. Some, perhaps most, people would look once and not give a second glance. On the other hand, Pat and I spotted his exhibit as we walked through the Kalispell show and were drawn to it immediately. I wondered why we're attracted to the things we are, or in Lee's terms, why we "get" some things, but not others.

Between a Postcard and a Hard Place

I long ago accepted I'll never understand why people do what they do — it's a question that will remain unanswered, and I can live with that. (I once heard, "A man can live for days without food, hours without water, minutes without air, and forever without answers." I've no idea who said it, but I believe it completely.) I think some people have an innate feel for what others will "get", what will be commercially successful, and exploit that skill by producing appropriate work. I'm not one of those people, but as I'll explain, I can live with that, too.

A local photographer has this talent, this ability to produce work that sells about as quickly as he can produce it. He's a very nice guy; I know him reasonably well, and he's always a pleasure to talk to. His work is displayed in regional galleries and is also in stores and gift shops scattered around Montana. He always has a large display at the one outdoor show in which I exhibit my work every year. His display draws a crowd, and sells very well. I've studied his work, and while many of his pictures are appealing, I've decided they are postcards, rather generic, often made in less-than-desirable afternoon light. He also prices them, in hefty wood frames he makes himself, maddeningly low. That's perhaps a topic for another article.

This is art that requires no effort on the part of the viewer. I'm sure there are exceptions, but generally, I think art should not be "hard". However, these pictures offer nothing to think about. There's neither magic nor wonder in any of the pictures, nothing to be discovered by the viewer. There's nothing to "get". The photos are technically competent, but neither inspired nor even artistic. They are the sort of inoffensive landscape photos one sees on the walls of non-chain hotel rooms. I suspect people buy these pictures, hang them, and then rarely notice them again. They just fill a space. I would never criticize this, but I hope for better when people own prints of my photographs.

The "Get It" Double-take

Victory snag in the fog near Yellowstone Lake

"Victory Snag", along the shore of frozen Yellowstone Lake on a foggy May morning.

These postcard pictures are not the kinds of images I want to create. I take great delight in photographing subjects that grab me and draw me in, in the kind of beautiful light I find irresistable. It often requires hard work to capture these images, and it's work I love. With some effort, care, and a little luck, I'll make prints that bring to the viewer that sense of wonder and discovery, the feeling that something is about to happen. These photographs may not have great commercial success, but they are the kind of pictures I want to make. They embrace my vision of the scene and the joy or excitement (or pain!) I felt when capturing the picture. When someone buys one of my photographs, I hope it is enjoyed, and perhaps provokes a little thought about the subject, the place, and the peril in which they so often struggle to survive. Every picture tells a story, and there's a story behind every picture. I really want people to get it.

When I'm participating in a show or attending an opening reception for my work, I talk to a lot of people. I sometimes watch as they look at my pictures. Some people will approach my work with a clear appreciation for the subject, the light, the final print, and occasionally even the effort required to make those pictures, much as Pat and I appreciated Lee Secrest's work when we first spotted it from across the square in Kalispell. That's wonderful, of course. But the real thrill for me is watching someone as he or she gives my photos a glance, perhaps as they are passing, and I see the moment when they get it. This is when they stop, take a step back, and begin to look around in the picture to see what's going on. They will often move on to the other photos in my exhibit, and sometimes spend a lot of time looking at each piece. When this results in a sale I know the client will hang the photo on their wall, and the picture will not be ignored. They will look at it, and when they do it will bring back memories of a place or time, or invoke the feelings that caused them to make their purchase.

They will get it all over again each time they view the photo, and perhaps they will smile, just as I do when I look at the piece we bought from Lee. It doesn't get any better than that.

August, 2010