Oil, 24" x 36"
©2019 Thomas Anderson
When the piece first started taking shape in April, 2017, Rousseau Walks on Trumpet Paths was the first thing that came into my head. The line means much to me on many levels, and as I painted, it simply stuck.
Two painters from the 19th Century who speak most loudly to me are Theodore Rousseau and Henri Rousseau. They were neither contemporaries, related, nor anything alike except for having the same last name and being born in France. Theodore saw heroism in trees. His landscapes had been derived from heartfelt observation. Henri worked as a tax collector all his life, painted in his spare time, and had only barely been recognized as a great painter during his lifetime. His imagery consisted of deeply personal, stylized interpretations of real things and places. I can relate to both of their experiences, but especiallty to their visceral approaches to subject matter. My paintings are based on the reality of my observations, but the personal narratives and interpretations almost always win in the end, and I often ignore or embellish my original references. Both Rousseau are inspirations to me, though I doubt one could find any direct influence.
“The Jungle Line” by Joni Mitchell (another great inspiration) is about a lot of things including, but not limited to, an artist in a big city whose name is Rousseau (no relation to the French painters), the origins of jazz, heroin, charging elephants and chanting slaving boats. ‘With his hard-edged eye and his steady hand, he paints the cellar full of ferns and orchid vines.’ But before the words, it is Ms. Mitchell’s music I hear when I look at my Ridgway’s Rail with three young chicks on safari through the cordgrass and pickleweed. On top of a recording of African drums and chanting, Ms. Mitchell added a recurring four note trumpet-like sound that reminds me of the way a rail walks—on trumpet paths. Ridgway’s Rails are not big birds. About the size of small chickens, they inhabit a world of coastal saltwater wetlands that would appear to humans as impenetrable tangles of small saltwater tolerant vegetation. But to the birds, this vegetation would not be unlike navigating a dense, wet jungle in which they can find food and shelter, build nests, raise young, and disappear when necessary. The high contrast between the glowing, sunlit “canopy” of wetland plants and the dark, shadowy, wet mud had been the sensual magnet that made me want to make this painting. From April 2017 through March of 2019, I had been periodically immersed in this snapshot of a rail’s world that exists within these few square feet.
In almost all of California, these “jungles” of coastal saltwater wetlands have been reduced to fractions of their original size, almost completely obliterated by over-priced housing developments of coastal megacities. As a consequence, Ridgway’s rails are a near-threatened species; there are only a couple thousand of these birds on the planet. Thanks to a captive breeding program, their numbers have been slowly increasing in Southern California. They have only recently begun to re-inhabit the wetlands at Bolsa Chica, two miles (as the crow flies) from my house. No one can say for certain, but I cannot imagine that Ridgway’s Rails had not been historic residents of Bolsa Chica before 1900. They would have flourished for thousands of years in this landscape of tidal ebb and flow, in the margin between the ocean and the land. Then, in the last years of the 19th Century, duck hunters dammed the main channel of the wetlands. The tidal flow was restricted and the wetlands forever altered. The wetlands were then further diked and degraded by oil operations that began in the 1920s and continue to this day. The rail's preferred habitat had soon been fragmented or obliterated from all over Southern California. But within a few years after a large area of the Bolsa Chica wetlands had been cleaned up and restored in 2006, Bolsa Chica became a destination for rails from another fragment of wetland in the area, the Seal Beach National Wildlife Refuge. For years I had mistaken the rails’ low numbers for shyness and secrecy. I’d never seen one at Bolsa Chica, and only glimpsed the elusive rails once or twice at Upper Newport Bay. But now that the birds’ numbers are up, they are easily seen preening and foraging at Bolsa Chica. They took very quickly to propagating. They are not shy birds at all and don’t seem terribly troubled by their proximity to human beings.
That I can go two miles from my house to see this beautiful endangered species is a decidedly mixed blessing. I have lived almost all of my life in this megacity (‘Through I-bars and girders, through wires and pipe, the mathematic circuits of the modern night’), yet being near the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve and volunteering in environmental education has been critical to my overall well-being. That there is a high probability all coastal wetlands (and cities) will to be underwater in less than 100 years due to humankind’s thoughtless consumption of fossil fuels, overpopulation, apathy, ignorance and denial is a tragedy that could have been, might still be prevented. Fossil fuels are our collective heroin now. Our lives have been made dependent on fossil fuels, and all attempts to let go are being challenged for no other reason than corporate greed. We seem to have been made to believe that the money tied up in oil and gas is more important now than the air we breathe or the water we drink. Every day our corporate captors are allowed to perpetrate more and more crimes against our collective health. We could come clean very quickly if each of us individually chose to do all he or she could to affect change. Collectively, we appear to have chosen to be enslaved by fossil fuels, and collectively act as if we have little choice. But there is always a choice.
I am fascinated (and perplexed, disturbed, frightened, mesmerized) that human beings exist in a constant state of paradox: urban/wilderness, modern/primitive, light/dark, choice/restriction, freedom/slavery, love/fear, creation/destruction, and on and on. The journey of jazz from its roots in distant, ancient rural locales to its present identification as something strictly urban, perfectly distilled by Ms. Mitchell, is analogous to the journey of homo sapiens: ‘Through huts through Harlem though jails and gospel pews, through the class on Park and the trash on Vine, through Europe and the deep, deep heart of Dixie blue, through savage progress cuts the jungle line.’ It doesn't get more paradoxical than "savage progress": In terms of evolution, we are great apes with computers, cars and guns. Our ability to create brilliance is equal to our ability to create horror. We are not yet wired to see and accept responsibility for the consequences of our actions. Until each of has the ability to take full responsibility for the consequences of our thoughts, words and actions, we will continue to struggle with our paradoxical condition and our addictions, and we will continue to make the planet more and more uninhabitable. Judging only by my own struggles, Divine intervention is the only hope for faster evolution. Savage progress indeed.