Ink, graphite and watercolor, 30" x 20"
©2020 Thomas Anderson
This painting is not about the coronavirus. I began it in November of 2019. It does, however, illustrate my long held belief that humankind is destroying the environment at its own peril. Earth is a living organism and it will do what it can to fight us like an infection if we do not learn to live sustainably with it.
In the fall of 2019 I read a dystopian tragedy of a family of farmers forced into cross country migration by human-induced climate change and its economic consequences. It was The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, one of the few Steinbeck works I had never read. Even though it took place in the 1930s, there was nothing in it that is not happening now or will not happen again (and again) in the near future. If collective humankind is stupid enough to continue fossil fuel use at its current rate, the temperature of the planet will continue to rise. All of our food growing regions are dependent upon climate stability. Average global temperature has already risen more than one degree in the past 80 years causing increasingly climate instability as well as melting glaciers, ice caps and sea level rise. We are already seeing increasing human migrations (the Middle East, Central America) related to food production. One degree more will create exponentially more instability. But the powerful fossil fuel industry encourages us to ignore it, to believe the causes are something other than climate change, nothing anyone can do anything about.
The Dust Bowl of the 1930s was caused by people farming an area that should not have been farmed. The farmers were offered a good life by banks and by all the businesses who profited from their labor. And it was a good life for a while. But those banks and markets and farmers did not comprehend that the plowing of the land destroyed the eons-old grassland ecosystem that could withstand drought. When the grass and its root system and the myriad creatures it supported were gone and the rains did not come, the topsoil blew away, the banks took everything away from the farmers forcing them to go elsewhere. They were not greeted with understanding or open arms. They were hated, harassed and belittled by those who could not comprehend it was a collective problem—and still don’t.
Human beings are still arrogantly destroying ecosystems around the planet because they are ignorant of why Earth enjoys a stable climate: biodiversity and healthy, intact ecosystems. Instead, the Amazonian rainforests are burned for cattle pastures and soy bean farms. The Indonesian rainforests are leveled for palm oil plantations. Australia burned because it is on the frontline of rising global temperatures and changing rainfall pattern. It was never a wet place to begin with but its ecosystems have been so fragmented by agricultural practices that it can no longer withstand prolonged heat and drought. No place can, of course. But we don’t want to believe that it can happen in our backyards. The consequences of our collective behaviors are more obvious to some than others.
Whether homo sapiens with survive the 21st Century or self-destruct is up for debate. The only way I can adequately express my ambivalence toward the subject is in my art. When I decided to let go of oil paint and get back to why I wanted to paint in the first place, how I thought and felt about drawing and painting in my teens and 20s—I was no more or less cheerful then than I am now—I decided I would not filter what I felt like drawing and painting. For a time I believed the beauty of the natural world should be enough to speak for itself. I still believe that, but it’s not enough, not the whole story. 40 years ago used to create images that were based with real images but augmented with my imagination to get my obsession of juxtaposing impermanence, mortality, and sorrow with wistful, immutable, and tranquil. Whether this piece was inspired directly by Steinbeck or it simply came to me while reading the book, I do not know. But it came with grace and ease, and it speaks to my ambivalence of my innate love of birds and natural landscapes and being a selfish, solitary human in a world that I am by my very existence and use of electricity and gasoline and agribusiness helping to destroy.
Inspired by the photos I took in the Paris catacombs several years ago, I drew a collection of skulls with pencil on museum board as spontaneously and intuitively as possible. I then smoothed out them out with tissue to get them to blend more with the paper. I did not want to erase. I them applied a layer of watercolor ground. Over that I used ink washes and gradually redefined the pencil drawing. I did not want to copy the photography, but rather allow the pencil drawing and ink washes to be the focus. When I felt the drawing was of adequate shadow and light, I applied two more layers of watercolor ground. This gave me the washed out, ghostly feeling I was after. When that was dry, I began applying watercolor. Two seemingly contented male Lesser Scaups float on tranquil, rippling water. Beneath them lay stacks of human skulls. The Grapes of Wrath ends with a flood of Biblical proportions. Only a part of one family appears to have survived. Water is life; life is water. The amount of water on Earth does not change. The distribution, flood or drought, is determined by biodiversity and healthy, intact ecosystems. Non-human nature will one day reclaim the planet. We can be a part of it by choosing to adopt a way of living that is sustainable. Or not. Between Earth and humankind, we are the less permanent.
“One man, one family driven from the land . . . I lost my land, a single tractor took my land. I am alone and bewildered. And in the night one family camps in a ditch and another family pulls in and the tents come out. The men squat on their hams and the women and children listen. Here is the node, you hate change and fear revolution. Keep these two squatting men apart; make them hate, fear, suspect each other. Here is anlage of the thing you fear. This is the zygote. For here “I lost my land” is changed; a cell is split and from its splitting grows the thing you hate—“We lost our land.” The danger is here, for two men are not as lonely as one and perplexed as one. And from this first “we” there grows a still more dangerous thing: “I have a little food” plus “I have none.” If from this problem the sum is “We have a little food,” the thing is on its way, the movement has direction. Only a little multiplication now and this land, this tractor are ours. The two men squatting in a ditch, the little fire, the side-meat stewing in a single pot, the silent, stone-eyed women; behind, the children listing with souls to words their minds to not understand. The night draws down. The baby has a cold. Here, take this blanket. It’s wool. It was my mother’s blanket—take it for the baby. This is the thing to bomb. This is the beginning—from “I” to “we.”
“If you who own the things people must have could understand this, you might preserve yourself. If you could separate the cause from results, if you could know that Paine, Marx, Jefferson, Lenin, were results, not causes, you might survive. But that you cannot know. For the quality of owning freezes you forever into “I,” and it cuts you off forever from the “we.” – John Steinbeck
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