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Lost in the Woods

These paintings were exhibited in 2016 at the Solomons Branch of the Calvert Library in Solmons, MD.


Text of artist talk:

I’m Barb Mowery. I live in Lusby, Maryland. I paint in acrylics. And I am a little bit obsessed with trees, which is the theme of this exhibition, “Lost in the Woods.”

I want to talk about why trees keep appearing in my artwork, and then I will talk about the artwork that is hanging here at the library. And then if you all have any questions, you can ask me at the end.
My projects usually begin by testing a hypothesis. And this time it was a really simple one:

If I practice painting trees, then I will get better at painting trees.

My plan was to spend a few months looking closely at trees, and once I had mastered that, then I would go on to do some other landscape elements like clouds or creeks. But that’s not really how it worked out. That was four or five years ago.

While I was practicing painting trees, I started noticing more. And that caused me to start asking questions. And those questions led to more questions and different ways of looking at the forest. Some of the things I ask myself when I’m painting are:

* What are the shape and color of shadows?
* How does it feel looking out from an area of deep shade?
* What does a particular place look all year round?
* What happens when you paint the same thing every day for an entire month?


My interest in trees is really not as clinical as I’m probably making it sound. Trees are a matter of the heart for me. I grew up in the house my great grandparents built 100 years ago, surrounded by the woods. I spent countless hours playing in those woods, and being there brings me a feeling of deep peacefulness.


But the woods are actually quite loud and in constant motion. Even on a still day the leaves are shifting and turning. Everything is following the sunlight. So I try to incorporate that movement into my work. I try—sometimes it works.


So the paintings that you are seeing here at the library are all inspired by my childhood memories and the natural beauty of Maryland.


The paintings in this room are all focused on the woods around a single farm field near Middleham Chapel. I go there at different times of day, different weather conditions, and different seasons. And I look, make sketches, and take pictures. Sometimes I paint on site. And then I take all of that information home, and I work in my studio.


There is one painting in this group that I made on site [“Study for Birdsong and Cicadas”]. And then I used that one to create “Birdsong and Cicadas,” the large painting back here. And so you will see that in some ways they are the same, but there are quite a few differences.

I think by working this way I’m trying to capture how that particular place looks and feels, by gathering lots of information at all different times during the year.


There are also a dozen paintings in the quiet study rooms, along the far wall behind the stacks. The paintings that are in the center study room I made in 2013 and 14. Those are my oldest trees that are here. And you can get a good feeling for where my head was at the beginning of the project, and then you can compare them to the paintings in the other two study rooms which were done in 2015 and 2016.

I think it’s really interesting to see them up together because the earlier ones definitely feel a lot more detailed to me, and there’s a lot less movement. And then I think the later trees are a lot more expressive. There’s different things going on because I was interested in answering different questions as a project moved on.


And then back in the meeting room there are 8 paintings from a project I did back in January. I made 30 paintings in 30 days. It was a fun thing (*laughing*). I think a couple thousand people around the world signed up to do it. So every day for that month I painted the same exact scene. And it was a group of trees that I caught as I was driving by.


I had a memory of the sun hitting them at a particular day and time. I thought that with each passing day I would get closer to some essential truth about this place. And as it went on I would really nail it.

But instead my memory started changing, and the whole project became about the way that human memory functions. Because the more you call upon a single memory and the harder you try to hold onto it, the more slippery it becomes. It becomes totally uncertain. So by the end of the month my trees were just dissolving into abstraction. And I just let it happen.


You can follow that progression of the small paintings back there. And then there are also a couple of larger paintings as well that were made just after that and are related to that series.


Ultimately, my hypothesis was not wrong. Practice did lead to improvement. But practice also led me to a deeper engagement in my subject and my materials. I had the luxury to taking my time and becoming lost in the woods.


So I hope you enjoy the fruits of my really stubborn curiosity. And again I thank all of you for coming out tonight.

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