"The land, to me, is just a bucket of worms. It's squirming with demanding detail, arresting your vision all over the place."
Nationally renowned landscape artist Joellyn Duesberry says she experiences a visceral reaction when she looks at natural terrain. In her solo exhibit Elevated Perspective: Paintings by Joellyn Duesberry, opening this week at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, the viewer sees the growth of that reaction during a career that spans 42 years and three continents.
"I prefer to call this kind of show a survey," says museum director Blake Milteer to Duesberry during a walk-through of the exhibit space, "rather than a retrospective, because, um ... you're still here."
"Survey" is an apt term, evoking both the breadth of the show and the way Duesberry, a part-time Colorado resident, interprets the natural world. Like that of a surveyor, her approach owes everything to layers: layers of paint on the canvas, gradations of rock and earth in the landscapes she paints, and, most importantly, her technique of mining the surface and depth of the composition for abstract geometric forms.
"Your paintings work like strata in the earth. And in some of the paintings, you see actual strata," says Milteer, pointing to a Colorado landscape leaning against the wall. "You see it, certainly, in the fantastic quarry paintings from Maine, and the bogs — you talk about these layers of history in a bog, right, so it plays out both metaphorically and physically."
Milteer speaks from a deep familiarity with Duesberry and her work, having begun preparations for Elevated Perspective immediately following the FAC expansion in 2007. Duesberry, for her part, says the experience of seeing her oeuvre through Milteer's eyes as exhibit curator — watching him plan how he will interpret her paintings for the public — has challenged her process.
She has always worked en plein air, citing the focus and immediacy it imposes, and on a large scale. But the insight she has gained from Elevated Perspective has enabled her to move her painting indoors, drawing on the same inspiration she enjoyed outdoors — but on even bigger canvases. Her most recent work, a 15-foot bog view she calls "the most important painting of my career," signals a new direction for her as an artist.
"Blake has seen the personal roots, has seen the accretion over time of motifs that I've used over and over and over again, but I'm not aware of," she says. "What he's done is give me a sense of the wholeness, or at least the continuum, of a whole life in paint, that I didn't have before. Astonishing. I want to launch another chapter based on what I've learned."