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Subscripture: musings on process and meaning

Memoriam

Tim Svenonius

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On the conception and making of Memoriam, 2016

At times I see a picture that stays with me insistently, compelling me to make something of it. For this I have a catch-phrase: I am drawn by the image.

In this instance it was a found photograph of a ship’s crew. Eight men stand facing the camera shoulder to shoulder, sharply defined against a huge canvas sail. The group is replete with contrasts, the identity of each man straining against the ostensible unity of the line. I set to work on adapting it to a painting, knowing nothing about these men or the photo. 

In drawing and painting, I have a longstanding interest in the expressive range of the human figure, and what is conveyed through a silhouetted form. When a face is obscured, the body can act as a kind of semaphore, communicating subtleties of emotion and identity. 

Often when I paint figures, I choose to depict them as though far away, the specifics obliterated by distance so that only the silhouette is left.

In the case of Memoriam, however, I was interested in key details, and in closing that distance. In the photograph, a rugged tailoring and non-uniformity of the clothes—overalls on some; jackets buttoned or left open, and so on—hint at ranks, roles, and the diverse origins of these men. 

The painting was nearly complete when I began investigating the story behind the photograph that inspired it. I learned that these eight were part of the crew of the Wyoming, a six-masted coal schooner that sank during a storm in 1924 off Cape Cod, with all hands lost. The photo dates circa 1923 and is the only known picture of the crew. The fate of the Wyoming also marked the end of an era of shipbuilding: the six-masted, 450-foot schooner had been the largest wooden ship ever built, and the last of its kind in operation. 

From the blog of the Maine Maritime Museum, in an entry dated January 2011, on the 102nd anniversary of the Wyoming’s launch: 

‘Each year at 12:45 on December 15th, we celebrate the anniversary of the launching of the six-mast schooner Wyoming, the largest and last of the six-masters. …More than a dozen [museum] staff stood on the spot where she was built, in a steady cold rain, and hoisted glasses of various beverages (slowly being diluted by the rain) while reciting the names of the 13 men who went down with the schooner in 1924.’ 

The method I used is a kind of pochoir, made using a number of overlapping stencils. For every edge of every figure or garment, I cut a shape from paper, used as a sort of shield to lend sharpness to that edge. Something between twenty five and thirty stencils were used.   

Monumental Bison, 2019

Tim Svenonius

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The drawing Monumental Bison is based on a bronze figure, part of a monument to George Washington in Philadelphia that features life-size figures of certain native fauna. At the time the monument was dedicated, in 1897, the number of American bison was nearing its lowest ebb. A count in 1884 had estimated 325 living bison in the US, down from a peak population between twenty and thirty million. In 1887, the American Museum of Natural History sent an expedition as far as Montana to obtain a bison specimen, but found none. Considering its historical context, the edifice takes on a funerary effect rather than a heroic one.

Over a period of years I’ve made a number of paintings, drawings, and prints based on monumental figures of bison. In part, I am drawn by the form itself—what I might call the animal’s monumentality. At the same time I’m responding to the way the bison’s image, and other images of the natural world, become iconic—the picture becoming more pervasive as its material counterpart is erased. Rather than trying to capture the essence of the living animal, I choose to work from a representation, allowing all the strange subtext that comes along with it.

Equi Vocat, or the Dark Horse

Tim Svenonius

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A rocking horse of immense size first appeared in a sketchbook in 2010, amid a host of dreamlike pictures for which I had no rational explanation. 

I revisited the motif again in a notebook years later, now with a long shadow extending off the page. Something about that shadow and the crossed boundary felt essential, a key to some meaning I had not yet divined. In the print I aimed to emulate that effect by creating a bounding box—a containment made to be violated.

Countless horses appear in my notebooks, more often emblematically than as living animals: a monument, a chess piece, an insignia, a wheeled effigy. Among these, I feel the rocking horse possesses a particular magic. One of mammoth stature seems especially formidable--as if harboring some secret, like a sphinx.

The title Equi Vocat is a kind of bilingual wordplay: the Latin may mean he calls the horse, or the horse calls; in English it suggests equivocate—evading understanding. Ideally, I want a title to provide something unexpected, and not simply to reinforce what’s already apparent (like calling the print Rocking Horse, for instance). Here I wanted a title that would actively play with an unseen part of the story. 

 

Reflections in a Shallow Bay

Tim Svenonius

Strand , 2019. graphite on paper, 22 x 30 in.

Strand, 2019. graphite on paper, 22 x 30 in.

The expression snapshot, to mean an instant in time, was already in use by 1897. The sense of a photo’s instantaneousness, summed up in the shutter’s split-second sound, is rooted deep.

But there are photographs that play strangely with time. Rough waters, captured on the wet plate negatives of the 19th century, can look like still pools of mist, and bodies in motion may appear translucent. Amid crisp details in a landscape or street scene we may make out faint blurs and residual shadows left by anonymous passersby.

To decipher these traces is a kind of reanimation: attune yourself to these rhythms, restore the breath to the arrested moment, and the experience becomes cinematic—as long as you can be both viewer and projector.

• • • • •

My source for the drawing was a photo found online. It shows a stranded bark, its rigging in disarray, identified as the wreck of the Hannah, 1849. But when I tried to learn more about the Hannah, which sank after striking an iceberg en route from Ireland to Quebec, with fifty passengers perishing, I concluded it couldn’t be the vessel pictured, whose end was surely less catastrophic. The picture’s backstory, then, was not for me to know.

• • • • •

Although a photo may describe an instant in time, a drawing may take weeks. In that time, storylines may emerge, characters develop, moods evolve. To derive a drawing from a photograph, then, is not so much a copying but an unfolding. The narrative of that frozen moment must be adapted, rewritten, restaged.

The source photo was meanwhile of a very degraded quality, many of its details blurred and indecipherable. Much of it would have to be reimagined in my rendering.

While working on the drawing in late January I looked up at the clouds every day, between the frequent storms, trying to memorize patterns and behaviors. I took a trip North to where the Russian River meets the ocean and forms a delta. With the unfinished drawing still fully in mind, I studied the contours and textures of the sandbars there along the ragged coastline.

And thus attuned, I would return to the drawing and further develop the textures of sand and sky. Soon the setting had become, unmistakably, the Pacific coast, between winter rains.