By Sandra Dal Poggetto
Gray's Sporting Journal
For millennia, painting and hunting have been among the most fundamental expressions of human culture, yet today their relevance is seriously being questioned in this time of radical technological change. In our modern world, one might ask why I, or anyone, would choose to be a painter of landscape— and a hunter.
To answer that question, I must begin in the manzanita groves where I played as a girl. Manzanita, chamisa and oak surrounded my home. The mild Mediterranean climate of the coastal California hills invited outdoor play, and I accepted the invitation with pleasure. Often I saw blacktail deer tracks in the powdered soil, or jackrabbits, and heard the call of quail during quiet morning and evening hours. The smooth, taut skin of the manzanita I caressed. I pinched and ran my nails down the slender, flexible chamisa branch so that I could hold the stubby needles in my palm.
Within the concentrations of chamisa were a network of animal tunnels aglow with a diffused light. Through these I would crawl until I came to the wide trunk of a live oak whose coarse, gray limbs I would climb and, through the deep green of small, waxy leaves, look out over the valley. The slopes of chaparral, I knew, were shaped by fire, and the valley below was favored with river water. At times the voice of my mother would filter through the air, telling me it was time for my piano lesson, my ballet lesson, Mass. Always I was reluctant to go.
Years passed in this way until I reached adolescence, and I no longer followed the animal tunnels or climbed limbs but rather sought to extend mine to those of another. Something vital went dormant in me.
My grammar and high school studies included art courses, but it wasn't until college when I read Lord Byron's “Sardanapalus: A Tragedy” and saw in reproduction Eugene Delacroix’s painting, “The Death of Sardanapalus,” that something reawakened in me. The pearlescent glow of the pasha’s bedcovering, the powerful horse with flames approaching so stimulated my imagination that I wanted to see more. And I did.
Delacroix led me to Cézanne, who led me back to Poussin, black figure, red figure, white ground. In Padua, as I stood before Giotto’s frescoes at the Scrovegni Chapel, I saw the life of Christ transmuted into luminous color rhythmically proportioned and felt the power and grandeur of art.
The man who was to become my husband introduced me to the hunt. We stalked deer. Gradually, we entered their world as he taught me first to look for sign: fresh beds, scat, tender brush leaves nipped. So as not to alert the deer with our scent, we would feel the direction of the breeze on our faces or observe where the dust blew as we tossed it. Into the shadows of branches we would peer, searching for the arc of an antler, the curve of a haunch, movement. Long minutes would pass as we listened, simply listened, for the sound of a hoof cracking a brittle branch in its path. As we slowly and quietly followed the impressions the heart-shaped hooves had made on the trail, our muscles grew taut and strained.
In this way he reintroduced me to my youth, but there was a difference. The intent was to take a life, and this added a seriousness that was new, a depth of engagement that was primal.
With this difference, a deep conflict and paradox surfaced. While the pursuit of game activated my bodily senses to a degree of acuteness previously unknown to me, the ingredient necessary was the intent to kill. I could not have the pleasure of a heightened sense of aliveness without being a harbinger of death.
Were these conflicting feelings, I wondered, a result of our technological way of life, which removes us from natural processes? Or had these questions been with us from the beginning? Henry David Thoreau read Virgil’s Georgics and was reminded of the identity of all ages. The natural world Virgil described was the same world as Thoreau's, and the same men inhabited it. Thus, Thoreau concluded that neither nature nor human nature had changed, in essence, from Virgil’s time to his.
When I hunted, I realized that I re-entered not only my childhood but the elemental relationship of prey and predator, and in a tangible way the history of art and the family of man. Our origins and almost all of our history lie in the pursuit of game. Man’s first images were born from the life-giving and death-bearing intensity of the hunt. For millennia, the necessity of the hunt profoundly shaped our bodies, minds—and also our art.
Through the medium of the hunt, I touched the Cro-Magnon who brought down the stag and painted the image of the stag onto the cave wall. Over time, the cave wall became an Etruscan tomb enlivened with representations of plentiful game, and the tomb wall later was rounded into the ceramic surfaces of Attic pots with images of fleeing stags and gods and goddesses in pursuit. Woven into medieval tapestries were forms of the hunted, and upon the weave of canvas, Thomas Eakins captured the lucid geometry of pushing for rail.
After a time, I began to hunt on my own in the mountains near Yellowstone, and I began to notice that hunting in some was paralleled the process of painting. In painting, one strives to fashion an aesthetic structure. With each painting, this structure is initially only vaguely sensed, and it is the work of the painter to find its contours.
In hunting, it is the work of the hunter to uncover and take the game. In so doing, the contours of the hunt are drawn, but never as initially imagined.
In painting, one wants an image, a vital image, to materialize. To bring this about, the painter works within the limitations and potentialities of the pictorial elements, elements that have been developed and employed over the centuries and that have their roots in the natural world: color, line, shape, texture, form, value, space.
The painter cultivates a sensitivity to these elements and with long practice brings into view the fleeting image that is our essence, the contours of a human consciousness—the aesthetic structure.
In hunting, one wants the animal to appear. But the animal is always weary and, when not feeding, is in hiding, invisible.
To raise the game, the hunter, too, must carefully sense elements—ancient elements of landscape. He moves through the landscape as through a canvas in search of his quarry. Alert. He follows the line of repeating trails drawn by slender legs and delicate hooves. These trails are defined by the limitations and profound capacities of instinct. They lead to feeding areas—color fields of luminous grass, highly textured shrubs and brilliantly hued berries; trails diminish into pools of darkness, places of sleep and repose, out of summer's heat or hidden from the probing eyes of mountain lions. These trails rhythmically repeat and transect over a mountainside, creating shapes. As they are walked, one is imbued with the harmony of their proportions and feels an organizing principle in the wild.
Both the painter and hunter are pulled along their course by an interplay of intuition and analysis. Thoreau writes of this intuitive pull in his essay “Walking”: “I believe that there is a subtle magnetism in Nature, which if we unconsciously yield to it will direct us aright. It is not indifferent to us which way we walk. There is a right way.”
The hunter must remain open in a bodily sense to the pull of the surroundings. Does he move toward the quaking light of the aspen grove or up the draw dense with Douglas fir? But he also relies on his knowledge of daily feeding patterns and thermal winds, and assesses them in relation to the time of day.
The painter tests a color against an interior feeling but also observes whether it occupies the right plane of space. If not, then through analysis, the proper amount of tint or tone is mixed with hue, and the color then settles in proper relation to the surrounding colors.
The natural landscape is not static; it is evolving, but at a pace slower than our awareness can perceive. At times I have come to an area in the forest that feels different. The light quickens: Leaves are smaller, and the shadows, too, with swatches of intense light between. Wild rose hips cling to the bushes, and not far off, I suspect, is the rapid heartbeat of a grouse, its plumage a replication of this habitat.
Similarly, as the pressures of a life lived shape the painter's being, colors are selected that conform to his evolving way of seeing. As he steps back from his canvas, he asks, Is it true?
When the animal does finally appear (or if it does, for like painting, one is never assured of success), it is always disarming, as if the appearance occurs entirely independent of his actions. The animal simply materializes before his eyes, and he is enchanted.
This moment arrives, too, for the painter, when after long hours an image emerges on the canvas that is alive, that surprises and is immediately recognized. Because the painter isn't sure of the sequence that brought this unique living image into view, it is as if the image has appeared of its own volition, and so he simply experiences the moment with gratitude.
Whatever our technologically generated illusions might be, we are a part and will always be a part of the natural world, and yet, from within our technological cocoon, we think this is not so. The archaic pursuit of the hunt can, in late 20th-century America, bring us closer to an understanding of that with which we are made and restore to our mind and fading memories the power, magnificence and horror of the natural world and our place in it. And the medium of paint, derived from plants, animals and minerals, possesses by its very nature an intimacy with landscape. Perhaps the pulse of living things and our complex relationship to them can best be expressed by it.
When in Siena looking in to the eye of Duccio’s Madonna, I realized that what distinguished his work from the work of his contemporaries was that the eye I was looking into was the eye of the Divine. I had seen that eye before, I thought, that intensity, that remoteness, that otherness—in the exquisitely shaped eye of a wild elk.
This essay also appeared in the following publications:
The Structurist, “In the Eye of the Elk,” No. 35/36, 1995–1996, University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada
Heart Shots: Women Write About Hunting, edited by Mary Zeiss Stange, Stackpole Books, Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, 2003