Donald Bracken on Using Dirt to Paint Landscapes

Painter Donald Bracken has been inspired by landscapes as varied as the Pacific vistas of northern California and the skyline of lower Manhattan. But it’s the dirt and clay terrain of New England that forms the basis of his new show at The Lionheart Gallery, “Parallel Realities.” We caught up with the artist to learn about the evolution of his practice and the paintings and sculptures made with earth, vine, roots, leaves, sticks, and found objects, now on view.

Artsy: You’ve been painting landscapes for many years. How can the natural world be expressed as a subject in its own right, versus as a setting or backdrop? 

Donald Bracken: In 2007, I began to paint landscapes using soil from the Connecticut River Valley farms I was painting. The paintings became not just about the earth, but of the earth. As my relationship with materials evolved, I started using limestone, sand, vines, and other natural materials to create textural three-dimensional landscapes emerging from their own organic materials. 

By 2010, the paintings had become less obvious landscapes that celebrate earthen material. Many were done using a clay-polymer formula I have developed that documents the direct interaction between the individual and the earth. Rather than remaining static on the canvas, the mixtures crack, shrink, and elevate as they dry—they are a living medium that allow nature a role as collaborator in the resulting paintings. 

In 2011, inspired by figurative wire sculptures I had done in the ’80s, by vine formations in local woods, and by the latent value of a material that is often seen as worthless and undesirable, I began making hanging sculptures, and used more massive vines to produce my first large vine relief work, the 10-foot-square Floating Brain. This led to many pieces, such as Inner Urge, that are like 3D drawings in space—the vines liberated from their natural habitat, twisting and turning into arbitrary new entanglements as they emerge in gestural rhythms that allude to the intrinsic interconnectivity of nature and human life.

Artsy: You’ve painted scenes from the vantage point of the 91st floor of the World Trade Center. Can you tell us about that experience, and your later shift to more bucolic themes?

DB: In 1997, in what turned out to be one of the most significant experiences of my artistic career to date, I was chosen to be among the first artists in residence in a pilot program for the Plein Air Project, initiated with the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council at the World Trade Center. The project’s mission statement was to document Manhattan’s ever-changing skyline by turning unrented offices in the World Trade Center into studio spaces. Most of the paintings from my vast studio on the 91st floor of the North Tower were of a long cityscape juxtaposed with the changing sky and clouds and attesting to the omnipotence of nature. Perhaps the most significant painting I did in the World Trade Center, Fire Outside My Window, World on Fire, was of my studio seemingly on fire in the morning sun. This painting was in the show “Remembering September 11, 2001” at the New York State Museum in Albany in 2011.  

Artsy: What’s the relationship between your “dirt paintings” and your interest in Native American cultures?

DB: I first started doing dirt paintings in the floodplain where there are smallish farms in Wethersfield and Glastonbury where the Native Americans farmed in very fine rich soil. Every spring people go and look for arrowheads. The land has a much different spirit than a giant industrial cornfield in Nebraska.  Native peoples all over the world seem to have a much closer bond than many with western European roots.

Artsy: In your recent work, you’ve chosen landscape subjects closer to home—even directly in front of your house. What inspires you about each place?

DB: Nature informs me. I see these amazing shapes, motifs , designs in the forests, the fields, in the lake... I have been using the material itself. I do stuff in my yard because some of these vines are really big, heavy and awkward. I go out and collect, driving my 1989 Volvo station wagon down a dirt river road where I live, and piling the stuff on the roof racks, giving the car the appearance of a large rodent. I get odd looks from some of the local residents who think I am a bit odd.

Bridget Gleeson

Parallel Realities” is on view at The Lionheart Gallery, Pound Ridge, New York, Jan. 17–Mar. 1, 2015. 

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