SPIRIT IN A CAVE
Bobcat Brush, Ivory Black Watercolor, and India Ink
For many years it has been my practice to write experiential narratives to support my projects. The storytelling element of these narratives have become as much a part of the artwork as the brush marks or assembled materials. As I write, I try to understate things. This Spirit in a Cave project resisted that and I will try to describe my experience as clearly as I understand it.
In March 2020, I finally started a drawing that I had laid awake thinking about for six or seven years. Thinking about a project that long is not really uncommon for me. Yet, as I lay awake at night, periodically thinking about the drawing, I could not have anticipated the character that the drawing would inhabit. I could never have anticipated that our entire society would spend the next year confined by a global pandemic. I did not yet know that I would spend that next year turning the single drawing into a series of drawings that embodied the spirit that emerged from that confinement.
What was I imagining on those occasional sleepless nights? I imagined an abstract drawing started with my bobcat hair brush that the late Keith Lebanzon made for me in 1989. I visualized these brush drawings shaded in pen and ink. I had resumed doing pen and ink after being inspired by a 2012 exhibit of Leonardo’s anatomy drawings I saw at Buckingham Palace in London. Leonardo’s pen and ink work was simply sublime and that sensitivity of touch became an aspiration for me. During that same European trip, Kathy and I visited the Paleolithic cave paintings at Font de Gaume where I was allowed to take a pencil and a small pad to make field sketches from inside the caves.
My account picks up again against the backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic. Around the beginning of January 2020, we were hearing disconcerting reports of a strange coronavirus from China. On January 20, the U.S. recorded its first case in Washington State. On February 11, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus declared, "[A] virus is more powerful in creating political, economic and social upheaval than any terrorist attack.” To anyone paying attention, a shadow seemed to be spreading.
The last week of February, I was in Reno, Nevada preparing to install an exhibit at the Sierra Arts Foundation. I finished my preparation early and having four free days, I finally decided to do the bobcat brush drawing I had laid awake imagining. I got out a nice piece of Fabriano paper and my small pad of field sketches of the cave paintings from Font de Gaume. I mixed up a batch of Ivory Black watercolor in a plastic cup and started making gestural marks with the bobcat brush. Working from the field sketches, I layered the bison, reindeer and horse from every page of sketches and wound up with an overall web of brush marks. Once this dried, I began staring into the web of brush marks to make some sense of the geometry and then started rendering volumes with pen and ink. I originally intended for this drawing to be an abstraction. Yet, I recognized that the white passages I was leaving started to evoke a weird anthropomorphic, animal headed figure dancing in a dark space, a spirit in a cave. At that moment, it seemed so animated and present that I simply went along with it.
The drawing took four days, a remarkably short amount of time for me. I was excited by it and when I put it next to a recently finished painting, it made the painting look still. I knew then that something important happened and I resolved then that I would put my other projects aside and do more bobcat brush drawings.
On March 4, 2020, my Sierra Arts exhibit opened and on March 13, the Covid-19 national emergency was declared. That day, I went to the local grocer and was startled to see long lines of shoppers with overflowing carts at the checkout. Even more alarming were the empty shelves where toilet paper and non-perishable items like pasta and rice had been just the day before. I remember thinking, “Wow, this is happening in America.” Along with everyone else, the arts organizations were trying to figure out what this meant and I pulled the plug on my own Sierra Arts reception. The exhibit was up for nearly three months in a closed gallery and virtually no one saw it.
Sheltering in my studio, I began the second bobcat brush drawing with the same exact, format, materials and field sketches except now I was actively looking for the Spirit in a Cave to emerge. It was not difficult to find and yet, it was so unique in feeling from the first drawing. And the urgency of impetus in the first drawing was rapidly giving way to my more deliberate nature and taking much longer. It was at this point that I realized that sheltering from the pandemic was making me feel like I was living in a cave. The drawings inhabited that Spirit in the Cave and became my rawest possible expression of that psychological interior. As artists, we rarely get such a direct passageway into these undercurrents.
At this point I resolved that this would become a fully realized project, a suite of ten drawings. Little did I realize that it would become an entire year’s work. If the first drawing took four days, the subsequent drawings with their intensifying detail and surface soon began taking four or more weeks.
Increasingly, it felt like I was looking through a microscope at a magnification of a life form. Or it could have been a telescope. It felt like I was looking at a molecular spirit that was expending and contracting with a nervous system. Each drawing had such a distinct mood as if the spirit was morphing and exposing different aspects of its personality.
My stumbling upon these drawings might be akin to the phenomena when you rub your eyes and those mysterious phosphene patterns appear. These Spirit in a Cave drawings are a fossil record of the pandemic rubbing my inner eye, exposing some contortion of pathos from my psyche in this existential moment in history.
Scott Robert Hudson
March 7, 2021
The Artist's Materials
ivory black watercolor