If I’ve been asked any one question over the years about my approach to art it is this one: Where did you come up with the idea?
The question seems benign enough, but it is always a difficult one for me to answer, for no two paintings or drawings of mine usually come from the same wellhead. Some pictures come from images I’ve seen that spark visual curiosity. Some pictures come from something I’ve written, others come from feelings or emotions. For me, there is no straight line from idea inception to finished picture. Every picture is a journey of some kind. I’ve always thought of it as the creative process.
That said, let me share with you, the reader, the evolution of one of my most recently completed paintings, one I titled The Scarlet Jump Rope. But first, a little history.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve kept a box in which I put photographic images that catch my attention. Sometimes it’s as simple as a photograph in a newspaper or magazine. I cut it out and drop it what I call my “Image Box.” One day while in college I was looking through an issue of National Geographic, and saw a photograph of a man on his knees by the engine of a train, oiling one of the metal wheels. For no specific reason, I cut it out and dropped it in the box. In 2002, several decades later, while executing a series of fourteen woodcuts depicting the Stations of the Cross, I was rummaging through my Idea Box and saw the photograph of the oilman. At that particular point in time, I was developing sketches for the 8th Station, Jesus Falls for the Third Time. It was like finding buried treasure; the pose taken by the oilman was the perfect pose I needed for Jesus, minus the oilcan. Serendipity.
In early January, 2021, while rummaging through my idea box, my eyes fell on a magazine photograph of a man walking high above the ground on a tight rope. The most striking feature of the photograph was the absence of shoes on the man. He was barefoot. For no greater reason than my curiosity about the image, I decided to start a painting based on the photograph. Changes were quickly made in the landscape below the man to enhance the illusion of his height above the ground. I was intrigued by the fact the man was barefoot, so I followed suite with my image. At some early point in this process, I began to be aware of a felt need to enhance the element of risk. I wanted risk, or fear, or something along those lines to be the underlying pulse of the picture. I altered the landscape so it looked frozen, snow-covered. A barefoot man on a frigid day walking across a tight rope; what could be more risky than that?
During the following week, I pondered the theme of risk as I went about my daily activities. Driving to the supermarket, or preparing for bed, I recalled times in my life when I’d experienced risk. Some of those recollections were painful. Slowly at first, and then more frequently, my subjective thoughts about risk became more intense. The question I kept asking myself: How can I best maximize the sensation of risk, so the viewers of this picture will feel it, as well, and not just read the picture in literal terms? Without being overly conscious of specific measures that might increase the reference to risk, every move I made with the composition – the colors, lines, shapes and placement – everything was designed to put RISK in capital letters.
The shape of the man inferred marginal stability, but his hands and arms were extended in such a way as to suggest an intentional effort to grab the air, or sky, in order to maintain essential balance but was that enough? And then, from the inner reaches of my memory, I remembered a small woodcut done a year, or so, earlier, an image of an angel jumping rope. As the shape and position of the hands looked tailor-made for the handles of a jump rope, all I had to do was add it.
The incorporation of the scarlet jump rope suddenly gave the picture the emphasis on risk I’d been seeking. Walking across a tight rope was one thing, jump-roping across it barefoot was something totally different. I titled the painting, The Scarlet Jump Rope, and in the lower part of the picture I wrote in ink: “High above the frozen landscape, the young man with the scarlet jump rope dazzled the uneasy crowd.” I delivered the completed picture to the Art Cellar Gallery in Banner Elk, North Carolina, on January 23rd, satisfied I had resolved the visual riddle.
Around 4:00am on Friday, January 29, 2021, I was awakened by severe pain throughout my upper chest and neck area. Two hours later, my wife Suzie deposited me at the Emergency Room at the hospital. I was there for 5 days. I was given an echocardiogram, heart catherization, and high potency meds to bring my heartbeat down and avoid serious heart injury, or death. Just prior to my discharge on Tuesday, February 2, my doctor came into my room and sat near my bed. We talked for a few minutes about my condition before he said, “Noyes, you may not know it, but for a time before you came here, perhaps a long time before coming here, you faced great risk.”
In thinking back on the days spent with the painting, was my subconscious mind preparing me for the ordeal that followed? Was it trying to tell me that I was about to experience my own tight rope act? Pictures come from all kinds of seeds.