Imagine getting to know a piece of the forest. Not just standing on a trail and admiring the view, but rather immersing yourself in the wilderness around you. Make the effort to get down on hands and knees and inspect this world, taking it in from every angle. Brush your fingers along the bark and branches; feel the shape and intricacies of a stone; hold your head close over the water to see the details of a streambed.
This is what painter Tilke Elkins does. Why does she do it? And why does she return to the same spot again and again, examining it from all variety of perspectives?
This is simply her unique process of creating a painting.
In an interview she describes how, from the beginning of a her work through to the final brushstroke, “every stage has significant cohesions of meaning…not in the part of the work that can be seen, but in what can be felt.”
Ultimately, she wants the process to speak for itself. “Whatever feels the most resonant, I go with it; I respond.” She say how she focuses on “melding conscious observation with intuition- but measuring, to a certain degree.”
Elkins stands next to her artwork that is hung on the wall in the airy Voyeur Gallery. She is lit by the late afternoon sunshine creeping in through an open door that leads out to Blair Street. An audience is crowded in the small space. They are listening to Elkins speak about the various abstract paintings that fill the surrounding, clean white walls. Long strips of hung fabric, dyed in light earth-tones, flutter in the soft breeze that moves through the gallery.
Now a Eugene local -though native to Montreal- Elkins is the artist of focus this month at the gallery. Here, she is presenting her first professional art showing.
As a part of the Voyeur’s monthly Artist Talk, which is open to the public, Elkins describes the process of her work, of following the inspiration that leads to the yet-unknown outcome that will become a finished painting.
She explains that when she is making a new piece of art, she doesn’t approach her work with any idea of a final product; there is no prior vision. Rather, she places intense and engaged focus on finding a place in the outdoors that attracts her for a certain reason. When she finds a place, she studies it intricately in her uncommonly hands-on manner. And then she paints it.
In the gallery, a week after the artist talk, Elkins describes in her interview how, in seeking motivation for her work, she is particularly attracted by what she calls “a place that feels human on an abstract level.” She goes on to say how “familiarity and mystery in the same moment [is something that] really draws me.” This idea of a human feeling could mean something like the form of a face in a rock, she says, or a tree with human-like features; but it also could mean some human artifact, something architectural or even an object some person may have lost or discarded as trash.
“In the wild we look for human shapes in non-human surroundings to connect to that space,” Elkins believes that it is unrealistic for us to pretend the two worlds, those of human and nature, are not connected. Rather, she thinks that we have chosen to change the nature of our wilderness. And what we need is to find a balance, to integrate with nature and to accept what that integration looks like.
Such integration she speaks of is often depicted in her paintings.
The largest painting in the room nearly covers the entire wall at the back of the gallery. At first look, one sees the base of a large tree and the undergrowth that crowds below it. Light green leaves contrast against darker shades of reddish purple and blues and greens that make up the forest floor. Elkins looks at her audience that has repositioned to view the piece. “Does anyone see the shoes?” she asks. Only one or two people nod. The rest search the painting delving into it with their eyes. Then she slowly points out one sandal after another; they blend in so extraordinarily well to their surroundings that they themselves have become part of the landscape.
Among others, this is one example Elkins uses to show the constant presence of humans in an area that is otherwise categorized as a strictly natural space. But the line between natural and unnatural can be a difficult one to draw. The connection between what humans term natural versus the unnatural presence that is civilized humankind, is something that Elkins explores deeply in her artwork.
In fact, her opinion of the word natural is that it is too broad of a word to really have certain meaning, particularly when mankind is so apt to remove itself from the word.
Elkins remembers always feeling at home in the wilderness. As an only child, she was given the opportunity and freedom to become very independent. She would seek solace in the fields and forests on family vacations to their house in the rural Vermont countryside. Even in Montreal she discovered she could easily immerse herself in the abundance of urban wilderness that the city offered.
When asked in the interview how she became introduced to art, she speaks of the artistic influences of her parents- her mother, a writer and father, a poet. Elkins recalls how her mother would take her to art museums and how, even at a young age, she recalls being captivated by the works of Dali, Picasso and other legendary artists.
At the age of twelve she recalls realizing how much power there was in the act of drawing: that she could create something new on the paper that only existed there and nowhere else.
Throughout her life, Elkins has experienced synesthesia, a condition in which her mind places certain emotions, or specific associations, with a particular color. This sensitivity to color she describes as “a language we ‘re not even aware of being fluent in.”
But despite this quality of perception, Elkins spent the majority of her youth believing that she could never become an artist. While it was something that was important to her, she said that she didn’t “have the right to be an artist.” She believed that since she could not measure with her eye, the way artists did, and create an accurate replication of an image on the page, it was simply something she could never achieve.
It wasn’t until college that her printmaking professor, David Bonbeck, made her feel like he saw something really legitimate in her work, something that was of artist quality. This is what finally gave her the confidence to apply to Bennington to pursue a Master of Fine Arts degree, which has led her to where she is now, a painter with a gallery show.
Elkins also is in the process of beginning an art school, where she will teach classes focused on “exploring and understanding color, and preparing pigments and other art supplies from found and natural sources.” This fall will mark the school’s initiation.
An older woman slowly enters the gallery, assisted by a younger girl. Elkins excuses herself briefly from the interview to join them. She and the woman speak about the different pigments in the paintings Elkins has used in her work. The two share a keen interest in the art of using natural pigments in their art. Earth, berries and even soaked black beans are some of the sources from which the colors are derived to make her own paints. For Elkins, it is a way for her to avoid synthetics materials in her work.
As the old woman walks up to her work, her quiet, labored speech had to be translated by her assistant, “It reminds me of dandelions,” she said in reference to the bright yellow the artist had achieved in one painting. To this Elkins replied, “That is such a compliment, I love dandelions.”
In fact, one may have no trouble imagining Elkins examining a dandelion- along with all the other kinds of flowers, grasses and insects she might come across in a field- as she makes her way slowly along, on hands and knees, in search of the next inspiration that may appear.
Photos by: S. Hollis