Of Painting, Pikas and Politics – The Personal is Political

Right now, I’m pursuing two long-deferred callings: writing a personal column and becoming a fine-art painter.

Those two activities feel like yin and yang, emotionally balancing the scales: painting is a right-brain activity, writing is left-brain. When I’m writing, my mind is full of words. I never miss a publication deadline. While I’m painting, mind chatter disappears. I lose track of time. I sometimes even miss meals.

I started writing a column – this one – because all through my journalistic career, my first-person pieces have always seemed to resonate most with readers. I will soon stop editing a regional magazine not just because the writing I do there is less personal, but also because the editor’s role has kept me, in indirect ways, from expressing a political opinion. While this column isn’t intended to be political per se, recent events call to mind a phrase I remember from the seventies: “The personal is political.”

 Until recently, I thought that my painting was not political. I don’t make political posters like Shepard Fairey, nor satirical graffiti like Banksy. My paintings celebrate light and color, the natural world. I like to paint mountain landscapes and Colorado wildlife. When I resumed painting seriously last fall, I first painted a bighorn sheep, then a mountain lion. Then a pika.

Perhaps you’ve seen or heard the pika. It’s a small round-eared relative of the rabbit. Pikas live in boulder fields above timberline, grazing on grasses and flowers, signaling one another with high-pitched whistles.

Because this cute, baked-potato-sized creature can be cooked by temperatures above 78 degrees, it’s considered an “indicator species” for global warming. The pika is desperately seeking higher ground. We still have pikas in Colorado, but in many western states, they have topped out of livable habit. They may be the first species that North America loses to climate change.

After learning that, it began to dawn on me that all of the mountain animals I was painting are threatened. Every life zone in the Rockies is warming, and the range of all our plants and animals is changing. That’s why scientists project that Aspen may become too warm for its namesake tree by 2030.

Considering all this, I began to think my paintings as an “elegy for the anthropocene.” That name has been coined to describe the current geological age, a time period when human activity has been the dominant influence on climate and environment. I decided that when I exhibited the paintings as an ensemble, I would include a brief artist’s statement explaining that title.

It wasn’t until I began looking at an application for an artist’s residency in Glacier National Park that I realized that my paintings, are—or have become—unintentionally, but inescapably, political!

Glacier offers artists a chance to spend a month living and painting in the park. They’re expected to share their work by giving talks or demonstrations to visitors, and their art must support Glacier’s educational, environmental and cultural goals. Sounds benign…

But as I was pondering Glacier’s application, Scott Pruitt, a climate-change denier, was being vetted to head the EPA. The new president was muzzling science-based government agencies, ranging from the EPA to the NOAA and the Forest Service. Republicans were also vowing to eliminate funding for the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. (That’s a political rather than a fiscal goal, since the combined budgets of the two agencies equal less than .001 percent of the nation’s annual spending.)

It’s hard to even talk about Glacier National Park without acknowledging global warming. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that there were approximately 150 glaciers present in 1850, but only 25 larger than 25 acres remained by 2010. By 2030, the place may be known as Glacier-free National Park! I began to wonder whether painting Glacier’s scenery—let alone explaining the term “Elegy for the Anthropocene”—might be construed as political resistance.

My artistic goals this year are modest: to sell enough to pay for my materials and to become known as artist. The residency at Glacier would have helped me become more widely known; the work produced by resident artists is used in the park’s public outreach.

But in the end, I didn’t apply. I didn’t want to be away from home for a full month, so I decided to save this adventure for summer 2018.

I think the glaciers will withstand the planet’s climate that long. I’m wondering how well Glacier’s residency will hold up given the nation’s political climate.

Seeking Higher Ground column
Published in The Sopris Sun on Feb. 16, 2017.

The New Deep Throat is a Park Ranger?

During the election, as “fake news” (i.e. propaganda) flew from both the left and the right, I had several conversations with other local journalists about where they get their news and made some personal adjustments and resolutions.

With local news, it’s easier to nail down. I know most of the Roaring Fork Valley’s reporters and editors personally. I can corner them between the potatoes and the artichokes in the grocery and ask, “Why in heck did you write that?”

I have spent most of my career writing about travel, the outdoors and other supposedly nonpolitical topics. I graduated from the CU Boulder School of Journalism with honors, then worked as a feature writer, a nonprofit publicist and an ad agency copywriter. (The latter involves being paid a princely sum to crow about something readers may or not want to buy.)

But even as a copywriter, I drew the line at lying. I think Thomas Jefferson was right in asserting that a free press was (and is) essential to democracy. Writing to a delegate of the Continental Congress, Jefferson famously opined that if he had to choose between “a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government”, he would not hesitate to prefer the latter.

Sadly, much has changed since my J-school days, a time when Woodward and Bernstein were heralded as heroes. Last September, a Gallup poll found that only 32 percent of Americans say they have “a great deal” or “a fair amount” of trust in the news media. Among Republicans, that number drops to 14 percent, down from 32 percent last year.

Still, I suspect that our new president will soon learn why Mark Twain quipped that it’s poor idea to pick a fight with people who buy ink by the barrel.

In an open letter to Trump published in the Columbia Journalism Review, the voice of the journalistic profession, CJR editor Kyle Pope warned,

“We believe there is an objective truth, and we will hold you to that…You and your staff sit in the White House, but the American government is a sprawling thing. We will fan reporters out across the government, embed them in your agencies, source up those bureaucrats.” As the White House’s webpage on climate change disappeared and the new administration barred the EPA from sharing information with the press and public, I began to wonder how many Deep Throats would appear in the coming months.

It took days, not months, to get an answer. Following White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s assertions about inaugural crowd, the press began digging and the National Park Service (NPS) tweeted out side-by-side photos of crowds at Trump’s and Obama’s inaugurations. That quickly led to the silencing of the Park Service’s official Twitter account.

 The NPS account came back some hours later, but dragon’s teeth had been sown. Badlands National Park quickly began tweeting about climate change — and soon found its Tweets deleted.

But by the end of that day, more than 50 “alt” or “rogue” Twitter accounts appeared, speaking for government agencies that deal with environment, science, health and food safety. They can be found under the hashtag #twistance (Twitter resistance).

 I’m now following “Rogue NOAA”, an unofficial National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration account that promises “research on our climate, oceans, and marine resources should be subject to peer [not political] review.” NOAA operates 17 environmental satellites and myriad land- and ocean-monitoring instruments that collect data used for everything from farming to weather forecasting to insurance.

Because I’m sure that the climate is warming, I’m also following “EPA Ungagged” for “news, links, tips, and conversation that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is unable to tell you.” And I’m wickedly cheering on the bad hombres at AltBadlandsNatPark, who tweeted that “the current pace of global average temp rise puts approximately 25 to 35 percent of plant and animal species at increased risk of extinction.”

I followed the Twitter resisters because like “Alt USDA”, I’m “resisting the censorship of facts and science.”  I too believe that “truth wins in the end.”
But these days, the truth is an endangered species. It’s no coincidence that I get news about Standing Rock from the reports of former Sopris Sun editor Terray Sylvester. Or that I have donated to our local media news outlets. Or that I have subscribed to the New York Times.

Or that I’m launching a new career as a columnist.
You’re welcome to corner me by the artichokes and ask me all about it.

Seeking Higher Ground column
Published in The Sopris Sun on Feb. 2, 2017.