If you happen to be a native Kansan, you may take a wary interest in the opinions of your home state that you hear in the media or from travelers who have passed through on their way somewhere else. We have all heard the term, “flyover state” or endured comments about the unrelieved flatness or “nowhere-ness” of vast stretches of the high prairie. But to natives, the land is handsome, productive and inspiring even if its attributes are subtle and cannot be fully appreciated at seventy miles per hour on the interstate or from thirty thousand feet through an airliner porthole.
This being the case, it has been gratifying to see painter Lisa Grossman fall in love with the land and sky of Kansas– it isn’t her native place after all, she grew up in the hills of western Pennsylvania– but she came to artistic maturity here on the relatively gentle topography of Kansas, a fortuitous meeting of mind and land that inspired, and continues to inspire in her a tireless attentiveness, the kind that lets us know that Lisa recognizes both the physical and metaphysical beauty of Kansas, a land whose features are strong yet softened under steady winds and grasses, a land that was once at the bottom of the sea, was massaged smooth by ocean waters and whose rolling hills beckon rather than deflect or overwhelm the eye. Over and over, Lisa heads for the open land with her plein air easel and brushes looking again and again at the startling edge of the planet and the chromatic dust that tapers to midnight blue in the dusk or the shade of a ripe peach in the early morning. Or seeking a different perspective boards a small airplane with her camera and records the snaking Kaw River in images she will use to create prints and paintings in her studio.
What do we make of this obsession, this fine madness? The fact is, we all have our interests and attachments to some degree– the “madness,” or call it by another name if you like, enchantment, infatuation, devotion, enthrallment or even love. These, and other descriptive words, reveal aspects of the compulsion to return in every season and at every time of day to dwell on the object of our attention. For an artist who finds her subject, this becomes a Sisyphean task. Think of Monet’s many paintings of water lilies and haystacks, there being no end to the possible variations of light and aspect. But this beautiful “madness” makes the artist far saner than those who would remain indifferent to the glory of the illuminated Earth. When we see Lisa’s paintings and prints we engage them knowing that we can borrow her vision for a time and that she is seeing just a little more than we do, a little sharper, a little more sensitively the variations of light, formations of matter and effects of gravity that comprise the physical conditions of life. But it isn’t just the land and sky she comprehends; it is also the astounding fact of their existence. We understand why Lisa cannot look away, why she returns again and again to the horizon, perceiving Earth’s subtle curvature and atmospheric shadow– in fact, one might suppose, too ephemeral to be depicted with earthy pigment, yet she does it masterfully. Her canvases are filled with subtle light and color. She deftly constructs with either viscous oils or transparent watercolors the illusion of fading sunlight on a meandering river or the evanescent glow of a winter sky. We borrow from her until we understand how to see for ourselves that our Kansas heartland transcends contemporary characterizations based only on its use by humans and that it is more deeply beautiful and alive, independent of us, than we can know.
Edges captivate. Coast hugging people find satisfaction at the edge of dry land. Perhaps they feel they have gone as far as they can go. After all, they have successfully reached the walkable limit, the terminus. There is no such terminus on the prairie– one is forever encircled by the topographical horizon. The horizon moves, drawing away from the traveler (or the seeker) with every step made toward it. How wonderful it is to witness Lisa the artist find love of the land, of place, of space, and to see her develop a relationship with the mysterious horizon, so fixed in the eye from a particular vantage point yet ever illusive when pursued.
The popular and recognizable conception of a horizon is that it is a line. But when one looks closely, there is never an actual line. But a line, or an edge, or even a definite change in tone or value, are just the kinds of things the eye loves to discover. Humans need to know what is in or out, up or down, above or below. And we want to know how to get from here to there; a line serves us well. Is there any image that holds more promise than that of a trail, or a road or a river leading to the horizon? In such a convergence the pathway heralds unknown opportunities and adventures lying just out of sight, beyond what we know, over the horizon.
Reflecting on her pursuit of the horizon, Lisa said, “I have been intrigued by the idea that I might be in pursuit of the horizon, the moving target, from various vantages. I think that is what links my work as well as the prairie sense of space. I thought the other day about how my work really does emerge from the prairie much like the Kaw River emerges from the same prairie. Ideas and impressions filtered by the wind and grasses, soils, limestone, from many points of view but following the shape of the watersheds and converging into several tributaries of themes gathering into one massive body of work downstream, a main channel but with many smaller ones leading down to the river. I know there are endless metaphors related to rivers, but I thought how, really, it is the prairie and what emerges from it that has inspired it all for me.”
By Rick Mitchell, Lawrence
Lisa Grossman, painter and printmaker, lives in Lawrence, Kansas. Originally from Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania, she earned an associate’s degree from the Art Institute of Pittsburgh and then moved to Kansas City, Missouri in 1988 to work as an illustrator for Hallmark Cards, Inc. She left that position in 1995 to pursue painting fulltime and to earn a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree at the University of Kansas. The decision to devote herself to painting (and predominantly plein air landscape painting) came following her discovery of the tallgrass prairies of east-central Kansas. In late 2010, she reflected on her beginnings:
“When I first began painting the prairies in earnest back in the early 1990s, it was all new to me and I painted a wider range of subjects– roads, cattle, bison, outbuildings, trees, etc. Over the years my work became greatly simplified as I began to focus on the more abstract aspects of what I was seeing– the feel of the shifting light and color, the ‘airlight’, the distance, and the feeling I had being surrounded by all that openness. It was exhilarating to me to feel so small and have this ‘sense of planet’ for the first time. I could feel the gentle curve of the horizon and see the arc of a leading edge of a (storm) front conforming to the Earth’s atmosphere and see the ‘Earth shadow,’ the beautiful blue shadow of the earth that rises in the east as the sun sets in the west.”
One is struck by the ascension described above – from roads, cattle and outbuildings to “airlight,” “sense of planet” and “Earth shadow.”