June 29, 2006
Although there are many other paintings in Ingrid Nickelsen's retrospective exhibit at the First Street Gallery, I gravitate toward "Tish Tang III" from the moment I enter the door. It's a monumental painting, modern and bold. The canvas is composed vertically, probably to accentuate the drama of a blue mountain peak so commanding it could lift the viewer right out of the picture frame if it weren't for that vermillion boulder, anchoring the eye back down to the earth. It's been months since I first saw the painting in Ingrid's kitchen, but it still takes my breath away. The knowledge that it will soon belong to me is too bittersweet to express.
Like the other paintings in the First Street exhibit, "Tish Tang III" has been borrowed from Ingrid's estate, which includes, among other things, more than 100 of her paintings. Although the bulk of the estate is still in the process of being settled, the paintings were recently allocated to the 38 people Ingrid listed in the will she wrote in the Siskiyou Mountains last summer, shortly before she succumbed to injuries she sustained in a fall. (See "The Pilgrimage." Sept. 1, 2005) "My paintings to those who brought me joy," she wrote on her trail map with an artist's charcoal pencil. I imagine her scrawling my name, wounded and alone, then push the image away. This exhibit is about the legacy of Ingrid's life, not the circumstances of her death.
The student curators at First Street, an educational venue for HSU's Museum and Gallery Practices program, have placed "Tish Tang III" on a prominent wall beside two other paintings from the same location. Situated along the Trinity River outside of Hoopa, Tish Tang was a favored spot for Ingrid, a dramatic and powerful landscape she painted numerous times over the years.
Ingrid generally painted on a large scale and "Tish Tang III," at 37 by 60 inches, is only a mid-range size for her work. As I study the painting, I can't help thinking about the effort it took for her to paint it. While many plein air painters (those who work directly from nature) stick to small canvases for practical reasons (they're easier to transport and can be completed before the light shifts), Ingrid never let practicality limit her. She strapped her massive canvases onto her backpack and hiked to the places her vision took her, however remote.
Like many painters, Ingrid frequently revisited places that "spoke to her," often creating a series of work featuring the same site in a variety of conditions. In solitude, she haunted beloved landscapes year after year, in all seasons, camping out for days or weeks at a time in an effort to truly comprehend a particular place. Her gift was her ability to bring this personal understanding of the natural world back to others, through the power of her paintings.
In "Tish Tang III," the viewer stands beside Ingrid in the middle of the Trinity River, cool and green, confronting that distant blue mountain head-on. The colors slip from one tone to another with invisible brushstrokes and nearly imperceptible transitions. The painting feels lit from within, emitting a radiance typical of Ingrid's work. It's an extraordinary treasure.
As important as this particular painting is to me personally, however, it's just one small part of Ingrid's retrospective, which includes 31 equally monumental pieces. And this exhibit itself represents but a tiny glimpse into Ingrid's larger legacy, which encompasses considerably more than her paintings.
While Ingrid lived a simple, largely solitary life, she maintained a strong sense of community and social responsibility. When she composed her will at the end of her life, her bequests honored her values. More financially comfortable than anyone suspected, Ingrid was generous to those she loved, as well as to organizations and institutions whose causes she supported while she walked among us.
And then there was this: After dispersing specific amounts to a long list of benefactors, Ingrid stipulated that the remainder of her estate be used to endow a foundation with funds to provide yearly grants to women artists. While she left the managing of the foundation to experts, she asked that the funds be dispersed by her group of painting friends, her `tribe.' The knowledge that I'm part of that tribe is exhilarating and intimidating at the same time, a sacred yet daunting responsibility. It's still more than I can wrap my mind around, so I return my attention to the serenity of the cool, green Trinity River featured in "Tish Tang III."
Sometime in September, after the retrospective closes, I'll be able to take my painting home, as will the others Ingrid gifted with her work. I imagine "Tish Tang III" on the wall I've chosen for it, gracing my home and my life with a piece of my friend's spirit, day after day, year after year, a continual reminder of an extraordinary life, well-lived. I can't imagine a lovelier gift.
"Ingrid Nickelsen: A Life's Work" opens July 1 at the First Street Gallery (422 1st St., Eureka) and will remain on display through Aug. 13. A reception in honor of the artist will be held during Arts Alive! from 6-9 p.m. A second exhibit, focusing on Ingrid's Yosemite paintings, will run from Aug. 5 through Sept. 24 at the Morris Graves Museum of Art (636 F St.).
Plein air work by other local artists can be seen this summer as well. In July, I'll be showing new paintings of Eureka alongside new work by Kathy O'Leary and Dee Boyles at the Cody-Pettit Gallery (527 4th St.), and a group of male plein-air artists will be featured at Piante (620 2nd St.) in September.
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