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Close to Wilderness 

Lindsay Lacewell Kessner's Humboldt County Lost and Found

L.L. Kessner in the studio.

Photo by Louisa Rogers

L.L. Kessner in the studio.

It took the death of a friend for Lindsay Lacewell Kessner, whose show Humboldt County Lost and Found is at the Morris Graves Museum of Art through Aug. 6, to realize "life is too short for mediocrity." Kessner was 26 at the time, living in Chicago and coasting along working as a nanny, when a close friend from childhood died. It upended her world and ultimately led her to move to Humboldt in 2019.

"There was no real wilderness anywhere near Chicago," she says. When she was in high school, Kessner found it in an unexpected place. Like other teenagers in the area, she and a friend broke into an abandoned Ovaltine factory in Villa Park, the suburb where she grew up. Wandering around, she took photos while he wrote poems. "The factory was my introduction to the feeling of wilderness. The place had a sense of openness, removed from everyday reality." At home, she painted the interior in acrylic, and it brought attention from peers and art teachers, and eventually regional and national art awards. "This is where my art practice really began," she says.

Since then, Kessner has pursued access to the wilderness. She lived in Los Angeles for 12 years, where she was drawn to its nearby vast, open landscapes like Joshua Tree National Park and Death Valley, both less than a day's drive from the city. She was ready for something new by the time her apartment flooded in October of 2017, and she spent the next 18 months basically living in her car, roaming around the U.S. "I put everything in storage after the flood, took leaves of absences from my teaching positions and started traveling."

She'd never been to Humboldt. When she was ready to settle, she looked up locations of job openings on Google Earth and applied to teach only in colleges in landscapes that appealed to her. College of the Redwoods sent the first offer. "I'd had the Pacific Northwest in mind, and I was pleased not to have to change my driver's license," she says. "Humboldt checked my three boxes: rural, beautiful and close to wilderness."

Her creative challenge since moving here has been figuring out how to engage with such a radically different landscape. After years of exploring the desert, the empty, open terrain had become a huge part of her psyche and her painting, and exploring how to do art in Humboldt has been a process. To her, the redwoods are nurturing but strange.

"In the desert, everything is open and exposed. You can always see the horizon, and your orientation to space is different," she says. "Here, everything is so enclosed. The desert is spare, but here is land is aggressively alive." She goes on day trips to the Mad River Beach, Trinidad and Prairie Creek, but her favorite destination is Bull Creek Flats in Humboldt Redwoods State Park. "It's cathedral-like," she says, "but I was confused about how to incorporate it in my art. I didn't know what to do with it and had to figure a lot of things out. I hadn't painted a tree since I was 14."

Kessner, who is also a Journal contributor, goes by L.L. professionally. She likes her middle name Lacewell, but finds using both her first and middle name too long. Worse, "After grad school, I was exhausted from having to double-prove that I have a brain even though I'm a woman. Using my initials removes that requirement, at least in print."

Kessner is not only a visual artist but a writer, currently working on a sci-fi novel and a memoir about her nomadic year and a half before moving to Humboldt and her reflections on growing up with a schizophrenic father. She's explored this issue all her life through art, explicitly when she was younger and more recently by using visual landscape to address the theme of living with a parent whose identity was compromised. As with her paintings about her father, much of her art explores how external and interior landscapes reflect each other.

Along with Kessner's work at CR, where she directs the Creative Arts Gallery and teaches classes, she teaches in the Art and Film Department at Cal Poly Humboldt and occasional workshops for OLLI. Teaching, painting and writing are equally important disciplines to her. "I couldn't teach if I didn't also paint and write," she says. Painting and writing are better suited to her introvert self, she says, but she needs teaching, too, because she believes deeply in dialogue. "I can't make good art in a vacuum." 

The timing of Kessner's show could not have been more fortuitous. In the spring of 2022, just as she was deciding to spend a year documenting different places in Humboldt County, the museum invited her to show her work. The oil paintings she created were specifically designed for the museum's circular Tom Knight gallery. 

Kessner wanted to relate natural cycles, like seasons and the lunar cycle, with the personal yet universal experience of losing things. She uses autobiographical elements in the titles of the paintings, naming them for items she has lost (and some she's found again) to explore loss in a positive sense — as an inherent part of life. Kessner notes that nothing new or creative can emerge without loss, reflecting on an important lesson that we're all still grappling with after years of the pandemic. Each painting depicts a point on a cyclic journey, incorporating specific colors and imagery of specific times of year and times of day in Humboldt County.

Several of Kessner's family members are coming from Illinois and Florida to join in the celebration of the show. And after living in Humboldt County for almost five years, Kessner feels the show reflects a new sense of belonging. 

Louisa Rogers (she/her) is a writer, painter and paddleboarder who lives in Eureka and Guanajuato, Mexico.

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Louisa Rogers

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