Thom Sawyer

36 Views of Baylor Canyon: The Drones Next Door

In March 2015, Reuben Shiloh spoke with Thom Sawyer about his work in general and his series 36 Views of Baylor Canyon in particular.

Reuben Shiloh: Can you tell me a bit about 36 Views of Baylor Canyon?

Thom Sawyer: It's a series of 36 color pencil drawings from southern New Mexico that I began in 2011 and finished about a year and a half later in 2012. Overall, the drawings look at the intersection, or collision, between a private, domestic world and a larger, more far reaching global view.

RS: How did that intersection come about?

TS: My wife and I moved to southern New Mexico after living in Washington, DC for 20 years. We lived mostly on Capitol Hill during that time and it was always very interesting to watch national and international events play out, basically, in our front yard. For a long time, everything we experienced—from world events, local news (which was often national news) to our personal narratives—all unspooled together within that framework. It became a lens through which we saw our lives: 9/11, new jobs, protest marches, birthdays, elections, home renovations all became one long, intermingled timeline. When we moved to New Mexico, that dynamic shifted completely. But it never entirely left my thinking about my work. When I began the series, it was a simple exploration of my new surroundings. As it developed over long hours spent sitting in the environment, I began to notice a frequent buzzing overhead, like distant lawn mowers circling in the sky.

RS: So you were working on the drawings on site, out in the landscape?

TS: Yes, like almost all my work, the series was done entirely from life and in the landscape.

RS: Why do you work from life and not some other source?

TS: I've worked from photographs and from my head, but each time I do, it never carries the same charge and degree of information I find when I work from life. When I'm in the landscape, my vision is paramount, but it's closely supported and expanded by each of my other senses. I've always found that being surrounded by an environment, especially the landscape, my senses, mind and intuition are all heightened to a much greater degree.

RS: To go back to the circling lawn mowers in the sky: those were military drones?

TS: Yes. The New Mexican sky is so big that it's hard to spot them, but sometimes, when they're just overhead, or the sun reflects off their wings as they bank, you can catch a quick glimpse. Binoculars help confirm and identify them.

RS: And how did they find their way into the work?

TS: I don't think they did, I mean, I don't think I consciously put them in the work. They were always there, it just took me some time to realize it. And then Mark Manzetti's New York Times Magazine piece in 2012 further clarified what was going on above my head as well as in the work. It was at that moment that several things came together, especially the sense of global events mixing with my domestic world. This was something I experienced regularly back east, but it was now taking place in high desert of New Mexico.

RS: Did you find that odd?

TS: Yes and no. Yes because after moving to the Southwest from the urban east coast, I felt I was out in the middle of nowhere. And, no because my time in DC made it seem normal: doesn't everyone experience world events and the everyday all mashed together all the time? Also, the more I thought about it and did some research, the more it fit perfectly given the history of Tularosa Valley.

RS: The drones don't actually appear in any pieces. Why is that?

TS: That wasn't my over-riding experience in the landscape. I knew they were there but I couldn't see them. For better or worse, my work has always been directly tied to my visual, waking world. While all my other senses play vital roles in this process, my vision, and, in this case, its limits, is primary.

Also, I didn't want the work first and foremost to be about drones, or a polemic about drones. The work had to be about my experience, which included the drones, but at an almost imperceptible level. And this is how I think I came to a firsthand encounter with them, and it's how I think the nation has handled the issue of military drones and drone warfare: barely recognized and understood.

RS: The series' title references Hokusai's 36 Views of Mt. Fuji. Beside the same number of images in each series, what is the connection to Hokusai?

TS: Hokusai has long been an important touchstone for my work. His ability to observe detail while distilling it was (and remains) a remarkably complex skill. I don't understand why Hokusai isn't the alpha and omega of all teachings surrounding 2-D composition—The Great Wave is one of the most perfectly composed images in the world. His ability to make the ephemeral still (and vice versa) is something that continues to be incomprehensible to me. As clumsy as it is to compare this work to Hokusai's, I wanted the work to be visually simple and complex as well as still and moving.

Additionally, when it comes to painting and drawing, I'm attracted to the graphic nature of the work—that is, the sense that the work appears all at once, almost as if pulled out of a printer. The flat, uninflected lines and shapes of color allude to a simplicity, but also to a graphic-like, simultaneously resolved image. However, with the exception of monotype, I'm not interested in printmaking. My interest in simultaneous images centers much more on how a quick, intuitive gesture of seeing combines with the labored time of making, and how those two often opposing elements might make something all at once. Of course, that's impossible. Alberto Giacometti, among others, talked constantly about both the possibility and the impossibility of that.

RS: What about the wildlife—the snakes, birds and lizards—in some of the drawings?

TS: They're all part of the landscape. As many people who spend a lot of time in nature know, if you sit long enough in any landscape, it opens up to you—or rather, your experience and understanding dilate as you spend time quietly watching: all these living things come streaming by, usually in patterns, so if you're patient enough you can catch them in the paintings and drawings. Like a hummingbird for example: if you set out to paint or draw one from life there's no way you could, but if you focus on something else you might open a very small window or opportunity for a split second experience that lingers or repeats itself. Part of the drawing Hummingbird, Young Redbud and Doghouse is about the solidity of the mountain, the delicate, fleeting nature of the hummingbird and the brief experience of those two opposites.

In another piece, Small Wash and Jack's Birdland, the small wash is easily seen in the foreground, but Jack, a neighbor's dog, is only alluded to. It's an example of how another sense plays a role in the images: Jack lives on the other side of wall in that drawing and I only ever heard him moving around and barking.

RS: I notice several of the titles include dedications like For H.H., or For T.W., or For Mrs. D. I'm assuming these are people?

TS: Yes. I once had an important teacher who was incredibly insightful when he talked about being alone for hours on end while working in the studio or landscape, and what kind of thoughts go through your mind during that time. It's not often an interior dialog about high-minded formal or conceptual elements, but, instead, a parade of thoughts and concerns about daily stuff, people, places, etc. Sometimes, that particular process finds form in the work. In the case of the piece titled For H.H., Harry was another very important teacher for me who passed away over 20 years ago. Early in January 2012, as I worked on this piece while my mind wandered, I remembered it was his birth date, and as a result, the drawing became a memory of Professor Holland as well as a private memento mori.

RS: Given the central context of 36 Views of Baylor Canyon, the idea of this type of memory might seem at odds with the series, but you address it regularly in other work.

TS: I do, especially with the ongoing series Julia's Garden. Memory, history, language and time all play important roles in that work. I don't really delineate distinctions between series; they all spring from one long continuum of looking and thinking so it's not surprising there's a mingling across boundaries.


Reuben Shiloh is an independent curator based on the West coast.





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