Altitude: Art from Above

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If you’ve read contributing writer Jim Conaway’s feature stories in Traveler (like the Walk into America series, or his latest, Portland Reigns), you know that his evocative prose brings landscapes to life. But Conaway’s artistry isn’t limited to words. He’s a painter as well, and has done a series based on the Earth as seen from above. His altitude-inspired works are now on display at the Susan Calloway Fine Arts gallery ( in Washington D.C. We asked him to describe how his art is influenced by the travel experience.

Seep, oil on canvas, 18X24.jpgFlying these days is generally a chore to be endured so that we can enjoy what’s at journey’s end. Laptop, book, movie, and sleep are ritualistic antidotes to ennui and the elbows of strangers. But a couple of years ago I turned to the window both for diversion, and inspiration. I am a painter as well as a writer, and landscapes seen from upwards of thirty-five thousand feet have a beauty and coherence all their own. Thanks to digital photography, much of this can now be captured easily and in detail.

The trick is to get a window seat near the rear of the plane and avoid the visual obstruction of the wing. Also, figure out in advance which side of the plane will be in shadow, once aloft. I began to use the photos as inspiration for painting, attempting to capture in oils the enigma of big landscapes viewed with enough distance to see the overall relationships among terrain, weather, and human activity.

I have been writing about landscapes in one way or another for a long time and believe that they somehow reflect our deepest desires and aspirations. Also, in many cases, our capacity for regeneration. Lately we have tended toward destruction in the interests of “progress,” and much of that is seemingly, if falsely, diminished by the vast reaches of the American West and Midwest when seen from great altitude.

Somewhere over Nebraska, photo.JPGThe Earth’s naturally destructive forces can be visually and emotionally exciting. No one can look down at Utah, Nevada or Arizona, for instance, without recognizing erosion as the prime architect of these arid lands.

I realized that moving paint on the surface of canvas effectively mimics the wearing effect of water and wind. And erosion allows a combining of color and surface texture unobtainable with a brush. So I developed, largely through trial and error, my own “erosional” technique that became something of an inspiration in its own right. The photos served as aids not for literal portraits of the land but for interpreting the mystery and allure of an ever-changing planet.

Many of the paintings look like pure abstractions, and it helps when looking at them to know that these places are real, if distant. In the end, interpretation’s personal, the terrain malleable. The sight of rivers, mountains, and fields continues to move us in elemental and often conflicting ways.

Images: The painting “Seep” (above) by Jim Conaway, and the photo that inspired it (below), “Somewhere over Nebraska.” You can contact Jim Conaway here.

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