Place to Be

A selection of paintings from my 2004 solo show at Woodstar Café in Northampton, Massachusetts

Queen Bee

Back in 2004—the same year as I moved into my studio at One Cottage Street—I landed a solo show of my paintings at Woodstar Café in Northampton, Massachusetts. I could have shown older, existing work; instead, I chose to create an all new body of work united by a theme. And for the theme, I decided to interpret “a day in the life of a bee.” This provided ample opportunity to explore a diverse array of imagery. The title of the series, Place To Bee, is inspired by a Nick Drake song Place To Be.

Black-Eyed Susans

Blackeyed SusansSeveral of the paintings in this series involved flowers. They’re such an interesting subject, what with all the repetition, pattern, and color. This one stylistically interprets a couple of black-eyed susans—one of my favorite flowers. I painted this pair of beauties using oil paint, mixed with just enough medium to make it malleable. In this way, I was able to render the scene in an impasto style, where the brush strokes are very three-dimensional, thick, and textural.

Hunny Bee

Hunny BeeNot long after I’d hung the show at Woodstar, I received a message on my home phone’s answering machine (remember those?) from a fellow who was apparently a professional apiarist. He left a lengthy message, taking issue with the anatomical incorrectness of my “Honey Bee.” I had assumed—incorrectly—that the swirly shapes on the wings would be the giveaway that this was a stylized tribute to the noble Apidae, not a literal one. So to be clear, I have retitled this one Hunny Bee. Hopefully the reference to Pooh will be an adequate nod to its fantastical intent.

Queen Bee

Queen BeeQueen Bee is the master of the hive. And she’s a real cool character too, in her bug-eyed glasses, her pom-pom antennae, her horizontally-striped turtleneck, and her swirly-patterned wings.

Mohawk Trail

An oil painting based on a scene from the Mohawk Trail in Charlemont, Massachusetts.

This painting was inspired by a walk along a section of the Mohawk Trail in Charlemont, Massachusetts.

Mohawk Trail is one of my personal favorite paintings. It challenged me to confront and rethink my occasionally precise painting style; I somehow managed to let parts of this remain loose, gestural and abstract, while functioning meaningfully in the context of the larger image.

Paths and trails are intriguing, both metaphorically and as a purely compositional element. They have begun to figure in several of my works that involve landscapes of one form or another.

Technical Details

I painted Mohawk Trail in acrylic and oil on canvas, and finished it in 2005. Its dimensions are 44 inches by 55 inches (not including the black-stained spruce frame I built for it). This painting has been sold.

Steel Arch Bridge and Boats

A sculptural installation involving welded steel boats carrying symbolic cargoes, and a welded steel arch bridge.

Around the end of the 20th Century, I hatched an idea to build a sculptural installation involving 33 metal boats, each filled with a symbolic cargo and arranged so as to converge on a passage through a steel arch bridge.

The idea was somewhat informed by numerology, coincidence, our collective anticipation of the new millennium, and a vague interest in the mystique and lore surrounding Freemasonry. I was nearing my 33rd birthday, 33 happened to be my favorite number at the time, and 33 is the highest degree in the Scottish Rite.

But the larger metaphor was simply one of passage. The opening in the bridge represented a rite of passage from one part of life to another, or from life to death and whatever lay beyond. It also represented an intersection between the realities of what was going on in the water under the bridge, vs. the realities that were being connected by the platform of the bridge.

Midnight Freight

I first showed the installation at the Berkshire Artisans Gallery in Pittsfield, Massachusetts in 1999, under the title of Midnight Freight. Freight in this sense represented the “baggage” that we all carry with us from our childhood throughout our lives. And the midnight aspect hinted at the subconscious, sub-rosa nature of these things. The materials that filled the boats were things that I associated in some way with my childhood: sweetgum pods, old pennies, acorns, bony-fingered twigs from a cottonwood tree, half-burned candles, red Georgia clay, etc.

Three Sisters

Later, I showed the installation again with significantly fewer boats, different cargo, and configured to speak to a different theme. Living With the River was a juried show that took place at the Canal Gallery in Holyoke, Massachusetts in 2001. Artists were asked to weigh in on the influence they felt by living in the vicinity of the mighty Connecticut River that cuts through our fertile Pioneer Valley.

Three Sisters is an expression symbolizing the corn, beans, and squash that are staples of various Native American groups, many of whom lived in this region in abundance before the appearance of European Settlers. In this installation, the boats carried dried corn kernels, dried beans, and squash seeds.

In this way, my piece spoke to the inescapable history that we shoulder in the course of our modern-day life with the river. Namely, that we must recognize and honor the other cultures that preceded us and—in their own ways—lived with the river.

Technical Details and Availability

While the diaspora of boats has mostly made its way out into the private collections of the world, the bridge itself remains in my private collection. The bridge is composed of brazed steel (meaning that brass—which has a lower melting point than steel—is used as the joining metal). It has rusted to a nice patina.

Steel Arch Bridge

The Making of a Painting

A time-lapse movie documenting a year’s work

In the summer of 2010 I started to work on a large painting commissioned by the owner of Rao’s Café in Amherst, Massachusetts. (Which has since been rebranded as Share.) Several of my earlier paintings had already been on display at the café, so I knew that this new one needed to fit stylistically and thematically. I settled on the subject of a carnival at twilight, inspired by the traveling carnival that visits the Amherst Town Common every spring. The format is the largest stand-alone painting I’ve ever made: 5 feet by 8 feet (I’ve painted murals directly onto larger walls).

Never before had I so deliberately documented my process of making a painting, so I thought it would be an interesting side project to set up a video camera in my studio, film the process from start to finish, and put together a time-lapse movie showing how the painting developed. What you see here is about fourteen months’ worth of intermittent work (nights, weekends, and holidays) condensed into a two minute video. This is whittled down from tons of original footage. Highlights of the movie include a fair amount of non-painting “prep work” (a.k.a, “getting into character”), a significant composition change (around 00:53) in order to situate the painting on the Amherst Common, and the fact that I wear nutty outfits while I work. And notably, I showed my sartorial support of the Boston Bruins, who went on to win the Stanley Cup in 2011 for the first time since 1972. I’d like to think I helped with that!

Update: as of November 2016, this painting moved to Bueno y Sano in Northampton, Massachusetts. Check it out, when you’re in the mood for a great burrito.

The finished painting: Carnival

Carnival painting by Trace Meek

Blanketed

A portrait of a New England farmhouse under a blanket of snow.

Snow in October is rare in Western Massachusetts. A foot of snow this early is unimaginable, but it is what we have received. Freshly-fallen snow is beautiful and peaceful, but it can also be destructive. Tree carnage is everywhere. And where there is tree carnage, there are downed power lines and power outages. A website reports that 2.3 million homes and businesses throughout New England are without power.

I have often wondered why we in the United States don’t bury our power lines underground. In addition to aesthetic concerns, elevated lines seem so vulnerable. Experience confirms this: every year some combination of tornado, hurricane, and frozen precipitation causes widespread power outages. My friend Jean-Pierre—who is from Switzerland—says that the Swiss bury their utilities, and that in his memory they rarely if ever had power outages. I assume that the reason we don’t follow this example is cost. But if you factor in the cost of lost productivity associated with repeated power outages, and the dangers of potential electrocution by downed power lines, undergrounding starts to seem more attractive. Further, if such a widespread outage had occurred during a brutally cold snap, hypothermia could have become an issue.

For now I will focus on the beautiful aspects of the snow. I will slow down and appreciate all of the things I take for granted that are made possible by electricity: freshly ground coffee beans, hot water to make coffee with, a hot meal, and a hot shower. The ability to do laundry, work on the computer, and charge my phone.

I took this photo in 2010, not far from where I live. It was night time, so I put the camera on a tripod, and left the shutter open for around fifteen seconds to capture enough light. It was snowing when I took the picture, but the flakes were moving quickly enough that they did not appear in the long exposure. Here’s to more snow, but maybe not until December.

Two Trees

Two maple trees at Mt. Pollux in South Amherst, Massachusetts.

You would be hard-pressed to convince me that there is anything more gloriously beautiful than autumn in New England. Each of the seasons has its own particular beauty, but October—my favorite month—ushers in a perfect convergence of climate, emotion, and color.

The heat of summer tapers off and is replaced with a cooler ambient temperature. Gardeners lay their gardens to rest, and people and animals alike batten down the hatches in preparation for the winter to come. Dramatic, blustery clouds and azure skies set a pensive mood. Golden afternoon light illuminates resplendent, fiery colors that the region’s trees produce. All of this is draped over a stunningly-gorgeous landscape and an all too fleeting American Gothic architectural style. By mid-month, invigorating breezes will whip up the leaves that will have fallen. Crisp, sweet smells of composting leaves will waft about. And by the end of the month the show will be over.

One of the places that I most love to visit during this season is Mount Pollux, located in South Amherst, Massachusetts. Formerly an apple orchard, Mt. Pollux is a little knob just north of Mt. Norwottuck, the highest mountain in the Holyoke Range. It is a very romantic, dreamy, energetic place. I wouldn’t be surprised if it sits atop an intersection of some of the earth’s ley lines. Many weddings have taken place here. Doubtless many young romantics have wooed each other on its flanks. Many hands have been held, many picnics have been consumed, and many kites have been flown. I brought my Dad here when he visited many moons ago, and we ceremoniously remembered our departed loved one.

One of the unique features of Mt. Pollux is that from the top, on a clear day, you are treated to a nearly unobstructed, 360-degree view of the surrounding land, which includes the Connecticut River Valley (a.k.a. the Pioneer Valley) and mountains as far away as New York, Vermont, and New Hampshire. You can’t see Connecticut to the south, because the majestic Holyoke Range stands in the way. And you can’t see Rhode Island because it’s just so darn small.

Another unique feature of Mt. Pollux is its centerpiece: the two maple trees at the top. I have been told that some students from nearby Hampshire College refer to the place simply as Two Trees, which makes perfect sense.

Calling it Mt. Pollux makes sense too, as the trees embody an energy of “two-ness.” Recursively underscoring this theme, there is also a Mt. Castor in the area, but it is harder to find.

In Roman mythology, Castor and Pollux were the Gemini (twin) brothers. As astronomy buffs will tell you, the constellation Gemini comprises the twin stars Castor and Pollux. (Incidentally, my aforementioned brother Trevor was born under the astrological sign of Gemini.)

In the myth, the twins shared the same mother but had different fathers (immortal Zeus and mortal Tyndareus), which meant that Pollux was immortal and Castor was mortal. When Castor was killed, Pollux asked Zeus to let him share his own immortality with his twin to keep them together and they were transformed into the Gemini constellation. The pair were regarded as the patrons of sailors, to whom they appeared as St. Elmo’s fire.

One thing I like about these two trees is that they seem to tell a story. They are not classically “perfect” maple specimens. They are unusual and asymmetrical. They are a little bit messy, not unlike life itself. The tree on the left sports a protrusion that reaches out to cover a corresponding chunk that is missing from the tree on the right. Both of the trees lean away from each other, but they seem to be relating. Is the one on the left reaching out to help one on the right, which has been injured in an ancient lightning strike or ice storm? Or is it more of an antagonistic gesture, as might befit a bickering old couple? Is it presumptuous to anthropomorphize them thusly?

If you have a chance, visit Mt. Pollux and decide for yourself! In the meantime, please enjoy this photograph.