Tag Archives: Alaska

Gray Matters

Winter is here. Dressed in a dark, wet overcoat like an old crow, rapping on the door.

In my first winter in Seattle, I found myself browsing garden shops wherever I could find them. At City People’s Mercantile on Sand Point Way I was somewhere between contemplating a root grubbing tool and musing over a new kneeling pad when suddenly, an announcement came over the store’s loud-speaker.

“We’re having a sun break,” the voice on the intercom cried. “Everyone step out, staff included!”

And we all ran out to raise our serotonin levels.

So where am I going with this?

I find it interesting that the Pacific Northwest and Scandinavia, both modern and progressive regions of significant light deprivation for well over half the year, deal with the phenomena so differently.

A sense of geographic isolation pervades both regions as well. “Geographically Scandinavia is a cul de sac, on the road to nowhere but the old enemy, Russia, across the Baltic Sea,” notes Jocasta Innes, author of Scandinavian Painted Décor. And I think we feel much that way, like a half way point to Alaska, in Seattle. But because of that isolation, each region has had the opportunity to create a highly developed style.

“All this green means that we take more rain than any but the most dreary of souls could find tolerable,” writes Ann Wall Frank, in her intro to Northwest Style. “Rain dulls the color of the skies. Rain seems endless. Rain soaks our psyches. When the Gods are spoon-feeding you rain, you deal with it, sometimes by creating the perfect shelter,” she continues.

In The Pacific Northwest we muddle through long rainy winters and much of spring and fall in rooms painted in somber colors, taking our color palatte “from the bark of a single Douglas fir,” notes Frank. We find warmth in full-toned woods and heavy textiles. Even our coffee shops are dark, like pubs. We tend to dress in darks or drab, and are easily startled by bright color.

And although the temperature is moderate, the architecture of our homes in the Pacific Northwest is designed with overhanging roof lines protecting us from the elements: rain, snow, pine needles, and I might add, light. What little light there is.

Whereas Scandinavians endure sub-zero temperatures and months of near total darkness, yet embrace the light by painting their interiors in shades of white, keeping their wood blond or painted light, and their fabrics lightweight, such as linen. It’s counterintuitive to our way of thinking, but Scandinavian interiors draw from a cool color palatte of pale muted blues and grays. Their rooms speak of summer houses, cottages, boathouses and such.

Remarkably different approaches to lack of light. One region is wet, the other, snowy. And therein lies the difference. It turns out to be not about the light. It’s the dampness, and that makes all the difference in the world.


Filed under absence of light

Color Shock

 “I shut my eyes in order to see.” Paul Gauguin

I am forgetting what my terrace looks like. It has been raining a long soft winter’s cry, and the ground can absorb no more. The sky is either dark, or white, with no definition and no depth. It looks like a sheet, a backdrop, a blank canvas. We long for traces of blue again, spring green in the trees, and the full on orchestration of bulbs. A time when the artist’s paint box is open, the artist’s brushes are busy all day, and the world will pop up and come back like a diorama. Until then, I have to regard my naps as prayer.

How did this happen? A few weeks ago we had a burst of bright warm weather. I started the spring clean-up at our place. Now our lot looks at once like a “Before and After.” No sooner did I hang the hummingbird feeder then the temperature took a dive. Fortunately no hummingbirds in sight. They are smart enough to stay down in Napa Valley or Santa Barbara or wherever they winter. Funny how we northerners think of this as their base, and the southern venture as something they go and do because they have to. No doubt the folks down south see it the other way around.

I wandered into the Gauguin exhibit at The Seattle Art Museum (SAM). Did I say wander? No, I was called! Color shock therapy awaited, just as it had for Gauguin when he began painting in Copenhagen, producing canvases like some form of self-medication. Scandinavian and Pacific Northwest climates being similar in this respect. Gauguin was not happy in Denmark. A stock market crash pulled the rug out from under his bourgeois lifestyle, his marriage dissolved, and he left it all for the love of making art. In Tahiti. There Gauguin was essentially following his own visions. Not even Tahiti was as colorful as Gauguin made it out to be. He believed in it, “Pure Colour! Everything must be sacrificed to it.” And so everything was.

Instructing the young Paul Serusier in art, Gauguin suggested painting the colors he saw before him, but using only brilliance. “How do you see that tree? It’s green? Well then make it green, the best green on your palatte. How do you see those trees? They are yellow. Well then, put down yellow. And that shade is rather blue. So render it with pure ultramarine. Those red leaves? Use vermillion.” And in this way the art world took one giant step from Impressionism to Post-Impressionism: driven in part by the hunger for more vivid color.

I keep coming back to the hummingbirds, the ones who aren’t here. Hummingbirds may go as far south as Mexico and Central America and as far north as Alaska, always taking the same path. To fly so far and so fast, they need to gain 25-40% of their body weight before migration. Then they fly low, skimming over tree tops and skimming over water, keeping an eye out for insects and flowers… And like Gauguin they go solo, going for color.


Filed under art, color therapy, colorlessness, hummingbird, rain, Uncategorized