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Cameron Davis' paintings simultaneously convey vastness and intimacy. Her works are loosely tethered to botany, yet the recognizable shapes of petals and leaves could be seen as spirit guides to a less understood but deeply immersive realm. Call it the web of life. Or call it, as Davis does, "poetic ecologies."
That's the title of her entrancing solo exhibition at the Vermont Supreme Court Gallery in Montpelier; the phrase, which Davis borrowed from German biologist and writer Andreas Weber, hints at her existential engagement with nature. Her goal is not simply to observe and replicate earthly elements on canvas; rather, Davis investigates what it means to be in an empathic relationship with the Earth.
"My paintings are fundamentally an act of sense making," her artist statement begins. "I have been circling experiences of presence in nature — including questions of what is nature — within the formal language of painting for 40 years."
Davis recently retired after teaching for 34 years in the University of Vermont art department and is currently on sabbatical. And she's putting in time at the easel: Many of the paintings in her exhibit are quite new.
Most of the 17 acrylic works in the courthouse gallery are large — particularly several diptychs. "Encounter," for example, is 72 by 60 inches. Several ghostly magnolia blossoms dominate the left panel; the right contains a thicket of murkier plant shapes and colors. Gestural dabs of bright turquoise and sherbet orange, perhaps liberated petals, seem to leap from the foreground.
In the 80-by-60-inch "Entanglements With Spare Intensities," vivid turquoise blossoms seem to dance atop a bramble of other plant patterns, while in the center of the diptych, areas of cavernous black pull the eye deeper.
Davis' skilled application of contrasting hues and translucency gives her canvases remarkable dimensionality. Even the denser compositions have an ethereal inner glow, beckoning like a secret.
To create literal layers on the canvas, Davis uses a mix of other techniques, including tracing projections, laying down physical plants that leave impressions when removed, and pouring and manipulating paint. Some of the paintings subtly shimmer, as if sprinkled with fairy dust. Alas, the source is less chimerical: "It's watered-down gold paint," the artist said.
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- "Magnolia Memorial I"
Davis compared the elements in her paintings to "different kinds of languages — spontaneous, intuitive, referential, photographic, impressionistic," she said. "I'm really interested in what happens mashing up these different vocabularies. How do you make those work? That's where the newness happens."
Her artistic process creates multiple spaces — perhaps multiple realities — within a single painting. The visual experience is both unsettling and enticing, like coming upon a portal to a parallel universe. "I like that space shifting, which for me also corresponds to time shifts," Davis said. "I like that fracture, or disjunction of time and space."
In a wide-ranging phone conversation, Davis shared ideas about coexistence with the Earth, the practice of awe and why painting is like life.
There's a lot to unpack in your artist statement. You write that you've been "circling experiences of presence in nature..." Do you mean human presence?
I'm exploring the subjective nature of nature, and that includes humans, but also that there is presence in liveness.
What is your formal language in painting?
What I'm doing is using line and color and mark, surface, space. The paintings have imagery, or subject matter, that might refer to plant patterns, but I also think the process itself reveals how nature works. Multiple layers of communication happen.
The [painting] process is improvisational, so the references to the patterns almost could be an equivalent to laying down a melodic line and then responding to it. Contrast, saturation of color, detail, three-dimensionality — they have a kind of pace. What you notice more, or less, that's where it starts to feel musical. Those coherent moments feel emergent.
Working musically, you lay down a track. But the tracks aren't separate; they're talking to each other. Accidents happen, relationships that you hadn't noticed. It's a corollary to how life works, how evolution works.
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- "Magnolia Memorial"
You write that "perceiving our shared subjectivity with living organisms opens us to sensing possibilities for innovative coexistence with a living Earth." Are you saying that being fully aware or present with nature provides us with a more informed guide to living on and with the Earth?
Yes, plus a little bit more. It's more like situating ourselves within life in a deeply perceptual way. There are different frameworks for trying to support that — not just as an idea but, can we really be in our lives? There are oceans, webs of other relationships. Everything is alive.
Do you consider yourself an environmental activist?
I have always been questioning, Is it OK to paint, or do I need to be an activist? I'd go in and out of activism. But I also have been reading about various frameworks to understand at the level of presence itself.
In the book Awe [The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life], Dacher Keltner writes about "collective effervescence" — this kind of awe of making connections, relationships. In a painting, there are also these relationships. [When] a new one arises, it's like a murmuration: distinct birds, but they come together in these little insights. Moments of coherence that are attractive. I think that's the realm I'm playing with.
The research says you can actually practice awe — such as seeing the light through the trees, moral beauty, things that brings you to tears. There is big awe and little awe. When you go out and experience that, you behave in ways that are more helpful to other people, you're more connected, you're taking care of the environment.
At a perceptual level, connectivity is a form of activism. And painting is a form of connectivity — it's a sense-making activity. So many things happen over the course of a painting. That's why it's like life.
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In what ways does all of this manifest in your daily life?
[Laughs.] It's all the same. Sometimes a painting is trying to escape the damn mind. There are moments of tapping into other intelligences than the rational. It's a tremendous relief to get out of the mind.
You create such plausible depth in your painting. My brain knows the surface is flat, yet it readily dives into an immersive visual experience. Is this tactical? When you make a painting, do you think about its effect on viewers?
No, it's not tactical in the sense of I'm going to make it deep so I'm illustrating a deep space. I want to feel that space, so when I hear someone say, "I want to fall in that space," cool!
It's more like hunting for awe. I want to be touched, to feel. I want to feel the presence that is very pleasurable.
It sounds amniotic.
Yes! In my [gallery] talk, I say that being totally immersed, being at one, is a characteristic of being in awe. So, there's a desire, in the paintings, to dissolve, to be present, to feel the pleasure of just beauty. It feels like orchestrating energy. Again, it's like a murmuration, a gestalt.
Is it your thought or hope that the immersion makes us think more deeply about our own relationship with nature?
I would say hope. I want people to feel. That's also a bodily sensation. And I enjoy thinking about, What is it? Then I go into interpretation. It sounds so cheesy, but it really is love. That presence is a kind of love. If people feel immersed in that, then yay.
Some of the paintings have the appearance of, not exactly a split screen, but parallel realities. A single canvas might seem to contain one contiguous image, but closer observation reveals visual shifts, delineated by subtle vertical lines. I'm having a hard time describing this.
You said it just exactly right. I've been doing that since the '80s. What is different from a landscape painting is a captured moment. Landscape, life itself has all these different moments.
It's kind of like slices of simultaneous worlds overlaying each other on the same canvas.
Yes. The shape-shifting. I do feel like it's world building, world engaging. There's often this diptych or triptych thing going on, too. I'm thinking about all the things that might be true of human relationships.
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- "Entanglements With Spare Intensities"
Tell me about the magnolia motif.
There are these two memorial trees — one, a lilac, from a colleague and one my dad gave me when my mother died. I saw these gorgeous magnolia blossoms in a neighbor's tree. At her funeral, we talked about a memorial tree, and I said we should get the star magnolia. That one blooms when my mother died, in late April, and the lilac blooms a month later — her birthday.
The title of your exhibit is "Poetic Ecologies." What does that mean to you?
I borrowed it from The Biology of Wonder [Aliveness, Feeling, and the Metamorphosis of Science] by Andreas Weber. He's referring to not just humans but nature itself. "Ecologies" refers to all these relationships in nature, and it's also a metaphor for the web of relationships. It's like the paintings have these references to what we call the natural world but also are playing with the relationships within a painting.
You've had many exhibitions since 1977. Does this latest one feel like a culmination of some kind? Or is there a sense of something new?
It definitely feels like I'm getting closer — there's a greater clarity in what I'm trying to do. But it's not a culmination at all. I'm working on a whole new body of paintings that I'd love to have a chance to exhibit together. Three more diptychs are started in my studio right now; six more will come to finish the series.