This print is made with charcoal I gathered from a catastrophic burn in the Trinity Alps of Northern California, ground, sifted, and mixed with #5 plate oil. It’s an attempt to make a portrait of the smoke that left the charred wood behind.
I had what you might call a crisis of identity in my early 40’s, where it was revealed that the person I had always thought of as my father actually wasn’t. Instead there was now another person filling that role, and all the ways I resembled that original parent were now fictions, or at least seemed to be so.
I never really had much of an identity, and now I had even less. In the process of reformulating myself, I thought a lot about Barbara and Karen Fields’ excellent book Racecraft, which describes the way that racial identity works a strange magic on the minds of Americans, distorting the selves of both racial supremacists and the people resisting their onslaughts. Identity is no foundation for a new world, all it does is anchor the self to ideas that nobody really knows how to believe in any more. It’s smoke. What matters is what you want and how you plan to get it.
In the great fires of 2020, which blanketed the cities of the West in deep purple smoke, we were all submerged in a great cloud of uncertainty; the future wrapping itself around us like a shroud. The city was dark because we were inside the shadow of the fires, and we fought there in the streets with the armored figures of the state, demanding an end to the racial persecution that defines so much of the history of this place. We had nowhere to apply our desires for a new world but in the street, and when the streets emptied and the smoke finally cleared, we saw that we were still the same people we used to be. Some of us took the masks off, many of us have left them on. Now nobody seems to be living in the same world as anyone else.
This print is about that experience; trying to capture the essence of the smoke, of the people we wish we could become, who we might already be if only we could see it clearly enough.
Printed on a Vandercook SP 25 letterpress and a postwar S&S offset press at Mullowney Printing in Portland OR.