Oval Illumination

12 Months of Solitude (March 2020)

At this time last year, as the world around us began to shut down, I decided to initiate an artistic journey, like nothing I had ever imagined before. Having attended school in Italy and having worked in China for more than a decade – I felt a profound and emotional connection to what was happening on the other side of the planet in the COVID hotspots. Rather than spiraling into the never-ending barrage of pandemic news, I decided to focus my energy and my health on a creative outlet. So, as stores began to shutter over the mid March weekend, I went in search of an almost unfathomable amount of art supplies to equip myself for what might lie ahead.

On the first day of the lockdown (March 16th), I started working on a conceptual sketch for my property in Dorset Ontario. By the end of the day, I had created the oval/smoke drawing below which represents the first stage of visual articulation of my environmental masterplan.

The inspiration for this drawing came from the oval clearing that I created on the property the previous fall, and which is the first “mark” on an otherwise untouched landscape. The oval space serves as a compass alignment with its long axis identifying east/west. It is a perfect plateau set within the otherwise rugged topography of the surrounding forest. It is a gathering place, and a point of intellectual and spiritual centering.

Despite months having passed since my last visit to the site, the March solitude allowed me to imagine how the oval space could be envisioned as the “opening act” for a choreographed journey into the wilderness. Moreover, I was able to work through this envisioning through a series of illustrations. And to make matters more interesting I started to explore a new illustrative technique which continues to evolve to this very day.

I began this intellectual exploration with the intent of creating drawings that would emote how this space, meticulously carved from the woodland, could be transformed by natural and man-made illumination into a cathedral within the forest.

As I was creating these images, the death toll was rising in both Italy and China. I found myself channeling a sense of grief into my work, which was made that much more profound when I considered the vulnerability of many members of my family. I found myself emotionally transported to six years prior, and the unexpected loss of my father. My heart went out to those around the world who were experiencing similar losses but in far worse conditions.

With pastel in hand, I began a series of passion driven illustrations that depict smoke rising majestically from within the oval. It was not until months later that I was able to clearly understand the degree to which I was channeling my sense of personal and societal loss into those drawings. This theme and the illustrative technique, however emotional would inform every other image that I would produce over the next 12 months.

By the end of March 2020 Italy had confirmed its highest single-day death toll (919 deaths) and surpassed 10,000 lives lost to COVID19. A few months prior I had been in Spoleto, Perugia and Rome where, although technically on holiday, I was able to conduct some research on Bernini and several other architects who have used ovals as a major design element in their houses of worship. My goal was to better understand the spatial complexity of these structures, and the experiential considerations when designing them. In my mind there was a clear relationship between the architectural masterpieces in Rome and my own natural cathedral in Dorset.

During my visit I began to realize that these oval spaces are a challenge to photograph, and equally difficult to draw. I spent a significant amount of time developing an appreciation for how light and shadow creates a sense of space within these structures, and how this sense of space can be both enveloping and foreboding.

With elliptical recollections of Umbria and Lazio in mind – I began to investigate in my own drawings how light from a fire created in the center of the oval would illuminate the trunks of the trees in the understory of the forest, leaving the forest beyond shrouded in mysterious darkness.

In this drawing, as your attention moves upward, the light from the fire illuminates the branches of the trees above. These branches become thinner and more numerous as they reach the broad, connecting canopy. It’s at this point, some twenty meters above the forest floor that the light hits this filigree and creates a glowing halo, illuminated against the black, star filled, night sky above.

Toward the end of March, I began creating coloured versions of my oval illuminations. Even that first trip to the art supply store, involved acquiring a significant amount of oil paint, which is the medium I ultimately imagine these sketches will transform into.

Adding colour to these images brought them closer to the emotion that I hope to express in the paintings to follow. I look forward to sharing these with you in the months ahead.

All Images are Copyright of Howard Rideout Architect Inc.

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