“This connects to the American West in a very interesting way,” says Monte Dolack, leafing through color plates of snow-covered boulders, rivers roiling brown with spring runoff, umbels of wild angelica, even a decaying pike. “Look at that! That could be the Blackfoot in winter.”
But the coffee table book he’s leafing through isn’t the work of a Western artist, or even an American one. The book is L’Horizon Inconnu, a book in French about Finnish artists that includes many paintings by Akseli Gallen-Kallela (1865-1931), the leading figure of Finnish Neo-Romanticism and that country’s most famous artist. Gallen-Kallela is a new passion of Dolack’s—and, he admits, a new influence.
“And look at this,” he continues, pointing at G-K’s 1906 painting of a pine tree wrenched to the ground by some force majeure. “I saw that and it just blew me away. I was absolutely knocked out by it. But I was also kind of already there, you know? Sometimes, when something like that pops up, you’re really ready to see it. It’s like a door opening. Or how about this woodpecker?” he says, pointing at the pileated specimen perched in the tangle of roots in an 1892 gouache on paper. “It probably really relates to the one I’m working on right now.”
Dolack’s woodpecker, clasping a blazing twig in its beak, is at the center of a new painting called Stealing Fire, one of the eight small paintings, eight large paintings and four lithographs in his upcoming Mythical Studies of the Western Landscape exhibit. This one-man show, surprisingly enough, is a first for Dolack.
Yesterday, he says, his woodpecker was just “a gray blob.” By Friday he’ll have painted stars into the firebrand’s trail of sparks and blurred the edges of the finished bird to achieve a “smoky” effect called sfumato.
Gallen-Kallela, incidentally, was never the realistic painter of birds and animals that Dolack is. When animals do appear in his paintings, it’s generally because of their symbolism in Finnish mythology, and many of G-K’s most famous paintings were inspired by the Finnish national epic, the Kalevala. Gallen-Kallela painted swans and bees from the inside, as Dolack would say, rather than by copying them from nature. Dolack’s woodpecker has symbolic gravity, too, though stemming from a different set of myths.
“[The woodpecker] actually came about from listening to Joseph Campbell,” he explains. “Actually, a re-airing of a Bill Moyers documentary that had a dialogue between him and Campbell. He’s mentioning creation myths, and how the way we see God or spirituality is reinterpreted almost universally in the same way in cultures throughout the world that haven’t even had an opportunity to talk to each other. Campbell talks about the bringing of fire and how people received fire, about Woodpecker bringing fire. And I just saw it as a fabulous image, so I did a small sketch.”
There are about a hundred sketches like this, ranging from postage stamp to postcard size, scribbled on napkins squares of legal pad and Monte Dolack Gallery stationery and pinned up on what Dolack refers to as his Wall of Ideas. The ideas come to him at all hours. He calls them “gifts from within,” and sketches them out with the idea of coming back to them later.
“These little drawings are like a touchstone,” Dolack says. “I do a lot of research looking at things like woodpeckers and trees, because I want to bring those things from the visible world into my paintings. But I also want to bring in things that are from the inside and not the outside, and find the right place to mix the two of them together. Part of the road I’m on with these pictures is to graduate slowly toward being able to paint more from the inside.”
The paintings he has been working on for the Mythical Visions exhibit, says Dolack, have given him more of a chance to run with his own philosophical ideas than he gets from the dozens of commissioned pieces he does for non-profit and wilderness groups. Not that the narrative of the paintings is immediately discernible or their symbolism pointed and obvious, but to hear Dolack—so comfortable with paradox and contrast—explain the readings and other inspirations that went into them, it’s all there. If you know about the woodpecker in mythology, you can enjoy the painting that way. If not, oh well.
Same thing with the different species of bird perched on the limbs of the white bark pine in another new painting. All the birds, as Dolack explains, depend to some degree on the white bark pine for their survival, as the artist discovered while doing research with a group of scientists looking into declining white pine numbers. But you don’t have to know that specifically to make connections between birds and trees.
“I figure, that’s OK,” says Dolack. “People can just walk in and look at the painting and hopefully think, ‘Wow, that’s beautiful.’ I call the white bark pine one Tree of Life. It’s a tree filled with birds. It has a magical quality to it. I’m not going to explain that. And actually, when the white bark pine scientists look at it, they might think the needles aren’t quite right. But I didn’t care! I just wanted to paint this vital tree. And symbolically the tree works on a lot of levels.
“I didn’t want these pictures to be didactic and finger-wagging kinds of pictures,” he continues. “You can get into that making posters, because you’re really trying to tell people things, explain things or get a message across. With these pictures, I really wanted there to be a more poetic presence to them, where everyone could find their own message in the picture and have a different interpretation. So I didn’t want to get too into explaining each picture.”