by Cherice Bock
Editor, Whole Terrain
Laurence Holden is an artist and poet in Northeast Georgia. His home and studio border the Chatahoochee National Forest, where the landscape inspires his visual art and writing. His work incorporates and reflects on nature through abstract art, photography, poetry, and prose reflections. Holden’s art is on display in the permanent collection of the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia, and he has participated in solo and group exhibits across the United States. He recently published a book of poetry and images called Wintering.
Holden’s art and words go beyond the surface beauty of the natural world and, using the abstraction of paint, poetic language, and multi-media, he invites the reader to a deep, inward experience. The title of his book, Wintering, caught my attention regarding our journal’s current theme of trust and environmental practice. Surviving winter requires a deep level of trust: trusting through the dying there will be rebirth; trusting the regenerative power of a time of reflection and rest after the busyness of growth and harvest. Although we may not be particularly good at recognizing and entering into this seasonal rhythm as twenty-first century Americans, it is no less important.
Laurence Holden graciously responded to an interview request. Following are some of his thoughts on his own version of reflective environmental practice.
Whole Terrain: I’m interested to hear a bit about your background as an artist and a lover of nature. How did these two become intertwined for you?
Laurence Holden: For me, the two have always been entwined.
From early on my mother was always taking me to museums during our frequent stays in England, and it was always the Turners and Constables I was drawn to. It was the energy of the natural world driving through them, the cultural heritage (Romanticism) linking an artistic approach to the experience of the natural world.
But I spent most of my first 15 years growing up just west of Ft. Worth Texas: not many Turners or Constables there (at least not then in the late 1940s and the ’50s). But weather was writ large there. They used to say Texas only had three seasons: drought, flood, and tornado. It was open country out there with a big sky. You could see a tornado or a blue norther coming a long way off, so I had to be impressed early on with the power of nature. It was never just something out there beyond the window. I spent most of my childhood there outdoors exploring the woods along Trinity River, Roaring Creek, and up on the windswept hills to the west. Children could grow up in America that way back then—slow, unstructured time in which natural rhythms seemed to soak into me, and I could respond in natural ways. Hugging an old cottonwood was just something that came naturally. And it was just as natural to respond to these rhythms and patterns in non verbal ways, maybe even more natural, to pick up a crayon or pencil and echo that response in lines and forms, to let them speak, too.
It’s a cultural heritage far older than merely European Romanticism. You only have to look at the images painted in the Lascaux caves 16,000 years ago. As I grew in artistic fluency, it just came to seem that the language for this was all around me and I didn’t have to invent it. I’m still on that path now.
WT: What is your process for creating art, both visual and written? Do you spend time outdoors for inspiration? How does your time outside shape your time in the studio, and vice versa?
LH: My time is my own, or for those I care deeply about. I am blessed. I live in the midst of 750,000 acres of the Chattahoochee National Forest. Mountains and rivers and seasons surround me, envelope my life.
The words, the images, emerge from the process of living here. I carry a small sketch book in a pouch on my belt, and when they come I just stop to write or draw something in response.
There is a rhythm to this life. I call it ‘mountain time.’ It is measured by sun and moon. It is the time that circles, returns, enfolds, and cycles. It is measured by its quality rather than its duration. The Greeks called it kairos, a kind of time no longer noticed, or even measured, in our culture. I moved here along Warwoman Creek to recapture it.
My process of writing and painting comes out of spending this kind of time on the things that matter and need to be done. Sometimes it’s gathering firewood, tending the large vegetable garden, washing dishes, mowing the field, or wandering into the forest behind the studio. In this kind of time, layers of reality accompany me.
It’s difficult, and not without its dangers for an artist, to even speak of this. I should probably just let the work itself speak to that. If looked at with too parsing an eye the beauty can simply evaporate. So I’ll try to be careful here, risk a little, but be prudent, honest, but also protecting.
Whatever I’m doing, on one layer is the obvious face of things: the furniture of the world, moving around it to get from one place another, arranging it just so to be comfortable, or to get some of it out of the way to focus on getting just one thing done. We all know this layer.
But then there is the voice beneath, the deeper space between things. This is the level where a quality of Being lives. It’s another inner face beneath that is looking back at me, seeking to engage me in a conversation and tell me something. So beneath all the chatter of daily life, between all the things noticed, sometimes other voices and spaces peek through. Just now and again. I can’t make it happen. But I can stop and listen; and with listening and practice comes a little fluency, a little more openness to the patterns and rhythms moving through life. They are natural patterns and rhythms. I take my sensitivity to them with me when I walk out the door into the woods. I experience them there, and I bring them back to washing dishes, chopping wood, painting, writing.
To do so is to honor a respectful engagement with the world, one that we have largely lost track of, and one we sorely need.
I firmly believe we all experience these layers, these levels of awareness, hidden from our view by a lot of the structures in our cultural habits. We need a kind of archaic technology to reveal them to us—the kind that has been passed down through all the generations of artists and poets.
WT: Another quote of yours I appreciate is this: “In my art I want answers; failing that, very good questions. At last I want revelation. Otherwise, I have no need for art.” I would like to hear your thoughts about ways your work falls in line with Whole Terrain’s emphasis on “reflective environmental practice.” In what ways do you hope your art’s answers, questions, and revelations speaking to environmental concerns?
I’ll quote here from an essay I wrote called “Drawing From Our Own True Nature.” I believe the kind of artistic engagement I have been describing is important for everyone, and speaks to Whole Terrain’s concern for reflective environmental practice.
“Our body of senses inhabits the larger world, and is in constant and permeable dialogue with it. The world, reality, our senses, our individual selves, are all tuned to, shaped for, developed for this one song that is Creation. We are all its music, part of its line. None of us—stone, star, wind, or child—is separate, dominant, or different. Each one of us, like each stone in the river, carries the shape worn by the moving river of life….
“To draw from a stone in the river is to draw on that intimate and vital conversation—the world inside us is the inside of nature. This turns our accustomed perspective inside out. We in the modern Western world got it all very wrong when we split the conscious from the unconscious, when Descartes split res extensa from res cogitans. We have forgotten the “con” in consciousness—the “with” of it. We did get lovely highways with scenic overlooks, Walmarts, behemoth medical and military industries, a hierarchical social structure of power, oppression and privilege. But we also acquired the loss of nature and with that some important loss within ourselves essential to our very human potential.
“The filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard once said: ‘Art attracts us only by what it reveals of our most secret self.’ My modification is: Nature attracts us by what it reveals of our most secret selves.”
I am grateful to Laurence Holden for risking vulnerability with us about his artistic process, and how it connects him to this deeper layer of Being. We can all connect to this space, often through a kairos-like experience of time, seasons, cycles, interconnectedness, and deep awareness. For some, as Holden, this attentiveness exudes itself in our lives as art. For others, it leads us toward activism or scientific discoveries, relationships or religion: creativity in all its forms, connecting us at the deepest level of what it means to be a human being engaged in the world.
Trusting that this inspiration will arise, if we continue to cultivate that awareness of Being, is what I believe many of us mean when we talk about “reflective environmental practice.” The deeper into that awareness we go, the more we are called out into environmental practice. The more time we spend doing our particular form of environmental practice, the more we are drawn to a space of deeper reflection. But the level of trust and vulnerability this requires can feel risky.
I leave you with an excerpt from a poem by Laurence Holden called “Fallings”:
We must wait now
down among the fallen
and beneath the failing light.
Winter is carrying us all away
into disbelief with the call of crows
across an empty sky.
We must wait, and in waiting
be stilled for the inward
invalid voices to speak.
We can only think of prayers,
of songs, and drummings—
how everything sings to die
and dies to sing, coming and going
through the strings of this life
a shore of arrival, each
a place of departure, each
a pebble dropped
into a mooonstruck pool of being:
ripples on a light graced,
dark wrapped world.