On “Ravines,” a painting by Bill Colburn

Not once, and I mean this as a matter of fact and not as fault, has “Ravines” revealed anything remotely resembling a ravine, let alone ravines, plural. A fault of my own eyes, if anything. Plus, we bought it for the painting itself and not for its title. It could’ve been titled “Study in Light & Color or “Colorscape VIII” or “Milwaukee: The Good Land” or “Untitled” for all we cared.

The point was the painting, and so it came to pass that “Ravines” would become the feature on the only wall big enough to serve as its home, our living room wall adjacent to the fireplace and mantel, and facing, across the room, a triptych of small, square, eastern-facing windows. What I didn’t know and couldn’t have known when we purchased it, was that in acquiring “Ravines,” we actually gained a new window––one that doesn’t look out from our home to the world beyond, but instead looks into an ever-changing interior world within.

The painting may present itself as fixed––after all, Bill’s brush has long since left the canvas and the paint has dried––but, like the triptych of windows (and, to be sure, because of them for the light they emit over the course of a day, and days that fade to years), the view into “Ravines” is never exactly the same. The world around the painting changes, and “Ravines” changes with it. Early-morning, eastern-cast light shines; midday light burns; dusk light smolders. So, too, does the light change with the season. Afternoon autumn light is a paradoxically muted and yet iridescent golden dust glow; afternoon winter light is wood-stove warm and cinder strong. As I’ve come to learn, flecks and streaks of paint––tangerine orange, salmon pink, pistachio green, deep goldenrod, and countless other tones (I discover new shades regularly; its color catalogue, voluminous)––sing and dance and play in distinct ways depending on light. In that sense, I suppose they’re like people.

People change, too. Each day, as new, one-day older versions of ourselves, my wife, two young boys, and I see “Ravines” through new eyes, informed by the ever-changing broader contour of our lives––all the movement and meanderings and yes, sometimes madness, that orbits the nucleus of our home––as well as all the previous viewings that, like sedimentary strata, press together and pile up over time. One day “Ravines” is like looking into a microscope into a pool of light and dust teeming with ribbons and particles and other matter of biological wonder. Another day it’s like looking into the Hubble telescope were it not a telescope but a kaleidoscope commissioned by the Beatles. Yet another day it’s on its way toward, yet resists fully becoming, a psychedelic math graph plotting the myriad movements of x “something” over y time, the greater whole of which offers further questions rather than clarifying or proving any one correct answer. The answers, if there are any, point past some unknown future into infinity and are comprised only of color, form, and texture. The mind alone can’t necessarily make sense of it, but it doesn’t need to; it simply likes what it sees and feels. The emotions of the felt experience tell a story––or rather, stories, plural, and they’re good stories. They triumph.

The same painting, seen or felt differently, whether because of the effect of light or time and context, offers new meaning of its own. Like a good story, say, a timeless novel, we read it, and read into it, differently each time. While the materials, whether ink and paper or oil and canvas, may be fixed, meaning is not, and so the work––if it’s a true piece of art, as “Ravines” most certainly is––is fluid. And come to think of it, this phenomenon is not entirely unlike ravines, the origin of which comes from the late eighteenth-century French, meaning “violent rush (of water).”

So, yeah, “Ravines” it is. Indeed. Clearly, I see it now.

Essay by Patrick Barry. Barry is a Minneapolis-based writer, teacher, and art collector.

About the artist

Bill Colburn’s paintings have been collected and shown nationally, including the Studio Gallery and Artomatic Show in Washington DC, and in Minneapolis at the Shoebox Gallery, Intermedia Arts, Ambiente Gallerie, Flanders Gallery, the State Fair art show, and the Martha Bennett Gallery. Colburn is a longstanding visual arts faculty member at The Blake School, and lives in southwest Minneapolis with his wife and daughter. Instagram: w.e.colburn.art. Website: wecolburn.com.