The Loneliness of Place
By D.J. Palladino
I first encountered Macduff Everton's photography in 1995 at the RoSnell Gallery- a ghostlike presence shimmering in utter absence: his panoramic tableaux of Iceland and desolation. I remember uttering amazed expletives as I wandered through the spare, soul-arresting work. To say these bleak but beautiful long rectangles, with their disturbing lack of focal points were harrowing might sound melodramatic, but it certainly approaches the truth. I never suspected Santa Barbara artists, more acclimatized to the balms of paradise, could be capable of such acquiescence to the solemn horrors of nature that correctly precede the acknowledgement of its sublimity. Even the light in his photographs was imbued with something pure and scary beyond solitude. Everton seemed a worthy heir to the Romantic tradition; his Nature comes with the bite of emptiness, and harbors a dark, introspective mind.
"I think the stronger work is the work that edges into abstraction," said well-known Santa Barbara artist Mary Heebner about Everton's photography. Heebner, perhaps best known for her public art redesign of the municipal courthouse entrance, also happens to be Everton's wife and lately his working partner, too. She supplied both poetic copy and design illustrations to the lavish new book of Everton's photography, The Western Horizon (Abrams $50) published just last month. Heebner made that comment in a new film about the couple's recent collaboration. And, indeed, it was that abstracted subject, Everton's attenuated spiritual reaction to the land, that drew me to his photography half a decade ago.
If Western Horizon doesn't put you in the spirit for a road trip, your soul has been mothballed far too long. The Santa Barbara Museum of Art displays the vivid and monumental- though still moody- photos used for the book in a current large show called Dual Visions of the West. (Everton splits the big gallery with the popular, magic-hour landscapist David Muench.) And, besides being subjects for the film Full Circle: How Macduff Everton and Mary Heebner Came to Make The Western Horizon,made by Santa Barbara writer Russ Spencer and scheduled for the upcoming S.B. Film Festival, the couple have a big celebratory show at the chic Rose Gallery in L.A.'s Bergamot Station next month.
They've arrived, so to speak. But it hasn't been an overnight thing. Macduff Everton was born in 1947, the son of Clyde Everton, an Oregon Episcopal missionary preacher, and Francis Pickard, another Oregonian, and was named Macduff after his maternal gradmother. The Everton family set up their first big congregation in a Davis, California theater. "It was the closest thing I got to going to the movies back then," he claimed. They came to Santa Barbara in the early 1960s, where Everton's father was the pastor of State Street's Trinity Church. Longtime residents like the artist Sarah Carr remember him as a man who "exemplified the true meaning of being Christian." ("It's not a stick to beat people with," said Everton, the proud son.) Yet, in those interesting times, the flock rebuked its pastor for expressing modern views. "My father was chased out of his ministry because he told people the truth about their faith," he said. Everton remembers his father preaching on fair housing, civil rights, and the lies told by government about Indochina. Eventually, the vicar and his wife moved back to Oregon.
Being poor but honest folk meant the Everton family summer vacations were staged from a station wagon filled with sleeping bags into the great outdoors. Meanwhile, Everton attended La Cumbre Junior High and S.B. High school, but, in an almost archetypal artist-making malady, missed a lot of school due to a long bout of sleeping sicknes- contracted in the Sacremento Valley. At age 17, undraftable because of his battle with viral encephalitis, he took off to see the world solo, visiting Europe first and then working his way across Asia. "I got my first camera," Everton explained, "because I come from a family that shares things." It was an abandoned tourist camera, and Everton to this day has never shown the warning signs of camera geekishness. "I'm just fine with automatic focus," he told a group of admirers recently.
Everton's father showed the Europe shots to Don Freeman, a prominent Santa Barbara artist, who expressed approval of the technique. When Everton got word, he was elated. Returning to the States to go back to school, another, younger Santa Barbara artist Michael Drury, now a landscapist himself, got Everton a photography job with The 10th Muse, a company that made educational filmstrips in Mexico and Central America. But irregular funding left Everton high and dry not long into his tenure.
So at age 19, Everton was forced to hitchhike home from Guatemala. Doing so, he formed a lifelong crush on Mexico, and particularly the Yucatan peninsula, which he revisited frequently studying and photographing. From 1969 on, he crisscrossed the country, dipping in and out of the neighbor to the south, and returning to his little home off Mountain Drive. All the while, Everton was gathering material for his first book The Modern Maya (University of New Mexico Press, 1991). "When it was finally published I went overnight from being a nut to being an authority." In it, Everton attempted what he termed "narrative photography," work that came from the perspectives of both journalism and anthropology, trying somehow to bridge the gap. Any hint of poetry there, it seems, came from pure reverence for exposing and protecting the "otherness" of his contemporary Mayan subjects and friends.
Everton's father instilled a tough sun-up to sundown, or as he put it, "from can't see to can't see", work ethic, and Everton had no aversion to taking jobs as a cowboy, a muleskinner, and a river raft guide. In Mexico he worked in a circus that traveled through obscure villages presenting melodramatically lit tales from the lives of the saints. His photographic work became so well known in that country that it was included in a New York collection of promising Latin American artists in the early 1990s. Everton also worked as a travel photographer for Fortune magazine and was a staff photographer for Conde Nast in the late '80s. "But that only lasted for two years. I quit because it was so limiting."
In the meantime, Everton had a life in Santa Barbara among the artists. He produced a book, That's Not Entirely True from his Summerland studio, a work of wistful humor that manages also to memorialize Everton's sister who was dying of diabetes at the time. He married and divorced (the son from that marriage, Robert, now lives in San Francisco). He counted among his friends the proponents of the art scene, including Richard Ross, Doug Edge, Margaret Ejima, and the gallery owner Ruth Shaffner. One day through a friend he met another artist named Mary Heebner.
"I knew when I first saw her, I would live with her forever," said
Heebner calls herself a Valley Girl, and it was a ree-aally good part of the valley, too. The daughter of a jazz musician-turned-artist and repetoire producer at Capitol records, Heebner attended Providence High, the all-girl Catholic school where artist Sister Corita and activist-poet Daniel Berrigan made occasional contact. Though she wanted to attend Berkeley, Heebner's parents resisted. She came to UCSB, spent a requisite year in the dorms and then scammed her parents into letting her live in Isla Vista, in the nick of time for the riots. Her first job was under the organic chic geodesic dome at the old Sun and Earth restaurant. (Even fiction-writer Ross Macdonald's detective Lew Archer ate soyburgers there.) Heebner, like Everton, married young, and had a daughter, Sienna. She soon fell in with the artist crowd, particularly the literary side: Kenneth Rexroth, Max Schott, and Judyl Mudfoot. At the time there was a rich cross-pollination in the College of Creative Studies. Against some of her poetic patrons' better wishes, she studied art and painted. The scene to which both Everton and Heebner belonged centered around the Art Rental Gallery, a hot spot and an early precursor of the Contemporary Arts Forum, circa 1980. "So we've known each other for about 20 years," laughed Heebner, who had made a name for herself after graduating in 1973, with shows everywhere from the SBMA to Oaxaca. (She was part of a group show at RoSnell in 1995 also.)
After near-avoiding Everton for a long series of decades ("He was the perfect person to flirt with because I knew nothing was going to happen," she said), Heebner heard he was anticipating a trip to Mexico, and asked if she could go along. He wasnıt, but pretended to be in the midst of preparations to lure her. "I told him I didn't want an affair, I wanted to see the color blue I'd seen in photographs," she said. But their destiny became apparent almost from the beginning of the trip. "I fell, kerplunk," admitted Heebner. The trip was full of serendipities, like encountering a schoolchildren's waltz class atop the pyramid in Cholula. The artists began working together almost immediately after they married in 1989.
IN LOVE WITH THE LIGHT
One Wednesday evening, two weeks ago, Heebner and Everton conducted a preview tour of the SBMA exhibit for a small group of Santa Barbara and Goleta high school student interns.
They fielded questions gracefully together, from what novels Everton reads while out on a shoot (he can't remember) to how much computer-work goes on afterwards (none). Heebner and Everton, married over eleven years now, live in a seeming invisible magnetic sphere. They finish each other's sentences, while they look on admiringly. The book itself was partly sold to Abrams because their editor Eric Himmel had been the child of a husband and wife travel-writing team, a fact they did not know when tentatively pitching the book. Everton points out frequently that Heebner's work is currently in an ascendant arc, but her continued preoccupation with the book project has cost her gallery representation. "I kept telling him, all you have to do is take the goddamned pictures. I have to do all of this research and writing," she laughed.
Heebner's text for The Western Horizon, which busied her for six solid months, combines poetry and a wealth of information, cultural, atmospheric and ecological. This is how her chapter on prairies opens: "A prairie horizon is at the edge of eyesight. In twilight the shadows of a falling night cast a denim haze over the flats, which are as expansive as an ocean in depth and breadth. Odd edges of land, whittled by water and wind sawtooth the sky."
During the talk, Heebner jumps in at moments of aesthetic swirliness. Everton learned composition, she assured the students, by looking at a lot of art. His colors, like Gaugin's, she said, employ the trick of beginning at a muted level to imply more. Everton delivers the intro, though, and covers a lot of the technical questions. "We began this book at the 100th meridian, because past that was where banks in the 19th century refused to loan money to farms." He goes on to describe the West as the place where any contemporary grand tour would best take place. "If you want to brush up on a foreign language," Everton quipped, "get a job in a National Park." His subjects range from Great Plains to Badlands and the Pacific beyond.
But the work calls for more than a justification of its localities. The students hungered for the technical, too. Since the beginning of his career, Everton has been about wide angles, and it's useful to compare his scope to the encompassing, implacable godlike eye employed cinematicallyoften for that other muse, Suspense, by artists like Hitchcock or Antonioni. It is objectivity enshrined. Everton uses the Noblex camera, the second panorama camera developed by Kornelius Schorle of Irvine, California. (He gets six exposures to a roll.) "I like it because it gives a 150 degree view, which is what the eye sees," explained Everton to the students.
His film of choice is Kodak Gold 100, a brand preferred for wedding pictures. But the students are more curious- does he have to play with the film in the darkroom? "The only thing I do is burn. The eye is much more sophisticated than film. So sometimes I will overexpose something to make it look like how I saw it." Heıs opposed to excessive artificiality, and later described an experiment where he put some pictures on a stock that was sensitive to bright colorsa kind of Japanese new-wave palette. "It was awful," he said, on the verge of a shudder. "It looked like a billboard."
One young woman wanted to know if he meant to capture people as he did in the shot of the Grand Canyon wall: "I made some rules for myself when I started. No roads, no signs, no people. Then I saw those people in the shot and I thought to myself, Well, there goes that rule.ı Rules were made to be broken. Absolutely." Heebner looked on, beaming approval.
As you might imagine, the work in the SBMA gallery is not as vertiginously bleak as the RoSnell show of yore. Yet an underlying war between abstraction and narrative seems to be taking place. (In interviews, Everton betrays no internal conflict over these seemingly competing modes in his work.) A lot of this work seems organized around pinwheels or mandalas of detail. "El Capitan in Snow and Mist, Yosemite," and "Saint Mary Lake, Glacier Fall, Forest Park Nevada," seem to have light as their subject. Yet they and almost every work on the SBMA walls have some infinitesimal center-point and, therefore, a storytelling composition for the eyes. A few pieces, however, defy easy categorization, like the rather disturbing "Winter Snow and Ice, Mores Creek, Boise Idaho," a bleak glimpse of beauty, a riverbed swathed in snow going nowhere but into mental space. This and a few other pieces verge strongly on what Heebner no doubt loves as abstract. My own first-viewing notes read, "The prime mode is moodiness: clouds lower or glow or refract near-rainbows, but always hover over the landscapes' pretty gloom."
And, indeed, the light is what he wants most to tell the students about. "Itıs most important I think to be open. A lot of shots, like the one of Crater Lake, were taken when other people would've never been out there. As a storm comes in or during a lull."
"In fact there is a great deal of beauty no matter where you are," he told the students. "Particularly here in Santa Barbara. You just have to be ready for it. I do a lot of waiting. You have to stay in the moment."
In Russ Spencer's film, Everton makes an important addendum to this openness dictum. "The other thing I decided was that when I was taking pictures of things other people have seen a million times, I would try to shoot it as if you were seeing it for the first time. Itıs a high standard, but I want to keep to it."
A LOVE SUPREME
Perhaps the best part of Spencer's film, and he made it with the laudable, somewhat reckless trust and funding of the SBMA and the Arts Commission, is the magnetism that you will only see on display here. Heebner works and Everton talks and they sit on the couch together and glow. It's not hard to discern where the passion in their works comes from, or why they accomplished so very much together in the last few years. ("When we first got married, I found out that Macduff'sıs gross income for the year before was $5000. So I knew we had to do something," laughed Heebner.) A day after the students, I spent a long morning with the artists in their Samarkand home, where Everton has a huge studio. It was a great deal of beauty-if-you-wait-for-it kind of day, rain drifting off into sunshine, and then Evertonıs assistant Emily Hart-Robert came running in reporting a rainbow, which I was surprised to see Everton did not rush out to chase.
We had been speaking about the spiritually ambivalent quality of some of his photographs and though I raised the subject several times, Everton never really took my verbal bait about the lofty bleakness of his Iceland shots. We did speak about religion, and Everton, the self-acknowledged son of a preacher man, allowed he had met a few real Christians, true Muslims, and Buddhists, and "they were great." He has a rather skeptical take on organized congregations though. "People seem fine with buying a nice Easter dress and wearing it to church once a year. But what my father tried to convey was that faith is a full-time thing. It takes your whole life," Everton said. He's not currently subscribing to a specific creed, though. Then I asked him if he found anything like a Supreme Being anymore, say in nature, in his photographs.
"Again, it's all about being in the moment," he said. "I think I do. When I was a cowboy, I used to really like being up above the timberline. Nobody else did, they thought it was too lonely and scary or something. But if one speaks about a Supreme Creator, I think that's where you see him, up there above 11,000 feet." He shifted around: "The worst kind of loneliness is a loneliness of spirit, being surrounded by millions of people in a city who don't want to know you. But then thereıs the loneliness of place. There was no loneliness for me way up there."
Dual Visions continues at the SBMA through March 25. The film Full Circle is part of the 2001 Santa Barbara International Film Festival with an evening screening at 2:30 p.m. on Thursday, March 8, at Victoria Hall followed by a question-and-answer session with Macduff Everton and Mary Heebner, and a reception.
Full Circle will also screen at continuously in the Santa Barbara Museum of Artıs Mary Craig Auditorium for the duration of the exhibition.
Pictures from the Western Horizon by Macduff Everton and sketches
by Mary Heebner will be on display