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"RED TAIL AND THE COTTONWOOD, FLINT HILLS ", $2,400
24X18 inches, oil on linen
2007
Before the coming of industry, cattle and farming a Red Tailed Hawk owns the skies on midsummer day in the Flint Hills of Kansas. Soar and dive with the true freedom of a Tallgrass prairie spirit.
WHY DID YOU PAINT THIS?

Every artist whose work reflects the light of their inner spirit has a personal reason for the creation of each painting. Those stories often don't surface until some art historian or post-mortem promoter of the artist's work researches those hidden elements and places them before the public. For example, it was Van Gogh's sister-in-law who made the painter's life work famous even though she jealously disliked, perhaps hated him while he was alive. We move into the future for our own reasons alone.

The golden letters in the gray paragraph above contain the "master of the obvious" description for this painting. I have used them the past few years to support the simple explanation for "Red Tail and the Cottonwood". However, abstracted descriptions do not engage busy people, even when there are deeper metaphors present.

The writer and the visual artist have something in common, they both lead lonely creative lives. We work in solitude. People are curious about the reasons and personal experiences which lead to finishing and showing a painting. It is up to me to unfold the inner process and emotion to you. Like Hansel and Gretel, the fairy tale children who were led into the woods by a witch with completely selfish motives I hope you will move from your perhaps complacent visual space into a journey with my painting become enchanted and take it for your own to consume. My selfish motives are simple and likely quite similar to your interests. This journey of your spirit into the woods and back home is my intent through sharing each of my public paintings. However, like Hansel and Gretel you will be unable to follow even a lost trail of your own breadcrumbs if I do not supply you, with some of my bread for a start. Here goes:

I had been working on a medium size canvas for several weeks. Not with the brush so much as with the mind and heart. I had interest in the grass waving in the wind and the feeling of an upward bursting of sedimentary shelf rock that a low lying valley view might give. I sought something of a signature Flint Hill top in the distance and the technique of thick, wildly applied foreground paint similar to my departed neighbor, Birgir Sandzen but with more attention to the subtleties of cool and warm value differences than the vivid contrasts of color families.

I struggled against an indefinite focal point. Not good for art destined to settle in Kansas, not good at all. I had an Eastern Buddhist meditative space but not a Westerner's singular focal point. Must have the target bulls eye. I had a space but not a place. Instant recognition of meaning in a visual image is formally referred to as a cartoon. I have come to accept that "Car" Toons are the preference of Western folk, ie. Americans, the ones who spend their lives flying and dying in Cars. The painting cooled, waiting for me to grow up to it's completion point. Then it happened. The unthinkable.

"Red Tail and the Cottonwood" was the first painting I came back to after my 18 year old son, Ben, was killed in July of 2007. I was unable to think or feel much of anything else but how horrible it was to loose him-I was frequently gripped by images of him being run over by a semi-tractor, fuel transport truck on a hot and treeless stretch of Kansas Highway. It happened in the shadow of the towers of industry as they belched petroleum particulate matter into the once pristine July prairie air. A place where no one ever wanted to slow down or stop, so they didn't. They stacked up four deep behind his 90cc motor bike and after a few minutes the impatient lead ran him over.

I love to watch the hawks in summer. They float head to wind and circle then flap four or five then glide. They move with large measured grace as if they own the sky and disdain the pedestrian domain below them. On the wing, against the cumulus clouds free from the ground's tether they are always at work, endlessly watching, searching. I had never painted a Red Tail Hawk until I truly wished I could fly- not just through space but across the barrier of time as well.

My war of worlds, completely internal. So futile, so tiny was a wish of hopeless hope, a dream without reason, my little brushes, paints and disbelief but like a Westerner, something was better than nothing- my little nothing in a world of everything laying on top of my missing heart. Then, despite all reason, I knew how to finish this painting.

I could, in my dream fly full bodied into the shadow and roar of tires on pavement- lift Ben at just the right moment and set him, stronger, brighter, happier and infinitely more healthy and hopeful than me, gently and safely at the roadside. All of this dream was true except for the outcome, I can not change that.

"...a Red Tailed Hawk owns the skies on midsummer day..." I am not sorry to say I hate gasoline and cars and trucks and the industries that have done so much harm. It was and is not for the good. It has laid waste to this fragile planet, taken uncountable numbers of human lives and is a huge source of misery. I've had a twenty foot commute to work for the past thirty years.

Where is the infinite prairie that belonged to the Red tails for thousands of years? Fallen beneath the wheels of inhumanity. What I mean is that I would rather see gasoline die for my son. Yeah, that's right, ALL GASOLINE. Well, you know...accidently that is.

The wind, the wind, the fierce prairie wind! The tangle of impassable summer grass erupting from the earth. The chaotic thick grass-paint knifed on, back lighted, chiseled, combed on, bending before the hot summer winds. The shadow of cottonwood revolving through the day's hours around it's trunk in the lee of the sun. The clattering tongues of cottonwood leaves speaking of water buried and flowing in the gracious earth it mercifully protects from the blistering light and the hot wind.

My paintings are not about misery even though they are often about the beauty of fearsome powers. Westerners expect their cultural arts experiences to be entertaining and uplifting. There is a strong preference for the process of exploration to have a happy ending. Difficult as it is reconcile mortality I want my paintings to be about hope. I know the hawk will fly and the grass will grow and the wind will blow hard and merciless in it's own way. Right on down to the last solitary Red Tail Hawk and the last standing Tall Bluestem leaf.

I do not consider "Red Tail and the Cottonwood" to be a final statement or a master work, it is a sketch of a time period in my life. It will never likely strike anyone else as importantly as it has me because it wasn't the thing but the making of it that mattered and thankfully I won't get that back. So, for now, I make these explanations and place the story before you.

-Matthew Richter, July 2011, four years after.

copyright 2007, Matthew Richter, all rights reserved