The mid-seventies was a time of many changes for me. I stopped teaching at RISD, moved to New York, and eventually began teaching at Parsons. My old esthetic -- nonobjective work, based on the Minimalist credo of the simplest presentation possible, and working with polyester resin, fiberglass and optical films -- had dried up on me. I wanted to make something that felt more personal, more expressionistic, more earthy. Originally, I had trained as a painter and I loved the freedom that painting allows for the manipulation and mutation of form, but the limiting structure of the canvas rectangle seemed pointless. The work of other artists at the time, Pop, Op, Photorealism and the beginnings of Neo-Expressionism, seemed to have no relevance to me and to the covenant I have with the objects I make.

I began to pick up and draw small natural objects, making life-sized "portraits" of shells, leaves, feathers, and butterflies, done in the simplest technique I could manage. These were objects that anyone might find along the beach or roadside, stopping for a moment to look at their structure, sensing perhaps their past history, their life as an infinitesimally small but real part of a whole, their mortality. It seemed that there was something in the affinity and curiosity that I felt towards these bits of nature, that there was a power and a logic here which might be tapped, might be made manifest in my art if I could isolate the wonder and joy that I felt and make it evident.

I made some watercolors and then some oils on unstretched cloth, again using the simplest techniques of painting and composition that I could, placing the bits of flotsam on a neutral or textured shape within the confines of the substrate. Gradually, I realized that this shape, which I thought of as the area of visual tension radiated by the subject matter, could be the object itself. As media, I started using pieces of old plywood, cobbled together using simple woodworking and construction techniques. Cutting through the strata of plywood was like being on a geologic dig, discovering possibilities and things of interest at every level; in a sense, it became a landscape which I discovered and contoured. The little natural object was now depicted by carving the form negatively into the surface, then painting it.

Looking back, I realize how much it probably helped me through this difficult period to be teaching drawing at Parsons. I had been teaching three-dimensional design for years, and the choice to switch to drawing involved my re-examining very basic principles of image making.

The notion of a division between painting and sculpture now seemed a meaningless concept: some of the objects I was making had paint on them, which I made by mixing acrylic medium with various clays and soil, but principally each had a physical presence of its own. Symmetry, which I had used for a long time as an attention centering and focusing device, was reborn to me as biological symmetry -- a delicate, vital, dynamic principal whose negation is as telling as its use.

I went to France for the first time in the summer of 1977, principally to see prehistoric cave paintings. The cave painters have always been my esthetic heroes, as close to making art without ulterior motives as anyone we are likely to see. It was also the first summer of the Parsons Paris program, in which I was eventually to teach and work for over ten years. The charm and atmosphere of Paris influenced my color sense and suggested architectural motifs as yet another direction. Revisiting the caves year after year kept my focus where I wanted it.

The beauty of very mundane materials and refuse have made the gutters of New York or a walk in the woods into a trip to my personal art supply store. Sometimes, when I have found a piece of bark or wood which seemed particularly important to me, I felt that I had to maintain its entirety -- which meant, according to my personal rules, that I could cut it apart and rearrange the pieces, but that, finally, all of it had to appear in the finished piece. Occasionally, this has even included the sawdust.

Traveling has always been an exciting input into my work. I had wanted to see Egyptian art firsthand for a long time, and got my chance in 1987 while working for Parsons Paris. Egyptian art has always represented the ultimate in the controlled use of space to me, and was a clear influence for a time. Trips to Nepal, Kenya, Morocco and Mongolia have each stimulated a body of work, although I am often surprised at what reads back from the work after any given experience. Recent work has gone from a thin, linear-form period which was almost like sketching in space to a heavy, blocky, rough approach which is centered around human form.

It all, finally, comes down to this -- it just feels good to work with my hands, to watch an entity grow and gain individual presence, even life, Phoenix-like, from a pile of debris. This mutation only seems to happen when I put aside my preconceptions and work in as direct and straightforward a way as possible: it feels then that Iíve fused my processes into a kind of synthesis with nature, and the result is a pantheistic high which Iíve never been able to experience any other way.

Keith Long
September 1999