A work in progress

Artist John Lees' paintings can take years to finish


— It can take years for John Lees to finish a painting. In one case, it took him 30 years.

It takes so long because art is less about applying paint to canvas and more a kind of addition and subtraction daydream that he lets his mind follow until it's finished.

He is still working on paintings that he started in the 1970s, '80s and '90s.

"A painting will keep traveling with me," he said. "And I will keep painting on it."

His piece, "Courtyard" (dated 1989--2002) looks more like an excavation than an oil painting. A grid of perspective lines creates the floor of the courtyard and leads the eye into a thick stone wall.

"I exhibited it in an earlier state but I knew it wasn't finished," Lees said. "I felt that I was too in awe of the subject. I looked at it for a few years before it came together."

He sands and scrapes and tortures his work with paint strippers.

"I'm always surprised when I finish a painting," Lees said. "That moment where it climaxes, where it locks in finally, is always unexpected."

Lees finished 28 paintings last year, but has 45 unfinished paintings.

As a printmaker, Lees' process is much the same.

Lees, who is from upstate New York, has been at the Riverhouse Editions printing workshop in Clark finishing plates that he has been working on for three years.

His constant scraping and changing of the plates creates a da Vinci graininess, an etching that carries the memory of all the years Lees has been working on it.

As a painter, he enjoys the process of applying paint and then scraping it off to see what ghost it leaves behind.

In this series of prints, Lees has been working with an image he discovered during a landscape painting and drawing workshop in Boston.

The class was held right on the edge of a river so that Lees was looking down into the water.

"What I remember were the ripples that the ducks made in the water," he said. "I never forgot the gesture of the ripple."

Lees has been working on river-inspired etchings in a way that invokes the idea of a timeline.

"I'm very interested in the passage of time," he said. "And the way a river moves in one direction in much the same way as (time)."

The blurring and scraping of the image on a copper plate leaves behind the whispers of memories that remain on the mind even as the mind remains in the present.

Lees will leave Riverhouse and Colorado on Sunday. He imagines finishing five or six plates by then, with several plates that will have to wait for next year.

"I wanted a situation where I could work over time," Lees said. "You can't hurry these things. I've tried."


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