Black—a color of darkness, uncertainty, the unknown, the void. Some even debate whether it is technically a color. But for Boise artist Christine Raymond, black became an incubator, a creative force, a liminal space in which she found a path of artistic evolution.
Raymond's encounter with black began in 1980 while working on her Master of Fine Arts at the University of Idaho. An uneasy time for her. "When you're in grad school, it's necessary to prove you're tough," she says. As she experimented with various media, searching for direction, her attention turned to archival milk carton paper that had been donated to the art department. She painted large sheets of it black, using Alizarin crimson, India ink and other pigments, and found herself gazing into the black to see what would arise. "I would prepare the paper then the dance would begin," she says.
Presences emerged out of the darkness: sentinels, guardians, guides, central figures that dominated each painting. As they came forth, Raymond captured their essence using colored pencils, pastels, graphite and other media.
"They were mysterious, they were questions," she says. And she wondered: "Is this me, or something else?" The "dark pieces" (what she'd later call the "Guardian" series) took over her life. Raymond worked on them continuously. "I'd look down at my hands and they'd be black," she says. Through the rest of graduate school and two years beyond, the presences continued to arrive.
"I grew up in a family of six girls and was group-oriented. Doing these works was the first time I'd stepped out to say, 'This is what I choose.' It was part of declaring, 'This is who I am and this is what I'm devoting my life to.' It's part of finding your way when you know what you're passionate about," she says.
After doing more than 200 of the "Guardian" pieces, Raymond felt she had gone as far as she could in that direction. "Those years cleansed my color palette. The biggest challenge after that was to find my way back to color."
She wondered how to proceed. At first, she did a giant white painting. "But that didn't work; it was just going from black to white," she says, "so I went back to black, but now added color to it, slowly made my way. When I returned to color again, it was like seeing it as a child."
At this point, Raymond began creating "construction" pieces. She sewed French seams into the canvas, glued heavy paper (often painted black) to the surface, "skinned" the paper to expose the fuzzy pulp, and collaged on the surface, gradually using more color over time. But the pieces were very labor-intensive. And she was seeking something more.
As a child, Raymond was a "maker of objects," she says. "If we were assigned a project for school, I was more interested in the cover of the project than the content." She was raised in the Midwest and was fascinated by the landscape around her: corn and wheat fields, the sky, the Spartan quality of the farms and barns, the golden glow of newly mown hayfields. "Hayfields in the right light are exquisite," she says, "especially set against blue-black storm clouds."
She entered Park College (now Park University) in Kansas City, Mo., and majored in elementary education, but found herself drawn to art classes. As a result, she took all the art courses she could while still completing her education degree. One day, she was on an upper floor of the arts building, painting the landscape of hills and the Missouri River visible from the large windows.
"I was doing it as a series of planes," she says. One of her art professors noticed her work and introduced her to the paintings of Paul Cézanne. "Cézanne was my first hero; I was very drawn to his series of paintings of his beloved Mont Sainte-Victoire. He is still one of my major influences."
After graduating from Park College and marrying, she taught first grade and took art classes during the evenings and summers. In 1974, Raymond's husband was offered a job in Boise, and the couple moved there. By that time, she knew she wanted to seriously focus on art, and she began taking classes at Boise State, working toward her Bachelor of Fine Arts. During these years, she met other art students who would later become prominent artists in the community, including Michael Miller, Frank Goitia, Roberta Ochi, Kathy Mahn and Jacqueline Crist.
For Raymond, one of the most important contacts was with Crist, who eventually opened the J Crist Gallery in 1995 and began representing Raymond.
"I have followed Christine's work since we were in school together," says Crist. "I find her dedication and conceptual exploration fascinating. Christine inspires me."
Raymond completed her bachelor's degree from Boise State in 1979. And it was while working on her master's degree at the University of Idaho that the "presences" came out of the blackness to further guide Raymond on her journey as an artist.
Black continues to be a significant aspect in Raymond's life. Upon entering her home, visitors pass through a black door. The wood floor of her living room is a rich black. Two tall paintings that are part of the "Guardian" series hang by the doorway. On the wall by the sofa is Hope's Light, a large painting whose delicate colors shimmer and morph as the light changes. The wall along the staircase is a miniature show of her creative journey back into color: small black paintings with hesitant bits of color and cast paper pieces. A sign over her studio doorway reads: "The most beautiful experience we have is the mysterious."—Albert Einstein.
Upon entering her studio, black recedes and color intensifies. On the wall is a color mixing chart Raymond made. On an easel, her newest painting, inspired by the planes of color of a sunset, is drying.
Raymond is a contemplative painter. The background, canvas and paper of each painting are meticulously prepared, giving her paintings a powerful foundation. They are prepared in layers: layers of thought, layers of gesso and other materials. Then it's sanding, gessoing, then sanding again until the surface is right for the piece. Color is applied in layers, creating depth and luminosity, subtly harkening back to the beginning, the black from which presences emerge.
After experimenting with the construction pieces, Raymond tried several creative paths. She painted watercolors, then worked with cast paper pieces for a while, making her own molds and paper pulp. But she eventually returned to painting. At this point, she covered entire sheets of paper in one color, cut them into shapes and collaged them onto a prepared background. In time, she moved out of collage and into painting shapes directly onto Gatorboard.
Her paint of choice is Lascaux tempera with acrylic binder. It's the "purest pigment," she says, because it contains no fillers. The painting currently drying on the easel has about 27 layers of color, yet it looks light as air, the canvas covered in transparent veils of color. She creates a color chart of hues for each painting, to attain the exact tones for the piece, then paints with many layers of color, working to "resolve the piece," she says. Applying each layer is a risk; the entire painting is at stake if one layer doesn't work.
"The images are subtle color transitions and are challenging," she says. "Sometimes it gets discouraging if it gets to 50 layers and the piece is still unresolved. The images are totally in flux, like us."
In late 1999, Raymond's art took a new direction. December was approaching, a month of sacred holidays. To honor the different religious traditions, she decided to add gold leaf to her pieces—just for one month. Gilding enraptured her, and led her to apply it in various ways. The gilding process itself became a kind of meditation for Raymond.
Gilding is "labor-intensive ... but it's centering and more predictable than painting," she says. Her process includes applying 10 layers of gesso on Belgian portrait linen over wood. She sands between each layer, sanding to the exact "feel" she knows will work. This provides a "landscape surface" as opposed to a "mirror surface" for the gold leaf. When the surface is finished, she maps out where she will apply the gold, and does only three-inch swaths at a time. Before applying the gold leaf, she filters the air in her studio to remove dust particles (which can create pits on the surface). She wears gloves while gilding to prevent contact with skin oil and perspiration.
"I have to focus and pay attention while gilding, but my mind can rest," she says. "The gilding process balances the painting process." Doing a painting is dramatic, "like walking a tight rope. Gilding gives my emotions a vacation from the painting process. It's a yin-yang between painting and gilding."
In her 2005 show, one of the artworks, A Meditation on Peace II, was entirely gilded, glowing and luminous in J Crist's newly opened gallery. At that point, her paintings had become what she calls "split format paintings:" one half, usually the top, painted in layers and layers of color, and the bottom half, entirely gilded. The paintings in the show evoked atmosphere, air, mist, cloud, sky, along with the solidity of a sacred earth in burnished gold.
"The paintings on the top change dramatically whenever the light changes," she says, "while the gilding captures the movement, captures your presence as a viewer; you become part of the piece."
As Raymond's art has evolved over the years, so has the visual arts scene in Boise and the Treasure Valley. Boise Gallery of Art became the Boise Art Museum. Where there were only one or two galleries in downtown Boise in the 1970s, there are now at least 15, and First Thursdays feature openings for new exhibits each month. Where there were just a few fine art collectors in the 1970s, there are now many.
"What I saw in earlier years was an art community that was isolated and somewhat resistant to the importance of collaboration," says Crist. "Now, I see artists working together and supporting each other. The art community is in the best shape it has ever been, and with more promise than ever."
Always ready to learn, Raymond is embarking on a new direction for her upcoming show at J Crist in December. After focusing on art evoking atmosphere and sky, she now wants to "create a structure that would correspond to the physical nature of this place: aspens in the fall, a garden, a beautiful area of rust: anything of nature with a physical presence." She has titled the series, "A Fragment of this Glorious Life" and hopes to have at least three works displayed in the show.
The first piece, A New Beginning, is already completed. For this artwork, she cut a sheet of 300 lb. cold press watercolor paper into 81 small pieces. The individual pieces were gessoed, then sanded with fine steel wool. She gilded each piece and hand-stitched each one onto a backing, using linen thread. The backing is of Belgian portrait linen, which she prepared by stitching several rows of French seams and gessoing the surface. The small pieces, which are attached to the French seams, are layered, overlapping like scales on a fish. When the artwork moves, the individual pieces ripple and glow.
On subsequent works, she plans to arrange the individual pieces so they will gradually shift from gilded to painted pieces—again, that modulated transition she does so well. Her goal is for the viewer to experience "the same quality of awareness" as seeing the movement of aspen leaves or other forms in nature, she says.
Raymond envisions "A Fragment of this Glorious Life" as "a reminder of how spectacular it is to be on this physical plane for a time." In these difficult times, it's as if beauty of the natural world becomes even more crucial, she says. "It reminds us of a certain natural order that life can be."
In traditional art classes, students are taught to apply color from light to dark. For Christine Raymond, the artistic evolution has emerged from dark to light, from black into color, from one central image to expanding horizons.