The Art of Geography
Portland, Oregon artist Erik Goetze is a self-described combination of photographer, cartographer, and digital artist. Spending any amount of time with his fine art pieces is to invite inside yourself an experience of calm spaciousness and a contemplative immersion into the colors, textures, and movements taking place all around us every moment of every day. The geographical pull of the titles alone makes the explorer in you stop in your tracks and say,"YES! I want to go there." Consider these titles of a few of Erik's pieces: "Wings beat the rising air following the Big One," "Topology of water vapor freed from alpine icebanks," or "Unsettled chasm in the pinax of the venerable conduit."
The following interview between Erik and CS provides insight into his process, perspective, and methods. We trust you will enjoy, as much as we did, getting to know more about The Art of Geography. What is your background as an artist? I feel like an outsider to the art world who has managed to develop some proficiency through the “10,000 hours of practice” rule. As a child I spent a lot of time drawing things; one of my favorite memories was afternoons when my friend Kenny and I drew cars for hours, riffing off each other’s creations. There was some sort of instinct that an artist or designer was my calling. I continue to be inspired by art and my wife and I visit museums and galleries wherever we go. However, I studied computer science in college, with a minor in geography. I also developed my poetic voice over a number of years of workshops, and then took some art history and painting classes, and subsequently switched my career from developer to web designer in 1994. In my spare time I started shooting large numbers of panoramic photos of wilderness, as well as making hiking maps. After experimenting with oil painting, I started creating digital / generative artwork in 1999. In my daytime interaction design work I sometimes grapple with how best to design an infographic to illuminate a topic. All those threads are woven into my artwork. Why the title of the Art of Geography for your work and website? What is the story of your interest in geography? The name reflects my personal brand which is about creating things, exploring new places, and my love of geography. It ties together the three main modes of expression that I’ve developed over the last 25 years: immersive nature photography, cartography that is both beautiful and functional, and generative artwork. Another thread in all this work is the desire to communicate the spatialness/specialness of a location, or the ‘sense of place.’ Growing up, I spent a lot of time outside - which was easy to do since TV was banned from the house. I was exposed to paper maps, the vastness of the American west, and surveying when I accompanied my father on survey projects as a kid. I took some courses in geography in college, and grew to love exploring and wilderness through backpacking and hiking. I found being in nature while traveling at a walking pace to be a very restorative and inspiring experience. Later I took a number of GIS and cartography classes at Portland State University. My interest in science and history also intersects geography in various ways as so much of history is in relation to the land that people lived on or fought over. What does geography mean to you (in the artistic/existential way not the actual definition)? While there are new planets being discovered every month, earth seems pretty special as it is the only one known to have life. Unless we all would rather just plug into the "Matrix" and give up on a habitable environment, everywhere you look in the physical world there are many dimensions of interesting phenomena. There’s always more going on if one takes the time to look, and to understand the backstory. For example, many days my main window to go walking for exercise is at lunchtime. Last year I started an Instagram feed in which I posted pictures of sidewalk fractures that I thought were pleasing in some way from my walks. I began noticing over the years that these sidewalks were constructed, and many other details that almost everyone ignores. In the last year I’ve noticed a couple of interactive timeline maps that show the progression of neighborhood development in Portland over the last 100 or 150 years, and seeing the dates stamped in the sidewalks made those maps much more real. I enjoyed discovering places where the residents cherished their sidewalk habitat by putting up a small signpost with a poem on it at a street corner, or making a small monument out of the original sidewalk contractor’s logo after their sidewalk was replaced. And it illuminates what a loss it is for a neighborhood to have been built with no sidewalks - the value that society assigned to walking in those decades was nil; walking might well have been seen as a primitive or low-status activity. Can you explain the concept “natural field theory” - how the idea came about and why is it so important for you? One of the main motivating factors for taking up shooting thousands and thousands of panoramas was the desire to capture the feeling of unity of body, spirit, and mind that occurred at certain locations. Why did I feel excellent at a bench along a trail in Foothills Park but just OK at another bench whose location may have many of the same attributes as the first one? Photography can only typically capture light energy, but science tells us that there are many types of fields exerting force throughout the universe: for example, black holes that bend light, gravity of the sun that keeps planets in orbit, and electrical charge running through a conductor. So I thought it would be interesting to posit a kind of artistic x-ray vision that revealed a variety of invisible forces acting on us as we explore various geographical features. My subject is usually some facet of the natural world because that’s where I have run into these spots where I feel connected to every object in the surroundings. Do you have a "best" experience of geography and the idea of unmediated experience between you and the world? Philip Guston said: “I believe it was John Cage who once told me, ‘When you start working, everybody is in your studio—the past, your friends, enemies, the art world, and above all, your own ideas—all are there. But as you continue painting, they start leaving, one by one, and you are left completely alone. Then, if you’re lucky, even you leave.’” Modern urban life has packed people in more and more densely, with every second focused on getting more things done. For me, walking alone in the mountains peels away the layers that condition regular life: no politics; popular culture is completely irrelevant; gossip gains no foothold; no relentless productivity pressure; and no screens are filtering the space between my senses and the rock formations, trees, or flowing water. Mental concepts of myself tend to melt away. The mountains are my studio... if I’m lucky, even I leave. While I love making maps and photographic panoramas, they seem unable to communicate a holistic snapshot of the experience at one of these special locations. One’s combined senses and emotional tone are the undepicted channel -- which is why using art seems a better medium for conveying a truth of my experience in the mountains. What is the story of the origins of the Topology series? Over the last few years there have been quite a few maps that make a large complex system that is invisible, visible in a beautiful way. For example, the wind maps that show global wind direction and velocity, the social networking map, and internet traffic maps. (See more examples of global connectivity visualizations here.) And then, of course, there’s the northern lights. With the Topology series, I explored the idea of taking this further in the natural world. What if microgravity between rocks and mountains was visible? What if the historical movement of geologic formations over the ages became discernible? What if all the transition states of water in a glacial field were visualized using lines? What if you could see the forces that cause a volcanic mountain to have its own weather? None of the works in this series are based on actual data—that would take a lifetime—it’s more artistic exploration/speculation.
Title: Topology of water vapor freed from alpine icebanks — What if you could track the motion of vapor molecules that rise off of ice/snow banks when the sun starts warming them?
Title: The quartzite temporalities structure this field of benefaction — While meditating in the mountains at sunrise, I was struck by how extreme the contrast is between the rock bathed in daylight and those still in the shadow of dawn--sort of a yin/yang fractalized by the structure of the rock. How might those two halves be interacting?
Title: Protracted topology of glacial slip-movement — The title was inspired by stories I’ve read of 1) the difficulties explorers have crossing large glaciers and 2) how a WWII airplane that crashed in the upper end of a glacier was transported inside the ice over 60 years to the foot of the glacier.
Title: The topology of homing pigeons at the polar terminator line — The artwork’s high contrast reminded me of some landscapes that people thought might be found at the north pole before people reached it, and the fact that S. A. Andrée's Arctic Balloon Expedition used homing pigeons to report on their progress.
Title: Stone Ephemera of Codex Monolithiopia (from Invisible Structure series) — Inspiration for this piece came from a photo I shot at Mt. Hood on an overcast day, and the only indication that the mountain was there was some rock formations hugging a ridge before fading into the fog.
Title: T0 angular passageway (from Wave Field series) — The outcome of this work reminded me of a science fiction scene, a dream, or a physics experiment--maybe all three synthesized into one. How do viewers respond to your work? One of the more challenging facets of posting one’s artwork online is the lack of direct feedback compared to an exhibit. That said, I’ve had the good fortune to attract almost 12,000 followers on Tumblr, and there you can measure the number of likes, re-blogs, comments, etc. It seems to me that there is a small audience of viewers who enjoy Art of Geography a lot, and a larger audience who may not be into abstraction but like some aspect of the work. Is there anything we haven't mentioned you feel is important to share? Many artists plan out their artwork’s structure before making it. My process feels like the opposite tack: I keep trying things, keep destroying the previous layer, keep trying to get out of the way, until a fortuitous accident happens and ... I see in the art a world I would like to inhabit. Then I start exploring that world. The end result is rarely something I anticipated beforehand.
Erik Goetze lives and works in Portland, Oregon. You may click here to view his full portfolio and to contact him.