It’s all one.
Translated from Dutch by Tilman Skowroneck and Robin Blanton
Go inside a stone
That would be my way.
Let somebody else become a dove
Or gnash with a tiger’s tooth.
I am happy to be a stone.
Charles Simic, Stone 1
A stone is like compressed time, shaped in the interior of the earth. A mineral, a semiprecious stone, or a gemstone (rock crystal, amethyst, desert rose) seems like a dead thing, yet for centuries minerals were said to have healing powers. Powdered pearls and sapphires were made into medicines. Even today, some people believe that stones are surrounded by a positive energy field. A golden-brown tiger’s eye lifts the spirits and protects you against the wrong kind of friends. And, of course, gemstones were used to make paint. The mineral lazurite, from the stone lapis lazuli, produces an intense blue color. 2
Gemstones are minerals, clumped together, formed perhaps over the course of millions of years. Compared to the human lifespan, the amount of time held within a stone is overwhelming. A stone shapes itself deep inside the earth and is brought to the surface by landslides. There, in the interior of the earth, is where all life began, and the earth, with its perfect ecosystem, still provides us with everything necessary to sustain that life.
Jessica Skowroneck’s paintings resemble gems, both in their beauty and in their closeness to the earth: as if a mineral had been split open and at some unobserved magical moment begun to move, its colors flowing together or separating into strokes of paint, the strokes joining to form a leaf, a tree, a branch, or the abstraction of moving forests or a patch of ground. ‘I find it mysterious how a plant or a tree can grow. They are literally full of energy, because how else could they possess the thrust that makes them grow?’ says Jessica. Stones, on the other hand, possess an entirely different kind of energy.
If you put a seashell to your ear, you hear the faint echo of the ocean. But to perceive the murmur of stones, you need to listen with extra care: there is almost nothing there. Or is it that our hearing is not sufficiently acute to detect their sound, that echo from the interior of the earth?
Looking at Jessica’s paintings, you see silence and movement. If you open all your senses, you can hear the wind and possibly the low humming of insects, see the heat vibrating. Under the painter’s hands, strokes of paint form sand, vegetation, and stones, even as they appear to dissolve, become liquid. Back to the origin.
In Age of conifers we see tall evergreens, although their shaggy shapes bear no resemblance to the familiar conical silhouette. Perhaps these trees were simply never pruned, left alone to grow to their full height. Or perhaps they are pointers to those ancient trees whose petrified remains can be traced back 300 million years. Of course, the elusive stretch of time before the existence of humankind remains a great and unknown mystery, for how can we imagine a world of plants outside our own frame of reference? We can certainly try, but always in the humble awareness that it may remain inaccessible to our powers of imagination.
Jessica’s palette of pink, green, mustard, and brown, with the recent addition of violet and purple, reflects the grand and exuberant color spectrum of the earth. But can the ground really be pink, purple, or even mint green? The Dutch artist herman de vries has charted the colors of the earth in his series of aarduitwrijvingen, or earth rubbings. Since 1976, de vries has collected earth samples from around the world, rubbing them onto paper to produce squares of color.
‘Earth is the foundation of everything of concern to us. You walk on it, but you don’t see it, not consciously. All sorts of things develop and grow in the earth, including our food. The ground often has brilliant colors and nuances and it differs from spot to spot.’ De vries collects nature and puts it on exhibit. He organizes and names things, not out of scholarly interest, but as a way to communicate his experience. The forest, the world are his habitat and atelier.
‘Language is what splits the world in two. We talk about here and there, you and me, nature and culture,’ de vries says. ‘I hate the term “green.” It’s office speak, a concept for city planners to toss around: green corridors, green visions, green zones. A really egregious example is the German word Straßenrandbegleitgrün’ (“green that runs beside the edge of the road”). 3
Like de vries’ work, Skowroneck’s has little to do with language. It is direct and aims to remove the divide between humans and nature. WE ARE – we experience the world through our senses and form a picture of the world in that way. Nature is our primeval reality and everything else is a derivation. But thinking often gets in the way of our ability to experience. I recall a time – already long ago – when I was looking out the window, or thought I was. Actually, I was so lost in my thoughts, staring vaguely at the green leaves of a tree, that I completely failed to see a big orange ship piled with sand as it passed by. It gave me quite a start. Experiencing with your senses wide open is possible only if your thoughts stay slightly in the background – like a friendly dog on a leash. Easy now. Too much thinking makes your body tense up, and that in turn locks up your emotions. As you relax, they release. In the same way, Skowroneck’s paint strokes feel like branches moving in the wind, like flowing emotions.
At the age of two, Jessica Skowroneck moved with her Dutch mother and German father to Sweden, where they lived in a house at the edge of a forest. An actual forest. In school she learned what to do when you got lost – a real danger. How do you act when you meet an aggressive moose? She learned how to build shelters and start a fire. As a child, nature felt like a pair of warm hands holding her. Being at one with nature was a simple fact of life. Learning to find mushrooms and berries in the woods also showed her that nature nourishes us.
In the Netherlands, it can still surprise her to see nature all around her being treated as an attraction, overfull of people out for a Sunday walk. More than anything, the Netherlands feel like a garden enclosed by a fence, from which ‘real’ nature has disappeared.
This loss is also reflected in specific words that don’t exist in Dutch (anymore?). Swedish has the word glänta for an open patch in the woods. A tjärn is a small lake in the forest, partly or entirely surrounded by fens. There is even a word that encapsulates the mystery of the forest. Rå means a custodian or guardian, and you must make friends with the rå of a place, as its powers can be helpful for humans, but also dangerous.
Language and thought go hand in hand. Language allows us to inventory the world and thereby annex it, making it clear that we are in charge. But Arita Baaijens says we should listen more carefully to nature: ‘People exploit the sea and nature as if they belonged to us alone, and not also to themselves. We must listen to the murmuring of the world. A shared language makes it possible to see the world as a connected system in which an ocean, a rock, or a mosquito is simply its own.’ Places do exist where humans and nature understand each other. The people of Papua New Guinea, writes Baaijens, ‘live in an acoustic universe.’ Nature is ‘a being, a living entity that commands respect and needs to be reckoned with.’
Baaijens also suggests that we should not call things ‘it,’ but should see plants, mosses, stones, and things as our equals, and address them accordingly. 4
Hartmut Rosa discusses the assumption of modernity that as humans, we can fully control our environment, including nature. He makes a plea for a concept he calls resonance: being in living contact with something outside yourself. ‘Resonance can happen whenever you are literally in conversation with someone, but also in your relationship to an animal or during a soccer match or a walk in the forest. The key in every case is, on the one hand, the structure of an honest question, and on the other, an answer that cannot be predicted from the question.’ This meaningful exchange is based on listening and reacting with your own voice. Or with your own feeling; that is also possible. 5
Skowroneck’s works are a prolongation of this idea. They bear witness to an existence in the midst of nature: The view from the hammock is not a glance cast from an apartment window but a lazy, swaying experience encircled by shrubs, trees, and ferns. My sleeping spot (I slept on a bug tonight) is another green-ringed den, where a beetle easily survives the sleeper’s weight.
In the primeval forest, temptation also dwells. Swedish folklore tells of the skogsrå, an irresistibly beautiful woman who leads men into the heart of the forest. But beware – her back is a rotting tree trunk. The skogsrå is the spirit of the wood, and she always takes the side of the plants and animals. As in the case of witches, fear of these unknown forces of nature led to persecution. Legal writings from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries contain records of men convicted of having sexual relationships with wood sprites.
Nature is a place of temptation and eroticism. The sensuality of the forest lies not only in the erotic forms of the plants themselves, as Karl Blossfeldt portrayed them in his razor-sharp black-and-white photographs. Nature also seduces through its appeal to the senses: the greens and yellows, the smell of resin, the rustling, the swaying. A forest is an invitation to experience, to let your mind go briefly quiet, to surrender. Feeling perfect love requires just this kind of letting go. Perfect place for mating: something pink in the middle of the green. Bodies? Or maybe a patch of pink sand, as if the earth were beckoning: Lie down, we’ll hide you. Just come. We took all the time we needed.
In the places that wait for us in graceful strokes of paint, anything can happen. The titles are only suggestions for the viewer.
Witches’ Meadow is such a suggestion: namely, of a place where witches can meet without danger. ‘Witches have a bad image, but in the past, they were women with great knowledge of herbs and plants. They were midwives and they also knew methods for abortion. What is wrong with women’s powers? All that knowledge and power was clearly seen as a threat to the social order, and the witch hunts were a way to take it from them.’ Come, hunted ones, here is a place painted for you, where you can dwell without fear.
‘I am more afraid of people than of the dark forest,’ says Skowroneck toward the end of our conversation. ‘I pick up on moods. Once, even before some friends told me that they were getting a divorce, I sensed that something was going on. These antennae can sometimes be quite annoying. As a result, I prefer a rather secluded life. In a crowded city the energies get in the way of each other too much and I don’t feel a sense of space.’ Talking about energies possessed by every stone and every person rapidly takes you into vaguely esoteric terrain. A good alternative might be the word ‘ensouled’ – ensouled as Wislawa Szymborska describes it in her poem A few words on the soul. 6
Joy and sorrow
aren’t two different feelings for it.
It attends us
only when the two are joined.
We can count on it
when we’re sure of nothing
and curious about everything.
People like to pass judgment, to put labels on events. But the soul, or energy, does not judge. It pulls away from our labels. ‘The way we see the world around us is not neutral, and I try, through the flow of painting, to reach a new territory, something outside the world as we know it.’
The title Rain pours down into my deep sleep refers to this kind of different awareness. Deep sleep could be death, or perhaps only deep slumber; in any case, it is a state of existence where experience is pure and free of judgment. In the deep sleep state, you would be able to feel rain without thinking about wet, cold, annoying, or refreshing. Just rain. ‘To strip away all the filters – that is what I try to do when I paint. To just BE, because as a human being, thinking and feeling are always tied to judgment.’
Mountains I have never seen, mountains where I’ve never been addresses the distance and closeness of a place. A specific experience moves into the painting to join with a place Skowroneck has never visited. And who knows? Perhaps time, too, can move back and forth. ‘We recall experiences, but the truth of the experience is often doubtful. Might we also be able to remember the future? After all, our desires live in thoughts that often reach into the future.’ Before the beginning of time is about the dissolution of time, as in sleep or meditation. Dream, hallucination, recollection, and fantasy could very well be one and the same reality. Perhaps not in actuality – but art makes it possible.
Land of fools and lovers. The fool asks questions and challenges our assumptions. The lovers embrace everything – people, things, plants, stones – without discrimination. A unity. ‘Sometimes I feel more like a stone than an animal. I surround myself with plants. I don’t know if I feel like a plant, but above all I understand that you cannot have one without the other. I look for connection – it’s a matter of harmony and equality.’ To go inside a stone. That would be my way.
- Charles Simic, “Stone,” https://www.pbslearningmedia.org/resource/pe11.rla.genre.poetry.simstone/stone-by-charlessimic/.
- https://www.semoea.nl/edelstenen/tijgeroog.html, https://spiru.nl/edelstenenzo-werken-ze-en-dit-kunje-ermee/.
- Wilma Sütö, “Mijn band met de meidoorn is sterk herman de vries haat de term ‘groen’,” de Volkskrant, July 31, 1998.
- Arita Baaijens, “Een gouden baan op woelig water,” De Groene Amsterdammer 13, March 31, 2021, https://www.groene.nl/artikel/een-gouden-baan-opwoelig-water.
- https://www.ifilosofie.nl/kritiek-gestresste-rede/, Bas Heijne, “Socioloog Hartmut Rosa: ‘Wij willen een goed leven, maar jagen alleen maar na wat meetbaar is,’” NRC, October 23, 2020, https://www.nrc.nl/nieuws/2020/10/23/sociolooghartmut-rosa-we-willen-eengoed-leven-maar-jagen-alleenna-wat-meetbaar-is-a4017172.
- Wislawa Szymborska, “A few words on the soul,” translated from the Polish by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh, https://www.poetrynook.com/poem/few-words-soul.