When Breath Becomes Light: The Contemplative Art of Pegan Brooke
By Laurie Sammis
Sun Valley Magazine
Pegan Brooke wants to get to the heart of things. She wants to become the essence of what she is painting, feeling her way into the inner space of a thing to locate what is unique and inexpressible in it. She might have been a philosopher, but because she is an artist, her chosen medium for doing this is through paint on canvas. And with the focus of her current body of work centering on the natural beauty and sustained reflection of light falling on water, at the present moment, what she wants to become is water.
This was a natural space for the girl from Southern California, whose earliest memories were of water, surfing and swimming in the waves and swells of the Pacific Ocean. “I love all water … clouds, rain, fog,” Brooke said from her studio in Ketchum this past spring. “It is amazing to me that the rain here today might have once been a cloud in Zimbabwe.”
For Brooke, water is a visual phenomenon that creates awe and wonder, and is a perfect natural metaphor for the ever-changing flux in which we make our lives. And while there is incredible movement of brushstroke and color within the field of her landscape-inspired abstract paintings, her canvases also present carefully constructed patterns of rising and receding color fields, which create natural rhythms of tone and color that both soothe and calm. There is a quality of air to her paintings that seems to shimmer and slide in exactly the same manner as light falling on an unbroken expanse of ocean or mist glinting off crystals of snow.
The work is ethereal and her paintings seem almost to breathe the space in which they hang so that we are drawn to them in the way that worshippers are drawn to a temple, climbers to a high mountain vista.
There is both an openness and quiet intimacy to each work, drawing perhaps out of the thoughtful and careful attention to her process. Brooke’s work is deliberate and focused, almost meditative. Her Ketchum studio is orderly and neat, sparse in its trappings, and with an absence of any natural light so that she is able to paint entirely from intuition and feeling.
“I enjoy phenomenon—literature, dance, philosophy—that points to an internal space,” she stated, but is quick to add that, for her, it is not about the internal space of the self but about looking within, or without, to find the thing that has meaning for other people. “There is a difference between intuition and intellect,” she continued, stressing the importance of trusting your instincts and running it through your mind so it can find form. The form her paintings take are predominantly tonalist works built from a series of squares, which capture, in a myriad of brushstrokes and gradations of oil paint, the unique refractions of water and light. “Each square represents a snapshot of reality, a moment in time marked by a piece of light falling on a piece of water,” Brooke said. It is her way of “thinking through paint.” What is left is Brooke’s intuition of the image she has seen, a reconstituted illusion of something that is both breathtaking in its natural beauty and fleeting in its inability to remain static.
“I love things that one can only see in an instant,” said Brooke, “they shock us into contemplation, thought and change.”
In the same manner that light falls upon water, at times reflecting back into the air and at times diffusing into long fingers and sheets of mist, the muted tonality of Brooke’s canvases shift and move, changing tone and depth based on where the viewer is standing in the room. As you move around the canvas, there is nearly a constant shifting of paint and brushstroke, color and movement.
Her favorite project to date was a series of 10 pieces created in homage to the moment almost in absence of light—the sunrise or sunset of each day. “It was about the line of where the light goes down, with reference to the tides and cycles of repetition and flux,” Brooke stated enthusiastically, as she recalled how much she loved making the series. “I loved the idea of flux and of expanding my work on something along a timeline,” she continued, “I loved the process of becoming nature, becoming a month, becoming a season.”
The piece, made in her Ketchum studio, went all the way around one wall of the room and speaks to an essential element of Brooke’s work. “I’m not only trying to create space for my viewer, I’m asking them to move … I want them to move their bodies,” she claimed, “because I want my paintings to be like the shore or the riverbank. I want movement.”
For Brooke, art is more than just process. The creation of each canvas becomes an exploration into the creative contemplation of taking up space in this life. Her work seems to become a meditation of mixing paint, tone upon tone in variations of subtle shades of misty yellow and sunlit gold, or silvery twilight and hazy blue, and placing brushstrokes one by one on canvas. She is deliberate in her work, moving across the canvas from top to bottom, painting from her ladder, and placing one brushstroke over another in a different stroke or style, as she creates from a place of deep contemplation of the very essence of her subject.
It is perhaps for this reason that a Pegan Brooke painting cannot be captured on the page. Somehow her canvases exist to change and shift, expand and recede, rise and flow in the manner of light passing over or through water. Each painting offers an invitation to decelerate from the instant on and off of technology and all that we carry with us through each day, thus becoming an invocation to contemplate other ideas: simplicity, movement, reflection, space.
Brooke’s intention is to provide space, a container for thought and introspection, and it is telling that her most cherished reaction to her work was when one viewer, an artist herself, proclaimed, “The paintings take my breath away, even as they give me air.”