Going Down the Path of Thorns

This piece began life, as ever, with a simple model shot and pose, and then, weeks later while editing, evolved into a meditation on the deaths in Pompeii when Mount Vesuvius covered the city and all its occupants in ash, preserving them seemingly frozen in time at the point of their death. Ash I could do, roman architecture and volcanoes, well, those items are in short supply in my area. This sat around for weeks until I decided to scrap Pompeii and see what else this pose, which I really liked, could become.

Two aborted trips to gain new environmental material and an old Sarah McLachlan song became the sources for what you see now.  Winter in New England is a damnable thing - you never know what you are getting with the weather from one day to the next. I went out twice in the hopes of getting some new places shot, only to come back empty handed. I got a corn field in winter, cut down to the quick, and on the second trip, almost nothing - a few shots of some branches and a bit of a barbed wire fence.

I have always been a big believer in great titles and try to come up with good ones. Growing up, there are more than a few songs, albums and books I bought solely on the title alone - if they were image-laden, if they were alluring, I was hooked. Once you start writing your own work (I am a songwriter as well), you begin to realize that a title is not enough - or, if you have a killer title, you damned well better deliver the promised goods. Case in point, this title, by Sarah McLachlan. I remember this song only in passing - I remember seeing the album in the store, "Solace," and reading the titles of the songs. "The Path of Thorns" - oooh that sounds rich!  Thorns make me think of Biblical things (Jesus and his crown of thorns) being an ex-Catholic, and you can see in your mind's eye wonderful imagery with a title like this. I never did buy the album for some reason, but I never forgot the title.

Who knows why things are dredged up from your psyche and what it all means, but now, almost twenty years since that album came out or more, the title came to me as something I should explore doing in my work. Thorns…hmmm. Well, I could go to a flower store and buy some roses, but who needs the expense? Besides, thorns are so literal a thing, and rose thorns would likely be too small for what I wanted. I had my barbed wire though, from the failed trip to shoot scenery. Certainly in the thorn family, albeit man-made. I added the wire into the model and built up a suggesting of a barrier in front of the model with it. I added the decimated cornfield right over my Pompeii ground layers and then things started clicking. The crucifixes were a no-brainer; thorns will forever be associated with the Bible in my mind, so an icon like the cross not only gave me some ominous cemetery subtext, but also pulled this into a commentary about my stance on religion in general - the depleted cornfield, the symbol of death that is the cross, and the barbed wire all created, in my mind, a symbolic path of thorns - a path to pain, restriction, emptiness and ruin. This led to me adding a bit of blood on the model to imply his attempts at navigating this barbed wire barrier, and also gave me a color scheme to aim for - for some reason, and again, who knows why, I associate purple with church.

I decided at this point to actually listen to the song I was using the title of, and check out the lyrics of it to see what tidbits of inspiration could be gleaned from it. I was pretty disappointed with what I found, and this goes back to my position on having a great title and backing it up with the goods. It turns out that this song, certainly a nice song, nice melody, well sung, is…a love song, or rather, a relationship song. What a huge disappointment. You have "the Path of Thorns" and all you can think of is a complicated relationship? The title is referencing only one line in the song, and is not the "real" title at all. It is, if you follow the pop song biology and let the music and structure dictate the central theme, "Terms of Endearment." I can see why she would choose to not use this, but in my head, I expected an epic, image-laden, almost mythical journey with a title like that, and not some disappointed lover moaning about the loser who let her down. You only get one "Path of Thorns" to use in your career, so you need to make it count! When you use iconic language like "path" and "thorns" those things need to be present, otherwise you are just false advertising, luring people in with promise of "the greatest show on earth" and delivering to them one single sad clown.

I don't mean to tear her down - I don't hate Sarah, I even have a couple of her albums, and regard her as a good songwriter generally. But you don't use an epic title like that and reduce it to a moan about disappointing paramours! Clearly, this song was not going to help or be connected to my image at all. What does one think of with a path of thorns as a concept? Well, certainly a dangerous path, a path of pain, strife, peril, but you also have to think about the starting point of the journey as well as the destination - where is this path going to? And this is what I spent wondering about in the three days this image took to complete. If religion is my path of thorns here, where is it leading to? Well, nowhere, actually - my model is stopped, wounded, naked and alone. All this fire and brimstone you get from the Bible can only lead you to cold comfort, which is really no comfort at all. It demands of us linear, practical, sensory dependent people to believe in the unsubstantiated, to believe in the scientifically impossible, and to trust that which has never been seen or heard. It demands abstraction and yet wants to be taken literally. It boasts peace, yet wages wars to get it. It divides more people than it unites.

I could go on, but this is all my point of view on the topic, and need not be yours. Therefore, my path of thorns is a personal one - a person at the point of losing his faith after getting stabbed a few times with these "thorns." He is entangled in them, will have scars from the experience, and hopefully will get off this path once he is strong enough to lift himself up, shake off his disillusionment, and find comfort elsewhere.

Ironically, or at least symbolically, this path of thorns became a bit of life imitating art for me. It's hard to convey all this in a blog, but you hit certain crossroads and roadblocks as you produce artwork. I just did some pretty strong pieces, personal high points for me, all in a row, and when they come out one after the other like that, you tend to build up anxiety about the inevitable brick wall you will face. this cycle of prolific output and then a crisis of dry spell has happened before and will again, but it is never easy getting to that point - the trudging through it, surviving it, is a miserable pain in the ass, and always will be. Over the course of two years, I have been developing my own techniques, my own way of achieving a look I like, and now that engine is humming along quite nicely - I could do this approach indefinitely. But that is not growth, and treading water like that eventually creates a mini crisis in your mind - will I ever do anything new or am I a one-trick pony?

I am speaking mainly, in terms of this image, about color. Being a colorist is a huge part of what I do - most of my raw shots of the models are devoid of strong color, being shot on gray paper and most of the models wearing dark clothing or nude. I have developed a way to apply color for my pieces and it is now almost a method, a process. After a while, you begin to ask, is there nothing more? Is it only just red, green blue, violet, orange and yellow? It was almost becoming, "well, I think I have done too many blues lately, let's go yellow!" I spent most of one day trying new ways to color this piece, and threw out the tried and true method. This piece will be stored in my memory now as the one that showed me a few new techniques to apply color and dynamics. Will I be able to use them again? Who knows, but the point is I learned something new to try, and my bag of tricks is a little more robust for the journey. Also, I feel the guilt of relying on my one approach has abated now, I can be reassured that I don't need to churn out carbon copies over and over, that there are other ways of doing things.

Did I deliver an image worthy of the delicious title? Well, that is a matter of opinion, but at least the flavor of it is there, and not some lamentation of love going wrong, and I would rather reach for the grand and mythical and be accused of missing the mark than downplay the intent with a throwaway title like "beware the barbed wire fence!"