Britt Block: Paintings about presence

A Yamhill County artist visited a local park over a year and came away with a series of pastels expressed through the “porous medium" of her life

Along with restaurants, bars, and gyms, the Chehalem Cultural Center in Newberg was swept up in Oregon Gov. Kate Brown’s two-week freeze, which is scheduled for a thaw Dec. 2. If the center does in fact reopen that day, you’ll still have several weeks to catch Britt Block’s A Year at Grenfell Park  in the Central Gallery.

Ed Grenfell Park is a seven-acre park owned by Yamhill County about five miles west of McMinnville. I know it for personal reasons: My wedding rehearsal dinner was there; and a few years ago, my son’s school held a  social event in the park. Parents crowded around a covered eating area while children played in Baker Creek, which meanders past banks rich in native plants and trees, including Douglas fir, western hemlock, big-leaf maple, and Oregon white oak.

Enter Britt Block, a local artist who spent many years directing high school theater in Southern California, producing plays on sets designed by her husband. All the while, she was painting. She received an MFA in Arts and Consciousness from John F. Kennedy University. On her website, she describes herself as a “re-emerging” artist. “After ten years of intensive painting and gallery representation I took a detour — a hiatus that was not a hiatus — which led me through the world of pastels to the present moment.”

Of “September” (pastel on paper, 26 by 38 inches, 2019), Britt Block says that Ed Grenfell Park has everything she is drawn to in painting: water, rocks, trees, light, land.
Of “September” (pastel on paper, 26 by 38 inches, 2019), Britt Block says that Ed Grenfell Park has everything she is drawn to in painting: water, rocks, trees, light, land.

For the Chehalem show, Block sought a year’s worth of moments depicting Oregon landscape. She describes her thought process in the show’s notes:

“My initial impulse was to explore the act of painting with pastels in an intensive way over time: making one or more paintings each month for a year. In a way, the content began as unimportant to me, except that I knew I wanted to paint what I loved – the landscape.  Instead of searching for content out in the world (going for day trips around Oregon and searching out the fabulous photographic moments that abound here), I decided to look closer to home – to find a place that had all of the elements that interested me: rocks, water, light, earth – and revisit that one spot over time.”

That’s how she came to Grenfell Park. She began in September 2019, with a sprawling view of the shallow portion of Baker Creek where it’s safe for children to splash when the weather’s nice. This image, at 26 by 38 inches, is among the largest of Block’s pastels on sanded paper, and I found myself examining it for a long time. What’s striking about September is that this particular day afforded ideal light (and water level) for showing a full range of tree reflection in the creek. In a sense, a large part of the image was painted twice; one image is, visually, upside down.

Viewers are advised to spend some time with the show notes and the note accompanying each of the 18 paintings. Because as you move down the hall, it becomes clear that this is more than just a journey through the seasons. Again, here’s the artist in her own words:

“Last of November” (pastel on paper, 15 by 12 inches, 2019), Britt Block writes in her notes, was the first painting she made after learning of her husband’s terminal diagnosis.
“Last of November” (pastel on paper, 15 by 12 inches, 2019), Britt Block writes in her notes, was the first painting she made after learning of her husband’s terminal diagnosis.

In the process of working on the series I discovered that although my medium appeared to be pastel, I was actually expressing through the porous medium of my life.  As the year progressed and events took a turn with the terminal diagnosis and hospice journey of my husband of 25 years, I found the painting responsive to and expressive of the feeling state of my awareness. His journey became intertwined with the progression of the seasons, and the journey of light and darkness in the landscape, the paintings, and in my heart.

So in the end, the paintings are about presence.  They are about the radiant and healing transcendent beauty of the earth, about Nature’s redemptive power, about the glimpse into the eternal that we get abiding with the land.  And they are for me also about showing up inside my experience day after day, saying yes to everything, being present with all of it, true to all of it. 

I’ve seen A Year at Grenfell Park twice. The first time was a calming, and ultimately moving, experience. But then I learned something else about the paintings, something you wouldn’t know unless you visit Block’s website — or continue reading — and I realized I needed to see it again: I learned how she did it using the grid method.

The so-called grid method is centuries old; Leonardo da Vinci is said to have used it (with string or wire) for life drawings. It is most commonly used in drawing, particularly with beginners and students. Block had never used it with paint, but for Grenfell Park, she took photographs of the scene she planned to create, and drew a grid over a print, most no larger than 8 by 10 inches (though September was a bit larger). Then, a grid with the same number of squares was marked out on the paper. Then she went to work, painting what she saw in each square, one square at a time. 

“I think in the time I did September, I was even filling in the squares in a random order,” she told me. “I would just draw a square out of the hat. When I did September, it was totally random, and I got myself into trouble a couple of times,” she laughed. “Once I was OK to stay present enough, that was very helpful.”

The effect of the pandemic is reflected in “Park Closed” by Britt Block (pastel on paper, 16 by 10 inches, 2020).
The pandemic is reflected in Britt Block’s “Park Closed” (pastel on paper, 16 by 10 inches, 2020).

Repeated trips to the park made her intimately familiar with what she called the “characters” there — the visual elements making up the landscape. Using the grid technique, she added, was a way to avoid the trap of being wedded to the “symbols” of what she was painting, as opposed to what she could actually see. 

“I knew that a grid would work that way, and I know that I have to find ways out of my head as a painter,” she said. “When I start drawing, if I’m not present, the part of my brain that wants to do the symbol for something instead of what’s actually there kicks in. So instead of drawing what’s in front of my face, I go, ‘Oh, it’s a tree,’ and boom, I make a straight line where there’s no straight line. So the grid kept me really present.”

Hopefully, December will give us a few weeks when the public can be present with A Year at Grenfell Park. It’s scheduled to be there through Dec. 31.

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This article was made possible with support from The Ford Family Foundation’s Visual Arts Program.

This story is supported in part by a grant from the Yamhill County Cultural Coalition, Oregon Cultural Trust, and Oregon Community Foundation.

About the author

David Bates is an award-winning Oregon journalist with more than 20 years as a newspaper editor and reporter in the Willamette Valley, covering virtually every topic imaginable and with a strong background in arts/culture journalism. He has lived in Yamhill County since 1996 and is currently a freelance writer whose clients have included the McMinnville News-RegisterOregon Wine Press, and Indulge, a food-oriented publication. He has a B.S. degree in journalism from the University of Oregon and a long history of involvement in the theater arts, acting and on occasion directing for Gallery Players of Oregon and other theaters in Oregon.

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