Through the States presents new works by Erik Olson inspired by his experiences motorcycling across America. In each unique work, the artist has drawn with pastel on top of traditionally printed etchings. The artist’s own words from his journal, accompanied by paintings and photographs he made along the way, describe his 10,000 mile ride around the circumference of the United States.
It started with an idea to paint a motorcycle at full 1:1 scale, sell the painting, buy the real thing and ride it down the west coast to L.A. I began painting in my Düsseldorf studio in early 2017, creating two for good measure: one day and one night view. I left the background empty, like a blue screen, open to receive the yet unknown things I’d see along the way.
In April 2018, I bought the bike in Vancouver and drove it across town to Granville Island to show Peter Braune, master printmaker at New Leaf Editions and fellow motorcyclist. We discussed the qualities of the bike. A motorcycle is like a sculpture in a way, a mobile sculpture. A machine that reveals and revels in space and place, a machine to see landscapes. From New Leaf, the etchings; from there, the trip began.
The Sea to Sky highway, riding north from Vancouver; snow on the mountain peaks but I was below, holding on, and flying through clouds. I went far up that road to the snow line before Whistler. Then sailed back down, descending towards the ocean, clouds around, transcendent, the engine strong and steadily thumpin’. Wind biting but the sun opened up between the clouds and mountains down to the sea, Horseshoe Bay across to the Sunshine Coast.
South to Washington State along the curving coastline shrouded by large evergreens. Stopped in Portland, a night of beer halls and pool tables. In the morning I rode Morrison Street then west to the ocean and south down the Oregon coast, past Cannon Beach, rock haystacks jutting from the sea, past San Marine and Searose Beach; past Florence, past Dunes City. Sand in the distance. Onward south past Gold Beach, past Brookings.
To the city of “Eureka”, but there was nothing to find here, it doesn’t fit the name, at least not now. Burned out, ragged from its history, a cast of seemingly sinister characters along its streets. I kept on south. I stopped to review my maps in the sun. A beautiful elderly woman with long waist length grey hair said “goodbye” and waved to me as I pulled away. She looked at me as though I had known her in another life. Into the great Redwood forests, towering giants, their secret song sung low and deep over a thousand years as their sun and mine lowered in the sky.
Further south, towering giants of red painted steel like the rising redwoods but three times the height – the Golden Gate Bridge and glimmering far off I saw the city. All ahead of me now. The sun setting as I motorcycled between lanes, cars ahead parting like the orange waters of some biblical sea. At Stanford University I found Rodin’s Gates of Hell.
Eating strawberries just past Halfmoon Bay, Santa Cruz, Hogs Breath, Carmel, Monterey. Along precipice-footed ridges above Ventana Creek to Big Sur, and the hot pools next to the saltwater down below, nude bodies and blue light as the moon set over the Pacific. Big Sur... I've got plans for you.
Into the haze of LA, to paint at La Brea, when I learned a friend, taken by madness, had taken her own life. I had no choice but to go away from that, to continue, into the bacchanalia of America, that orgy of freedom, intoxicated by it. The endless road, through the states of mind, no stopping now.
East to Joshua Tree, those dagger-like leaves on sparse alien forms. Winds blowing further through and beyond Phoenix, between two tornadoes, past the Lion’s Den Porno Shop and wasted party bars.
Into the desolate grandness that is New Mexico. Signs read, ‘pull over in case of sand storm, do not put on your brakes!’
Straight ahead east to Las Cruces, a right turn and then a swooping curve east and I saw the multitude of colored buildings across the Rio Grande, the cityscape of hillsides rising like a wave. The words “CD JUAREZ, LA BIBLIA ES LA VERDAD LEELA’ written, actually painted right upon the mountainside beyond. Juarez, a city of death telling me to read the truth. I realized this was Mexico and I was staring across the borderlands.
Adios, El Paso. Stopped by the border patrol – “Are you an American?” they asked. “No, I’m Canadian.” …enough, they waved me through. A cooler evening, rabbit eyes, distant lights, a Prada store, and I was in Marfa.
In the clear sky of the next day, concrete slabs framing the landscape, activating the life with their cool formalism. Judd, more down to earth and human than I’d expected.
Riding open skies under the light so strong, burning my leg through a hole in my jeans in the arid land of Texas. Austin, every place had a live band, guitar, bass and kick drum thumpin’. Thousands on the summer streets. Morning light, Ellsworth Kelly Chapel, then the tangled trees of Houston and the Rothko Chapel of sorrow.
Louisiana green, almost New Orleans! I stopped for Cajun food somewhere near Lafayette when my brother texted me “Anthony Bourdain is dead!” Down the mighty Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico. New Orleans. Bourbon street, stinking of beer and whiskey, a white policeman riding a horse pissing on the road, three hundred nude revellers parading past. The soothsayer, the burlesque dancer. I twirled a girl from Lafayette, an Acadian, she said, and I understood the word Cajun for the first time. It was all here, just like they said it would be, human and true, alive with motion and sweat, the roads that cross, the deep South.
North through Alabama. At a Waffle House I heard a man say, “y’all have a blessed day now”. I drove by a towering, gigantic white cross, and a lunatic waving a confederate flag from the overpass.
Into Washington D.C. riding that Bonneville like a Chester Gould character. Streetscapes with riot police and military vehicles. Stayed across from Madam’s Organ. Late morning I met Charles Ritchie, paper archivist at the National Gallery of Art for lunch and then into the archives. He pulled out boxes from the shelves, venerated tomes from an antiquarian library. One revealed a 1902 Picasso self-portrait in charcoal. No glass, the paper laying there, rich in detail, made with a fast and free hand. A William Blake watercolor, no frame, no glass, just there, as complex as its existence. Bodies seething in a nightmarish sea, moving pigment.
Outside the gallery, the Lincoln Memorial, the blue skies through the columns, the reflecting pool, the obelisk beyond, looking out across the Mall: I found myself thinking “have you seen dignity?”
New York, New York, north to the slumber less city. Drummer on the street, pigeons, doves, crashing, tumbling rhythm. Fire Island, Sunken Forest, open air, thin island, sunrise, sunset.
Boston. I found the big green house, my childhood home and Gauguin’s masterpiece too: “Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?”
West to Woodstock. I went to a flea market and happened to ask a man if he knew if Big Pink still existed. “Hey Marg”, he yelled over to another market stand. “Where’s Big Pink?” ....“Who?” she replied. “No, Big Pink, the house, you know, Bob Dylan, the Band, where they recorded the basement tapes!”
She yelled the address over. I wrote it down, bought three vintage postcards, thanked him and rode out to find it along the country road that I’d imagined. The path in my mind. The warm summer air and cool breeze below the trees, the Triumph motor in perfect timing. I turned onto an old dirt road and between trees, opening up like a dream, was Big Pink. It was July 2nd and unbeknownst to me, it was exactly 50 years to the day that the album ‘Big Pink’ had been released.
I loaded saddle bags at sunrise. New York State backroads. Bluestone walls, old buildings, farmhouses new, chickens crossing the line and small town barber’s poles, red white and blue. Winding mountain roads, cool air as the wheels rolled along a line across a land. I thought of my friend who had died. I listened to the band the War on Drugs, “Thinking of a Place”. Grateful for the time we’d shared.
Crossing the border to London, Ontario, where I would paint for a few months. Then Motown, Chi-town, then Midwest.
In Minnesota I sat outside of an old motel and started talking to a man. He said he’d been a SEAL and high on military issued methamphetamine had sky dived into Baghdad. He told me things I wish he hadn’t. Brutal and bloody stories. I listened, his eyes wild, my eyes wide. Horrible things. He kept playing with a butterfly knife, a lost man, broken and abandoned in middle America. I left that town the next morning, no breakfast, no coffee, just go.
Route food: burgers and fries, truck stops with style of their own. I talked to farmers and truckers who criss-crossed the country. “Is your bike old or new?” – “It’s new.” “Are you old or young?” – “I’m 35.” “You’re young. Where you from?” – “Canada.” “You’re from Canada? Is it true everyone up there is a ‘Never Trumper?’”
Above misery, across the Missouri, and I was in the West. South Dakota roadside 80 foot Dinosaur. Land of the coyote and those rolling grasslands, the backs of porcupines spread out upon the earth as far as the eye can see.
Bear’s Tooth pass, the legendary motorcycle road, high plains drifter, elevated fields of greenest grass, scimitar roads sweeping, left and right. I accelerated and leaned into the curves. A moment of freedom now.
My last night on the road I stayed at altitude in a small motel. Among the mountains, the clear air, the open space – the cosmos: I dreamt of motorcycling through the states...
“the evening star must be drooping and shedding her sparkler dims on the prairie, which is just before the coming of complete night that blesses the earth, darkens all rivers, cups the peaks and folds the final shore in, and nobody, nobody knows what’s going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old…”
- Jack Kerouac, On the Road