Oil painting of a large rock covered in moss and fern, with dark woods in the background

Portrait of a Rock, oil on linen, 68 by 88 inches, 2013

Read the interview by Faheem Haider in Daily Dose on Chronogram

Portrait of a Rock is a painting I made in summer of 2013. It was paired with 110 Days of Winter as the focal point of my solo show at Roos Arts in Rosendale, New York.

This was the first painting I made in 10 years. In 2004, I quit painting, which had been the nucleus of my life and identity. I had shifted my practice from indoor studio painting to outdoor painting two years prior. Outdoor life painting answered many questions, and gave me the challenges and satisfaction I hadn’t received from studio painting. At the same time, I was becoming deeply disturbed by the direction we were heading—we were in the second year of Iraq war, George Bush was reelected, climate change was becoming imminent while largely being ignored by the general public. As I spent more time outdoors in solitude, the disparity between my painting bliss and the ominous signs of encroaching conservatism placed me in a dilemma.

In 2003, with a few successful pieces (Black Locusts and Maple Sapling),  I reached a place in my painting where I felt confident I could leave it and come back some time later. I packed up my studio and all of my tools, and dove into something I had never thought I would be involved in: activism.

During the 10 years I was away from painting, I became active in permaculture, community events, school activities, and art advocation, and embraced social media. It was the complete opposite of my reclusive painter’s life. My involvement with the community humbled me and empowered me at the same time. There were so many people who were tirelessly devoting their time and labor to art, community, and various worthy causes. It was refreshing and and comforting to know that I was not special yet not alone, and all was not in peril.

I did quit painting but I did not quit art. I began using photography, video, event organization, and project production as my artistic outlet. The digital revolution filled the gap between painting and life for me, and being an artist no longer meant being a hermit. Deep down inside, however, there was always a part of me that yearned for the painting bliss.

Just as abruptly as my departure from painting, came my return to painting. My show at Roos Arts Gallery had been planned for two years, but until only a few months before the show, I had been planning to create an installation, a conceptual map of the art community in the Hudson Valley. But in June of 2013, I was fortunate to receive a residency as Visiting Artist at SUNY Ulster County Community College, where I eventually created the installation, freeing up the need to do so at Roos.

“I’m going to paint that rock,” as if it was dropped from the sky, the thought appeared and quickly pervaded me. I went into debt and bought stretchers and primed linen, and began painting. It felt so natural I almost forgot I hadn’t painted for 10 years. In fact, it was in some ways easier—I was just grateful that I could paint again. The act of painting alone was my personal accomplishment and reward.

Keiko Sono in studio


Portrait of a Rock, detail


Portrait of a Rock, detail


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