Wednesday, March 1, 2017


I cannot thank Stephanie Pope enough for making space for a series of blogs that she has introduced. It affords me the opportunity to play with the difference and similarities between a photo of a scene in nature and a subsequent creation of that scene in an acrylic painting that I am currently completing.  They are, in Aristotle’s term, two different forms of techne. Here is the background to frame the blog’s content.

          I traveled to Cleveland, Ohio to visit family and friends. My younger brother Bill and I have some favorite walking and hiking trails east of Cleveland in Chardon, Ohio. One in particular, part of the Metropolitan Park system, is Strawberry Lane, which includes both horse trails as well as firmer asphalt walkways that stretch for many miles into beautiful wooded terrains.  Depending on our energy level and the climate, we choose one or the other. On this particular morning, we chose to walk several miles along an asphalt path that meanders through the woods, alongside lakes and rivers and into some rolling hills.

          We are never in a hurry, so we pause often on our hike. On one of these walks, I am arrested by the way the morning sun slants through the trees along our path; we stop to let the image work on and over us. It is a very quiet morning with few fellow hikers and little traffic on this weekday, so we enjoy the silence and solitude as well. After a few minutes, I pull out my smartphone and capture the scene in an instant. I take several shots of the same scene which changes slightly with the sun’s movement and the trees’ shadows. Later I will ask myself: what am I after in taking these photos? It is pleasurable now to have the scene in my phone to enjoy many times. I may, for instance, when I return home, print it out and place it behind a frame to hang in my study. Or I may, after a time, simply delete it to make room for other photos.

     Strawberry Lane, Chardon, Ohio

           My question at this point is: is the above a representation of nature? Is it the scene frozen in an instant? Did taking the photo involve a creative act or process?

It is true that something about this scene arrested me: the lighting, the dark shadows of the trunks reaching skyward, the woman walking her small dog, and the  dappled or mottled asphalt path. Did I bring something into being through my framed image I clicked into permanence on my phone?A moment later the light was different and the photo I had just taken was gone. I do not know if I created anything here, but simply recorded in one instant in time a scene offered to me.

          So I have to wonder if this image qualifies as a mimetic image of nature, namely, some creation or even recreation of nature growing out of, as Aristotle believes, a natural human instinct? Or is it more simply and mundanely a mechanical or technological reproduction and I should not claim anything creative about its genesis as a photo?

          Mimesis, as Aristotle defines it, characterizes the axis between the artist and his/her creation growing out of a natural human instinct to make something. Is the act of taking the photo an artistic one? It may be truer to think that the photo is more a correspondence between an aspect of reality, now reconstructed in a medium as close as possible in equivalnence to the viewed/experienced scene. Nature designed the scene and I recorded a segment of the total landscape.

          At one point Aristotle suggests that some mimetic works have a cognitive significance that goes beyond particulars to embody universals, which I believe we can also refer to as archetypes defined by C.G. Jung as a corelative. But I also wonder of the photo: is there a poiesis, or a making of something present in it? Did I make something of Nature through the technology of Culture? Given how one responds to these questions, a third abrupts itself: Is the photo a duplication of nature or a correspondence of it? Sorry about all the questions: I seem to have more of them than assertions.

          So let’s see what happens when we turn to the painting that is in its final stages in this photograph of it.
                   Painting-In_Process : Strawberry Lane acrylic on canvas,
          Dennis Patrick Slattery

                I want to show it in this form, in process, yet nearing completion. I want to note at the outset that I had no desire to create an accurate copy of the photo, but to revision the subject matter in a burst of painterly license. The painting has been in process for months. It required painting a backdrop of the sky, then, beginning at the back of the canvas (16x20), layering in the trees in three dimensions to give the illusion of depth. Now this procedure is closer, I believe, to an aesthetic act of making, what Aristotle would call both a poiesis and a mimesis. It is a mimetic act. I wonder as well if it is not a mythic act or making as well, for my own personal myth is active in this process—choosing what to include, how to change parts of the original, what to finish at each sitting, and the like. More truly, I see it as an analogy of the photo which is a copy, or replica of a scene in nature, in an instant of nature’s presence.

          Aristotle suggests more than once that central to mimesis is “an imitation of Nature” on some level, The painting, he would affirm, is not an expression of me, the artist. Something more is at stake here in the mimetic interplay of photo and painting. I am not painting my interior but something more, an idea of reality not foreign to the trees and grass of nature and the participation of culture, but more an analogy of them with its own order and arrangement; present is both inflection and particularity.

          Yes, I continue to refer to the photo constantly as I create the painting, but I am after its characteristics, the light falling on the path in a particular way, for instance. The painting corresponds to and assimilates what the camera captured of nature in the photo. But it has its own form independent of the photo.

          Can I say the same of the photo? Does it too have an underlying form given that it is a product of technology and my own aesthetic delight? Both the photo and the painting do not depend on me to exist; they both are independent of me. I mediated them into being. In that respect they are both mythic if one understands myth as a formed expression of mediating two realities—both inner and outer realities that comprise me and which I participate in without pause. Both continue to give me, and I hope others, a certain aesthetic pleasure not divorced from the painting’s achievement.

          When I saw the scene in nature, I wanted to capture it directly, not to own it but to have it as a reproduction of my experience on the hiking trail with my brother. When I chose the photo as my subject matter for the painting, I knew I wanted to create an analogy of it with a series of mixes of acrylic paint and not a little help from my fine artist teacher, Linda Calvert Jacobson.  We all have an instinct, Aristotle observes, from childhood on, to engage in mimesis. Rooted in human nature, mimesis is implicit in distinctively human patterns of action, so both the photo and painting carry a mythic element.

          In addition, they both arose out of some desire, some impulse to recreate both mimetic acts: photographing the scene or painting it. I find a certain, but different, aesthetic pleasure in viewing both creations; each may reflect or mirror or correspond to some universal quality that we sense present. Painting, music, craft, writing, all yield mimetic art as Aristotle observes. I wonder how Aristotle would judge photographs.

          He certainly found both understanding and wonder to comprise deep instinctive properties of being human: understanding because it fulfills our nature; wonder because it involves a desire to learn. I find that there is something to learn and to wonder about when comparing these two art forms, two corridors to making something new.

©2017 Dennis Patrick Slattery All Rights Reserved


           Dennis Patrick Slattery Ph.D. is core faculty, Mythological Studies at Pacifica Graduate Institute in Carpinteria, California.  He has been teaching literature and mythology for over 40 years.  He is the author, coauthor, editor, or coeditor of 24 books, including six volumes of poetry; he has published over 200 articles and reviews on literature, psychology, mythology, as well as popular essays on surprises in the world.

            Visit his website at