Ruminations: Run-Inspired Drawings and Mixed-Media Art

[Editor’s Note: Welcome to the February edition of iRunFar’s Community Voices column! We are honored to present the artwork of Wynn Davis, a teacher, visual artist, and runner hailing from Stillwater, Minnesota. Each month in 2019, we are showcasing the work of a writer, visual artist, or other creative type from within our global trail running and ultrarunning community. Our goal is to tell stories about our sport in creative and innovative ways. Read more about the concept in our launch article. We invite you to submit your work for consideration!]

It’s a Wednesday. I am in the middle of a tempo run on the treadmill and looking out at a matte-finished sheet of ice covering the St. Croix River. During the course of the workout I begin thinking about how to capture this landscape in my current drawing/painting/mixed-media piece.

“Meow.” That’s the sound of my cat, Spooner. He offers you an Upper-Midwest passive aggressive, “Hello.” Don’t be fooled though. He is tough. You have to be. The back half of last week was 40 below Fahrenheit. I found Spooner a few months ago as a lost kitten after a cold and rainy November run. I find a lot of curiosities while navigating the outdoors, particularly on runs, including a collection of animal skulls and feathers. I end up using many of these found materials both indirectly and directly in my work.

Provided is a smattering of my artwork. Running and the outdoors are my muses. My materials are simple and few. Similar to my running, I am not sure I have a ‘style.’ I feel that a robust piece of artwork should have some if not all of the following characteristics: soul, risk, openness, and the capacity for individual interpretation worth challenging.

May you find the joy in the things that are simple and true, even on the toughest of roads.

“Fibonacci’s Nest”

Each spring atop a smoke tree outside my bedroom window sits an intricately fabricated robin’s nest. The ephemeral dwelling reflects painstaking craftsmanship after many migratory miles. Her first brood typically results in two baby-blue eggs. Once outgrown, the robins abandon the nest. A mourning dove often heeds refuge next, as they rarely build their own nests. The dove lays a single egg. By late fall the nest has served its purpose and surrenders to the ground. The nest, much like a daily run, gleans an ephemeral experience along with purpose and intention, if we allow it. Hopefully tomorrow, we start the process anew once again.

“Brown’s Creek”

The satiating sureness and certainty of things is a convenient construct we humans have acquired being at the top of the food chain, unlike the rest of the animal species. Theirs is fraught with fragility and fleetness. It is an early morning spring run along the Brown’s Creek pathway. The little creek is narrow and cold as it flows into the St. Croix River. A small bridge spans the narrow creek at the pathway’s three-mile mark. As I approach the bank of the creek a surreal and quaking pang comes to me. Next to the bank, bobbing in the water face down is a body. A teenager. An accident. A few weeks later that spring while running the lower Brown’s Creek, I keep passing this capsized buffalo fish due to the St. Croix’s swollen spring rise. The fish again reminds me of fragility. 

“Silence is Golden”

On a run along the St. Croix River bluffs I come across a beautiful red-tailed hawk that was hit by a car hasn’t survived. I return to retrieve the bird after finishing my run. The gorgeous melange of crimson and burnt umber adorns the wings and cap of the bird’s head. The talons are razor sharp and anchored by reptilian-textured nodules. Throughout the year, but particularly in the winter while sipping coffee, I watch some compelling squirrel action outside my kitchen window, whether it be teasing my cat Spooner with maniacal heckles, chasing off competing squirrels by spiraling up and down trees, or finding intuitive ways to raid my bird feeders during a cold winter day. In this drawing I wanted to offer an image that isn’t stagnant and to create an idea that leaves the viewer deciding what happens.

“Purpose”

It is a reliable mid-week river-bluff run, not a particularly significant outing. The late-afternoon weather is balmy, grey, and placid, with a fresh coating of fleecy snow. As I work my way back south into town and up the last hill I approach a single silhouette of a gentleman standing outside the local American Legion post bar. He is an older veteran calmly purveying the quiet atmosphere with a cigarette. I give my usual succinct, “Hello,” which typically results in a similar reply, but today is different. His response is one of invigoration and promise that is delivered with conviction. “Now there’s a man with a purpose,” he exclaims. “Thanks,” I reply. Even the most routine and repetitive runs can shed meaningful experiences and motivation. To discover them, perhaps we have to bend the lens and challenge our conventional methods of thinking.

“Untethered”

I am on a morning run along the St. Croix River bluffs of Stillwater. A waft of powdered eggs and boxed hash percolates from the local penitentiary. About fifty yards ahead I notice an oriole fluttering up and down. I carefully approach the beautiful bird. There are thousands of miles on those tangerine-orange-on-silhouette wings. The road on which I run is freshly paved. Often times the bailer’s twine that is used for measuring the height of asphalt is left behind after road construction. The oriole’s foot is tightly wrapped in a labyrinthine knot. It takes a few passes until I am able to gently cup the bird and start working on the knot. Years of backlashes in my open-faced fishing reel help me solve this riddle. Once the foot is free, I cup the bird one last time. It is free. I am free as well. On an ancillary note, the 76 antenna ball is a curiosity that I found on a wintry run in West Duluth, like many other artifacts I find for my mixed-media pieces.

“Barn Swallows over Lake Superior”

My first 100-mile race experience came as a fledgling runner. I didn’t run in secondary or post-secondary school, and only took one high-school art class–because it was a requisite. I came to grips with art in college, and running when I started teaching. Fairly inexperienced and naïve, I started the 2007 Superior 100 Mile, and it became the most visceral and challenging experience of my life to that point. I pushed my physical and mental states of being further than ever before. An unshakable feeling of ‘nowness’ came before me. Over the years that followed I have developed an affectionate relationship with Lake Superior, one of the planet’s greatest natural resources, and the Superior Hiking Trail, which extends along it.

Over the years I have been fortunate enough to travel and race throughout the country. As I evolve as a runner, artist, and being, I gravitate toward greater depth rather than breadth. Running: engaging in the phenomenal races close to me in the Upper Midwest and their diverse landscapes, as opposed to the anxiety, stress, gear, and carbon footprint typically experienced in traveling great distances. Art: simplifying my tools and resources, as opposed to other art mediums I had previously used that were clunky or required the use of chemicals and machinery. Being: present, intentional, creative, and pragmatic, as opposed to being distracted, complacent, and lost.

“Mariner Motel”

Both running and art offer plenty of humility and humor. Over the years, I have stayed in my fair share of interesting lodgings, such as old dormitories, leaky tents, and cumbersome car seats. While trying to sleep in my car due to a late flight, I remember almost being ticketed for vagrancy by the police in Mill Valley, California before racing the Quad Dipsea.

Located in Silver Bay, a small taconite town on the North Shore parallel to the great Gitchi Gummi, the Mariner is one of those mom-and-pop one-level motels that has a nostalgic local-saloon vibe. It has no frills, no continental breakfast, and it still operates with metal keys–which are all wonderful. One of my favorite sections of the Superior Hiking Trail stretches through this area. For over a decade, the Mariner has served as my refuge to catch some sleep before both Superior spring and fall races.

The owner of the Mariner doesn’t mince words, and speaks his mind for better or worse. Unabashedly, you either need a room, or you don’t. I dare you to mess with his pens.

“Aix Sponsa”

This drawing is one of a series I did a number of years ago. For three years each spring my yard’s giant poplar served as a refuge for a beautiful couple of wood ducks. Just before dawn I would often see the pair fluttering out of a large notch in the tree and stretching their wings on top of my garage. When the sun reached the right angle, they’d fly off to spend the rest of the day at one of the many small lakes in either Wisconsin or Minnesota, depending on what side of the river they went. At dusk they would return to their abode.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • What do you see or interpret in Wynn Davis’s artwork?
  • Have you documented your running experience through an art medium of some kind? If so, can you share how the process went for you?

There are 8 comments

  1. Koltun

    Being live is recording. The visual film running in Wynn head makes me look long at what’s swirling in front of me. Thanks Wynn for reminding me.

  2. Eric Nordgren

    Great stuff, Wynn, and thanks to IRunFar for creating this space for guests to share their work as well. I remember volunteering at the first Chippewa Moraine 50K in April 2008 (in six inches of fresh snow, no less) and seeing a wild-looking set of mixed-media awards for the winners, which included a gas mask fashioned to look something like a mastodon (if memory serves!). Wynn was the founding RD there, and that eye-opening experience was an inflection point in my running career. Keep it up!

    1. Meghan Hicks

      Thanks for the encouragement, Eric and all, to publish these articles. We are so honored to host Wynn’s artwork!

      Side note, I was at that race and fondly remember those same things as you. Small world! :-)

  3. Deborah Hamon

    Beautiful, thank you for sharing — I especially connect with the gorgeous nest drawing! As a creative person (painter, photographer, writer) and runner I find the pursuits frequently intertwine. Either directly, by photographing something in nature while on a run and then using it as reference for painting, or writing poetry based on running experiences. Or indirectly, by allowing the time spent running to let creative ideas germinate, or by trying to capture the essence of what I love about running (freedom, joy, peace, struggles, beauty) in my work. I’ve been blogging about my creative path as my work has been changing recently, and of relevance here is a post titled “Just Get to the Next Aid Station” written about a particularly difficult painting and questioning everything I was doing, and ultimately realizing I couldn’t focus on the big picture, I had to break my work down into smaller manageable parts, one painting at a time…

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