Bill Payne

Sacred time

hell bent on reflection
a crescendo of wind brings the welcomed distraction of leaves
darting like birds throughout the yard

From my plateau the horizons
both real and imagined
secure in their corridor, fade in the distance
flash paper nuance attached to my every thought

All swept up in the wind's history

Bill Payne 2015I don’t separate myself from my art. It is a revolving summation and continuance of what I am, what I was, and what I hope to be. A few years ago I wrote a song, “Fighting The Mosquito Wars,” that encapsulates where I’ve arrived as a artist, as a person: “Say what you will, is what I see what others see, say what you will, this is my territory now.” The uniqueness of how we see the world and how we express that through our art is what gives weight and substance to our voice. Maintaining and developing that voice is an arduous task and involves commitment to the process of discovery along with a disciplined regimen of learning the subject (which involves trial and error), and ultimately, once you have the tools in place, the art of simply letting go. So what is my “territory?”

The environmental writer Barry Lopez, in his book, “Arctic Dreams,” suggests we are products of where we were born. I was born in Waco, Texas, the start of the Hill Country that extends southward past Austin. It is a world of vistas, rivers, lakes, bluebonnets, rattlesnakes, wind, huge skies filled with thunderheads and lightning (I have sat mesmerized for hours watching the skies erupt), warm rain in the summer, those same tumultuous skies now clear with melting hot temperatures and energy draining humidity, or the freezing cold brought in with sudden intensity by a “Blue Norther” (a cold weather front brought sweeping down from Canada), which can bring temperatures cascading from 90 degrees down to a mind numbing 20 degrees in a shockingly short period of time, creating very dangerous conditions. It is a land of contrasts and contradictions. It’s people are, too. My parents moved to California, when I was two. My dad built a house in the hills. We had big picture windows in the kitchen and the living room which afforded a tremendous view of the small city of Ventura, the Pacific Ocean and the Channel Islands, an easy place to daydream watching beautiful sunsets; the rare lightning storms out on the ocean; the huge waves that pounded the coastline in the winter; the fog that would roll in the morning and again in the late afternoon; seeing shapes in the huge clouds and the shadows they would create on the ground or on the water; the way the ocean would change colors from gun metal gray to different shades of blue and green, white capped or smooth as glass. There were days when looking out at the island of Santa Cruz (the largest in the chain, some twenty miles away), I felt as if it were close enough to swim to. The contours of the island were in vivid detail, the sky from just above the horizon turning from a soft yellow to aqua marine to a powder blue to deep royal blue, the ocean shimmering from a light wind in the late afternoon sun, a beautiful greenish blue; transitory flamingo pink, light green, and white wispy clouds, as if painted in feathery strokes by an unseen hand, graced the sky. There were countless days like this over the ten years or so I lived in the house my father and his friends from Texas built. The experience gave me a sense of the many ways light affects an object, bringing out or obscuring detail. Every day I witnessed different shades and nuance. I would carry those visual images to the piano in the living room and play what I saw (or at least try to). My audience was myself, my parents, and whatever neighbors I thought might be listening in.

My use of “visualization” began there, leading to my discovery and embracing the art of improvisation.

Art is the ultimate embrace of our being human, with all its repercussions. But it also allows us to transcend the familiar terrain and investigate worlds, relationships, experiences, we can only dream of, and live, though fleetingly, as the gods of our own realm.

My introduction to playing piano started with my mother sitting me on her knee and teaching me to play “Vaya Con Dios” on an old upright in the basement. Through her interpretation of the sheet music I took my first foray into the world of playing piano. Not long afterward, I began taking piano lessons from Ruth Newman. I was five or six. Ruth encouraged me to play by ear but told my mother she would make sure I could read music. That two-track approach has shaped my views of artistic expression; specifically how I combine the resources of intuition, a vivid imagination amidst a platform of study.

Over the years my expression has come through in my music, my writing, my poetry, and as of the last few years, my photography. The creative tools I incorporate: trusting the instincts of exploration, commitment and determination, contribution, discipline, and a belief that hard work will pay off if intelligently applied, serve as  guideposts in how I arrive at my choices and decisions. I also don’t want to downplay the aspect of having fun. The worst we can do, as artists, is acquiesce to conventions that tie our hands. If art is the reflection of society, then we owe it to ourselves not only to be aware of what we are doing but why we are doing it. I am classically trained as a musician. I use that training to elevate my artistic voice, not to restrict it. Freedom of thought, and the attendant ideas spawned from creative thinking, is paramount not only to growth and development but critical to our ability to think through the myriad challenges, either self imposed or by restrictive circumstances. Being inquisitive is the key to keep from becoming stagnant.

Another way to say it is I am not a purist. And though I respect those that use the “rules” of any given art to apply their lens to it, I confess I don’t use rules as a methodology to dictate my creative process. Igor Stravinsky once said, “I don’t create because I want to, but because I have to.”

I can thank my son Evan for my taking the leap into photography. A few years ago I was in the process of finishing my first solo cd, ”Cielo Norte,” an instrumental album performed on various keyboards in my music room in Los Angeles, and, later, at my house in Montana. I happened to be viewing some photos on his computer. I asked who had taken them; he said that most were his. I was amazed at the quality of the photos. I suggested that he take some photos of me for my project. Armed with a 3 pixel point-and-shoot camera, Evan and I took a hike into Corral Canyon, up the coast from Malibu. During the shoot I asked him to show me how the camera worked. I took a few shots with it, bought my own camera a few weeks later, and have been hooked ever since.

My approach to photography is much like my approach to music. It is eclectic, born of myriad influences. The Marx Brothers movie, “A Night At The Opera,” cast the same spell on me musically as well as visually, for example. Ansel Adams’ photo, “Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, 1941,” reflects the complexities of life, death, beauty, sadness, continuance, the solitude and enormity of the west, and above all, our relationship with nature. A song I wrote in 1980, “Gringo,” especially the instrumental section, was undoubtedly influenced by that photo, as well as those of Edward Weston, the movies of John Ford, and the many times I traveled back and forth with my family on trips to west and central Texas from the coastal community of Ventura, California.

Long before I became a photographer, I had been storing images in my head. I applied the same tenacity to learning how to take photos, work on them, print them, in the same fashion I learned music. I’ve also received great guidance from several friends along the way. Jack Spencer, a truly amazing photographer, has been my mentor. Jack has helped me pare down the excess of technical mélange in how I work on my photos and prepare them for print. His advice has been simple but powerful and has immeasurably broadened my creative vocabulary. In the beginning (before I met Jack), and before becoming overwhelmed by it all, I simply picked up the camera and starting taking pictures. I realized that it was merely a matter of my seeking out those images that had over a lifetime defined my tastes. Those tastes, be it in music, photography, art, literature, movies, politics, architecture, food, or just about anything, continue to expand as a result of my predisposition to investigate the connection between things, along with being blessed with good friends and family.

Tracing Footsteps: A Journal of Home and the Road is the way I describe my journey in photography. It houses my philosophy of combining a host of influences: black & white, color, textured themes, landscape, people, photojournalism—my time travel, literally--all under one roof.

I have been in rock and roll bands since age 15. I joined Little Feat in 1969, and am still traveling and playing music in the band. I spend a good deal of my time on the road. When I land, so to speak, it is in Montana, with the Yellowstone River at the front of my property. One of the gifts that photography has given me is help in remembering where I’ve been. Some years ago I wrote for a Japanese publication, Player Magazine. I provided them with the following piece to illustrate my life as an artist on the road:

There is an insanity to the road. It is a world within a world, with a tempo parallel  to a world alternately asleep and awake, events taking shape on either side of the partition, viewed when the need arises to connect  the memory of life outside the road. It is a protective environment  enriched or depleted by those one encounters, the amount of sleep one gets, the quality of food, conversation, companionship. The tether of communication to loved ones or otherwise is chosen  or interrupted by landing in  one place long enough to establish a base, well, perhaps that is changing with cell phone mania, ping pong talk talk, daily ministrations, a time to reflect, a time to forget, a time to just witness the miles that  flow by day after day into night into day again: Fort Worth, Little Rock, Biloxi, Atlanta, the destination  important or not depending on the shape you put on it.

Memory is the victim.

Where were you last week? yesterday? a year ago? ten years ago? where will you be next week? The connections are food, friends, situations, while the blur of riding the white line fogs our sense of direction-where simple cloud cover  for days at  a time can  leave one completely disoriented-and then it all changes from the disparity to the all-too-familiar monotony and security blanket  of main street, a whitewash  of homogenization, a cracker barrel mind set, knowing where the bathroom is, satellite tv, all making the road a linear proposition.

There is an insanity to the road.

Taking refuge from the clean slate every time the door closes on a hotel room, the rear view mirror reflecting miles and dreams already encountered and submitted to the past, the future is what lies ahead, the clean slate a powerful reminder  of the strength of a bipolar redemption  or lassitude, the power of late night solitude, a look back and forward and back  again until the lines blur like the ones outside this metal  can rolling down the hi-way at 80 mph, where destination and purpose intertwine and physical  features of streets, countryside, a small Midwest  town in autumn during a full moon-the cool night air incredibly crisp and clean, a blazing hot  day in the southwest  where no amount of shade can protect  one from the heat, the connection  between land and purpose, actions, decisions, leaving memory the ultimate repository of all  things accomplished or intended, all with gradations of importance attached.
The smell  of diesel fuel is my first memory from a county fair  in the coastal community of Ventura, California-one of the recipients of Father Juniperro Serra’s missions strung up and down the coast-I have long given up wondering about the destiny of that encounter at the age of three.

The road was there all along and will be there long after all of us are gone, dust and ashes to the wind, the dream taken  to the next level, past the partitions of this world and our understanding.

We’re not in Kansas anymore.

(notes made somewhere between Kansas City, Kansas and Fort Worth, Texas, in the wee hours of the morning, May 8, 2000 on the bus with Little Feat)

These are tough times, heartbreaking and dangerous.

My prayer is for peace. My prayer is for compassion to those in need.

The arts are invaluable to our sense of humanity and our compass to tolerance and understanding.

Without them we are lost.

My foundation as an artist is the belief in:
... the nobleness of the arts and our effort as artists...writers...teachers...conveyors of thought, is to be mindful of the challenge and the importance of what we do. The essence of our efforts, I believe, is to illuminate the path of a measured truth, and to reflect and mirror that truth through the veil of our craft, taking aim at ourselves, our society, our world, with utmost respect to the awe and mystery of life, and with the essential focus on what was, what is, and perhaps most importantly, what might be.

Bill Payne