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EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Road Trip artist and Luther grad depicts collective memory

Posted: Tue, Sep 10, 2019 10:07 AM
Painter Christopher Cudwroth's "Winter Sky." Photo credit: Cudworth

(by's Ben Gardner):

Last week I had a chance to take in a breathtaking new exhibition of artwork at Luther College.

Over thirty acrylic, pastel, and watercolor paintings are on display in the mezzanine of the Center for Faith and Life by Illinois artist and Luther graduate Christopher Cudworth. The exhibition began September 1st and will end after Luther's Homecoming the first weekend in October.

In the exhibition, Cudworth explores, largely through depictions of landscapes, issues regarding time, memory, place, and our collective memory.

Many of the paintings depict moments in Cudworth's life, driving the rural backroads of the Midwest, including Decorah, or entering the sprawling metropolis of the Twin Cities. Cudworth entitled the exhibition "Road Trip"; and his paintings depict this literally as well as metaphorically.

Cudworth is interested in how people move through time and place, and the memories that survive this journey. As Cudworth said in our interview, "this show is about…the things we gather in our minds along the way that don't seem to have much significance in the moment. But actually these add up to our collective memories of how life has taken place."

I reached out to Cudworth, and the following is an edited version of our email conversation.

Ben Gardner: In describing a painting depicting a mailbox outside Decorah, you used the phrase: "Lives defined in passage. A road trip." Time seems to play a large role in this exhibition; in many of the paintings, the color and texture of the background seems to recede, while an object or color pattern will come into focus, as if each painting were exploring the past, present, and future. Could you describe your artistic approach to representing time, place, and memory?

Christopher Cudworth: During freshman studies at Luther College, we read a book titled "Ambiguous Adventure" by Cheik Hamidou Kane. The main character was an expatriated African man living in France. He felt the isolation from his homeland in many ways. Eventually, he came to realize that we all exist in a framework of perception. The quote that struck me in that book was "the purity of the moment is made from the absence of time." In other words, when we're doing things we love, time expands to accommodate that.

At the same time, we absorb so much time unthinkingly. This show is about that type of experience, the things we gather in our minds along the way that don't seem to have much significance in the moment. But actually these add up to our collective memories of how life has taken place. Some of these experiences become symbolic, and one of the broader aspects they symbolize is the passage of time. That is why I framed these pieces in antique window frames.

Ben Gardner: What sort of art excited you at Luther?

Christopher Cudworth: When I entered college, wildlife art was a really big thing. I was consumed by painting birds, and got fairly good at it. My favorite artist was a man named Louis Agassiz Fuertes, whose work I'd seen during a visit to Cornell University where my father went to college. I did a January interim study curating their entire bird art collection. I still have the sketchbooks I kept during that month. I sold many bird paintings over the years, but in later life, I've sort of liberated my senses to look at things more symbolically or metaphorically. In some respects, I've followed the path of Jamie Wyeth, the son of Andrew whose view of art is that it must be definitive. I try to abide in that. Be original somehow. Have something to say. I'm a writer too, so that's important to me.

Ben Gardner: Describe the choice of using antique window frames in more than twenty of the paintings.

Christopher Cudworth: That opportunity began with me picking up a bunch of old windows off the curbside from a house being repaired. Then I saw some more open for pickup through a Facebook post. I love old anything but I'm not a collector in that way. I saw the potential to do work that fits the format of the windows. And it was liberating on its own, because I felt freed to use whatever medium I liked in pastel or acrylic. Then I worked to scale... even down to individual window panes. It is a fun way to work.

Ben Gardner: I was particularly drawn to a couple paintings depicting winter sky. Collectively, the paintings reminded me of a winter road trip of mine a few years ago. Describe your inspiration for those pieces.

Christopher Cudworth: The Winter Sky pieces are my way of letting light live through the medium. When we look at things, our eyes are not perfectly clear. If you study or take a moment to see how your eyes actually work when looking at anything, there is a particulate aspect to how our eyes define things. I even let the dust from the pastel flick and float across the dark areas, because that's how our eyes treat it. I could do that because the surfaces are locked away behind the glass of the window frames.

The blue on the foreground in one of the pictures is my depiction of transient ultraviolet light bouncing around. For example, I particularly like what red geraniums do on a summer night. They shimmer in the half-light. The skies above us in winter are like that as well. Some moments in a sunset are so ephemeral they only last a few moments. So both winter sky pieces are a commentary on being "out there" in the world when these events take place. The colors can seem unreal, but the effect of juxtaposition, with colors existing next to each other, but not combining, is much like the original work of impressionists. The goal is allow the eyes to combine these colors into an acceptable or somehow realistic whole.

But most of all those two paintings are about the feelings you get when you're in a state of mind brought on while driving around and find yourself witnessing something unique and brief in this world. It is most acute in the winter months. That feeling of brevity. And insight.

Ben Gardner: Describe the inspiration for "James in the Street."

Christopher Cudworth: James is a real person on a very different road trip from most of us. He's literally homeless, somewhat by his own choice. He doesn't like the smoking bans and other such rules at homeless shelters. So he lives in a tent out by the railroad tracks and fends off coyotes trying to eat his food when he makes it. I see him around town and noticed his wheelchair was falling apart, which is a real hardship because he lost a leg to diabetes. So I offered him my late father's wheelchair and he accepted. But the day I gave it to him the skies opened up with rain and there went James up the street in a wicked downpour. It astounds me that he has lived outdoors for years, but he's got his version of pride and people seem to respect that. I just saw the contrast between James In the Street and the painting Runaway as evidence of road trips and choices that might not end up so well.

Ben Gardner: Do road trips make us more observant?

Christopher Cudworth: This show is about the potential for observation. But it's also about our potential lack of sensibility, the challenge of living in the moment or not. On my way home from Luther or Decorah I often stop on the road between Effigy Mounds and McGregor, Iowa to pick up a rock that has fallen off the sandstone cliffs. I also once surrounded a woodland garden at my former house with these beautiful large rocks I collected in Decorah. I drove home with several hundred pounds of those rocks in my Subaru, and it made me happy to look out the window in my back yard and see those road trip stones circled by plants. That sort of symbolizes what these paintings mean to me as well. They are like the stepping stones of human experience.

An artist reception for Cudworth will be held during Luther Homecoming, at 3:30 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. on Saturday, October 5 in the upstairs of the Center for Faith and Life.

For sales inquiries, contact Cudworth at

Artist and Luther graduate Christopher Cudworth
Christopher Cudworth's "James in the Street"
Second painting in Cudworth's "Winter Sky" series