Headwaters

Donna the destroyer

In Columbia Falls, a painter revels in spontaneity and experimentation, with a healthy dose of destruction.

 JONATHAN FETTER-VORM

“G o east of the zebra.” This is how Donna Gans directs me to her painting studio, a weathered outbuilding on her Columbia Falls property. I’d assumed she was joking, until I saw that one of her neighbor’s horses wasn’t like the others, a disorienting jolt of black and white in the otherwise familiar Montana landscape. I found Donna inside her studio, stoking a fire. For 30 years she has painted in this windowless room, chasing ideas, gestures, and colors across her canvasses, until the paint lies so thick it looks like poured concrete. Donna takes a seat on a stepladder, picking flecks of pink from her knuckles, and begins to tell me about the thrills and frustrations of this life-long experiment.

 


I first started painting in Brooklyn in the ’80s. After working in fashion and interior design, I quit all that and went to art school. I had a teacher at Pratt who told me to bring in a photo of myself at the age right before it all changes, you know, when our faces lose that look of innocence, when our eyes start to see more inward than outward. He asked me what it was that gave the girl in that picture joy, what it was that I had forgotten to think about. For me, it was playing on the beach, in the white sand, building things out of driftwood or whatever objects I could find, then watching my constructions fall apart in the waves.


That exercise changed everything. It was the feeling of making art before I’d learned to be self-conscious. Art became something natural and joyful. I learned to trust instinct and experimentation.


When I came out to Montana in 1990, I wrote to a friend, “I think I have to do landscapes.” It’s sort of hard not to when you’re here, you know. My first landscapes were of the canyon on the way to Hungry Horse—though you’d never know they were landscapes. I would use the shapes of the mountains as an underlying structure, then add all kinds of things, like scraps of canvas, cutouts from magazines. I like to throw in the ashes from my stove. And then I paint over it again.


The part I like best is when I’ve been working on a painting for months and then one day I’ll come into the studio and realize that it’s time. A voice in my head says, “Just let it go.” Not in the sense of “it’s done” but rather “it needs to be destroyed.” That’s when I can start throwing paint on it. That’s when I bring out my belt sander. Feeling and roughness are the way I work. I’m not a gentle painter. I wish I was, but it doesn’t feel right when I try.


Some of my paintings have like 10 other paintings beneath them. I go back and forth between building structure and losing structure. Each painting is a cycle. I think a lot about the idea of the pentimenti, the traces of the earlier paintings that show through. That’s why I like using the sander: there’s a billion colors under here and I want to see them again. I can have a piece up in a gallery for a while—even when I’m not done with it—and then after it’s taken down, I can work on it again.


I can’t always tell when a painting is finished. It has to end on something spontaneous. It’s about holding on to that little bit of raggedness that keeps a painting alive and surprising.


I thought all this time and isolation would make me more productive. But it feels silly to make art out of this, when the world is so chaotic. I mean, the world is always chaotic, but just more so now. The only painting I’ve really enjoyed lately is doing the trim on my windows. It’s good to keep the brush moving, however that happens. 

 

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