A few minutes with: 'Light Atlas' artist Cynthia Daignault

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Cynthia Daignault Photo courtesy of Herron School of Art and Design

This week, the Galleries at Herron School of Art and Design opened its early-fall exhibitions, headlined by Cynthia Daignault's "Light Atlas." Daignault, an artist based in New York City and Baltimore, set out in 2014 on a 10,000-mile journey across America, during which she stopped roughly every 27 miles to sketch. The result is 360 painted canvases -- one for each degree of the circle she traveled.

Before speaking about her work at an opening reception Sept. 13, Daignault visited with IU Communications to talk about the logistics of such a project, the America she found and her favorite stops along the way.

Q: When was the last time you saw the entire project all at once like this?

Cynthia Daignault: This is the first time they have ever all hung together. The impetus for the show, for Max (Herron gallery director Max Weintraub), was that these had never showed in their entirety. That's partially because of space constraints, and partially because I just finished the piece last year.

The galleries here are large and beautiful, so they're really the kinds of spaces that can accommodate a large piece like this. So kudos to the university!

Q: What's the strategy behind the display? (In the Berkshire, Reese & Paul Galleries, Daignault's 360-part painting is mounted on one wall, symmetrically, in five rows of 72 canvases each.)

CD: The piece could install in lots of different ways -- a circle, a line, a grid. Max and I wanted to do a long panoramic, a long grid; we wanted to snake the path up and down. You can see me leaving my front door in New York, going up through New England and then counterclockwise, across Maine, across upstate New York, into the Midwest. There's a very Midwestern section, a real plains-y North Dakota section, the Pacific Northwest, down the Oregon coast through the redwoods into wine-country Sonoma, then passing San Francisco, Santa Cruz, down through the lower California coast. The halfway point was Los Angeles. This forms two bookends -- New York to L.A. and L.A. back to New York.

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"Light Atlas" as it is displayed at the Berkshire, Reese and Paul Galleries. Photo courtesy of Herron School of Art and Design

Q: You finished this last year but started in 2014, right? What was the timeline?

CD: I did the first phase in 2014, which was the drive itself. I drove around the outside -- not on the border, but roughly a circle around the U.S., hugging the edge. Sometimes I was right on the coast, sometimes a little inward, but I drove around that outside loop and stopped roughly every 27 miles to get to 360 paintings, because conceptually I felt that was a good number for a circle -- 360 degrees. And I felt that every 27 miles you'd feel some progression, that you would get see all the different scenery yet you wouldn't rush past or miss anything. You'd get the changes, but it would be still moving.

It was manageable. I did the drive first. That took about five months, and on the drive I did sketches, monochromatic things that could be quick-drawing and that I could do quickly regardless of weather or conditions on the road. As much as I love painting, it would have been difficult to travel with 360 canvases. So I undersketched and took pictures; the actual painting happened the following year, in the studio.

Q: Were some parts of the country more artistically compelling?

CD: I can answer that question two ways. In some ways, no. It was all wonderful and miraculous, and each place has its own special attributes -- the natural landscape, people and culture. The greatest thing about doing the whole thing is that every time you get to something new, it feels exciting.

That said, I do have a lot of people ask, "What's your favorite?" and I kept saying "No, I like everything," but each of us does have certain landscapes that we really gravitate more to, and for me it was the Pacific Northwest and Washington. Once I got to that part of the trip, it was "Never mind! It's all about Washington state!" (laughs). I think my own spirit place might be northern Washington.

Q: The colors are vibrant throughout -- you seemed to do well travel-wise.

CD: I wanted to travel with spring, and there's kind of a permanent spring in these. There's no winter in the piece, and that's purposeful. I liked the idea that it would feel of that kind of energy of birth and newness, the rejuvenation and rebirth that spring means for people. That was reflected in the foliage, so that it wouldn't all be dead trees and snow and gray. I didn't want the piece to be that dystopic. I think we're all struggling with who we are as a country, and what does land mean -- what does nature mean -- right now, what kind of universal context do we have in common. I didn't want it to be a piece that was like "America's dead," and winter would have been heavy.

I purposely decided to do the drive in spring -- plus, being a wussy about it, painting for five months outside in the snow is not high on my list.

Q: It is a marathon. Are you just as happy with the work at the beginning of the road as with that at the end?

CD: Yeah, definitely. I've done a few projects of this scale, and I can see the differences in the ones I painted first to the end. You're just becoming a better painter; it's inevitable that you're changing. The way you're rendering certain things is changing, and some of that is out of boredom -- if you've done something 50 times, you just naturally start to change it up. We're not an assembly line. On one hand, humans want to put something in a system -- do clouds like this and like this -- and then after a few of those, it's "I'm getting bored. I'll change it up a little bit."

Just like any trip, some days you feel happy and energetic, some days you're kind of burned out. It's no different when you're painting a marathon project like this. Some sections were easy and some sections were like work, but it's natural that some things are going to be hard-won.

Q: The piece doesn't have a key, like a map, explaining that you were in this state or that. Is that left to the imagination?

CD: As a portrait of America, it reads very clearly. One doesn't need a key. Even for people who haven't traveled very much, there's a great ethos and understanding of American regions through film, television, pictures -- that's the West, this is the South. It's interesting -- even if you've never been to that place, you can feel the indicators and signifiers of place.

I don't even remember where all of these places are, although it's funny -- some people who are from these places know exactly where they are. I've had people tell me, "That's the high school right by here," and someone wrote me about the one of a mountain in California and told me exactly what it was. I'm like, "OK!"

"Light Atlas" will remain on view at Herron School of Art and Design through Nov. 11. Find more information online.