A Search for Heroes, Lincoln and the Illinois Landscape

Who is this man Abraham Lincoln? He lived at a time when the United States was a small country and Illinois was its wilderness. The land he lived in was a frontier in the 19th century and he hoped to return to it after his Presidency. He seemed like an ordinary man though I know this is not true. Here was an individual who was larger than life, a hero from my childhood memories and yet a man who lived in Illinois. His face spoke of someone who spent a great deal of time outdoors working hard; it appears sturdy and weathered, thoughtful, fair, and intelligent. Looking at various photos of Lincoln I sensed a distance or remoteness, but this quickly evaporated and his thoughtful gaze seemed to put me at ease when I began painting his portrait. There is always a sense of tussled hair in his pictures, a look as if he just came in from doing chores or playing with his children.

In 2002, I began my research by meeting with the Illinois State Historian, Thomas Schwartz. We spent hours driving around the Springfield Lincoln sites discussing the history and the relevance of his legacy today and also viewed priceless artifacts in the Lincoln collection. This time spent prepared me for a 300 mile journey retracing Lincoln's route as a country lawyer through the fourteen central Illinois counties referred to as "Old Muddy" (the Eighth Judicial Circuit of 1847). Studying the slides from this journey, I began to consider the ways in which an image might simultaneously give reference to impermanence and the transience of an historical moment. The problem became how to address this in some coherent manner, leading me to consider the role of "museums" in this process. The curating and display of documents, maps, signs, and portraits became my solution. As a painter, I decided to experiment with style categories in art history and assemble a project that allowed for any image to be rendered in paint. The variety of painting techniques is intended to highlight the nature of this collection held together by a thematic narrative. This approach, I believe, helped me to envision the complexity of creating a portrait of the 16th President. The body of work for the "Lincoln Project" includes painted portraits of Abraham Lincoln, rendered fictional historic documents, maps, a flag, landscape views from each of the central Illinois counties where Lincoln practiced law, and other images pointing to critical moments and ideas in his recent history.

An interesting insight occurred when I was preparing for this project. While driving through the counties in Illinois where Lincoln spent time, I discovered quiet contemplative spaces. By today's standards, there are no large towns or developments, there are no vast mountain ranges or deserts, just open skies and spaces punctuated by an occasional grove of trees. This is farm country. While reading some of Lincoln's writings and rediscovering his accomplishments, I recognized a sensitivity and pause in his speeches that must have been influenced by these spaces. These landscapes and his speeches share this pause. When I painted scenes of the Illinois landscape, I chose places that drew me in - quiet places to stop, places where a grove of trees might appear as an island in a sea of corn. In doing this, I also found that these landscapes evoked a strange sort of memory for me, a sort of quiet sentiment like a returning or a coming home. Time seemed to stand still for a moment in these areas, I felt that I was entering a page of life from the 19th century. This quiet Illinois landscape was home for Lincoln, an extraordinary President who at times was masquerading as just an ordinary man.

- Don Pollack