Environment & TRANSCENDENCE

Walt Whitman is many things to many people. A humanist drawn to deism who spoke of God, the 19th-century poet, essayist and journalist is considered the father of free verse poetry, and was acknowledged by the Beat writers as a literary archangel. Whitman’s magnum opus, 1855’s Leaves of Grass, remains an epic body of work that’s such a part of modern day art, its radicalism is often overlooked.

Within its pages lies a revelry of the self, adoration of the bucolic realm, a kind of preternatural patriotism tempered by humor and grace, a then-defiantly joy of sexuality and the body that terrified the parochial attitudes of the day, and a travelogue through the exterior realm that ignites the interior.

A half-century after Whitman’s death, Scottish writer Alexander Trocchi coined a term that certainly applies: a “cosmonaut of inner space.” In part, Trocchi, an unabashed heroin addict, meant the term to encompass those who dare stand in the blinding light of existentialism, as well as challenge their central nervous systems with drugs, prying open the gates of heaven on Earth. Judging by the rolling passions and ineffable cadences contained within Leaves of Grass, Whitman’s narcotic was the very universe itself.

Donald Martin is an acolyte and aesthetic descendant of Walt Whitman’s, and no stranger to the poet’s binding, if not magical, vision of nature, mankind and our place within that realm. An established presence on the Northeast Florida art scene, Martin is a multimedia artist adept at printmaking, painting, drawing, sculpture, murals and book arts. His work has been featured in more than two dozen group and solo exhibitions and is featured in collections as divergent as The Stetson Kennedy Foundation and the Florida House of Representatives. Martin is also a longtime professor of art at Flagler College, where he specializes in printmaking and illustration.

Currently on display at Florida State College at Jacksonville’s Deerwood Center Campus, Donald Martin: Leaves of Grass uses the heralded poet’s verse as a kind of malleable canvas. Martin’s upcoming exhibit at UNF Gallery at MOCA, Leaves: Recent Prints & Sculpture by Donald Martin, features 27 pieces, some of which touch on the Whitman influence. “Whitman is a kindred spirit. He’s someone who sees the spirit of nature and the spirit of nature in humans,” Martin tells Folio Weekly. “He sees us as a part of nature and not as a separate. I related to that and also the beauty of his language. With the kind of imagery he uses, it’s so easy to slip right into that.”

The 11 monoprints of Leaves of Grass, with their merger of text taken from Whitman’s work, anachronistic images touching on late-19th-century to early-20th-century photos, and even alchemical signifiers, create a narrative inside Whitman’s narrative.

“It’s a visual narrative rather than a literal narrative. So it’s not something I put into words,” explains Martin. “It’s a purely visual thing: You see something and it relates to something and you don’t try to explain it to yourself. You just go with it.”

The impetus for the Leaves of Grass series came to Martin while he was on a retreat in North Carolina, living in a cabin deep in the light and shadow of nature. “Each morning, I would get up and I’d read a little bit of Leaves of Grass, and then I’d go for a walk. And I’d just collect stuff that I’d find.” Martin would return to the studio at the end of his walk, have breakfast, and dump out everything he’d picked up along the way. “I would make a print, one a day, from whatever I collected that day,” says Martin. “Just living alone in the woods and creating art was a beautiful process. I started very intuitively without any direction in mind, but it took on a direction of its own.”

In the MOCA show, the linoleum block pieces Grasses and Palm Leaves (resurrection), with the foliage of leaves and blades moving toward and away from the viewer, conjure a hyper-inspection and intimate aspect of plant life. The detail and intensity push it to the point of saturation, where it betrays its place in nature. Martin’s skills peak creating these kinds of complex “self-creating abstractions” from foliage.

“I want every square inch of the piece to be interesting. If you were an ant crawling across the surface, every square inch should have a focus and complexity to it,” he explains. “All of the interweaving that occurs as a plant tries to compete with another plant, as it moves toward light … there are these processes that make it intertwine and interlock in complex and interesting ways.”

The greater relationship is something Martin describes as his “link between the everyday and the eternal,” where he sees immediacy, constant change, in life and direction and the change of everything. “It also gives us insight to things, which are, from a human perspective, eternal: the giant processes of nature and time — the larger, bigger picture.”

Martin, like Whitman, seems ready to share a view that nature, void of humanity, celebrates its own sense of the sacred; undisturbed, unmoved and indifferent to our presence. It’s a contemplative place that welcomes the humanist and believer alike, unconcerned with our devotions. “Nature isn’t religious,” says Martin. “But if there is a God, it’s nature. I guess I’m kind of a pantheist. Nature is where I see whatever ‘God is.’”

Martin’s engaging blend of the real world and unreal perspectives comes, in no small part, from his attraction to solitude. “I love just sitting for hours in quiet. To me, that’s a really enjoyable part of the process.” Martin offers that just one relief print can take a month to finish. “But I don’t find it tedious. It makes me feel good to sit for hours and carve out the idea. I find it really relaxing and meditative. It would make most people crazy,” he laughs. “I like it.”

Martin’s work reminds us how nature is simultaneously graceful and resolute. And how mankind is not. Our accomplishments are matched accordingly with our manifested horrors. As Whitman noted, “Battles are lost in the same spirit in which they are won.”

Whitman acknowledged war in Leaves of Grass, as well as the then-nascent technological age. What would the grand wizard of American think of today’s standard interior journey, as we stand as a herd, looking at our smart phones? There is the not-uncommon absurdity of standing in the woods, scrolling through images of nature on a four-inch screen, looking for Wi-Fi in the Garden of Eden. Technology, for all of its immediate possibilities at connecting us through communications, seizes us into tunnel vision, pulling us away from the sacrosanct calling to wander deep within nature. Our betterment robs us of our origins.

“Technology, for all of its benefits, will never have the complexity of nature,” says Martin. “Or the capacity of continuous interest that nature freely gives us.”

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