Art Matters Featuring Darthea Cross
by Susan Sherrill Axelrod
Looking at Darthea Cross’s paintings of rock formations floods me with memory. My childhood summer playground was not the beach, but the granite ledges that surrounded the small Maine island where my family spent every August. I spent hours creating imaginary worlds on those ledges, becoming familiar with each crevice and vein of pink granite or sparkly mica. We moved a lot when I was young, but every summer we returned to Maine, and it was comforting to find those ledges just as I had left them.
Except they weren’t. “We tend to think of rock formations as unchanging, substantial, lasting forever, but the evidence of change is written all over them—through weathering, the breaking down of rocks into smaller pieces, the erosion,” says Cross. “It’s a very subtle change, but I like the ironic value of it, in that we perceive rocks as solid while the erosion is constantly happening.” Beginning with a sketch she made on a coastal camping trip 12 years ago, rock formations have become the focus of Cross’s paintings. “The core concept of this body of work is a contemplation on impermanence, which is the nature of all of us,” she says. “That’s what motivates me. Whenever I’m hiking or outdoors sketching, I always think of this quote in the Tao Te Ching: ‘Stand before it and there is no beginning. Follow it and there is no end.’ To me, that quote speaks to the impermanence; it speaks to my work.”
Cross finds the linear elements of rock formations particularly fascinating, which is why line figures so prominently in her work. “I wanted to have an equal meeting place between drawing and painting,” she says. She tends to use colors from the same family—blues, for example, or recently yellow and tan. Although the pieces are abstract, her use of line offers a strong clue to their subject. “In most of my paintings I give you a realistic peripheral line to give the viewer an entry point into the painting, and then from there it may be very abstract, or it may be very realistic,” Cross says. “I never know, there’s a choice, but it’s sort of a negotiated choice as I’m painting, with the painting, as to how abstract it is and which elements I focus on.”
I ask Cross if she has a favorite among Maine’s innumerable rock ledges and outcroppings, and she thinks for a moment before answering no. “I do have certain rock formations that intrigue me, and I paint them again and again, because each time I paint anything it’s a challenge,” she says. “I never know what is going to be accentuated in the painting, whether it will be the more abstract elements, the flattening of space with color and line, or the linear elements. That happens in the process of painting. I love that I can paint the same rock formation over and over and each time I paint it, I’m discovering something new about myself, and the formation, and this whole concept of impermanence.”
The ledges where I used to play have been significantly changed by home construction, but my initial despair over that has since faded. Like Cross, I have come to embrace that nothing is ever set in stone.