The Painted Hills Codex

Isn’t that a wonderful title? A codex is a hand-printed book, but this is a brain-printed entry, taken from an Oregon area called “The Painted Hills.”
Our regular Wednesday contributor has run into difficulties, so I’m posting an entry I’ve had kicking around for use in just this kind of emergency. With any luck, we’ll have two “Wednesday” contributions this week.


The Painted Hills, Sept 2006, photo by Jerry Underwood

I am engaged in a multi-year project on a single theme grouped around specific geologic formations. The materials come from the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument (fondly known as JODA), in that empty, high desert region of Oregon east of Bend, north of Burns, and west of the town of John Day.

I am processing that landscape in a multitude of media and modes. I have done (and hope to continue to do) pleine aire painting in oils and watercolor, photographs (summation and reference rather than “hey look at this”), digitized images printed on fabric and studio oils and watercolors (mostly as studies but some as finished and complete-in-themselves). All these versions of the landscape have and will continue to culminate in works done with my primary media, the stitched textiles, painted, pieced, appliqued, representational and abstract. There are 8 primary kinds of formations in the JODA region. This first set of photographs, paintings and stitched textiles are from the first of the 8, the clays called paleosols.

The iron-oxide rich paleosols paint the JODA hills. They are found not only in the specific unit of JODA called “The Painted Hills,: but in many other places in the region as well. Sometimes they lurk, hidden under a scant skin of grass and soil, showing themselves only where the topsoil is ripped away. They seem cast as giant slow moving beasts, some ancestral form within the earth that stretches and rolls and watches as we tiptoe around it.

All the paintings and textile art as well as the photos, with a single exception, are by June Underwood, were completed between September 2006 and January 2007, and copyrighted as such.

Painted Hills at Noon

The Painted Hiills at Noon, digitized photograph on silk, about 30 x 22, Nov. 2006

Above is a photo take from Dick Creek Road, off highway 19, near the Sheep Rock unit. These are private lands which also show the colored paleosols.


Oil on canvas board, about 16 x 20″, October 2006

Dick Creek Road, off highway 19, near the Sheep Rock Unit

Dick Creek Road, Pleine Aire Watercolor, 10 x 13″ Sept 2006
Dick Creek Road 2, Pleine Aire Watercolor, 5 x7″ Sept 2006

Studio Oil on Canvas Board, 16 x 20″ Oct 2006


Painted Hills Unit, JODA, September 2006
Another view of the Red Hill within the Painted Hills Unit, Sept 2006
Scott’s Red Hill, Pleine Aire Watercolor, JODA, Painted Hill. Memorable for the rain and the ranger’s “jokes” about water color. Sept 2006

The Cant Ranch (Highway 19), Sheep Rock Unit of JODA, Sept 2006. This sheep ranch from the turn of the 20th century became the original exhibit building of JODA until the new Condon interpretive Center was built in 2002. The house and outbuildings (shown here) now exhibit the human history of the Fossil Beds.

Pleine Aire oil, Cant Ranch, 16 x 20, Sept 2006

Above the Cant Ranch, Stitched cotton, 40 x 15″, January 2007

The Cant Ranch, stitched cotton, 35 x 40, January 2007

The Painted Hills, JODA, Sept 2006

Sleeping Beasts, Oil on Canvas, 24 x 16 (This oil painting has been revised since this photo of it was taken, as has the painted linen below.)

Work in progress — painted linen, 24 x7, Feb 2007


Work in progress — painted silk, 27 x7, quilted Feb. 2007

Miocene Silk and cotton, painted, fused, stitched. 8 x 9 feet

The Rising Studio Oil on canvas, 18 x 12″, November 2006

The Rising work in progress. painted silk, stitched. 7 x 6 feet.

I’m showing these, hoping that some of you will come forth with the ways that your various studies and samples and raw working evolves into finished (or in this case, almost finished) work. Do you use studies to get you to your most exciting work? Or does the process of using traditionally quilted processes, with the auditioning of fabrics etc., mean that you don’t have to engage in the kinds of studies that painters use?


11 Responses to “The Painted Hills Codex”

  1. 1 Lisa April 5, 2007 at 4:05 pm

    June asked
    I’m showing these, hoping that some of you will come forth with the ways that your various studies and samples and raw working evolves into finished (or in this case, almost finished) work. Do you use studies to get you to your most exciting work? Or does the process of using traditionally quilted processes, with the auditioning of fabrics etc., mean that you don’t have to engage in the kinds of studies that painters use?

    I was wanting to answer this but needed images and finally got around to doing a post about my fabric sketches on my blog tonight.

    At times I do sketches of ideas I have to see how they look in fabric before tackling a larger work – I’ve put a few images of these up on my blog here:

  2. 2 june March 10, 2007 at 11:56 am

    I didn’t want to be specific — certainly most of the particular region was built by vulcanism — unimaginable eras and reaches of volcanic action. But I wasn’t being that specific in this piece.

    The items along the edges are the detritus that the earth flings up, skulls, self-portraits, weird creatures, trees, roots — all that we know and can imagine, surrounding this power and presence we take for granted.

    I am a cenozoic patriot (that is, I’m fond of life on earth as we humans have known it for the last 200,000 or so years — the cenozoic era began about 65,000,000 years ago and the rest of known earth-time goes back much much further) But I am aware that we cenozoians are but a pimple on the behind of a much greater time and mass — Miocene is my attempt to put this idea into visualization.

    I love your phrase “lurking on the edges” — that’s precisely what most life on earth does — lurk a bit and then disappear into the smoke. But our earth goes on.

    And “Miocene” is a bit misleading as a title — it refers to one period within the Cenozoic, about 40 million years ago. It’s the period that they have a lot of fossils from at John Day, but I’ve never been completely happy with the title. It’s only use is to trigger people’s thinking about the aeons of earth history. That, and that it fits on a slide.

  3. 3 Clairan March 10, 2007 at 11:44 am


    Ok, yes. I can see the shapes you mention (I see them in the Rising works as well) I had thought I saw a reference to O’keefe’s cow skulls. But is it volcanic? And what is lurking on the edges, under the trees?

  4. 4 june March 10, 2007 at 11:36 am


    The reason you can’t “see” Miocene is that it’s so big that any image of it reduces it to a mere speck. I started the composition in Michael James Masterclass at QSDS in June 2006 and finished it in August. The class took place about a month after I had spent five days in the Fossil Beds; we had never been there before and I was stunned by what I saw — it was an unimaginable landscape, far more wildly imaginative than anything I’d seen a human come forth with. And it has been studied carefully because it is such a repository of information about the earth’s age. Michael’s class had as its prompt a poem by Wendall Berry which seemed to me to be evocative of this landscape, although I only saw that after I finished the piece.

    Anyway, Miocene seems to me to be the lurking power of the earth — indifferent to human-kind, just as it is indifferent to oreodonts (an extinct species) The central shape contains the female vulva as well as the male ram, the relentless process of life out of which our tiny human lives have come and over which our tiny human lives will disappear.

  5. 5 Clairan March 10, 2007 at 6:17 am


    Far from being more than I want to know, I want to know more! Thank you for this glimpse of process. And a fascinating and beautiful and powerful landscape I had no idea was there.

    Some of your pieces (most especially the Cant Ranch) have a little ZZ Wei (or Grant Wood) look about them for me. I can see why you admire those painters. Your plein air watercolors are particularly appealing to me.

    But I would very much like to know more about Miocene. I feel I can’t *see* it. Can you comment on it a bit, or perhaps Zelda would (as she found it very powerful), or someone else who has insight into it.

  6. 6 June March 9, 2007 at 9:28 pm


    I like Burchfield a lot — and Arthur Dove, and, as it turns out, Grant Wood’s landscapes too, which I didn’t know until Terry introduced them on the Yahoo Ragged Cloth. The Canadian painter Lawren Harris has some interesting landscapes that he turns into abstract work. And there’s a contemporary painter here in the Northwest who does bit fat cheerful landscapes with fat, pre-WWII cars and trucks — Z.Z. Wei. Although they are a bit much when collected together (I saw an exhibit recently) individually they make me practically swoon.

    One thing about the landscapes that I’m doing that wouldn’t be apparent from this post is that each of the 8 different features that I’m hoping to tackle in this way has its own character and meaning for me. Goose Rock, the second one that I’m now stitching on, says something about the elders among us, how they tower and surround and calm and smother and cuddle. The mother of us all — that’s Goose Rock. But Sheep Rock, the third feature that I just started work on, is a distant, aloof, massive but not looming set of rocks. It has fascinating colors and shapes, but it stands completely apart from the viewer, distanced by fields and lower hills. So dealing with Sheep Rock has to be done differently than dealing with Goose Rock, which is very different from the roiling rolling colorful paleosols.

    More than you wanted to know, I’m sure.

  7. 7 Sandy Donabed March 9, 2007 at 8:38 pm

    Interesting continuing process for *me* as well as you, June! What an interesting landscape area, so other-worldly, and I love your interpretations of it in fabrics and paints. Also your paintings really struck a chord with me- are you familiar with Charles Burchfield? I see such similarities in vision- go to this link, not great for images but you’ll get a taste:

  8. 8 june March 9, 2007 at 9:43 am

    It’s interesting, Zelda, that the textiles hold you longer. It makes sense, since I’ve been doing textile art a lot longer than painting. As well, though, I still have work to do on the oils, which, like textiles, can be reworked.

    I don’t exactly pre-plan this work — that is, I have the 8 landscape formations, all named, and I know I need to do the studies. But each one takes on its own life — sometimes a short life (pleine aire and watercolor studies) and sometimes a looonnnnng one (The Rising textile is giving me fits — it’s almost there, but not quite and the oil of The Rising I think is done).

    I like having a loose general outline of what I want to achieve, but lots of leeway in how and what I do to achieve it.

  9. 9 Zelda K March 9, 2007 at 6:20 am


    What a fascinating look into Process, and how you are approaching this subject in multiple art forms. I have to agree that “Miocene” is extremely powerful.

    In general, I stop and stare more at the fiber examples than the painting examples in those you’ve posted. The subtleties of the landscape photographs seems to repeat better in the textile work. At least to my eyes.

    I’ve always had difficulty with preplanned directive in my work. I’ve spent some time recently trying to get better at it, but so far have found I usually like the results less. Not giving up, though, as I suspect a nice blend of unplanned an preplanned can be a good way to work.

  10. 10 june March 8, 2007 at 7:51 pm


    I never worked this precise way before. But I have been painting, taking classes, fooling around with various painting and drawing media, for a number of years. With the John Day possibility, it seemed a perfect opportunity to put the painting and the textiles together.

    I’m not sure what will ultimately happen — that’s part of the process. I want to figure out if there are visual ideas that are better in watercolor than in oil than in textiles than in painted or pieced or whatever textiles. The textile “culmination” is, I must admit, a hedge — I know I can do OK with textiles, but the painting is completely untested in any public context. So, when people look askance, I can always stonewall and say, “well, I’m really a textile artist”…:-)

    One of the pieces, Miocene, the one I still think is the most powerful, was not a “culmination” at all but a result of visiting the region for a few days. Miocene was completely finished in August even to the binding!); I spent September at John Day. I had taken photographs and made some quick sketches on the earlier visit, but hadn’t explored in paint the way I have done for the others. So “culmination” may be a misleading term — or one I can hide behind.

    However, what I am finding as I work is that I am vastly expanding my ideas about the landscape — what it means, how it looks, where its roots are — because the painting can be done quickly (watercolor) or slowly (oil), thoughtfully (oil over weeks) or offhandedly (oil in one evening — al prima). I can digitize and manipulate photos and then put them on fabric and see what that “means.”

    And then I have a record of those visual ideas. Before I might have had passing thoughts, but I wouldn’t have the visual record.

    The only hard part is tearing myself away from the painting to do the stitching. Right now, I’m loving sloshing around in the paints.

    I think that most textile artists try out techniques but they don’t work out their visual designs in a recorded fashion ahead of time. But the design wall is a kind of try-out are and if you photograph work in progress (as I often did and do), you can have a record of the “studies.” But the visceral sense of using my arms and fingers and squinting into the sun and tasting the dust — all these, I think, inform even the textile work, done months later.

  11. 11 Jane Davila March 8, 2007 at 7:16 pm

    Really interesting approach June, I admire your focus. How fascinating to explore one subject/topic in multiple media. The idea of working through studies to reach the ultimate pieces is not the typical modus operandi for art quilters. Have you worked this way in other media prior to fiber? How do you feel this changes the development of your work, as opposed to going right to the final piece?

    For myself, I usually do small thumbnail sketches for larger pieces, occasionally I’ll do some technique samples to try out a process if I’m not certain of the result. I also sometimes make small studies for larger pieces, but in fabric with many of the same techniques and materials that will end up in a larger piece. Of course, large and small are relative. Large for me is 16 x 20 and small can be 4 x 6 or 6 x 8. Um, inches that is. I am absolutely ruthless though about destroying or throwing out unsuccessful work, that may be a carry over from my days as a printmaker.

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