Last fall, just after the first snow piled nearly half a foot deep, Eric S. Carlson, went walking through the woods at Two Medicine Lake in Glacier National Park. A young moose "came barreling out" of the trees, he said. It was kicking and stomping, agitated by his presence.
The entire encounter lasted only half a minute but naturally lingered with him. The archaeologist and illustrator captured the experience in "First Snow at Two-Medicine Lake," an acrylic on canvas. He layered multiple views of the moose, sometimes standing on all fours, sometimes bucking its rear legs. Chickadees cross and circle the image and enforce a sense of chaotic motion. In the center, a human figure seems to be mutating into the moose, or vice versa.
Carlson's show, up this month at Montgomery Distillery, is called "Wilderness," which could mean the landscapes of Alaska and Montana you see in the pictures. Or it could mean an internal one, wherein a person has "stripped yourself of the veneer of civilization," he said, and perhaps "found a more powerful, passionate part of themselves."
In 2015, Carlson had a show at the Brink Gallery called "Transformations," where he favored sequences of change in a chronological, sequential manner, such as a herd of caribou turning into humans. For these new pictures, he wanted to depict parts of an event happening simultaneously, like the moose you see in different motions all at once.
"With illustration and this particular type of art, you're able to stretch time and move around the scene, and express it from as many different viewpoints as you want," he said. "It's pure freedom."
Carlson works as archaeologist during the warm months and paints in Missoula during the off season, as a member of the Von Common artist collective.
Most recently, he's been working for the National Park Service and U.S. Forest Service to protect archaeological sites in high-use areas. For instance, on Prince of Wales Island in Southeast Alaska, they were sent out ahead of a logging project to look for archaeological sites — some 10,000 years old or more — that either needed to be protected or excavated for preservation.
In Glacier National Park, they go out ahead of backcountry campground construction or trail maintenance work to ensure that sites won't be affected or destroyed. In Glacier, there are high alpine areas where indigenous people moved from west to the east side of the Rocky Mountains and left behind evidence of short-term campsites, through stone tool fragments or hearth features.
The philosophies of archaeological illustrations show through in his paintings. As a scientist, "you have to piece together the past from small objects" with incomplete information, and the illustrator's task is to create a picture of that by analyzing and interpreting objects, "recognizing the important qualities and then conveying those important qualities to the viewer through illustrative conventions."
If he's drawing a spearhead, he looks at it from all angles and finds a way to capture the key details in a drawing that makes those clear for posterity. He sees similarities with the way that Cubists like Picasso painted an object from multiple viewpoints on the same canvas.
You can think of the paintings, almost all acrylic on canvas, as illustrations writ large, he said. Like an illustration, they're usually monochrome. Instead of using large patches of color to fill space, he renders the landscapes and backgrounds with textural lines.
While his new paintings are often large, he went through a phase where he made small etchings in the same style, but the lesser scale didn't have much presence. About 15 years ago, tired of people marveling at the tiny details instead of the imagery itself, he cropped a section of an etching and enlarged it. It felt like it had more weight, and he never turned back.
He thinks of his paintings in a similar to his archaeological illustrations, except they convey an experience instead of a specific object.
Last spring, he went on a run in Woods Gulch and came across an elk carcass in the melting snow. He leaped over it, startling a swarm of butterflies that was crawling all over the body. He stopped and looked at it. Fluids from the elk were leaking out into the stream.
"The elk itself was basically reborn through the butterflies, through being transported by water to other parts of the forest," he said.
In his painting, "Elk and Butterflies (Woods Gulch)," the bull seems to be crashing down into a stream. Its head is seen in multiple motions and perspectives, and it seems to be transforming into a human — multiple faces with expressions of distress emerge from its neck. Its back is split open, revealing vertebrae and letting loose that cloud of butterflies.
The idea of interconnection runs through all of these paintings, and as philosophical as all it sounds, it was born out of a very concrete and visceral experience that Carlson had.
When he was working on Prince Wales, a coastal rain forest, the salmon would come in by the thousands and rot on the coast — food for bears and, apparently, maggots and slugs. The smell, spread for a radius of miles, was awful.
"Then you look around and you've got the lushest, most fertile island in all of Alaska, basically," he said. That "thickness of life and death" and rejuvenation stayed with him when he returned to Montana for the winter, the off season when he had time to paint.
"You recognize you're part of everything, part of all things, you're not just yourself. You're part of the past, you're part of the present," he said.