Hidden In Plain Sight

Night Storm, Russell Steven Powell oil on canvas, 24x12

Night Storm, oil on canvas, 24×12

Mountain Ridge, Russell Steven Powell oil on canvas, 11x14

Mountain Ridge, oil on canvas, 11×14

CURRENTLY I AM READING the four Richard Hannay novels by Scottish writer John Buchan (The Thirty-Nine Steps, on which the Hitchcock film is loosely based, Green Mantle, Mr. Steadfast, and The Three Hostages) for the third time, having first discovered them now more than 20 years ago. Set in England and Europe during and shortly after World War I, the stories are fast-paced adventures, and Buchan is considered the father of the modern spy thriller.

The plot twists are sometimes fantastic, and the occasional racist attitudes expressed by this champion of the British Empire, while typical of Buchan’s time, may make the modern reader cringe (although even Brits are not spared from negative stereotypes). There are few women characters. His is a white man’s world. But Hannay’s basic decency, his resourcefulness, and his self-deprecating account of his adventures are hard to resist, and these are no ordinary tales.

Buchan does a wonderful job establishing mood and describing the countryside, which plays a key role in every story. He intersperses thoughtful musings on the nature of courage and heroism in each adventure, and the workings of the subconscious. Hannay never gives up, no matter how desperate the situation looks. He and his companions are determined to fight for their ideals above all else and against all odds, an inspirational message in our materialistic age with its outsized, seemingly intractable problems, such as climate change and political corruption.

Hannay’s journey is a lonely one, and he often finds himself pursued by both criminals and the law. He evades them at great physical risk, clambering up rocks and ice during a blizzard, hiding in bitter cold in thick heather, or racing across a mountainous ridge where he can alternately see, and be seen by, his pursuers. This is a good metaphor for some of Buchan’s characters, who adopt their disguises so convincingly that they are hiding in plain sight. My painting “Mountain Ridge” evokes Hannay’s trail across rural Scotland in The Thirty-Nine Steps.

Mountain Hideout, Russell Steven Powell oil on canvas, 11x14

Mountain Hideout, oil on canvas, 11×14

The painting “Mountain Hideout” could also reference the Hannay stories, as the spies and criminals he chases often rendezvous in remote locations. But “Mountain Hideout” could also reflect another art form, from another country, in another era: American film noir. I have watched and re-watched many of these black-and-white movies of the 1930s, 1940s, and early 1950s, chronicling murderous gangsters and their fights with the law in sharp lines and shadows, but also big cars with white-wall tires and rounded fenders, and getaways like remote, mountain-top garages, barns, or Quonset huts.

Yet I finished painting “Mountain Ridge” before I began re-reading Hannay, and I have not hiked a mountain nor seen a film noir movie in months. I was confounded by both paintings upon completing them, recognizing the mountains but not their meaning or source. It was not until I was re-reading the mountain chase scene in The Thirty Nine Steps that I saw the ridge of my imagination.

Such is the nature of painting. I rarely approach a new canvas with preconceived notions, but invariably familiar symbols and shapes, ideas and images emerge that express something deeply rooted in my psyche.

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