Aesch set herself on fire!
Born under a different name, to a clan of boys, on the flat desert of Utah, Aesch knew she didn’t quite fit in. “I was the youngest, so I always had to prove myself,” she explains in a rare moment of direct lucidity. “I thought I was a boy.” Then this: “By day I was blinded by the pale light of feigning what I wanted to be. By night, the darkness of self-loathing consumed my consciousness.” It’s not an unfamiliar story for a queer girl raised in rural America. The isolation, the confusion, the self-doubt. What is remarkable in Aesch’s story is the degree to which she has taken charge of her transformation. “I was truly bursting at the seams,” she says, “until one day… I combusted.”
I first met Aesch on a sunny day about 5 years ago in the back yard of her house in SE Portland. I’d come to see her paintings in person. Canvases were scattered about the the back yard, a breeze sprinkled them with dry grass clippings. “I hope you don’t mind. A lot of these have nature already in them.” She showed me a piece with dried flower petals stuck in the paint. Indeed there was a fuzzy sort of desiccated texture in one corner of the picture that seemed to describe a mountain of color and outlines of trees. “I want nature in all of it,” she gestured to the paintings, but I got the sense that we were suddenly talking about more than her art. She continued, “When we go outside, we ought to leave our shoes behind, so that bare foot and toes spread wide, we can soak up the truth and fleeting glory of this perfect moment.” That’s when I realized that she was alight.
The paintings were ablaze with arbitrary color, populated by mountain-like shapes and evergreens of scintillating needles. Then there were random abstract elements, some swimming up from the landscapes, some floating atop the scenes utterly disconnected from the subjects. She’d applied various textures that gave portions a rough, almost damaged quality. Like the dried flowers. “This is that plaster wall texture,” she giggled, pointing to a deep-relief patch bubbling up from a whirl of valley vista of variegated umber. “What’s this?”, I asked, indicating a sphere-like excavation in the middle of a range of mountains. “Hm,” she thought for a minute, seemingly unaware that it needed any explanation at all. “I guess it’s like the burning soul of Cascadia,” she mused. "Really!?” I said, Shocked by the clarity of an idea that seemed to have just occurred to her.
Then this: “You know, Cascadia?” I nodded. “They were here when the plates shifted and the continental spine divided rivers running east and west. They were company when Sasquatch roamed the mountains by the sea. They were severed at the base by the tens of thousands in what would become “destiny” for the ones with power. They weathered storms, tried and bent by all ends of every element, yet they stand tall and proud of their land.”
It was that explosion of ideas that I was looking at. It came from her, the spark that ignited the canvases.
“They are wild because of what they have been through,” she continued. Was she still talking about the trees and mountain? Or did she see herself as the same thing as them?
Aesch studied painting at Minnesota State University Moorhead in 2010. She credits one particular instructor for bringing out her abstract tendencies, Zhimin Guan. And abstract she was. Though, I saw in her work a longing to ground her ideas in something tangible. “Growing up, my only refuge was in the Rocky Mountains,” she erupts. “I knew I was queer at age 12 but had to hide it. All the contradictory gender/attraction/impositions of family and society had molded me into an untrue version of myself. The serenity juxtaposed with the extremity and fierceness of the mountains always reflect my true self, from the innocence and purity to the cut, passionate wild side. Every time I go up a mountainside, I come down a better, truer version of myself, having worked out all the beaten and broken down parts of me.”
“This one’s sold.” she flashed while turning around a canvas that had been leaning face first again a tree. And there it was…Mount Hood in pinks and oranges as though the sun set within the heart of the mountain, a misty valley with something like a river running through. Texture indicated crags and deep lines in the paint stood for water flowing. And in the foreground the sphere that was the soul of Cascadia. All of her ideas, all the experiments and innovations, all the expressionism and abstraction, it was all there in a crystal explosive fusion. Her eyes sparked at me like campfires and engulfed me too.
Flash-forward over a couple series of paintings that involved more texture and then some glued-on sticks of wood. Flash-forward to a break in the pandemic, June 2021. I visited Aesch to see new paintings she had created from her studio in a two bedroom apartment that she shares with her girlfriend. We’d be indoors this time. I knew I was in for a treat because I’d already seen pictures online but I wasn’t prepared for the transformation that awaited me.
There on the wall hung a canvas about 20x16, mostly white, but floating in the middle, a perfect mountainscape. The peaks and ridges expertly rendered in oils of purples and burgundies, framed by emerald forests and nestled into early morning mists. Lovely, I thought, yes, wow, a real leap forward in technique. I had no doubt now what I was looking at. It was a fantasy of Cascadia in the style of the early 19th century luminizers like Albert Bierstadt, Frederic E. Church, and George Bingham. The mountain chain was mirrored in a lake that at first glance seemed to faithfully reflect the soaring ridge. But on closer inspection the reflection wasn’t just what it appeared. No, it seemed to be another mountain range, connected to the top one in Siamese twin fashion by an escarpment that ran gracefully through both. The other peaks, reaching down, recalled the roots of the mountain that Tolkien often referred to. They were the soul, the foundation, as real as the mountains that rose above. Both floated in an other-worldly white negative space like a vision-tunnel.
“Aesch, it’s gorgeous!” I exclaimed. “What did you do?”
“I’ve been watching Bob Ross,” she giggled.
Then I, “ah, yes. I see it now.” Those lines and edges, the happy little trees, the luminous vision of nature. It was all there. “Like a gem,” I said. And at that, from her pocket, she produced a shard of obsidian.
“I painted the mountains from this,” she said. And indeed there they where, those same mountain ranges sitting in the palm of her hand. “But wait,” she cautioned, and, picking the painting from the wall, she turned it to the vertical. There, before my eyes, the twin mountain ranges transmuted into sharp lines depicting a woman’s nude torso. Where no one had once been, now the mountains were gone and together with the soul of Cascadia inside, She stepped forward from the painting.
“Amazing.” This was it. I knew then that Aesch, who started out as someone else, had realized what she’d been working toward for so long. Cascadia Embodied.
She told me once that her given name meant “I’m cold”. Her eyes flicker a little. Aesch means, “To live.” She descried changing her name: “Flames came roaring out of me as though I was breathed out by a tenacious dragon.”