Out of Place

“He ceased to be lost not by returning but by turning into something else.”

― Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost

This monthly email now has a name: Out of Place.

Let me explain.

It starts with my day.

I wake early, it still dark outside, my bedroom cold (I like it that way). After showering, I fire up the wood burning stove, then an hour of stretching, followed by exercise (this morning I shovel the drive; it snowed yesterday). Workout complete, I make my breakfast: fresh coffee with plenty of cream alongside berries, banana, and yogurt, all garnished with freshly-shaved cacao – the block of it a gift from my youngest daughter. I eat to music on Spotify (Gordon Lightfoot just now), sit at my computer, settle into my day, here at this place.

The same each morning.

My rhythm.

My home is surrounded by trees, the only visible house diagonally across from me on the other side of a shared private road, four other homes further along before the road ends at the lake. I rarely see my neighbors; it’s quiet here. Inside, I have made things as I like them: art on the walls, much of it by my eldest daughter and uncle; framed photos of family and friends everywhere; antique toy soldiers from my father and Oaxacan figurines (a gift from my mother) scattered here and there. In winter, I like to light candles, letting them burn through the day.

All this makes my home – my sanctuary, everything in its place.

I have not always lived this way.

My solitary move to Maine has taken place in slow motion over the past several years, its stuttering pace mirroring so much other drawn out and excruciating change in my life – what I do, who I am with, how I see myself – all like molting: a bit sloughed off here, another bit there.

Metamorphosis at a glacial rate, though instigated by a lightning strike: “Hello, is this Peter?”

My eldest daughter died eight years ago next month, and the world never seemed more wrong than it did that day – suddenly and completely out of place. It took me time to recognize just how fully so… to allow it… to admit it to myself. To release in totality what had been and could no longer be: my notion of family (a place at the table removed); my closely held values (wrong becomes right as wrongness becomes real); my faith in another chance (no bargaining back listening together to If You Could Read My Mind).

Out of place all at once, everything torn, reckoning with it in fits and starts, from trauma to here – to this new place, like a fresh dawn: that’s my story of transformation.

I name this monthly missive Out of Place because I have emerged from out of place, whole and healed, and now – out of this place – I write, from me to you, with love.

circe dunnell

Untitled New Hampshire by circe dunnell, 20″ x 26″, maps & matte medium on paper, 2021

How do we orient ourselves in disorienting times?

The January 6 United States Capitol attack and the ever-rising political polarization a year later are just two signs of our chaotic age. Add to the mix climate change, the Covid-19 pandemic, the increasing prevalence of conspiracy theories (and those who believe them, so many tending to question the veracity of facts themselves), and we might well wonder: how do we find our way now?

“Former norms no longer seem to apply,” says circe dunnell, reflecting on her own experience of dislocation.

In addition to living with the same social vertigo as the rest of us, circe has faced her own Covid-related challenges in recent months: being a teacher at a K-12 school navigating unfathomable uncertainties; unable to assist her brother in caring for an elderly parent living in New Hampshire (circe lives in New Jersey); having a partner in and out of New York hospitals during peak days of the pandemic (for non-Covid reasons).

“I have felt so out of place,” she says. “Not being able to have contact with friends; trying to teach art remotely; not being able to see my father.”

Circe has found this moment of disorientation vexing for her art as well.

Over the past 20 years, she has used maps in her art with their functionality in mind: in a 2018 series, she incorporated paper lattices made from painstakingly cutting roads out of maps, preserving route numbers and geographic legibility; in 2019, she deployed maps in works to pinpoint where discriminatory redlining took place; other works from that same year use maps to locate where incidents of gender discrimination occurred.

Maps as maps – an essential aspect of her work’s content.

“I’ve used maps in my work for a very long time – it’s through maps I’ve tried to find a direction,” she says. “But if I were to pull out a compass now I feel it might not point north – it might point anywhere.”

In a world turned upside-down, for circe, maps have lost much of their practicality – but not their appeal.

“I really liked the idea of finding some sort of grounding direction with maps in these untethered times.”

A subtle fact of circe’s past art is that the maps embedded in them are all photocopies of maps. A self-proclaimed accumulator of things, circe had always refused herself permission to use the actual maps in her art (“I was afraid of not having the original and wanting it for something else”). However, in this moment of paradigm breakdown, maps now suspect (in a sense, devalued), something clicked over: why not use the actual map?

Boldly, circe set about cutting up a New Hampshire map from her collection.

“That was pretty traumatizing – I worried about never having the map again. But as I cut it up and began to rearrange the parts together, I could see it working. I wasn’t getting the quietness in the order that I wanted, but I could see: I could cut up the maps now.”

Detail from the first piece circe made cutting up an actual map

And that’s what she’s been doing since that point – maps cut up beyond any utility, fragments repurposed into repetition and pattern, culminating as new art.

Such is the case with New Hampshire Untitled, the work featured at the head of this article.

Made from a lake chart and map of New Hampshire, the piece looks anything but map-like. The work becomes a visual experience on its own terms, distinct from geography – like a mantra composed of shape and color, intricate in its geometry, soothing in its rhythmic repetition. Like visual music – quiet and meditative, with no overt purpose beyond existing for itself.

“With past work, I had always set out with the intention of making it about things – redlining, gender issues – using the maps in a literal way to support that content. With these works, I’m not using maps the way they were meant to be used – I’m not looking out into the world. I’m turning inward to try to find direction… to stop thinking about all the exterior stuff and how displaced I feel. I’m trying to create some order and structure so I can feel like myself again.”

Initially, circe fretted over the works’ imperfections – the varying space between each parallelogram no matter how precisely she tried to lay each paper tile.

“I struggled with the imperfections, and then I thought: why? It’s a part of it, it’s a part of me – mistakes are a part of life.”

Reckoning with fallibility while striving for an ideal is the essential story of circe’s new work – a story especially apt in such fallible times. In a world with so much falling apart, it’s a story of orienting oneself in disorienting times.

It’s story of circe using authentic maps, repurposing them, and finding her authentic self.

“This new work gives me a concrete idea of who I am as an artist. I didn’t expect that to happen. The art is coming from such a quiet place – it makes me just want to go to my studio and get to that quiet place, a place that has allowed me to finally just accept I need to make art, and that’s all I want to do.”

A big and positive change for circe, and a model for the rest of us.

Circe dunnell is an artist and teaches art at Rutgers Preparatory School in Franklin Township, New Jersey. Untitled New Hampshire and several other recent works by circe are on view at the Rotunda Gallery in Jersey City, New Jersey, through January 31.

Healing Lines

“I want to know if you can disappoint another to be true to yourself. If you can bear the accusation of betrayal and not betray your own soul. If you can be faithless and therefore trustworthy.”

― Oriah Mountain Dreamer, The Invitation

My therapist introduced the above passage to me exactly when I needed to hear it. At that time (now several years ago), I wanted so badly to evade the accusation of betrayal – of faithlessness. I had not considered the prospect proffered by Oriah Mountain Dreamer: that it’s possible to be both faithless and trustworthy – that I might inhabit a story of betrayal with two sides to it. The notion gave me a way forward at an otherwise paralyzing moment in my life.

A year or so later, I made Therefore Trustworthy (shown above), one of several new works I’ve just added to my website.

More often than not, my abstract work is grounded in narrative. With its two masses of linear form (one warm and orange, the other dark and cool) bent in opposite directions and overlapping to create the complete picture, Therefore Trustworthy connotes the notion of co-existing with contradictory forces. That was my story – that is my story, and making a painting about it helped me own it.

On my website’s main gallery page, I have an entire section of relatively new works (made 2019 and 2020) similarly transmuting my personal experience into abstract image. Here are two more examples:

I write about We Are Five (left) in the online exhibition Grace. Big Crying (right) has a less complex narrative: simply put, living on the other side of transformational grief, crying has been beneficial to me time and again – so with joy I paint tears, like an endlessly gurgling spring.

I have been told I make “squiggle” or “scribble” drawings – monikers dismissive-sounding enough to have at one time made me flinch. But the descriptions are actually not far from the truth, functionally: such quick drawings are used in art therapy to allow patients to get to the emotional hearts of their stories – and isn’t that what I am doing? So though I’m not a patient, and though these three works took hundreds of hours to complete (they are meticulously painted 24″ x 20” oil paintings), they accomplish much of what a clinical session would.

And for that, I am grateful.


IMAGE CREDITS: Alice Neel, Self‐Portrait, 1980, oil on canvas, 53 1/4 × 39 3/4 inches (Metropolitan Museum of Art; © The Estate of Alice Neel); Rembrandt van Rijn, Self-Portrait, 1659, oil on canvas, 84.5 x 66 cm (National Gallery of Art); Palmer Hayden, Blue Nile, 1964, watercolor, gouache, and pencil on paper, 54.6 x 70.8 cm (Museum of Modern Art, Committee on Drawings and Prints Fund).

January 2022

Watch for Becoming

Within the next two weeks, we will send out an announcement with details on the upcoming Becoming conversation series, along with links to register to attend these online events. We welcome artists Schroeder Cherry (shown here), Richard CleaverConnie ImbodenVagner Mendonça-WhiteheadKen Rosyter, and Colette Veasey-Cullors to what we expect to be a fascinating series offering insight on what it means to be a constantly evolving artist. Watch for details!

This Can Be Yours

With each newsletter, we are now offering a work of art by Peter. This watercolor from 2012 can be yours for just $15 if you are the first to email Peter to claim it (see a large version of the drawing here). If you want to see more art for sale, visit the sales gallery at the Bruun Studios website.

Megan McCarthy

Thank You, Megan

Out of Place would not be what it is without Megan McCarthy. Not only has she brought her graphic design and branding know-how to bear on our public face, but she also has brought her strategic mind. Megan understands design is only as good as how it is used, and she has been a driving force in our effort to effectively share what matters most about Bruun Studios (it was her idea to give our monthly newsletter a name). We are so grateful to Megan and look forward another year of working with her.