The Unfamiliar Familiar Is There by Peter Gottschalk

Humans are creatures of place, and our narratives frequently reflect this. The Odyssey, the Mahabharata, the Bible, Muhammad’s biographies, and Aborigine Dreamtime narratives all weave strands of story through specific places. Places serve as the locative warp for the narrator’s weft because readers, reciters, and audiences partly define themselves relative to identifiable places. A Sydney-born Muslim or a Connecticut-raised Greek may never have stood physically in Mecca or on the Acropolis, but those places may yet feel familiar through the stories, descriptions, and pictures shared by family and community. While hearing or reading a pilgrimage travelogue, vacation story, ritual rendition, or professor’s history lecture, they recall the un/seen and imagined non-imaginary place like someone fingering a bead on a rosary while hearing a prayer litany. Even fiction authors shape places as the legs upon which their tale stands. Indeed, we have to know where and what “there” is in order to follow Bilbo “There and Back Again.”

Paradoxically, part of the delight of that hobbit’s journey stems from his abandonment of the familiar and his traversal of terra incognito. Voyagers have long delighted their home communities by offering tales about places beyond the horizon of their knowledge. Pliny, Faxian, al-Biruni, Marco Polo, and Babur all included descriptions of new places whether or not they had visited them. While some of these early travelers’ depictions came from their imaginations and some from reports of other people, Enlightenment Europeans – increasingly entranced with the empirical – made a motto of “seeing is believing.” Europeans finding new places continued to pen descriptions but, when they got home, commissioned artists to illustrate their published travel accounts. James Cook went a step further, bringing an artist – William Hodges – aboard the Resolution for its three-year Pacific voyage. Not only Cook’s published account but also Hodges’ paintings could make the coveted claim of having been rendered from experiences “on the spot.” Readers could stand assuredly in the verbally and visually virtual shoes of the explorer.

Visual culture increasingly erases the borders between fictive and actual landscapes. Three hundred years after James Cook, James T. Kirk continues to imaginatively explore “where no one has gone before” on Star Trek. Klingons and Vulcans colonize American minds even as pilgrims trek to Kirk’s future birthplace (Riverside, Iowa). In other fictional universes, fan tourism booms as devotees descend on the former film sets for fictive places of fantastical lands, whether it be Luke Skywalker’s Tatooine home in Tunisia or Middle Earth’s battlefields in New Zealand.

Tula Telfair’s work registers in many of these keys. She provides audiences with land-, sky-, and water-scapes in which they try to find mental and visceral footing. “Is that a real place?” one finds oneself wondering, despite efforts not to. One wants to know, “After seeing this picture, can I say that I have seen this place?” We feel obliged to determine whether or not we are viewing a real or fictive locale – like establishing the genre of a film or book – in order to determine how we will judge the image. If it depicts a real place, we ask ourselves, “How accurate is this to how it really looks?” If we suspect it doesn’t visualize an “actual” landscape, Tula’s art prompts us to wonder, “What is the story of this view? How did I come to see this?” in consonance with the fantastical and exploratory reflex of fixing place within a narrative of discovery.

But Tula denies us the answers we seek. She deliberately deters us from knowing by offering enough verisimilitude to spark nascent recognition yet enough majesty, somberness, mythicness, and/or even (occasionally) irreality to undermine our certainty. And then we realize that the truth for which we sought in these places will not be achieved from their precise mapping onto geographic place or within established narratives, but from our recognition of how the paintings help us feel connected to the world of locations – and the location of our world – that we cognitively inhabit. One painting takes us over a sprawling landscape, as we might float in our dreams. Another dangles us just below the edge of the atmosphere, leaving us to peer below at the frail skin that stretches across our fragile, cosmically lonely orb. And others drop us into our own shoes in a tropical forest or Antarctic wilderness.

These paintings offer us the adventure of exploring what we think we know from unfamiliar vantage points and within indeterminate narratives – which is as much as any discoverer ever did.

This essay was written by Peter Gottschalk, Professor of Religion