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Sketching Infinity

By Lauren Cooper '16 on September 16, 2013 03:02 PM

Snapshot of the ForeverScape by Vance Feldman

Snapshot of the ForeverScape by Vance Feldman ’05

The universe of Vance Feldman ’05 explodes with jumbled houses, bridges and aqueducts, businessmen shaking hands, dolphins jumping out of rivers, and spacemen kicking their feet back in lawn chairs. To call his work monumental would be something of an understatement. Modestly titled the ForeverScape, his drawing rivals some of the longest art pieces in the world. Spanning roughly 650 feet from left to right—the equivalent of two football fields—the ForeverScape is assembled out of 700 sheets of letter-size paper and grows longer by the day.

The ForeverScape started in September, 2009, when Vance was in between jobs and found himself sitting in a bar with a ream of paper. He started aimlessly sketching a landscape and when the first page ended saw no reason to stop. The first couple hundred pages, drawn in ballpoint pen, feature a smoggy, industrial landscape littered with crowded buildings twisting into each other and spilling onto the road and barbed wire fences about to snag innocent hummingbirds. These give way to apocalyptic scenes of civilization being swallowed by the sea. Squid and clownfish lazily swim above a submerged city whose buildings are wreathed in slimy weeds and whose skyscrapers are tickling the belly of a whale. One scene depicts several men attempting to subdue and photograph what appears to be the Loch Ness monster. Later, after Vance switched to using a Sharpie, the sea becomes the sky and we zoom into a psychedelic rendition of outer space, filled with boats and clams and astronauts playing badminton in reclining lawn chairs.

The chairs pay homage to Prof. Michael Knutson [art 1982–], who once told Vance that all he painted for several years were lawn chairs. Prof. Knutson likes the piece so much that he shows it to his art classes every year. The ForeverScape demonstrates, he says, “an incredible imagination, focus and energy.” In a subtler way, it also evokes a childhood loss and a lesson Vance learned at Reed.

Vance’s interest—you might call it an obsession—with drawing began early. When he was 10 years old, his father was diagnosed with terminal bone cancer. Vance drew a picture for his father for each of the 92 days he spent in the hospital before passing away. These pictures were not mere doodles but elaborate reproductions of animals Vance found in nature books. This need to keep drawing did not stop with his father’s death—Vance used it as a coping mechanism, taking refuge from his grief.

The ForeverScape is in some ways an after-echo of that experience, but with greater sophistication and touches of humor. In a brief gesture of whimsy, Vance has hidden buckets throughout the scape. You’ll find one sitting on an oversized picnic table turned tunnel to a fraying railroad track tended by an astronaut suspended over a giant sinkhole. Hunting for the buckets is a kind of pastime, and Vance hopes to turn it into a digital game by creating a mobile app that challenges viewers to locate buckets.

Even now, with a day job as an interactive software developer, the pages just keep pouring out of him. His favorite part of the ForeverScape features a rusting and broken Statue of Liberty, eight pages tall, presiding over a New York overgrown by seaweed with spaceships capsizing in the water at her feet. He enjoys this section because it’s what he sees as a “cheesy pop culture reference” that comes at the end of the outer-space portion of the ForeverScape.

Working on a massive, ever-expanding piece of art raises imposing logistical issues. Vance burns through a new Sharpie every couple of days and was actually selected by the manufacturer as “Sharpie art fan of the week.” He stores the ForeverScape in a fireproof box in an undisclosed location from which it is rarely removed; he draws a page, scans the page into his computer and places the page safely in the box. At any given moment, however, he does carry around fifty or sixty pages with him in a padded, zippered, cloth binder. He was kind enough during the interview to take them out and spread a couple on the beer stained wooden picnic table outside the Lutz Tavern, one of his more frequented haunts of productivity. He arranged them in a variety of different ways, explaining the versatility of the drawings, and their ability to be assembled in varying arrangements. The ForeverScape is drawn in such a manner that Feldman can either align the pieces horizontally or vertically and they still make a cohesive whole.

At the bottom of this massive stack of colorful, surreal storytelling lay the tattered remnants of a legal pad, bereft of paper and crowded with scribbling over every available surface, that he identified as his old Hum 110 notebook.

Vance credits his days at Reed with one important aspect of the ForeverScape—his loathing of going backward to fix something when he could just focus on the future. It is because of this that he never corrects the mistakes he makes in the Scape. He credits this to his experience in a freshman-year Chinese class with Prof. Hyong Rhew [Chinese 1988–]. Vance was doing poorly in the course and told Prof. Rhew that to prepare for the final he was going to study over all of his old notes. Rhew replied, “Forward only”—encouraging him to study by reading texts that lay just beyond his rudimentary understanding. In essence, Rhew was suggesting that Vance abandon the methods that had previously proved ineffective and approach the concepts in a new and more fluid manner. Vance wound up leveling out on the final and passing the course. Ever since, the only direction he knows is forward.