Interview by Bonnie Gangelhoff, Photos by Eric Swanson
Describe your studio. It’s an old, historic space that I began renting in 1995. It was built in 1922 by painter John Sloan, and it’s seen a lot of the art life in Santa Fe. At that time Santa Fe was a rough-and-tumble town with dirt roads and lots of bars. Sloan worked here, but in the evening the studio turned into a gambling space. There are dice painted on the doors. Sloan painted here during the summers until 1941, at which time he moved to a home he designed in northwest Santa Fe. Today, the adobe walls inside the studio are beginning to disintegrate a bit, sifting dust and dirt unto everything.
How does this artistic history influence you when you are working? I have a sense of reverence for the place, and I recognize that I am part of a long chain of events. It doesn’t make me feel special, but I do feel honored to be part of the tradition and to be able to continue that tradition. I am pretty sure at least one piece of old furniture in the studio was built by Sloan. I haven’t found any written records of activities here, but I had neighbor who told me before she passed away that they had a lot of parties here. Sloan had a great love of life. There is an old photograph posted on my website of about 40 people, many of them holding drinks. The artists of that period tended to hang together. They made the journey out to New Mexico by train from New York and were known to hang out either here or in Taos. A lot of the Taos painters probably came here. Those painters did some of the phenomenal early works that we now call the master paintings of early western art.
How do your surroundings in Santa Fe influence your work? It influences me to the extent that it is a place with exceptional clarity of air and incredible clouds and storms. The cloud formations that climb up out of the hills are mind-boggling. Many people speak about the sunsets here and how they are so beautiful. But I wait for late May and early June and the thunderstorms that come then. That’s when the real excitement of the season is upon us. It’s not unusual for me to check the radar on the Internet, get in my car, and drive out to where the storms are forming so I can do cloud studies and find inspiration for larger pieces.
Why do you prefer landscape painting over other genres? I have done plenty of still lifes and also figurative pieces with models at the Art Students League of New York. But most importantly I am a traveler. The notion of going out from the studio into the spaces is a terrific dynamic. It galvanizes my enthusiasm. I seek out moments in nature that are poignant. Part of my discipline as a landscape painter is to use years of studying master painters to translate my experience. But I create my own particular language about what is happening in the landscape. Landscape for me is a very personal way of expressing life experience.
How do you see the landscape as expressing life? I find metaphors in form, light, and space. I have taken more than 15 trips down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. The river is a metaphor for life. You bring your preconceived ideas, and then you go down this corridor where you encounter the unexpected in the form of raging rapids, extraordinary scenery, and intense storms. When you come out the other side of this long journey, you are changed. Your way of seeing is changed, and your reverence for the natural world is vastly heightened. That’s why I paint landscapes—because it engages my body, mind, and spirit.
What music do you play in the studio? I play the romantics—Wagner, Tchaikovsky, and Beethoven. And I love the moderns, like Stravinsky.
What impresses you about other artists’ works? Not a great deal. I am a harsh critic not only of others’ work but also of my own. I believe the finest artwork was done before the beginning of the 20th century. I’m an admirer of the great artistic traditions, and in the 20th century a lot of that was abandoned. I draw my inspiration from the likes of [J.M.W.] Turner, and in American painting, the luminists. The artist closest to my heart is Thomas Moran because he embodies the spirit of the artist as an explorer and journeyman. I am not moved by art that springs from cerebral experience. I am not moved by theory. And a lot of what I have seen coming out of the 20th and 21st centuries is work that responds to limitations imposed by what is politically correct. I am not happy with work that does not spring from direct experience.
What kind of work does speak to you? Works that speak to me are ones that reflect true life experience. That is to say, life deeply felt and lived. I do believe art can express dark themes, but I believe when art serves to promote political agendas or in general excite viewers through sensation, clever statements, or shock—then it is what James Joyce called “pornography.” It stimulates you but leaves you high and dry in the end. I am after deeper themes—the light bouncing about the great spaces, the forms in the spaces as the light interacts with the flat earth plane beneath the blue dome of the sky. These actions are constantly with us and are the very things that energize us and give us a reason to live. They don’t cost any money, and they give back in terms of a deeply gratifying experience. I’m interested in going out in nature and trying to retrieve these precious things. And it is a shame that I am forced by the virtue of the medium to put a square around an experience that has no boundaries.
Do you admire any contemporary artists? Odd Nerdrum.
You are a big reader. What would you say is the most seminal, meaningful book you have read? Moby Dick.
What’s the best advice you have ever received? I was told by someone prominent in the Southwest art scene to go to parties. I ignored it because I didn’t believe that art had anything to do with parties. But I have found that to survive as an artist one must be social and one must have connections.
Describe yourself in one word. Determined.
If your studio was on fire, what one thing would you save? A picture of Rose, my wife.
People would be surprised to learn that… I’m just a regular person, even though I’m hermit-like and keep to myself. I’m pensive, but when I get to know people, I find they like my sense of humor.
When you are not painting, what do you enjoy doing? Gardening. Chasing storms. Traveling. I’ve been to China, South America, and Europe. The one characteristic of my life since I was a young man is a series of great journeys that date back to the time I was in the U.S. Navy and served in Vietnam.
What’s one of your more adventuresome, exotic trips? In 1995 I received a grant from the Artists and Writers Program at the National Science Foundation to paint in Antarctica. I went to New Zealand and got fitted with clothing and equipment. It was to be a perilous trip, so I had to get my affairs in order before I went. Then you just give yourself over to it. It was a journey some would call an adventure and others would call a life-and-death experience. I was there for three months. Warm days were 20 degrees and cold days were minus 125.
How did you work in such extreme temperatures? Before I left, I went to Colorado to paint during a blizzard, and I learned that it was going to be difficult. In the cold, oil paint becomes like chewing gum. In Antarctica I tried to paint on location in minus 50 degrees, using the butt of the brush to push paint on the canvas. That didn’t work. And when I put the brushes down on the sea ice, the wind carried them away. As a result of my experience in Colorado, before I left for the Antarctic I developed a swatch book of more than 2,000 colors. So when I was on location in Antarctica, I would sketch the landscape in pencil, because it was impervious to the cold, and then use the swatch book to identify the colors of the landscape.
What is the one place people will never find you? Painting in cities.
When people come to visit you, where do you like to take them? To areas where clouds are prominent.
Meyer East Gallery, Santa Fe, NM; Medicine Man Gallery, Tucson, AZ; Christopher-Clark Fine Art, San Francisco, CA; J.N. Bartfield Galleries, New York, NY; www.panisbet.com.
Solo show, Meyer East Gallery, August 2011.
Featured in December 2010.