Oh Be Joyful

Orchard #4, Paonia, acrylic, 40 x 60. painting, southwest art.
Orchard #4, Paonia, acrylic, 40 x 60.

By Henry Isaacs

A flagman stops me on Route 133 going over McClure Pass. “Goin’ to be about 12 minutes,” he pauses, “and then some!” An enforced timeout in my painting trip to Colorado’s central Rockies the road crew provides punctuation for my thinking about the next drawing.

I had driven up that day from Crested Butte. The day had begun with an early coffee at a bed and breakfast with the owner, Rita. It was Rita who, 10 years ago, had sent me trekking with easel and paint to Oh Be Joyful Creek and Falls just a few miles uphill from the ghost town of Gothic. This February day I drive west of the Crested Butte ski area until the road stops at a wall of snow. Hiking down into the narrow valley I remember the passage of mountains, rock, aspen, and fir from almost 15 years of intermittent drawing seasons. I have seen it in rose and ochres, in the yellows and blues of lupines and glacial lilies. I’ve drawn and painted the golds, greens, and oranges of the aspens at this 9,000-foot elevation. I’ve snowshoed to high outcrops and frozen waterfalls. I’ve skied the backcountry trail until the steepness of the ascent determined my stopping point and the vantage point and subject of my paintings.

Oh Be Joyful, Pastel, 15 x 11. painting, southwest art.
Oh Be Joyful, Pastel, 15 x 11.

The landscape seals a lot of experience—it knows my past and recognizes my return. That high valley can note that I’ve brought all three of my children through it at various moments of their lives, sometimes in baby backpacks, sometimes on forced marches: “We’ll stop up there for a snack, just ahead under the clump of trees, I promise!” It has seen me run for cover as its July storms build a crescendo of clouds and spin lighting bolts wildly down its mountainsides. The trail remembers my mother-in-law valiantly trying out her new cross-country skis; it remembers my meeting the Brown Family Reunion all dressed to match on a warm summer’s day and lining them up for a photograph in a still green meadow. I’ve been up there with intentions of hours of dedicated painting only to be lulled asleep by a warm sun and a bed of moss. That long crack in the rows of towering peaks has heard my vows and my prayers.

From July to September the passes over Gothic and by Marcelina Mountain are open. In those quick, snow-free weeks these routes reveal heaven: cascading acres of lupine and columbine fading from deep purples to the palest carmines and blues. The lush moss greens of skunk cabbage and arrowroot find me wading up to my knees through the summer groundcover. Autumn brings unspeakable salmon golds that light up the aspens from Marcelina to the town of Marble.

Sopris at Carbondale, pastel, 22 x 30. painting, southwest art.
Sopris at Carbondale, pastel, 22 x 30.

But driving from Crested Butte to Carbondale in winter months is an undertaking to be considered carefully. I nose my car down the pavement that leads through Gunnison along the north rim of the Black Canyon up through Hotchkiss and Paonia and finally to Carbondale. Typically a four-hour trip, an artist at the wheel can double that time. From the viewpoint of the driver’s seat I fall in love again and again: a trailhead that invites, a creek foaming and tumbling, a snowfield glistening too yellow for me to avoid stopping to paint.

On the backside of McClure Pass, another flagman: “Five minutes! … Well, maybe longer.” At the edge of the road the work crew’s tools are lined up for tomorrow’s use: front loaders, bulldozers, shovels, picks, and boxes of dynamite. McClure Pass, at only 8,800 feet, is one of the Rockies’ tamest. It falls gently but quickly alongside the north-flowing Crystal River.

A few autumns ago I hiked a summit path at sunset to draw the last light on the carpets of aspen. I set up quickly on the steep fall-off of the trail. I am a messy painter. Rattling boxes of chalks and tearing out rolls of paper, I generally disturb flora and fauna in a wide arc around me. It must have been at least half an hour before I noticed another traveler, a young woman, not 20 feet along the cliff. Surprised, I blurted, “Oh, gosh, I’m sorry to disturb your peace!” “Oh, not a problem,” she replied. “There’s plenty up here.”

Henry Isaacs. photo, southwest art.
Henry Isaacs

Following that same route, I have a destination for this day’s painting. The great treat of Colorado awaits in another 15 miles. Past wondrously named but barely inhabited Marble, Crystal, Granite, and Redstone rises Mt. Sopris. Distinct, almost alone, a giant monadnock of a mountain with squared red shoulders, it seems more comforting than its great height would indicate. The lush Crystal Valley in Pitkin County is ranched in parts, with edges nibbled by mine structures and tailings and in sections abandoned to fallow green. Painting Sopris, I often start with its irresistible pyramid and work down its flanks. I trace the hill as it melts into fissures and caverns that appear as great gashes that follow the legs of its angles, disappearing into the cover of blue-green trees, dressing its skirts.

On drawing trips these days I pop out of my rented Jeep and set off. I might hike a few hundred feet across a meadow or up a few miles from a trailhead. While I used to carry a pack brimming with a variety of materials, papers, and rolls of canvas, I now go lightweight. I travel with a small box of pastels and a tube of paper. No easel, no paints, no fixatives. I try to remember at least a light blanket, a windbreaker, some water or juice, and a snack.

On that Sopris day the late winter’s sun finishes fast. The wind whips snow and grit up from the stony meadow floor on which I have chosen my drawing spot. As part of my nesting ritual, I gather a pile of rocks to anchor the edges of my paper as defense against the fierce gusts. I arrange myself before paper and chalk amidst tall bending grasses that winter forgot to kill, my nylon hood billowing despite the taut drawstring around my face. I kneel before the sweep of tree, mountain, and sky.

“Draw the feet, damn it! Everything has feet! What do you all think … that the world hovers like a flying saucer 10 feet above the earth? Get the feet, the rest will draw itself!” Mr. Macomber would slowly make his way around the studio in 1969 Providence, where I attended the Rhode Island School of Design. Mr. Macomber had been responsible for a section of first-year art students every year for decades.

Down the hill from Macomber’s class, ‘Color’ met once each week. In this class, the tenets of color theorist Josef Albers were determinedly taught by Professor Sewall Sillman, a self-described disciple of the great man. Art school assignments are termed “problems”: design problems, three-dimensional problems, anatomy problems. Thus were born my color problems. Where pure complementary color was to be juxtaposed to set up an explosion of boogie-woogie vibration, my papers were smeared with paste.

Once when walking through the RISD snack bar, folio under my arm, I was stopped by a kind teacher. “Henry!” he said. “What do you have in there?”“Oh nothing,” I replied drearily, “just some color problems.” Never missing a stroke, the teacher replied, “I know—I’ve seen your work!”

Thirty-one years and 2,500 miles later, I hike the Crystal River Valley floor and find my temporary home. I open my backpack and empty paper and chalk. I gather the requisite weights to pin my work down. As I begin to work I find that I have, after all, brought an enormous bag of tools with me: Albers’ colors, Mr. Macomber’s feet, the old stories of Ute Indians and white trappers, the miners and the ranchers all roll around in splendid cacophony. All of these are ingredients that I have used every day of these last decades in my art.

Lately I recognize another source for my work that speaks louder and sharper than these: my children’s voices. It’s often their hopes and questions, born of matters far away from this elevation, that I find in my paint and chalk. I used to say that every drawing is a conversation; every image is intended as a communication. But the father in me has found some ability to understand much more than the mountain or meadow in the dusty gestures on the paper. Though words in my life are incomplete, my kids’ lives move forward for me as I come to terms with the puzzle of the two dimensions of my art.

Oh no, I cannot claim a power to reach them through my work out there in the high country. All that I can do is arrange a palette in which I can identify my son and two daughters as being as important to my pictures as any other lesson, any waterfall, any snowfield, or any armload of flowers. A dear friend has reminded me that she can only be as happy as her least happy child. My painting carries its heart on its sleeve and can only be as successful as my own pulse allows. I used to lecture to art students that a good painting always has bits of a self-portrait. Recently I have begun to learn my own lesson. Perhaps it takes an act of faith to discover that the felt is as important as the observed.

It is a long day from Crested Butte to Carbondale. Did I pick the right spots to draw and remember? My road atlases are littered with places to return to. I cover a lot of paper and leave a wake of powdered chalk wherever I camp. Like so many other drawing times, I am tired today. I still remember Rita’s directions to Oh Be Joyful. I will be back there with my children. Soon.

Photos courtesy the artist and David Findlay Jr. Fine Art, New York, NY: Gallery A, Taos, NM: The Living Gallery, Ashland, OR: Gallery C, Raleigh, NC; Robert Allen Fine Art, San Francisco, CA: and Smith-Klein Gallery, Boulder, CO.

Featured in December 2000