Peter Hagen | All Earth & Sky

By Wolf Schneider

Sunset in the black canyon, oil, 24 x 18 by Peter Hagen
Sunset in the black canyon, oil, 24 x 18 by Peter Hage

He lives just a block off Old Pecos Trail—one of Santa Fe’s busiest thoroughfares—yet Peter Hagen has managed to create a rural paradise for himself. A dirt road leads to his home, which is hidden behind a thicket of trees, including the aspens he planted. His garden is full of gaillardia, day lilies, roses, hollyhocks, and lavender. A pitcher of tea is brewing on the garden wall when I show up. Nearby stands a barbed-wire sculpture of a colt that Hagen got years ago in a trade for his old Isuzu Trooper. This is a fellow who knows how to create the life he wants. But it wasn’t always that way. Self-discovery came gradually to Hagen.

Tall and muscular with thick, silvering hair, Hagen is an athletic guy who hikes, bikes, skis, and sails. When he greets me at the door, it’s hard to believe he’s 62. It’s even harder to believe that he’s from Flushing, Queens, in New York, because if Hagen has one preoccupation above all else, it’s his connection to the land. His love for open country is evident in the landscapes he paints year round, turning out 100 new canvases a year. “I love the beauty of it,” he says. “The more I look, the more I see.”

Hagen paints landscapes of New Mexico and southern Colorado (and occasionally scenes of Martha’s Vineyard, where he goes each summer for a few weeks to a family home). His color-saturated, light-filled paintings emphasize the mountains, canyons, arroyos, and clouds of the Southwest. “It’s all earth and sky,” he says. “That’s New Mexico.”

Hagen used to paint everything en plein air. He now divides his time between smaller plein-air paintings that might be 8-by-10s or 18-by-24s, and larger studio paintings that range from 18-by-24s to 30-by-48s. His paintings capture familiar landscapes around northern New Mexico—places like Abiquiu, Taos, the Jemez Mountains, and Chimayo. “You can get little views around town, too,” he says. “But I usually drive out about an hour’s radius.”

Yellows and blues tend to dominate in his studies of atmosphere, space, and distance. “It’s just what I see out there, like the yellow chamisa in fall. I use a lot of ochres, which have a lot of warmth. And the blue skies—cerulean blue and French ultramarine,” says the artist, who straddles the line between impressionist and realist.

Usually his paintings are horizontals, generally two-thirds earth and one-third sky, but sometimes Hagen flips that compositional formula. “The first things I look for are shape and composition,” he emphasizes. What constitutes good composition? “Well, certainly having depth, having different layers terraced back. Having an object off center on one-third or two-thirds of the painting. And, of course, a focal point.”

Summertime monsoons are a preoccupation at the moment. “We’re surrounded by the Jemez, Sangre de Cristo, and Sandia mountains. You can see the clouds building up around 11 a.m., and it’s fascinating,” he notes. “Nature and landscapes are the most beautiful things there are. Well, except for some music.” Like? “Classical and opera. Andrea Bocelli has a great voice,” is his immediate response. He then adds, “I like country-folk too—Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen.”

Hagen listens to music while working in the studio—but that’s the only distraction he allows himself. His studio is a 400-square-foot space a few miles away on Santa Fe’s historic Upper Canyon Road. There is no phone, and he rarely invites people to visit. “It’s down in the canyon with cottonwoods all around. It’s on the river, very quiet and peaceful,” as Hagen describes it. He’s typically there from noon to 7 p.m. “I like it because it’s away from the house, and I’m not disturbed.”

Featured in September 2007

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