John Axton transforms experience into compelling expressions in abstract-and abstracted-art
By Gussie Fauntleroy
John Axton likes to quote fellow painter and friend Ramon Kelley, who used to say he “didn’t figure on getting good until he was 80.” Adds Axton with characteristic soft-spoken humility, “I guess I’m just starting to get things a little figured out in life.”
Many would say that in art, the 63-year-old Santa Fe-based painter has actually had things figured out for quite a while. Collectors over the years might point to the evocative quality of Axton’s early imagery, featuring dark, empty doorways and the soft-shouldered lines of adobe
architecture clearly inspired by visits to old Taos Pueblo. Or the poignant sense of solitude and space in deeply hued paintings of quietly curling waves on a dark shoreline, the scene’s strong horizontal lines occasionally broken by a lone, empty boat. Or a single buffalo standing against the nebulous haze of an abstract background, with the many connotations such an image brings to mind.
Along with collectors and viewers, one entity that early on recognized the trajectory of Axton’s career and the value of his work was his alma mater, Southern Illinois University’s College of Technical Careers, where he graduated from the commercial graphics and design program. In 1988 the school honored him with its Alumni Achievement Award “for outstanding professional achievement.” During the awards ceremony in Carbondale, IL, Axton expressed deep appreciation to his mother, brother, and high school art teacher—all in attendance—among others who nudged and encouraged him along his path.
“I’ve always been lucky to have teachers when I needed them,” the painter reflects, sitting in his studio in downtown Santa Fe’s El Centro Mall, where as summer arrives he welcomes increasing numbers of visitors to his neatly organized, light-filled space. As he speaks, he reaches down to stroke the soft fur of a golden retriever/yellow lab mix named Abby, sitting patiently beside his chair.
Abby wears a red cape sporting the words Assistance Dogs of the West. She had been assigned to assist a friend of Axton’s who suffered from periodic seizures. But Axton spent so much time with Abby that when the friend’s medications improved her health to the point that she no longer needed a dog, Abby was allowed to move in with Axton. Together the two serve as ambassadors for the program, which matches specially trained dogs with individuals living with disabilities. Axton is a certified handler.
Abby’s sweet, infinitely calm personality is no doubt both a teacher and a balm in the pressure-cooker pace of contemporary life. Yet others in Axton’s world have been teachers in seemingly coincidental, non-academic ways as well. Among the earliest of these, and a powerful influence in his decision to pursue art, was his younger brother, Daryl, who has been blind since birth. “I learned a lot from him. I think it amplified my ability to be observant because I had to be Daryl’s assistant, I had to be his eyes—as did everyone in the family,” the artist reflects.
Shared musical interest was one way the brothers created their own entertainment growing up in small-town, southern Illinois, where the family didn’t own a television until John was 10. But young John was finding creative outlets in drawing and painting as well as in music. As early as grade school, he remembers, “Art was the area where I received the most encouragement and praise.”
Growing up without knowing his father also had a profound impact on Axton. His father joined the army at a young age and was killed in the Korean War when John was only three. The loss and resulting hole in Axton’s life is reflected in the sometimes-melancholy quality of his work, including glimpses of roads or rivers meandering into formless landscapes, suffused with the unknown.
After taking all the mechanical drafting classes his high school offered, Axton signed up for art. “I wanted to be a rock and roller, but I thought art was the direction I would go in if the guitar playing didn’t work out,” he recalls with a smile. “In my senior year, my art teacher, Dorothy Kelton, wanted to know what I was going to do after graduation. I said, ‘I think the band and I will hit the road.’ She said, ‘No, John, I don’t think so.’”
Kelton’s gentle dissuasion contained practical advice as well. She recommended Southern Illinois University and its commercial art program, which eventually led to Axton’s full-time commitment to fine art. And he found a way to pass on his teacher’s invaluable support. With funds from the sale of a book on his art, published by the university in conjunction with the Alumni Achievement Award, he set up an ongoing foundation (now called the Helen C. Axton Foundation), providing scholarships to students in art-related fields of study.
Axton’s own studies were followed by design and illustration work, including the creation of corporate logos, for employers such as the Illinois State Museum and Mobile Chemical Corporation. Commercial work provided experience in design skills and self-disciple, yet Axton felt constrained by constantly conforming to someone else’s vision. Fortunately, during much of this time, his schedule allowed him to start work early and leave the office by mid-afternoon. He would often be found working in his studio until 1 or 2 a.m., following his passion for easel art. “When I was young and determined, nothing was going to stop me. I was inspired,” he declares.
Axton’s inspiration soon took him in the direction of non-representational work, including painting mixed with collage. The choice reflected his comfort with abstraction (which often came into play in commercial and corporate design) along with his desire to shake loose from predetermined goals and follow his own artistic flow.
It was during this period, in the early to mid-1970s, that Axton visited Taos. Soon he and fellow painter Ramon Kelley were making trips to Taos and Santa Fe, soaking up the remnants of a slow-paced but fast-disappearing way of life.
“It was a whole different scene back then,” he remarks, pulling a photo album from a shelf and flipping through the pages. There are photos of horses in fields where buildings and houses now stand. There’s Kelley beside a Taos Pueblo elder who could have stepped out of an early 20th-century painting, a blanket draped around his shoulders and head. “They were so gracious,” Axton says of the Pueblo members who generously welcomed a pair of wandering painters.
The powerfully fluid, organic lines of the pueblo’s ancient architecture also found a home in the artist’s sensibility and inspired a long series of abstracted architectural imagery through the ’80s.
These spawned periodic paintings of solitary barns in undefined landscapes of rich color, which in turn shared an aesthetic, and often a strong horizontal structure, with Axton’s abstracted landscapes and seascapes—sunset-hued or nocturnal shorelines containing little or no evidence of human presence.
Meanwhile, the artist and his then-wife, Connie Axton, left Illinois and lived for a time in Denver and later Albuquerque. In 1982 they and their two children settled in Santa Fe, where Connie opened—and still owns and runs—Ventana Fine Art. Although the couple has been divorced for many years now, their professional relationship continues.
A few years ago, Axton found himself coming full circle to his roots in non-objective abstract art. Often working in a small-scale format and following a vertical, rather than horizontal thrust, he re-discovered the artistic joys of layering, scraping, and palette knife application of paint.
“I’d gotten to an age where I started going to a lot of memorial services for friends,” he explains. One such friend and fellow artist was Harry Fonseca. “When Harry died [in 2006], I started thinking: I’m the same age as Harry. What do I really want to do? I decided it was time to do that body of abstract work I’d wanted to do.”
Today Axton, who calls himself “bilingual”—fluent in both abstract and abstracted art—has rounded the circle to another familiar point on his creative compass. Smiling, he describes his current series as the “Axton Icons: buffalos, boats, breakers, and barns.”
Yet this return to earlier imagery is new in its own way. With it comes a sense of the emotional expressiveness and freedom he developed through his latest non-representational work. “My tendency now is to be a little more spontaneous and expressionistic,” he observes. “My approach these days is very much to let it happen, to just step through the door and see what’s inside.”
Ventana Fine Art, Santa Fe, NM.
Featured in May 2010