By Virginia Campbell
Once your eyes have traveled around the work of an artist for a while, it’s pretty much irresistible to delve into the mystery of how that artist has been influenced by other artists. It’s not just a matter of identifying which artists have been of crucial importance—you can often spot that right off—but how their influence has wended its way into the maze of decisions that constitute picture-making.
Looking at EVENING SOLACE by New Mexico artist Matthew Higginbotham, for example, one can quickly identify the influence of George Inness, the great 19th-century American tonalist who digested the accomplishments of the Hudson River painters and the French Barbizon School and emerged a visionary with fresh concepts of landscape and techniques for communicating them. Higginbotham’s EVENING SOLACE, with its tonalist palette and almost symbolist vision of nature, owes an obvious debt to Inness’ mature work.
But many of Higginbotham’s paintings borrow more subtly. If you made a list of the top 10 influences on his painting WINTER REFLECTIONS, for example, Inness might not even be on it. Monet, another of Higginbotham’s acknowledged influences, would likely be number one. Childe Hassam might be another. But Inness is deep inside Higginbotham’s WINTER REFLECTIONS nonetheless, in an interesting way that reveals some of the complexities of influence that roil and inspire the mind’s eye of this or any other artist.
The concepts and visual language Inness devised to express a spiritual relationship to the natural world are unusually malleable, and Higginbotham, like many other 20th- and 21st-century landscape painters, has found vital ways of reworking them. But Higginbotham has managed to arrive at an interesting personal understanding of Inness. Rather than simply borrowing technique or compositional strategy, he has appropriated Inness’ ambition toward intimacy and commitment on canvas.
The dynamics of influence that characterize Higginbotham’s paintings owe a good deal to the fact that he didn’t start painting until he was over 30. The son of a Princeton-educated architect father and Smith-educated mother, he grew up in Colorado Springs, CO, where he was raised in a mildly bohemian atmosphere in a home with plenty of art books. He got a precocious taste of creative validation when he took a pottery class at age 11 and found he had “a natural gift for centering clay on a kick-wheel.” At one point in junior high school, he painted a landscape, in the process of which, he recalls, he “had the experience of watching something come together in front of me in a way that felt like it wasn’t just me doing it.” But neither of these experiences suggested to him that he should become an artist.
He attended prep school, where he dabbled in film-making, and then went to college, where he took pottery classes but had no significant experiences with painting. Uncertain of his direction, he took an aptitude test, hoping it might reveal what kind of career would best suit him. In hindsight, Higginbotham wonders if his results got mixed up with someone else’s, because he was advised to become an elementary school teacher. He dutifully took the required education courses and after graduation spent one terrible year teaching the sixth grade before crossing that line of work off the list of all possible things to do with his life.
The turn toward painting may have begun during a 1,000-mile bike trip Higginbotham took through the Britain Isles. He didn’t think about painting per se as he traversed the personal landscapes of great English artists like John Constable (now an important influence), but he gave himself up to the sensory and emotional power of landscape and its ability to mirror the sensory and emotional intensities of his inner life.
After returning home to Colorado Springs, he made a semi-arbitrary decision to start anew in Seattle, a city he’d read about and thought sounded interesting. “I tied my grandfather’s desk and a dresser on top of an old Cadillac, and I headed to the Pacific Northwest,” he relates. Instead of Seattle, though, he ended up in Spokane, where he eventually established a pottery business, Northwest Pottery and Fine Arts. He designed and made both functional and fine art ceramics, which he sold from his own store and through galleries around the state. Gradually his ceramic pieces began to get flatter and flatter, his palette shifted to natural landscape hues, and his interest in color, texture, surface, and composition began to overtake his interest in working in clay.
All Higginbotham really needed at this point, apparently, was an emotional storm to blow through his life, clearing the weak branches off the cerebral trees and extending visibility out beyond the immediate vicinity. “A relationship I was in came apart,” he says. “Whenever I’ve ended a relationship that was going south, I’ve always made big breakthroughs,” he continues, with a rueful laugh. “I put up a 40-by-50-inch piece of watercolor paper, prepared it so it could take oil, and did a painting. The experience took me back to that moment in junior high school when it felt like something beyond me was actually making it happen. In no time I’d sold all my pottery equipment.” The year was 1995, and by this time Higginbotham was living in Seattle.
Unlike a very young painter open to all ideas, Higginbotham came at his new purpose with seasoned aesthetic preferences and greater life experiences. But, he found, he lacked basic skills and knowledge about painting. He read all the art books he could and practiced, practiced, practiced. During his accelerated self-education, his first paintings were close to abstract. Then, as he taught himself the fundamentals of painting, he moved rapidly through various genres. Oddly, considering that he was living in Seattle, his favorite subjects were churches of the Southwest. His paintings were featured in several gallery shows.
Within the year, he moved to northern New Mexico and was running a B&B where the owners allowed him to show and sell his work. Higginbotham continued to paint churches, but eventually the new landscape before him quickly took over his imagination and made its way onto his canvas.
At the same time, he started to re-engage with the European and American painters whose work he knew but now saw through transformed eyes. It’s hardly surprising that the work of Inness had instinctual appeal for the artist, providing, perhaps, a persuasive concept of landscape for Higginbotham to reconcile with other important influences. “What happened,” says the artist, “was an incredible amount of catch-up in my work, a growth that was more than I’d ever known as I searched for that voice that expresses the way nature speaks to me.”
Find his voice he did. By 2001 he had gallery representation in Santa Fe, and by 2007, he was “selling canvases right off my easel.” Today, the 46-year-old artist lives in an eco-friendly house with a studio attached. He is involved in a happy relationship—a nurturing one that still allows for
the breakthroughs that used to require breakups.
“When I found the colors that worked best for me and could paint better, a whole new world opened up,” says the artist, whose palette ranges from joyous hues to moody tonalism. “I could really get into a landscape and start seeing the lightness and darkness, the subtlety and directness, the intensity and muteness. I paint my personal experience of the lands in which I live, of what I see and feel. It was at that level that I could really start expressing my emotions on canvas.”
Waxlander Gallery, Santa Fe, NM; Bennett Street Gallery, Atlanta, GA; Authentique Gallery, St. George, UT; Firedworks Gallery, Alamosa, CO.
Solo show, Waxlander Gallery, September 1-15.Featured in April 2009