John Moyers | Time Machines

Viva Villa, oil, 42 x 76. painting, southwest art.
Viva Villa, oil, 42 x 76.

By Norman Kolpas

All representational artists defy the modern age to some extent. With the vast majority of art schools and university fine-arts departments emphasizing abstract work and rewarding students who dream of joining the avant-garde, artists who portray realistic images of landscapes, still lifes, animals, or people must consciously turn their backs on the present day and hearken to the call of tradition.

Some, like John Moyers, go one step further. The New Mexico-born, Colorado-based artist is not content merely to employ painting techniques that have been handed down from generation to generation. In addition, he portrays scenes from the past so realistically that they seem magically transported to the present day.

Sundown, oil, 40 x 40. painting, southwest art.
Sundown, oil, 40 x 40.

Consider Viva Villa, a recent large oil of which Moyers is particularly proud. In the center of the painting are Mexican revolutionaries Pancho Villa (in blue military uniform) and Emiliano Zapata (on Villa’s right) as they and their men ride triumphantly through the streets of Mexico City in 1916. In realistically rendered yet subtly impressionistic strokes, the artist brings the scene to life so vividly that you can almost feel the hot sunshine, smell the clouds of dust, and hear the clatter of horses’ hooves and the shouts of the crowd.

“I spent more time on that painting than anything I’ve ever done about three months in the studio alone,” says Moyers. And that doesn’t begin to cover the time he devoted before ever putting brush to canvas. An avid student of Mexican and western history, he first read extensively about the Mexican revolutionary period and its key figures. A black-and-white photograph of the same scene, in fact, inspired this painting; but Moyers, not wanting to copy it, painstakingly imagined “how it would look from the other side of the street.” A stickler for accuracy, he had to pore over 10 books just to determine whether Villa wore a blue or a green uniform.

The Offering, oil, 40 x 50. painting, southwest art.
The Offering, oil, 40 x 50.

Then, still before lifting a brush, he drove down to the Clifton, TX, home of his friend and fellow artist Bruce Greene. With Greene riding back and forth on horseback wearing one authentic period costume after another, Moyers shot roll after roll of film. “If you don’t have good reference shots to show you how the clothing wrinkles or the way the horses move, you just can’t pull off a painting like that,” he says. Next came working out the composition, getting all the figures to form a cohesive and pleasing arrangement. Only then did the actual painting begin.

At any stage of this process, a less dedicated or less experienced painter might have been tempted to compromise, if not give in. But Moyers brings to his work virtually a lifetime of experience, not to mention an artistic legacy.

Born in 1958 and raised in the countryside near Albuquerque, NM, Moyers is the youngest of the four children of William Moyers, a noted western painter and illustrator still hard at work today. “I guess you could say I wanted to be like my dad,” he says, recalling that “whenever there was a piece of paper around, I was drawing horses or western stuff.” After high school he headed to Southern California, where he studied for one year at the Laguna Beach School of Art and another at the California Institute for the Arts.

Although renowned, both institutions emphasized modern art. “The teachers had no real structure in mind and basically let you do your own thing,” Moyers says. As an antidote, “I took as many life-drawing and figure-drawing classes as I could.” At the Disney-subsidized Cal Arts, he also gravitated towards the animation program, which of necessity included instruction in “more traditional stuff” like design, perspective, and figures.

That, in turn, led Moyers to a job working on Spider Man cartoons for Saturday morning children’s television. “But that wasn’t my cup of tea,” he says. He left the job after only a few months, before he could be seduced by the good money young animators could make in Hollywood.

He returned home to Albu-querque in 1979 and came under the influence of a friend of his father’s, renowned painter and teacher Robert Lougheed, who lived an hour’s drive away in Santa Fe. Lougheed stressed to the young painter the importance of composition and draftsmanship and of capturing shape, color, light, and values—that is, the amount of light that different facets, areas, or colors on an object reflect. Lougheed also guided Moyers in the development of his impressionistic approach, helping him simplify compositions and shapes to draw the viewer’s imagination into a complicit interpretation of the work.

Lougheed also stressed the importance of working outdoors, painting from nature. “It’s crazy to try to create things out of your head when you can go see them,” Moyers says. To that end, in the autumn of 1979 Lougheed invited his protégé to spend a month painting along with other artists at the Okanagan Game Farm in Penticton, British Columbia. Moyers continued making annual visits for four more years, developing a habit of regularly painting en plein air and stacking up what he describes as “a library of hundreds and hundreds of nature studies” to which he constantly refers in his studio. “That way, if it’s springtime and I want to do a painting of an Indian in yellow aspens in the fall, I can get the values and colors right.”

Not only did the experience deepen the artist’s connection to the outdoors, but also during his first visit Moyers met Canadian artist Terri Kelly. They soon started dating. Married in 1982, they now have an 8-year-old son, Josh. In 1997, the family moved from Santa Fe to Pagosa Springs in southwestern Colorado, a scenic area where John had spent many summers since boyhood.

Living as he does in the Four Corners area, at the very core of southwestern spirit, provides Moyers with constant inspiration for his art. “I’ve always gravitated toward Native American and Hispanic subject matter,” he says, remembering trips with his parents to visit friends at pueblos in northern New Mexico.

Many of his works express his deep passion for and understanding of America’s native peoples. In His Own World, for example, depicts a chief in profile, wearing a majestic feathered headdress and the red-and-blue blanket of a tribal leader. A vast, pale-blue sky forms a stark backdrop, with the Great Plains appearing in the lowermost portion of the canvas. “I made them very simple,” Moyers explains, “because I wanted people to look at the man, not the landscape.”

Equally eloquent is Sundown, which shows a young brave mounted on his pinto steed, wrapping himself in his blanket as daylight fades. The work was inspired totally by chance: a single frame of film Terri exposed as John asked his model to change costumes. “When I got the film back,” Moyers recalls, “I said, ‘Holy cow!’ I really liked the shapes and the movement and the way the light hit the blanket.” The composition is so simple, however, and the moment it portrays so fleeting, that he wondered whether people would respond to it. He needn’t have worried. The work was his most popular piece at last October’s exhibition of works by the Cowboy Artists of America, to whose distinguished ranks Moyers was elected in 1994.

Another recent work, The Offering, had its beginnings in a conversation Moyers had one day with a young woman from Taos Pueblo who occasionally posed for him. “She told me how, on special feast days, younger people in the pueblo will cook food for the older people and take it around to them,” Moyers says. His portrayal of just such an act of tribal charity captures the goodness and dignity of its subjects, walking humbly yet proudly against the background of a simple adobe wall.

Although he always strives for authenticity in such works, Moyers strenuously avoids portraying deeply religious ceremonies or revealing personal details about the Native Americans who pose for him. “They don’t really want others to delve into their religion, and most of them like to be pretty anonymous,” he says. “I want to respect their privacy.”

Nevertheless, thanks to natural-born talent and years spent developing his skills, Moyers is able to capture the spirit deep inside his subjects in a way that reveals their very essence, whether he’s painting a native tribal leader or a band of Mexican revolutionaries. Viewers come away with the feeling that they’ve encountered the ancient spirit of the Southwest, or that they’ve traveled back in time to Old Mexico, and have been transformed by the experience.

Photos courtesy the artist and Altermann & Morris Galleries, Dallas, TX, Santa Fe, NM, Houston, TX, and Hilton Head Island, SC; Claggett/Rey Gallery, Vail, CO; and Pierce Fine Art, Scottsdale, AZ.

Featured in February 2000