By Virginia Campbell
Weather is a difficult subject to paint. It is everywhere—try painting a landscape without it—and yet it is nowhere, at least not the way a river or a mountain is somewhere. Weather is transient and dynamic, qualities hard to capture on canvas. But Taos, NM, painter Suzanne Wiggin finds weather a perfect subject.
FIRE OF AUTUMN, OIL, 11 X 14
“I like an emotionally charged landscape,” says Wiggin, who lives with her husband and daughter on six acres near the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, with the Rio Grande off in the distance. “I live at the edge of a big bowl, and I can see for 100 miles. I like to watch weather moving through, full of fragile energies. I like its dark, unexplained mysteries.”
Her painting MOUNTAIN RAIN, for example, captures a flux of weather, including both sun and rain, a moment in nature when everything is happening at once. It gives a heightened emotionalism to the landscape, a sense of past, present, and future all merged in a single still canvas, with the accompanying feelings of nostalgia and anticipation amplifying the effect to a metaphorical level.
Not all of Wiggin’s paintings are as directly about weather as MOUNTAIN RAIN, but every landscape she paints shows her elevated sensitivity to it and her recognition of the reverberations it sets off. Her very approach to making a picture, in fact, reflects her involvement with weather. The linear is nearly absent—trees are often bold brush strokes barely masquerading as trunks and branches, and even horizons lack an edge. “I’m in it for the color and texture,” laughs Wiggin. “I love J.M.W. Turner—in his paintings, weather obliterates form.”
Two other characteristics of Wiggin’s paintings work toward the same emotional end. The first is the small size of most of them. “I like landscapes that have a lot of scale in a small format,” she explains. “They become like little windows into space. They’re intimate. Occasionally I paint on a larger scale, but it’s just a physical reaction to my usual format.” Even more important than scale is Wiggin’s tendency to paint a piece over a long period of time. Not days or weeks. Not months. She may take years to complete a painting. “Sometimes a painting is just handed to me like a gift. But mostly I like more time with it to build up the surfaces. My studio is full of partially painted pictures. I have an intensive dialogue with a painting over years, sometimes. They’re like puzzles I have to solve.” And clearly these puzzles have less to do with the actual landscape that inspired them than with Wiggin’s own intuitive compositional sense and internal language of color. Under these conditions, the “weather” of inner life all the more easily finds expression in images of the real world.
LOW SUN, OIL, 36 X 48
Wiggin’s style is about as idiosyncratic as a landscape painter’s style can get. Her small, personal pictures of large moody scenes under layer upon layer of paint and glaze have a touch of exoticism to them. This is no affectation, but rather, for her, a straightforward, logical approach that grew out of her upbringing.
French Cajun on her mother’s side, Wiggin was born and raised during the 1960s in the moodiest, most mysterious American city—New Orleans. Her home was an artistic hothouse that made art inseparable from life and regarded it as a fundamental source of happiness. The oldest of three girls all close in age, Wiggin grew up without TV. Her mother, who divorced after her third daughter was born, painted and sculpted and created a home in which each daughter took up her own foreign language (Wiggin speaks French) and art was everyone’s notion of fun. A close family friend who made regular trips to Europe always brought back posters of paintings from the great museums. In a fond family ritual, he would let the sisters choose their favorites. “He introduced us to so many different painters,” remembers Wiggin. “Our bedroom walls were covered in Renoir, Manet, Seurat, Picasso, Monet.”
When her father bought the girls a television, her mother sold it to help pay for the family’s big trip to Europe, a good part of which was spent at the Louvre. Wiggin took painting lessons outside of school from an early age. She had to, really—art classes at the Catholic schools she attended were nothing more than a “trace-your-hand, make-a-turkey sort of thing,” recalls Wiggin. By the time she was 8, Wiggin was painting in oil. She could have sold a painting then if her mother hadn’t wanted to keep it for herself.
When Wiggin was in her teens, her mother remarried and moved the family to Taos, NM, where art still reigned supreme even though life was utterly different from what she had known in New Orleans. She spent her senior year of high school going to school in Brazil, then started at the University of New Mexico, from which she graduated in art education after doing her junior year in Aix-en-Provence, France. Well before she was an adult, Wiggin had experienced many cultures, and she had learned to be flexible and sanguine about major changes in life. Those factors alone, not to mention her well-nurtured inner life, set her up for creating a world in paint that reflected the drama of ongoing change, and the emotional process of new experiences overlaying a foundation steeped in nostalgia.
Since there was little demand for art teachers in Taos, Wiggin went to work in a local gallery, which soon sent her to its other location in Maui. When the director of that gallery expressed the need for impressionistic paintings of the Hawaiian landscape, Wiggin volunteered to paint some and quickly sold her work. She kept painting when she returned to Taos and was soon a full-time, self-supporting artist.
“I started out as a plein-air painter,” says Wiggin, “but after a few years I realized I just didn’t want to paint that way.” She also didn’t want to keep painting without a firmer foundation in theory and practice, so she set off for Boston to earn her master’s degree in fine art from Boston University. She was now married to a young civil engineer from Taos, and he went with her.
In Boston, Wiggin looked at a lot of luminous paintings by the greats of the Hudson River School and darker pieces by Albert Pinkham Ryder, an artist often credited as the first American modernist. A balance of those two influences is evident in Wiggin’s style to this day. She commits to a certain level of reality and is fond of the radiance found in Hudson River School paintings. But she also likes to partake of the primal poetry of abstraction. Wiggin says she’s always had a strong preference for the somber browns and burnished golds of the Italian Renaissance palette, but once she returned to Taos after receiving her master’s, her colors lightened up to where they are now.
As much as Wiggin’s paintings are the natural product of her experience in art and in the world, they are not self-referentially private. For all the solitary intuition that characterizes it, her long puzzle-solving process is directed toward communication with others. “Painting landscapes is a wacky venture,” she laughs. “You look out and think, ‘What will move people?’”
The artist answers that question with paintings like MOUNTAIN RAIN, an extremely accessible piece, but also with paintings like GLOW TREE, a much odder piece. Here is some strange weather indeed. What looks like a ghost tree stands off-center in the very foreground of the canvas. It seems to be emanating, rather than just growing, against an atmosphere of grayed blues and purples. The ground, which recedes into ambiguous space, is partially covered in a faint, apparently spreading green, and reds are similarly emerging from the other trees. Either this is a dream landscape in which a white tree infused with its own secret meanings stands as the vanguard of an unknown world, or it is a scene of early spring in the real world, where one tree has burst early into blossom while the other living things struggle back to life from an enveloping, amorphous chill.
Or it is both. Either way, you can feel the bite in the air at the same time you feel the warm inner reassurance aroused by the incipient green. Not often the subject of landscape painting, this kind of moment, in which summer and winter are pushing and pulling with equal force, is perhaps a particularly realistic picture of human weather.
Featured in July 2008