David Gordinier | Savoring Every Moment

East Valley [1999], oil, 20 x 30.,painting, southwest art.
East Valley [1999], oil, 20 x 30.

By Lynn Pyne

Arizona artist Dave Gordinier keeps watch over the Superstition Mountains. When the white tops of storm clouds appear over the rocky peaks just outside his studio window, he feels a quiver of anxiety, knowing that soon a towering wall of clouds will sweep westward over the flat desert.

“If I’ve been in the studio all day working on a still life and see the thunderheads start to pop, sometimes I actually get a little mad because I have to deal with it,” he says. “It’s hard to change gears.”

Mesa Still Life Number 6 [1999], oil, 20 x 30.,painting, southwest art.
Mesa Still Life Number 6 [1999], oil, 20 x 30.

Inevitably, though, nature’s drama proves too compelling to resist: Gordinier drops what he was doing and leaps into his well-traveled Jeep to go out and furiously photograph and paint the storm during the minutes before it rushes upon him, spraying dirt and moisture everywhere. “Sometimes I’ve hung out too long and have had to shovel sand out of my Jeep,” he says with a smile.

To Gordinier, each moment like this is a cherished opportunity. He paints every day, often late into the night. “If I live to be 120, I still won’t have time to paint all the things I want to paint,” he says.

Still Life with Red Vase [1998], oil, 20 x 30.,painting, southwest art.
Still Life with Red Vase [1998], oil, 20 x 30.

Joyously and singlemindedly, Gordinier is a man making up for lost time. Now in his late 40s, he looks back on his 20s and 30s as too many years spent at jobs he despised and too much time squandered on other interests years when his youthful dream of painting full time seemed elusive. But today his successful art career attests to the fact that it is possible to rediscover a cherished dream and make it come true.

Gordinier and wife Jo Anne live with their two huge malamute dogs in an unpretentious neighborhood in Mesa, a few miles from the bustling art center of Scottsdale. There, he is becoming known as a southwestern painter, although it may be more accurate to describe him as

Desert Storm I [1996], oil, 30 x 40.,painting, southwest art.
Desert Storm I [1996], oil, 30 x 40.

a new realist and plein-air expressionist who paints the imagery of the Southwest. He approached Iowa subject matter similarly before moving to Arizona, although he smilingly acknowledges that the Southwest is a force to be reckoned with. “I was going to bring my own vision of the Southwest down here,” he says. “But it’s had more of an effect on me than I’ve had on it.”

As a colorist, Gordinier has been affected profoundly by the clear, rich southwestern palette, both in his landscapes and in his still lifes. Shortly after moving to Arizona three years ago, he arranged pottery, vases, fruit, and other objects on his back patio for a still life. It was 114 degrees outside, but he was oblivious to the heat in his

Thunder Coming [1996], oil, 25 x 50.,painting, southwest art.
Thunder Coming [1996], oil, 25 x 50.

excitement over the high-contrast, brilliant color that popped out in what he calls the “screaming light” of afternoon. Likewise, he was captivated by the startling contrast of thunderclouds rolling over a deep blue sky.

Gordinier makes similar discoveries every day, whether on his daybreak bicycle rides with his dog, Quiche, or driving to the hardware store. The bushes beside a dried-up canal may catch his eye, or perhaps the houses in his neighborhood at sunset or a row of warehouses against the skyline. The resulting landscape paintings are no less beautiful for their in-clusion of ordinary,

David Gordinier with his dog Quiche.,painting, southwest art.
David Gordinier with his dog Quiche.

everyday sights. The artist describes it as “finding opulent things in the mundane.” He says, “If I see something I like, I’ll still paint it, whether it is something that will sell or not.” Beauty is what appeals to Gordinier. “I want to make pretty pictures I make no bones about it,” he says. “It’s the reason I didn’t fit in especially in art school with the art crowd in Iowa.”

Being able to follow his own vision and paint full time is something Gordinier cherishes because he didn’t always have that luxury. After graduating from art school, he married and taught in high school for two years. Then he got a job as a custom framer to support his family, which grew to include a newborn daughter. All the while, he was trying to maintain a studio life on the side and exhibit his work. After six years as a framer, he and a partner opened an art supply and framing shop in Cedar Rapids.

Finally, rather than working as “help” in the back room, he was out in the store where he could talk about art with all the professional artists who came in. Quickly, however, the downside of his job became apparent: He was working 12 hours a day, six days a week, which left little time for his own painting. Plus, he says, “I realized that when the artists left the store, they were going back to their studio, but I was there until closing.”

“My biggest fear in life was being a ‘Sunday painter,’” he says. And his fears seemed to be coming to pass as the business flourished and consumed increasing amounts of his time. “Every minute I put in at the frame shop, I detested,” he recalls. “But that was all I knew how to do to make a living.”

In the late 1980s, his world came crashing down around him when he and his wife divorced. During that bitter time, his wife destroyed all of his paintings, including those destined for a museum show. It sent the artist into a deep depression.

Gordinier had always associated the outdoors with the best moments of life, ever since his boyhood days when his grandfather had taken him hunting and fishing. So it was not surprising that as he recovered from this personal and professional life crisis, he sought solace in the landscape. He became a passionate windsurfer.

He didn’t touch a brush for some time until friends took him on a hot-air balloon ride and he expressed his thanks afterward by painting a picture of the balloon for them. That led to a series of landscapes that reflected his love of the water. By 1992, he was represented by an art gallery in Cedar Rapids and was getting invitations to have one-person exhibitions. An art consultant spotted his work and began placing it in corporate collections.

He remarried and, with his wife Jo Anne’s support, made the decision to paint full time, sell his half of the art supply/framing business, and move to the Phoenix/Scottsdale area. “I wondered what I was going to paint,” he recalls. “And then I saw the white stormcloud tops coming over the Superstitions against the flat horizon line; it’s really something.”

Many of Gordinier’s paintings, whether landscapes or still lifes, capture the subject in the late afternoon or at sundown, when shadows are harsh, objects well-defined, and colors heightened. Interesting light situations intrigue him. In paintings such as Off Road, the rain-eroded ruts in a desert dirt road appear dark and deep when the sun is low in the sky. In Desert Storm I and Storm Break, the land turns fiery red with the approach of storm clouds. In Puerto Bello, ordinary houses in the artist’s neighborhood catch the last glow of a brilliant sky at sunset.

In the still lifes, too, brilliant side illumination gives the objects greater depth and definition. Gordinier’s tabletop still lifes have been likened to those of the well-known painter William Bailey, but while Bailey captures the frontal plane, Gordinier seeks to heighten the depth and definition of the objects.

Gordinier begins each day’s painting session by doing small studies, which help him to get into an expressive mode. “If I have a defined direction for the future, it is to loosen up even more while still keeping the realism,” he says.

For the most part, though, he tries not to intellectualize about the direction his art is headed. “I just put my head down and go forward,” he says. “For 15 years, I framed other people’s work and watched them have shows. You know that movie about auto racing with Steve McQueen, Le Mans? I feel like I’m chasing something at that speed trying to make up for lost time.”

It’s not a competitive need but rather the realization that time is precious. “I have followed my seductions, met interesting people, and done some interesting things in my life,” he says, “but I would trade them all for more time to paint.”

Photos courtesy the artist and Suzanne Brown Galleries, Scottsdale, AZ; Campbell Steele, Marion, IA; Wiederspan Gallery, Cedar Rapids, IA; and Olsen Larson, Des Moines, IA.

Featured in September 1999