By Stanley Cuba
The Field, oil/gold leaf, 9 x 21.
In 1983, 18-year-old Tal Walton traveled to Mexico to do mission work as a representative of the Mormon church. For Mormons, this mission service marks the passage into adulthood; for Walton, it also profoundly influenced his development as an artist.
“In Mexico, I discovered interesting dichot-omies—the simple determination of the impoverished people in contrast to the difficulty of their lives, the ornate Spanish cathedrals set against the spare landscape,” he says. Such contrasts of the simple and the complex would later become a hallmark of his paintings.
In his role as a missionary, Walton also experienced first-hand “the importance of incorporating my moral values into my work,” he says. He kept this philosophy in mind at Brigham Young Univer-sity, Provo, UT, where he received a bachelor’s degree in painting and sculpture after completing his mission work.
Untitled, oil/gold leaf, 13 x 30.
A fundamental belief of the Mormon church is that all elements in nature were created spiritually before they had a physical existence, says Walton. “So everything in nature is based on a perfect ideal and follows definite laws and order,” he explains. Walton learned how to structure his compositions according to this order from German-born professor Hagen Haltern, one of his instructors at BYU. Haltern taught that a good painting is laid out according to a logical symmetry. This order contributes to the painting’s success. “If you observe nature—a seashell or a sunflower, for example—or works by such artists as da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Rem-brandt, you see that their compositions adhere to the same mathematical formula,” Walton says.
When laying out a painting, Walton uses this formula to determine the size of the canvas, the location of the horizon line, and the position of the elements, such as a church or a tree. The underlying structure, coupled with his use of muted colors, gives his paintings an ethereal quality.
Walton paints in oil on a prepared marble ground highlighted with gold leaf, which imparts a luminosity to the pigments overlaying its surface. Walton also adds sand-paper marks and scratches to the gessoed surface, giving it a sculptural, three-dimensional look. He applies as many as 20 glazes to each piece.
Steeple Passage, oil/gold leaf, 36 x 24.
While at BYU, Walton learned the skill of making frames, experimenting with gilded ones reminiscent of the elaborately carved and gilded altars he had seen in cathedrals in Mexico. When Walton began placing his landscape paintings in gold frames, his professors warned that the works might be misconstrued as sacrilegious. But his intent was just the opposite—“I wanted people to look at the landscape in a reverent way.”
The frame is as important to Walton as the painting itself. All of his works are bordered by a black edge that visually sets them apart from the frame while physically connecting them to it. Sometimes he extends the painting onto the frame.
One of the most recognizable elements of Walton’s work is his use of three-part divisions—another component that relates to his Mormon beliefs. All of his paintings are divided into three sections—usually vertical but sometimes horizontal. The width of the three adjoining bands is governed by the underlying design based on the ancient structural theory.
The three divisions found in Walton’s paintings symbolize “our past, present, and future lives.” They are derived from the religious teachings of the Mormon church, whose followers ask three eternal questions: “Why am I here, where am I from, and where am I going?” says Walton.
The center section of each painting represents the current reality of our lives and is symbolized by relatively strong, clear colors. By contrast, the colors in the adjoining sections are darker and more muted.
“My paintings are very religious,” he says. “They stem from my background.” He has also studied the design and spiritual content of old icons. These and other sources of inspiration impart an Old World feeling to his work, bridging the gap between the traditional and the contemporary.
The Setting Sun, oil/gold leaf, 16 x 48.
Walton recently began a new series of triptychs. Like those found in old churches, his are free-standing with side panels that open and close.
In addition to the influence of his religion, Walton’s personal philosophy of art has been shaped by his extensive study of other artists and their work. Of particular interest are the letters and journals of the artists of America’s Hudson River School. Walton especially admires George Inness, whose grand landscapes have a mystical, spiritual mood. “Inness’ idea was that you should capture the spiritual essence of an image rather than just recreating what you see,” Walton says. He is also enamored with the Barbizon School of 19th-century France, whose members maintained close contact with nature.
Walton’s home in northern Colorado testifies to his success as a professional artist. Built on a ridge where the Great Plains meet the Rocky Mountains, it provides him with an excellent vantage point from which to observe the surrounding landscape.
“When it comes to the landscape, I strive not to imitate actual places but to re-create the universal idea of landscape in time,” he says. Guided by this credo, Walton consciously avoids depictions of grand alpine panoramas, expansive canyon- lands, and piñon-covered hillsides.
He enjoys family outings with wife Nikki, sons Blu, 7, and Kaleb, 4, and 1-year-old daughter Briana. Walton enjoys backpacking, camping, and fly-fishing throughout the West. On one such trip, Walton and his family hiked to Indian cliff dwellings in Arizona rarely visited by tourists. At the site, they saw pottery shards on the ground and petroglyphs painted on the nearby rock walls. Although he doesn’t directly incorporate such subject matter into his paintings, Walton was influenced by the sensory impressions he gathered. “I felt connected to the past and to all the people who have stood at the same spot and shared the same view for thousands of years,” he recalls.
For Walton, such simple moments and views are the essence of life. He re-creates them in his paintings, providing an antidote to the sensory overload of our culture. “When people look at my work, I want the simplicity to draw them in and the underlying complexity to hold them there,” he says. “I want them to pause for a moment and contemplate the meaning of their own lives.”
>Photos courtesy the artist and Contemporary Southwest Galleries, Santa Fe, NM; Shriver Gallery, Taos, NM; and Martin-Harris Gallery, Jackson, WY.
Featured in January 1999