Ted Larsen | Riding the Edge

Aspen Tree Wall, pastel, 27 x 60. painting, southwest art.
Aspen Tree Wall, pastel, 27 x 60.

By Dottie Indyke

Ted Larsen is a man of place. His childhood in rural Michigan—with its crystal lakes and abundant forests, massive hardwood trees, blueberry plantations, and old barns—has inspired his artwork for more than 15 years.

Larsen is tall—6 feet, 7 inches’ worth of tall—and an athlete. A former basketball player, he is now an avid hiker, mountain biker, motorcycle rider, and skier with a lust for the outdoors.

And, finally, he’s a risk-taker. Not reckless—for he has a wife and three children he clearly loves—but a man who follows his impulse into the unknown. He lives the adage of the extreme-sports enthusiast: If you’re not riding on the edge, you’re taking up too much room.

Near Childress, TX, pastel, 30 x 44. painting, southwest art.
Near Childress, TX, pastel, 30 x 44.

Larsen’s paintings have all these qualities: risk, athleticism, and a pervasive sense of place. His métier is the landscape, but this is merely a vehicle on which to hang his pastels. Often a barn predominates, and sometimes a dense copse of trees, rendered in a style that ranges from realism to near abstraction. Taking liberties with color and form, the artist creates ethereal atmospheres.

With their solid backs to the viewer or a sliver of light escaping from an open door, Larsen’s barns are potent symbols of the interior life of human beings. His tree paintings, meanwhile, reflect his love affair with the wilderness. Tromping through vast acres of mountain forests that surround his Santa Fe home, Larsen observes firsthand the aspens changing from green to gold—the leaves so compacted he can barely see the forest for the trees.

One tree painting was inspired by a recent trip to Washington, DC, where Larsen walked along the Potomac River observing stands of trees growing up among the old canals that have been unused for decades. It was December, he recalls, and there was something mystical about the stark branches, brilliant sky, and ice-cold water. The resulting painting, Winter on the Potomac, re-creates an aura of blueness, death, and beauty.

Between Those Two, pastel, 30 x 41. painting, southwest art.
Between Those Two, pastel, 30 x 41.

In Stark Contrasts he juxtaposes a mustard-yellow sky with a field of pink. “I remember the starkness of the apple blossoms,” Larsen says, describing the genesis of the painting. “In order to make the pink have a serious ‘pow,’ I made a yellow sky. Color-wise, the yellow gives it tension.”

His use of color is a blend of impressionistic and abstract expressionistic techniques. “For impressionists color is a function of light,” Larsen explains. “For expressionists, color is a function of how the artist feels about something. Like [abstract expressionist] Hans Hoffmann, I’m interested in how far I can ride the color wave.”

Larsen’s athleticism emerges in his handling of his material. Using chalk-based pastels, he makes vigorous, crosshatched gestures and layers color atop color to create thickly dark masses, all without sacrificing the gentility of his subject matter. “I’m in tune with my body and the way it moves, and that’s related to the way I see the world,” he says. “I stand in front of the easel and I’m beyond thinking. My body wants to make a certain mark and I go with that.”

Winter on the Potomac, pastel, 30 x 41. painting, southwest art.
Winter on the Potomac, pastel, 30 x 41.

Ever since he began painting, the 37-year-old Larsen has favored pastels for their immediacy and spontaneity. He might have been an oil painter but didn’t have the patience to wait for the paint to dry. For health and archival reasons, he uses chalk-based (as opposed to oil-based) pastels and avoids fixatives. Though pastels have their limitations—notably the difficulty of correcting errors and the fact that, as he jokingly puts it, he can’t wear nice clothes to work—lots of wonderful things happen when accidents yield subtle, exciting shifts in tone, value, and color.

“You can layer pastels on, make them wet like watercolor or apply them more thickly like oil paint,” he says. “Sometimes I’ll do a wash underneath or change the color of the paper from white to black. Once in a while, I’ll wipe the pastel away—for a particular effect, not just to do it. Pastels have so many different aspects.”

Larsen learned to view the world with artist’s eyes because he grew up among painters. His mother, Fran, is well known for her watercolor landscapes and his father, Hal, for his painterly abstracts. Larsen’s work is a kind of bridge between the two. When he was young, it was easy for him to imagine pursuing an artist’s life. Yet Larsen was afraid to model himself after his parents.

“I didn’t want to be compared, although comparisons are inevitable,” he notes. “There was a big risk involved in being an artist. My parents’ work was in major museum collections. I knew people would ask about me, ‘Can he do that?’ When I stopped caring about the comparisons, I was able to follow my heart.”

As a boy Larsen spent all his time outdoors in the town of South Haven, MI, 60 miles from Grand Rapids, riding his bicycle around the neighborhood—where within five minutes of his house there were more than a dozen antiquated, fascinating barns.

The family moved to Santa Fe when he was 15, and a few years later Larsen enrolled at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. Unsure of what career to pursue, he chose classes based on who he thought would be the most charismatic teachers and wound up taking many art and geology courses, the latter allowing him more time in his outdoor element. But a year from graduation he realized he wanted to be an artist.

“It would have been fun to map the outdoors,” Larsen says of geology, “but ultimately that wasn’t meaningful to me. Besides, I’m doing that now in my own way.” He continues to be a serious student of art history, which he claims makes his voice more genuine and helps him understand his own work in the context of what came before him.

After graduation he returned to New Mexico, settling north of Santa Fe in the artists’ enclave of Taos. He painted and worked as a ski instructor and describes himself in those years as “a real party animal.” The death of his 28-year-old sister precipitated his move back to Santa Fe and a new seriousness about his life.

Larsen’s paintings were selling but, insecure about his prospects as a full-time artist and concerned about feeding his family, he kept his day job trading antique Indian art for several Santa Fe galleries. Around 1992 his boss at Morning Star Gallery “gave me a wonderful gift,” Larsen remembers. “I was working for him but thinking about my paintings. I was too distracted and he finally told me, ‘You have to go.’” The firing forced Larsen to wholeheartedly embrace his life as an artist.

Today, represented by five galleries and collected by major corporations, Larsen is mystified by his own success. “I don’t know why I’m able to do this and others aren’t,” he says. “I go to my studio and paint the paintings I feel need to be done in the moment. I frame a body of work and send it off. Why does it sell? I don’t know. I’m dumbfounded when people want to have my art.”

Whatever they see—a resting place, the magnificence of nature, or simply the lushness of color—Larsen’s collectors respond to his dream-like, metaphorical paintings, perhaps because they sense the artist’s effort to communicate his emotions. “I try to put out something that conveys a universal aspect but at the same time to be completely specific about what I feel. And I’m willing to experience the consequences of being a risk-taker. I’m willing to risk wrecking a piece if I feel like I’m getting closer to the truth.

“I guess people respond when art is authentic, when they can tell that it is meaningful to the person who makes it,” Larsen conjectures. “I’m not afraid to go wherever art leads me. And I think it is leading me to be more expressive and interpretive.”

Photos courtesy the artist and Ventana Fine Art, Santa Fe, NM; Thomas Ingerick Gallery, Aspen, CO; Joyce Petter Gallery, Saugatuck, MI; J. Cotter Gallery, Beaver Creek, CO; and Madelyn Jordan Fine Art, Scarsdale, NY.

Featured in April 2001