By Todd Wilkinson
From the sagebrush cattle ranches north of the Great Salt Lake into the mystical labyrinth of the Colorado Plateau, talk to any Utahan who knows anything about fine art and when the topic of universally loved, homegrown contemporary painters is raised, Bonnie Posselli ranks near the top of the list.
Like Utah’s famed adopted son Maynard Dixon [1875-1946], who painted from a studio in Mount Carmel, Posselli’s stylistic approach to landscape painting places its emphasis not on a purely realistic recapitulation of geography, but rather on remaining faithful to the elemental effects of light. For Posselli, as with Dixon, total impact is achieved through a flash flood of color.
“Sometimes the West can be almost overwhelming, the hugeness of it all,” Posselli points out. “Once you allow it to seep into your soul and spirit, it leaves you changed. When I was younger, it took me a while to get a feel for its intimacy.”
Born in Salt Lake City in 1942, Posselli is the daughter of a laborer father who worked at the massive Kennecott Copper refinery and a mother who stayed at home to raise Posselli and her five siblings in a conservative, middle-class, Mormon atmosphere. Perhaps serving as a prelude to Posselli’s uncommon ability to see and interpret, she tells how her father “would bring home splats of copper and ask us to find images in its beautiful gnarliness, or delight us with peacock feathers.” In her family, natural curiosity represented a road map to buried treasure.
Yet it was Posselli’s mother who encouraged her to draw and paint. While still a teenager, Bonnie and her mom joined a painting group led by brothers Ken and Dan Baxter, who formed the genesis of the Plein Air Painters of Utah. Worth mentioning is that the group, under Posselli’s leadership, recently was resurrected, and twice a month she helps to lead excursions across Utah where young artists paint on location with local masters.
An oil painter, Posselli names a constellation of predecessors and contemporaries who, for various reasons, have influenced her work and helped her through challenges in composition and technique. Among them (in order of discovery): John F. Carlson [1875-1945], Richard Schmid, Nicolai Fechin [1881-1955], Edgar Payne [1882-1947], John William Waterhouse [1848-1917], and of late, impressionist-minimalist Gustav Klimt [1862-1918].
Observers say it has been landscape that not only nurtured Posselli’s maturation as a painter but also provided solace as she coped with a painful divorce decades ago, raised her kids as a single mother, and, by example, taught them that what makes life worth living is the passion for daily epiphanies. “Together we grew as a family, and I credit that with fueling my ability to grow as an artist,” she recalls.
Posselli has now earned her place in the pantheon of 21st-century western regionalists, but more than a decade ago an influential collector helped make that so. Back then, Posselli’s work caught the attention of Scott Anderson, president of Zions Bank. Now, two dozen Posselli oils hang in Zions branches across the state, including non-Utah scenes and classic pastorals from farms and ranches dotting the Great Basin. Anderson notes, “I love the variety of her work, which ranges from traditional landscape to more avant-garde. Bonnie loves to play with light, and her command of it has made her one of Utah’s finest contemporary artists.”
Today, Posselli’s studio is in Torrey, a tiny gateway to Capitol Reef National Park and Escalante Staircase National Monument. Here, tourists from all over the world add an international flavor to a traditional Mormon ranching community. One of the painters anchoring the distinguished group of Utah artists on view at Torrey Gallery is Posselli. Co-owner Kathy Bagley points out, “Bonnie’s work allows visitors to take a piece of the West home with them in a lasting way that memories of the mind cannot do.”
Since the late 1990s Torrey Gallery has hosted three one-woman shows for Posselli, and each one has sold out. Twice Posselli has been selected to participate in the Plein Air Painters of America exhibition on Santa Catalina Island in California. She was selected in 2002 as one of the hundred most honored artists in Utah by the Springville Museum; she’s taken top prizes at the prestigious Maynard Dixon Invitational; and she’s received the Utah Governor’s Mansion Achievement Award. She also teaches outdoor painting workshops and mentors young students in her studio.
Although Posselli’s scenes involve emotional responses to place—small-town Main Streets, ethereal skies, serene agrarian pastures—it is Utah’s legendary, almost otherworldly geological landscape that keeps her constantly engaged. “She goes past the point of painting pretty pictures,” says Utah artist Kathryn Stats of her friend of 30 years. “She takes landscape to the next level, into another realm. Her pieces engage you viscerally, and everywhere your eye is led, you are rewarded for having made the trip.”
For instance, Posselli is a master at identifying how a single stroke of color can make a painting whole. Anderson points to her use of greens as an example: In one painting, a spare highlight of cool thalo green sets a sandstone backdrop ablaze. “It’s hard to capture the red-rock country without making it look unreal,” Anderson remarks. “It’s not the way an artist projects the reds; it’s the colors which are used to offset them that enhance the richness.”
Posselli by choice eschews a limited palette for one that gives her greater flexibility to respond to rapidly changing light conditions. The tubes in her arsenal include the standards plus a range of blues to better her greens as well as fiery Napthol Scarlet, Alizarin Crimson, mars and thio violet, burnt sienna, indigo for glazing, and ivory black.
A few years ago, during a desert hike-turned-sketching trip that led them through a dry riverbed, Posselli and a friend rounded a corner only to be left silenced by a bath of sunlight creating shadows within shadows as it reflected off the canyon walls. Posselli cannot explain in words how the encounter has affected her painting ever since, but a shift into more tonal abstraction is evident in a work that resulted from that foray, a piece titled SAN RAFAEL SWELL.
She recalls, “I set up my paint kit, but [my friend] wasn’t seeing what I was seeing. It appeared first and then disappeared, and then it reappeared again.” As the sun shifted in the sky overhead, shadows located behind various clusters of rock turned red, and light began rising out ethereally like glowing, flaming rubies. “I was blown away,” Posselli says. “But it seemed to confirm in consciousness what my eye had already known, that the most exciting energy in a painting often flows forth from shadow.”
Art historians who have seen her work note how it exudes the mystery which Dixon often willed into his Utah scenes, yet Posselli has brought a contemporary vibrancy. “I start seeing light in the form of color oozing from the rock’s crevices. Each creature and bush and rock formation has a story of its own in this quiet land, and that is what I want to express,” she explains.
Scores of prominent painters have been drawn into the red rocks, though a Spartan few have gone beyond the clichés to understand the multiple layers of ambient, colorful abstraction that exist in the shadows of arches and erosion-slickened gullies and stark sandstone monoliths that exude a haunting spiritual presence.
Posselli’s plein-air studies mainly serve as accents to the memory of a place when she paints in the studio, and the geography itself serves as the architecture for emotion. “I try to soak everything in on location, knowing that in the studio the translation will come out differently,” she says, noting that she relies on her plein-air palette, rather than photographs, to identify the contrasts that set value.
Posselli, now in her 60s, has a reputation for being a rugged, quintessentially dauntless artist who paints in any weather condition, with any subject, at any time so long as the object of her eye is bathed in natural light. “I work mostly in the studio these days, with spurts of painting outdoors about twice a month. The studio lends itself to more experimentation, which I love to do, playing with washes to create a stimulating ground for the painting and then working with palette knife and brush to build texture. Sometimes I use washes and glazes, scrapes, and scumbles, or anything that works,” she explains.
Despite her current preference for working in the studio, her knowledge is built on long days of sunburn and hypothermic soakings. She’s gone north to Alaska to experience 23 hours of continuous daylight, traveled through South America several times, retraced Edgar Payne’s footsteps into the foothills of California, and has trips in the works to both the Galapagos Islands and France. A book on her work is soon to be published by Utah State University Press.
When on location, Posselli is rarely daunted by the elements. On a painting trip to the coast of Oregon, for example, Stats and Posselli endured drenching rain every afternoon. Undeterred, they set up an awning made of an umbrella and raincoats. When the downpours started reaching their paint boxes, they temporarily pulled back into a tent and refused to flee the beach.
The act of being a painter, Posselli says, is about far more than what one records. It’s the complete sentient experience that is breathed in. The paintings that resulted from that bivouac in Oregon are informed by the sounds of splashing waves and the sweet smell of rainforest dampness.
“The West is big!” Posselli proclaims. “So big that there is no end to the thrills that unfold in it.” She mentions the tale of artist Everett Ruess, who—like Dixon, Edward Abbey, Ansel Adams, and Edward Weston—was smitten by the terrain of southern Utah, documented it and wrote about it. One day Ruess disappeared in it, never to be seen again. “It is no wonder that Everett Ruess lost his sense of limits and finally wandered to his demise in the endless beauty of Escalante,” Posselli speculates in a sense of kinship. “It is an exhilarating, almost euphoric experience that can be addicting. To paint it is a humbling and awesome responsibility.”
Posselli is represented by Howard/Mandville Gallery, Kirkland, WA; Torrey Gallery, Torrey, UT; and Williams Fine Art Gallery, Salt Lake City, UT.
Featured in January 2005