Trent Tate | Beyond Pretty Pictures

Capulin, egg tempera, 24 x 38. painting, southwest art.
Capulin, egg tempera, 24 x 38.

By Bonnie Gangelhoff

Trent Tate’s heroes are all writers, painters, and cowboys. So you quickly learn after spending five minutes with the Texas artist. You also learn that the prose of Cormac McCarthy, the best-selling author of All the Pretty Horses, is the main inspiration for his paintings. In fact, Tate is so enamored of McCarthy’s work that he once moved to El Paso, TX, to write a screenplay with the idea that he might meet the reclusive author, who lives there. That, however, was a lifetime and a career ago, says the young artist. By the way, Tate’s screenplay was eventually turned into a major feature film. But it was rewritten so extensively, and the resulting movie was so embarrassing, that he refuses to reveal its name.


Blue Merlin, egg tempera, 21 1/2 x 34 1/4. painting, southwest art.
Blue Merlin, egg tempera, 21 1/2 x 34 1/4.

His disenchantment with Hollywood, where he lived for a spell after graduating from the University of Texas at Austin, propelled him back to his native state in 1997. At first he put down roots in Buda, a small rural town south of Austin, and dedicated his talents to writing short stories instead of movies. It was in that sleepy burg that he experienced an epiphany.

A friend dropped by Tate’s house one morning and eyed his artwork, which was scattered about the room where he wrote. Charcoal-and-watercolor works hung on walls and were stacked in piles everywhere. Tate has been drawing ever since he was in third grade and confined to a body cast for six months.

Ides of March, egg tempera, 32 x 25 1/2. painting, southwest art.
Ides of March, egg tempera, 32 x 25 1/2.

Later that day, as Tate and his friend were pitching horseshoes in his back yard, the friend turned to him with some words of advice about his paintings. “That is what you should be doing, not writing,” he said with conviction.

The words struck a chord. “I was frustrated that my script was turning out the opposite of what I wrote, and I realized I had no control in [the movie-making] business,” Tate says. “I loved the concept that I could create paintings and no one could edit them. No one could touch their meaning.”

The 31-year-old artist has been traveling down a painterly path ever since that day. What was once a hobby has become a way of life. “Back then I wanted to write like McCarthy, but I finally realized a guy like that only comes along once in 100 years, and he’s it, not me,” Tate says. “So I decided I wanted to paint as well as he writes instead.”

Today, Tate’s evocative egg tempera paintings capture the beauty of the western terrain. He depicts in paint what McCarthy depicts so vividly in words, rendering everything from horses roaming the plains to eerily empty houses dotting deserted landscapes. He describes his work as “observational realism”—a way of seeing and portraying something that goes beyond the surface appearance. “Painting needs to be more than meets the eye,” he says. “It needs to be a parable and layered with meaning.”

Vicente s Tree, egg tempera, 28 x 24. painting, southwest art.
Vicente’s Tree, egg tempera, 28 x 24.

Tate has just finished a group exhibition, Horse Show, at Munson Gallery in Santa Fe, NM. He is currently preparing works for a one-man show opening on September 28 in Austin in conjunction with the Muscular Dystrophy Associa-tion. Five galleries represent Tate but none is located in Texas, where he prefers to organize his own shows. He has built up a small band of loyal collectors in Austin, the city in which he was born and raised.

He has tried to leave Austin many times, he says, but he always returns. His family and friends are here. So are the impressive libraries at the University of Texas that boast everything from an original Guttenberg Bible to Mark Twain’s handwritten manuscripts. Though he is no longer a full-time writer, Tate has not lost his love of the written word.

On this particular day he is showing a Houston magazine writer another favorite place, the Southwestern Writers Collection, located on the campus of Southwest Texas State University in nearby San Marcos. The museum preserves and exhibits the personal papers and memorabilia of the region’s leading writers, filmmakers, and musicians—people like McCar-thy, Katherine Anne Porter, and Willie Nelson.

Heywood s Trees, egg tempera, 32 1/4 x 22 1/2. painting, southwest art.
Heywood’s Trees, egg tempera, 32 1/4 x 22 1/2.

Tate brims with enthusiasm for the archives. And it seems he could spend days pouring over novels, articles, and screenplays written about the Southwest. A restless spirit filled with intellectual curiosity, he talks about everything from big-picture topics, such as how photography has changed painting, to technical details like his discovery of a way to shade a blue sky from dark to light using egg tempera. From there he slips easily into a discussion about his philosophy of art, which he explains by recounting a story from McCarthy’s novel Suttree.

The story goes something like this. A hobo was living in a boxcar and lit a cigarette just as a cold wind blew through the moving car. When he threw the match to the ground the car burst into flames. To save his life he jumped from the burning car and landed in a snowy landscape somewhere in Colorado. The hobo turned back to look at the fiery train racing through the snow and thought it was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen.

The hobo tells the story to a friend this way: “I jumped for it and lit in a snowbank and what I’m going to tell you you’ll think peculiar but it’s the god’s truth. That was in nineteen and thirty-one and if I live to be a hunnerd year old I don’t think I’ll ever see anything as pretty as that train on fire goin up that mountain and around the bend and them flames lightin up the snow and the trees and the night.”

In his paintings, Tate hopes to capture a similar moment of intense vision, when a fleeting image is captured in time and a new view of the world is revealed. “What I don’t want is to create a postcard of Colorado or any other place. I want, rather, a painting layered with other things going on,” he says.

Colorado is on his mind, Tate explains, because he has just returned from a ranch in the San Luis Valley where he worked for two weeks. He has visited and worked regularly on ranches since he was a young boy. In college he began working at this particular ranch, which is home to more than 2,000 head of cattle. To him the landscape that surrounds the ranch is one of the most magnificent in the world—graced with the relatively young and jagged Sangre de Cristo Mountains on one side and the old, sloping San Juan Moun-tains on the other.

On this recent visit, Tate often took his SUV to one of many breathtaking spots to sketch. He observed, absorbed, and drew the mountains, creeks, and tributaries that captured his imagination.

Now back home in Austin, he is turning 11 of those sketches into paintings for his September show. Tate’s studio is located in his home, a gray frame bungalow not far from downtown. An easel near the middle of the room displays the first of these paintings—a lush forest of aspen trees, tall, spindly, and graceful. “They look like they are marching toward you,” Tate says of the army of trees. Indeed, they do resemble a small band of soldiers emerging from the woods.

Tate enthusiastically points out the sky in the painting, noting proudly that it is an example of the technique he discovered recently to shade an area from light to dark tones. An instructor of his had once claimed that was something that couldn’t be done with egg tempera, he says.

A painting of three horses with a wild look in their eyes hangs on a wall behind the easel. Tate bought the piece at an old antique store and says the horses are more or less his studio companions, providing a presence in what can be a lonely room.

The only other piece of artwork in his studio is a Montana landscape painting by Russell Chatham. “He captures the soul of a place,” Tate says. “I know those places, and he got it right.” To Tate, the soul of place is an illusive quality that has nothing to do with rendering a scene accurately. “It’s just something you can’t put into words,” he says. “It’s like Chatham knowing how the stars always seem so close to you in the big Montana sky.”

Although he grew up in the city, Tate has a deep love for the wild and unspoiled landscapes of Montana, Colorado, Texas, and Mexico. In fact, when he isn’t painting or ranching, he’s climbing mountains or fly-fishing. And while he’s modest about his painting, he does brag about another talent—being the best fly-fishing guide between Gardner and Livingston in Yellowstone National Park. He claims he can spot a brown trout 40 yards away.

At times Tate has thought of moving to Montana. But he’s content to stay in Austin—at least for a spell. As for the future, he says his short-term goal is to paint like Ernest Hemingway wrote. And his long-term goal is, of course, to paint like Cormac McCarthy wrote. Tate says he lives his day-to-day artistic life following a piece of advice he once read somewhere: “I study each painting as if in pursuit of someone I can’t overtake and I’m afraid of losing.”

Photos courtesy the artist and Munson Gallery, Santa Fe, NM; Jackson Hensley Gallery, Taos, NM; Bader/Melnick Gallery, Vail and Beaver Creek, CO; Gallery Alexander, Vail, CO; and Galleria Atennea, San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.

Featured in September 2001