By Stephen Rebello
Painter Travis Hall’s landscapes recall the soothing power of the Hudson River School masters, but they are all his own
Poet, painter, essayist, and playwright E.E. Cummings wrote, “Once we believe in ourselves, we can risk curiosity, wonder, spontaneous delight, or any experience that reveals the human spirit.” Thirty-three-year-old Travis Hall, the Santa Fe, NM- and Carmel, CA-based painter who in the past seven years has won acclaim for his luminous landscapes, is a object lesson in self-belief, a quality he developed at an early age.
Born in Oklahoma City, OK, Hall grew up the youngest son of a mother who painted floral still lifes for her own enjoyment and who, after divorcing her children’s father, married a then-struggling artist of Choctaw and Cherokee descent, Poteet Victory, who has since achieved considerable success. Being raised in an artistic environment, with a mother and stepfather who exerted a great deal of creative influence on him, was the key to Hall’s own development as an artist.
Hall remembers, “Although Poteet wasn’t famous and probably hadn’t even shown yet when he married my mother, he had his own little studio and was real passionate about art. I’d watch him paint and think, ‘Hey, that’s really cool. I’d like to try that.’ I dabbled with my mom’s paint, thinking, ‘I can do this,’ and took art classes in middle school and high school. I was so stubborn; I didn’t get along with my teachers and drove them crazy. I couldn’t see why we had to do pottery or whatever, so I just wanted to change the assignment. I wanted to do my own art.”
After graduating from high school at 18, Hall followed his self-directed inclinations by leaving home. He recalls, “I pretty much did it all before I became an artist—cut hair, sold antique rugs, hung garage doors, waited tables. I was really passionate about my art, but I just didn’t know how to go about doing it. I moved to Dallas for a number of years and to Santa Fe a couple of times with my girlfriend, and that’s when Poteet began to really help me. We painted side by side in his studio for a full year, collaborating on an idea that he had on doing a series of western-style pastoral scenes with horses. Although our styles are totally different, he was very influential in teaching me the ropes of the art world—painting, mixing colors, marketing, and the business side of art. I really liked the landscape backgrounds that we were doing together, but I didn’t like the horses and cows in the paintings. I thought the paintings would look much better with just trees or just landscape elements. I was selling a painting here and there, but I wasn’t too passionate about painting the horses.”
That’s when Hall’s faith in self truly came to the fore. Wanting to veer off in his own artistic direction, he informed everyone close to him that he intended to take out a bank loan to fully finance himself as an artist for six to eight months. He remembers, “Poteet, my mother, pretty much everybody told me that I was absolutely nuts, that I wasn’t going to make it and that I needed more training. But in my mind, I felt that if I really believed, I could do it. I put my heart, my everything, into it.”
Living off the loan, Hall hunkered down and created 23 paintings of sublimely simple subjects—trees, fields, creeks, rivers in different seasons—rendering them with a masterly technique that echoed the Hudson River School masters and not only belied his young age, but also radiated an almost primordial, other-worldly tranquility and ineffable mystery. Often depicting transcendently luminous dawns and sunsets, Hall’s pieces are ethereal yet make a direct emotional connection.
Describing the techniques he employed then and now to achieve his signature lighting effects and sense of theatricality, Hall explains, “The paintings are all done the same way. I’m definitely working in an old-world, tonalist style. In fact, when people see some of my work and say, ‘That’s like an old painting,’ that’s a great compliment, because that’s what I love. I use old techniques, one of which is the ‘rub out.’ Instead of using a white gesso like most painters use, I use a yellow-pigmented gesso. First I’ll lay it on. Then I’ll lay a deep red color on. That’s your under-painting. Then, I rub out the composition with a paper towel or something, wiping off the paint, and when I do, it looks like a black-and-white photograph, except that it’s yellow and red.”
When that dries, Hall layers in the color, going from darks to lights. He says, “The little red blotches coming through are totally intentional. I’m going for a vignette, kind of like an ‘unfinished’ painting, to create an old-world feeling. Other painters do that today, but only a few do it right, like Michael Workman and Nancy Bush. I ‘antique’ some of the paintings to make them look a little yellower, give them extra age. I definitely think there’s an ‘old soul’ thing going on in me somewhere.”
For his subject matter, Hall is drawn to vistas that, for the most part, don’t actually exist in nature. He explains, “They are imaginary places, although they are inspired by the landscape of Oklahoma near Hinton and Anadarko, near Red Rock Canyon, where my brothers still live and where I lived for a long time. A lot of my work comes from that, but it’s incorporated with different compositions that I’ve seen and been inspired by. I add my own style and elements, so the paintings are much more dramatic.”
Hall’s debut show, in 1999 at McLarry Fine Art in Santa Fe, looked at first like a middling success. He recalls, “I’d only sold two or three paintings, and the day after the show opened, I left to study technique at the Art Students’ League in New York City. But the week after I got there, I was kind of flabbergasted to get a call from the gallery saying they’d sold every single one of my 23 paintings. The next week, I went right back to Santa Fe, figuring that I could go to school later. I needed to get back to painting.” The show launched his career. He explains, “Suddenly, I had galleries crawling out of the woodwork trying to get me on board,” he says. “From that point on, it just got better and better with magazine articles, advertisements, and wonderful collectors who sometimes buy six or seven pieces of my work. And by the way, I paid off the loan within eight months. Needless to say, the doubters were very supportive after that.”
The popularity Hall’s work has achieved in a relatively short time affords him a more diverse lifestyle than the one in which he grew up. With his Harvard grad fiancée, he divides his time between the high desert of Santa Fe and the coastal climate of Carmel. “Both places have an energy, an electricity, that is almost essential to me for inspiration,” he says. “Being an artist is very lonely. I went through a spell years ago where I didn’t know whether I could handle becoming almost a hermit, but I realized I really prefer this lifestyle.”
His Santa Fe home is a brand-new adobe house on a dirt road with beamed ceilings and travertine floors. “I’ve been renting it for a year from a friend. My little Jack Russell terrier, Emma, hangs out and watches me paint all day,” Hall describes. As for California—“We didn’t have a whole lot of money growing up, so I didn’t see the ocean until I was 27, and that was in Carmel. It really got me, and needless to say, I moved there not much later, to a tiny efficiency studio downtown roughly 25 feet by 15 feet with a fireplace. It doesn’t have a lot of windows, but it’s got the high ceilings I really like.”
Hall reports, “It’s a great compliment when someone says, ‘You’re so young to be painting this good. I can’t wait to see what you’re painting when you’re 50.’ I’m constantly learning, and you can never learn enough. It’s really cool knowing that your name will be around for a long time and that, hopefully, you’ve done something that is going to be inspirational, soothing, and calming—something that will bring a little bit of peace.” Spoken like an old soul indeed.
Hall is represented by McLarry Fine Art, Santa Fe, NM, and Howard/Mandville Gallery, Kirkland, WA.
Featured in September 2006