William Acheff’s paintings imbue objects from the past with compelling stillness and life
By Gussie Fauntleroy
This story was featured in the August 2014 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art August 2014 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story!
It’s not unusual, William Acheff believes, for painters to think of themselves as living in the wrong century—to wish they had been born a few hundred years earlier. That was certainly the case with Acheff when he began his art career in the early 1970s. Standing in the de Young Museum in San Francisco contemplating a still life by one of the Dutch masters or a work by Rembrandt, the young painter resignedly believed he had been born 400 years too late. Then, a few years later after moving to Taos, NM, he painted his first centuries-old Pueblo pot. Something inside him clicked into place. The more he focused on American Indian artifacts as subjects for his still-life paintings, the more he realized there was no need to return to the past. The past—or at least, the feeling of deep quiet he imagined an earlier painter inhabiting as he worked, and the patina of timelessness in the objects he portrayed—had come to him.
In another sense as well, Acheff benefitted from an experience more common in previous centuries: an immersive, European-style apprenticeship in art. The pivotal master/student relationship with Italian painter Roberto Lupetti began with a casual conversation in an upscale San Francisco Bay Area barbershop and proved to be exactly what both teacher and student were looking for. Happily, the older artist lived long enough to see his protégé become a highly acclaimed, widely collected realist painter with his own distinctive, instantly recognizable style.
Although Acheff has never defined himself as a Native artist, his connection with older ways of living and earth-based spirituality did emerge from indigenous roots. Until he was 5 years old, his family lived in the remote central Alaskan village of McGrath, where his mother was raised. She was the daughter of an Athabascan woman and a Dutch-Scottish man from Missouri who had made his way to Alaska in 1897 during the gold rush. “I remember snow, and we lived by a large river, the second largest river in Alaska. I remember lots of cousins and family, and salmon strips hanging to dry,” the 67-year-old painter says, speaking in his characteristic warm, quiet manner as he relaxes on a sofa in the studio adjacent to his Taos home. A few feet away are large cabinets filled with Plains Indian and Pueblo objects— beaded moccasins, baskets, gourd rattles, simple kachina carvings, drums, and all sizes of pots. The artist has no direct ancestral link to the Southwestern and Plains tribes whose artifacts he has collected and painted for 40 years. Yet the underlying human qualities of reflection, continuity, family, and a slower pace of life are inherent in his work. “I mix tribes; I’m more into the base of spirituality or the subtle relationships that are common to us all,” he explains.
Acheff’s adobe-walled home itself bears elements of an earlier time. A large, high-ceilinged room once served as the studio of Scottish-born painter John Young Hunter [1874-1955], who arranged to have a 13th-century carved stone fireplace shipped from England and installed at one end of the room. Today the space serves as Acheff’s living, dining, and kitchen space, with a stone floor and a massive 13-foot-long wooden table recalling the earlier Taos artist’s Old World roots.
Acheff left his own native soil as a boy when his family moved to San Francisco, where his father worked at the federal government’s Stanford Linear Accelerator Center. Throughout his childhood years, and especially in high school where he had exceptional art instruction, Acheff honed his drawing skills. More than one teacher encouraged him to apply to the College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland (now the California College of the Arts), but Acheff equated that path with teaching art, in which he had no interest. Instead, immediately after graduating he enrolled in barber school with the idea of opening an exclusive barbershop to cater to the famous and rich. It was cutting hair that led to his career in art.
One day in 1968, Lupetti came in for a haircut at the shop where the 21-year-old Acheff was working, and the two hit it off. Some time later, in a casual conversation about art, Lupetti invited Acheff to join a weekly class he taught. “Taking a class was the farthest thing from my mind. I had never considered it,” Acheff recalls. But the classes were free, and something in the older artist’s manner convinced him to change his mind. Acheff chuckles as he remembers Lupetti handing him an eraser at the start of the first class. He had no need for it. Making the rounds while his students worked, the teacher reached Acheff and stopped short. “You’ve drawn before!” he admiringly noted. It was an understatement; the young man’s drawing was unquestionably the best in the class.
Almost immediately, Lupetti invited Acheff to begin a course of painting instruction, and the two dove into an intensive period of training: six hours a day, five days a week, for six months. Acheff also carefully studied the work of 17th-century Dutch masters and 19th- century American still-life painters such as William Michael Harnett. While Lupetti provided basic instruction in mixing colors and applying paint, his real gift was simply opening his studio and creating the atmosphere for Acheff to follow the inexorable movement of artistic flow. “Roberto said it was like putting a carrot in front of a donkey. He only had to say something once, and I got it,” he relates. In 1970, Lupetti declared his student ready to put his art out into the world. The first gallery owner Acheff approached offered $25 a painting and scoffed at Acheff’s refusal to accept less than $50 apiece. Soon, however, he was selling his paintings of classic still-life arrangements at a couple of Northern California galleries and then through a dealer in Los Angeles. In 1973 he decided to take a friend’s advice and travel to Santa Fe. When he couldn’t find a suitable place there to rent, he drove up the road to Taos, and he stayed.
Acheff’s reciprocal gift to Lupetti was the mentor’s immense joy in being able to pass on his knowledge to someone who would take his lessons to heart and become an accomplished artist in his own right. In the years since then, the exquisite realism and three- dimensional depth of Acheff’s masterful trompe l’oeil style have earned him top awards at such national exhibitions as the Prix de West and the Masters of the American West. One of the signature elements in his work is the incorporation of an image within the image, often as the depiction of a historic photograph or painting within the still life. Acheff developed the approach in the early 1970s after seeing some Edward S. Curtis photos and wondering how it would work to paint one as part of an arrangement. Viewers and collectors loved it, and his work took off. Appearing to be taped or tacked to the wall behind a grouping of artifacts, the image within an image suggests associations and sets the painting’s mood.
In THINKING OF FAMILY, for example, a photo of a young Indian woman with a faraway look is joined by objects suggesting family and home: adult- and baby-sized moccasins; a small basket; a large, well-used water or cooking pot. Intuition brings together certain objects, and serendipity often adds its touch, Acheff notes. In this case, the painting was still untitled when he was talking with the woman who commissioned it. As she spoke of her large family and of a niece and nephew coming to visit, the artist knew what the painting’s title would be.
The most recent direction in Acheff’s work takes the trompe l’oeil element even further by painting artifacts as if inside a cabinet whose wooden edges appear to meld into the artwork’s frame. Rendered with greater depth and realism than ever before, these paintings create the stunning illusion of a real cabinet, filled with carefully chosen American Indian artifacts and hanging on the wall. “I think I was at a point where it was time to advance again, take a bigger step forward,” Acheff says of the new work. “Ideas like this are just sitting out there waiting to be discovered, and I say, okay, I’m ready.”
Working on only one painting at a time and always from life, Acheff sets up an arrangement near his studio’s large north window and settles into the still space of focused attention virtually every day, for as long as daylight allows. (When he’s not painting, he puts that relaxed focus into flying his high-performance, single- engine plane.) “I enjoy the process of painting,” he says, noting that, as he paints, he absorbs the feeling of the objects but doesn’t actively think about them. Instead, he often finds himself immersed in a peaceful silence, “the silence that permeates everything,” as he describes it. After decades of continuously refining his skills, the act of painting now can bring moments of feeling as if he has transcended the particular circumstances of his life. “Many times,” he reflects, “I’ve had a sense of living 400 years ago.”
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