Jill Carver | Conversations with the Land

Jill Carver listens to what the landscape tells her to paint

By Gussie Fauntleroy

Jill Carver, Autumn Celebration, oil, 24 x 30.

Jill Carver, Autumn Celebration, oil, 24 x 30.

This story was featured in the September 2017 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art  September 2017 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story.

Jill Carver had her portable easel set up in a Colorado forest one day when a hunter happened by. Out of curiosity he stopped to look at what she was doing. “Are you just painting the scenery?” he asked, clearly with elk on his mind and perhaps wondering if she planned to include any wildlife. For Carver, the query mirrored a question that had been on her own mind for a while, although in a deeper sense: Am I just a scenery painter? What is the difference between scenery painting and art?

The musing grew out of Carver’s decision in 2010 to shift her attention to studio painting, having built a successful early career based on plein-air events. After six years of attending five or six shows each year in various parts of the country, winning awards and making good sales, she became aware of a strong desire to explore the edges of her ability and push them as far as possible. She wondered what her art could become if she took time in the studio, if she experimented and really challenged herself. One thing she knew: The answers would involve a radically different relationship with both landscape painting and the land itself.

No longer would she pop into a place for a few days with the goal of finding scenes to paint. Instead, she says, “I wanted my art to be a side product of an ongoing relationship with a place.” As it turns out, one of those special places is the tiny former mining town of Rico, CO, in the southwest corner of the state, where Carver spent time painting for the past several summers. Early this year she and her husband sold their Austin, TX, residence to make Rico their full-time home. She adds, smiling, that she will give herself permission to paint elsewhere for a few weeks if winter bears down too hard. In March when the couple reached their Rico property for their first cold-weather visit, the snow-walled approach “was like driving down a 10-foot-sided luge to get to the house,” she says.

It’s not the first time English-born Carver has stepped out of her comfort zone and into something challenging that ultimately turned out well. Not long out of university, as one of hundreds of applicants for a job at the National Portrait Gallery’s Archive and Research Department in London, she landed the position without having a fine-art or art-history degree. Then, after 12 years in London, pursuing landscape painting on weekends and holidays, in 2002 she married an American English-literature professor and moved to Austin—a move that meant trading the cool greens of her native countryside for the completely alien palette of Texas and starting from scratch in understanding color.

Always interested in drawing and painting, Carver grew up in various parts of England, her family moving often for her father’s work with Shell Oil Company. At 18 she applied for the fine-art program at Lancaster University, which offered her a place on the condition that she first complete a formal two-year foundational art course, which students normally begin at age 16. She had received some art instruction in the British equivalent of high school, but she didn’t want to go back for two more years before beginning university. So she declined. Looking back, she sees it as a positive turn of events. At that age, she believes, she would not have had the capacity to really absorb or apply an intensive level of art education. “I don’t think I would have been ready,” she says. Instead she opted for her second love, British history, earning an honors degree with a specialization in 17th-century British history at the University of Sheffield. She couldn’t know at the time, of course, how her twin passions of art and history would soon interlace.

After a year of seeking a museum position, Carver was hired by the National Portrait Gallery. “I was so fortunate. It was a really rewarding environment to be in,” she says. “I got to look at art every day, and from that you build up a visual acuity; there’s a visual language that you become attuned to.” Her duties included handling artwork for photo sessions—everything from 16th-century miniatures to Lucian Freud portraits—as well as researching and providing opinions on provenance and attribution. This latter task meant studying works in minute detail, from brush strokes to color, and often having to inform people that they owned a copy rather than an original. “I had to be able to verbalize, to say, ‘Well, this shoulder looks a little higher in the collar than it should be.’ It’s made me very critical of my own work, but I also think that helps because I can emotionally detach to determine if it’s working,” she says. “It made me aware of wanting to be authentic in my mark-making.”

Although Carver’s earliest forays into painting were in watercolor, during her time in London she made outings in the countryside with artist friends and began working in oils. When she fell in love and married Larry Carver and moved to Austin, her lack of foundational understanding of color theory immediately revealed itself. “There was a gaping hole in my knowledge of the medium and pigments,” the 48-year-old artist relates. “I realized I had to fill in the gaps in my education fast.” Clearly her efforts were successful. Among her numerous awards over the years, in 2014 she became the first female painter to receive the Gold Medal at the Maynard Dixon Country show.

High at the top of Carver’s mentors list is painter Skip Whitcomb, whom she calls “a real guiding light.” Utah-based painter and friend Kathryn Stats is up there as well. For learning color, not long after settling in Texas, Carver took an immensely valuable 10-day workshop with Scott Christensen in which students worked with only three colors the entire time. And her self-education has not stopped. “Thirty years into painting and I’m lapping up what I learn because now I know how to apply it,” she says. Along with workshops, she often turns to her library of art books, as well as to Wallace Stegner and other western authors for a deeper understanding of the part of the world she now calls home. But most importantly, she spends time with the land.

Having sold her two-room retreat cabin in Rico and purchased a house with canyon, river, and mountain views, Carver is just a daily dog-walk away from places she frequently paints. In fact, at the Coors Western Art Exhibit & Sale last winter, she realized that five of her seven paintings were of landscapes within a 10-minute walk from her door. She doesn’t go out with the intention of “finding” a painting, however. It’s more of a two-way conversation with the land. She listens and watches, and ideas come to her. Instead of a canvas covered with paint at the end of the day, she’s happy to have reference material to take back to the studio: ideas, sketches, and accurate color notes.

This was Carver’s approach during a visit to Pedernales Falls State Park west of Austin (although she had trouble finding it on the map because her English ears heard Texans talking about “Purd and Alice” Falls). When she found the park she simply wandered around, made studies of rocks and water, and waited for the land to speak to her. It did, and she gathered information for what became PEDERNALES SENTINELS. The piece reflects what she calls a painting’s “motif,” something in a scene that ignites her interest and becomes a central theme. The artist’s job is to transfer this sense of excitement onto canvas, she believes, and in so doing offer the viewer a glimpse of what made her stop in her tracks. In this case it was a massive huddle of rocks, dumped together at some point by the force of flash floods. “It’s about the great personality, the character of those rocks with the incredible sparkling light, and the phenomenal power of nature to put them there,” she says.

With DESERT SERENADE [see page 75], a special, fleeting quality of light became the painting’s motif. At Big Bend National Park on the Texas-Mexico border, Carver returned each evening to the same dry wash. In the final few seconds of sunset one day, she quickly took color notes, then returned the next day to sketch the shapes of vegetation and distant buttes. Back in the studio she played around with using only four colors to produce a high-saturation, last-of-the-sunlight effect. In fact, an important part of Carver’s painting process these days involves setting up technical challenges for herself. “There are a lot of failures, but that’s a good thing,” she says. Yet beneath the excitement of the painting process and the satisfaction of sharing what she creates, it is the land itself that keeps calling her back, especially as she gets to know certain places on a deeper level. “It’s that connectedness that always comes first for me,” she says.

InSight Gallery, Fredericksburg, TX; Wood River Fine Arts, Ketchum, ID; Thunderbird Foundation for the Arts, Mount Carmel, UT; www.jillcarver.com.

This story was featured in the September 2017 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art  September 2017 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story.

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