Veteran oil painter John Encinias finds a fresh approach to capturing the landscape
By Norman Kolpas
This story was featured in the May 2016 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art May 2016 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story.
An old church stands in a pasture strewn with rocks and tumbledown fence posts along the High Road through the Sangre de Cristo Mountains between Santa Fe and Taos. Snow blankets the peaks behind the rustic structure, and some dark clouds high in the sky overhead portend more. But patches of sunlight and blue sky have begun to break through, and green shoots have begun appearing in the withered brown grass.
THE ARRIVAL OF SPRING, a recent oil painting by John Encinias, compellingly captures a scene the artist saw on a visit to his native New Mexico. In that regard, it stands as an undeniably realist work. Yet the brushwork—particularly the choppy strokes of white and gray in the snow and clouds, and the simple blocks of color that define an assortment of homes, outbuildings, and a truck—recalls the many French and American Impressionist painters who have long inspired Encinias in their attempts to depict not just form but light itself.
There’s something else at work here, too: an inspirational meaning that forges a powerful bond with the viewer. The painting can almost be taken as a metaphor for the life of Encinias himself over the past decade, expressing to anyone who spends even a few moments with the work—or, for that matter, talking with the kind, soft-spoken artist—a message that, despite the harshest woes life may throw at you, hope still may spring anew.
Encinias has always found himself attracted to the outdoors and nature. “At 6 or 7 years old,” he recalls, “I would spend a lot of time out in the yard, sitting under a tree, looking up at the sky and watching the cumulus clouds form. Or I would go out to the fields to watch the sunset.”
Encinias was born on Thanksgiving Day, 1949, in Villanueva, NM, about an hour southeast of Santa Fe, the eighth of 15 children. A few years later, his dad, who worked for the Santa Fe Railroad, moved the family to the small southeastern Colorado town of Granada; when John was 12, his parents divorced and he moved with his mom to Garden City, KS, about 80 miles to the east.
In a Catholic middle school in Garden City, Encinias first became keenly aware of the power of art. “The nuns there were the first to show me religious paintings in the Bible and other books,” he says, “and they always encouraged me to copy pictures of birds or other things from calendars.” In 10th grade, he moved to Denver to live with an older brother and sister and finish his studies there at Abraham Lincoln High School. That’s where he took art classes for the first and only time, while on his own he “bought some art supplies and started painting what I was seeing in books on art.”
Self-taught from the start, Encinias felt no compulsion to continue on to art school after graduating from high school. Instead he went to work in the retail department of a local company that manufactured and sold house paint and also carried some fine-art supplies. Gradually, he became familiar with the few customers who came in to buy oil paints and other materials. “I got to talking with them. I didn’t know anything at the time about galleries or selling your paintings. And when I realized what they did, that’s where the idea of becoming an artist myself clicked in.”
Rather than taking classes, Encinias began to educate himself in fine art. “I started going to the Denver Public Library downtown,” he says. “I couldn’t believe all the books they had on art.” He checked out both practical and historical works on everything from classical art to impressionism to abstraction, trying to capture himself what he was seeing on the printed page.
He continued this way until 1975, when one of the artists who frequented the store provided an introduction to Ramon Kelley, a Denver painter renowned for his portraits, figurative works, and still lifes. Also self-taught, Kelley offered the young painter his own wise counsel: “He told me, ‘If you really want to be a fine artist, quit what you’re doing now and paint full time.’”
Heeding that advice, Encinias gave notice at the store. Buoyed by a nest egg he’d frugally saved and a monthly rent of just $60, he dedicated himself to art. Eventually, Kelley’s local gallery asked to represent his works—then others in Wichita, Taos, and Kansas City did the same.
But it wasn’t advice from a professional artist or even representation in multiple galleries that caused Encinias’ career to take off big-time. That happened one night when a friend invited him out for drinks at a local bar and he met a woman named Fran. “It was love at first sight,” he says, his voice hushed with awe more than 40 years later. They got together again the following weekend and were married the following year.
Fran, who worked in insurance, had a good head for commerce, and as her new husband’s paintings continued to sell, she quit her job to devote herself full-time to organizing the business side of his career. “From there, things just took off,” says Encinias. They bought a ranch-style home in a northwestern suburb of Denver and, at Fran’s insistence, built a separate art studio in the backyard, “because she didn’t like the idea of my having to paint in the basement,” he says.
Demand for his works grew and prices rose, even as Encinias continued to teach himself. “I was always learning something new, trying to improve on what I’d been doing,” he says. Yet, surprisingly, he didn’t pile up much in the way of awards or accolades like many successful painters do. “I never really submit works to shows for that purpose,” he explains. “That’s just not me. My focus is mainly on the work.”
Nevertheless, early on Encinias attained his proudest career achievement, when at the age of 34 he was invited to exhibit for the first time in the National Academy of Western Art, now known as the Prix de West, the prestigious show of top western artists held each June at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City. He’s exhibited there every year since, including three or four works at this year’s event, which runs from June 10 through August 7. “I’m one of the old-timers now,” he says with a chuckle.
Encinias would have been satisfied to continue thusly with his career and his life—making frequent visits to the Colorado and northern New Mexico landscapes he loves to paint, having a few shows a year among the five or six galleries he’d maintained relationships with, and living contentedly with his wife. But one Friday evening in 2006 changed everything.
“We were having drinks together before she was going to go into the kitchen to have dinner,” Encinias recalls. “Her last words to me were that she never felt so good in her life.” Fran never made it to the kitchen. She suffered a sudden brain aneurysm and died in the hospital a few days later.
Encinias, understandably, went into a tailspin. For about a year, he couldn’t paint. “I was so out of it,” he admits. “I had a real hard time. Fran took care of me. She took care of everything, and all I did was focus on my work. I look back and find how blessed I was having her for 30 years.”
Compounding his inertia was the recession of 2008 and its deleterious impact on the art market. But that lull gave him some time to “back off from everything,” he says, and eventually, as serious grief ebbed, he found himself able to focus again. Meanwhile, new exclusive representation with Gerald Peters Gallery in Santa Fe relieved the pressure of providing paintings to multiple outlets. The result, says Encinias, is that “I’m now looking at my subjects and my paintings with a fresh eye. I go to the same places I’ve always gone, but they now feel new to me.”
Whether he’s strolling along Colorado’s Clear Creek, which runs just four blocks from his home, or driving the High Road in the Sangre de Cristos, when he happens on a scene that speaks to him, Encinias will paint plein-air studies on 12-by-16- or 16-by-20-inch canvases, as well as taking a profusion of digital photos. Back home in his studio, he’ll work up those reference materials into larger finished works that may take him up to four weeks to complete. “I focus on one thing—the church, in the case of the painting from the High Road—and everything else is just suggested, vaguely painted. The most important thing in the painting is the way the light hits the main subject.”
Light, in fact, is always his primary concern as a painter. “Light is the great unifier of all shapes and forms we see,” he explains. “If you turn off the light, there is no subject.”
His life and his work now revitalized, Encinias does not expect to see the light turn off anytime soon. “My grandmother lived to be 101, and my mother 96,” he says. “Now, with a new fresh start in my life and nearly 50 years of painting experience, I plan to try my best to get my work to an even higher level.”
Gerald Peters Gallery, Santa Fe, NM.
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