William Hook captures the Southwest in landscapes imbued with a genuine sense of wonder
By Norman Kolpas
This story was featured in the December 2012 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Order the Southwest Art magazine December 2012 print edition here, or purchase the Southwest Art magazine December 2012 digital download here. Or simply subscribe to Southwest Art magazine and never miss a story!
Weathered and worn, the heavy wooden gates of the old church above the northern New Mexico village of El Rito open wide to reveal a scene that seems little changed for hundreds of years. A dirt road winds down past old adobe houses and barns with rust-streaked roofs, through well-tended little family fields, and off toward the nearby Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
REAR WINDOW presents an inviting portal into another world, another time. “We artists who paint here in New Mexico become historians,” says the artist, William Cather Hook. “El Rito was a land-grant area that was settled by the Spaniards as long as 500 years ago. These little old towns preserve an entirely different culture that hasn’t really changed. They’re probably the closest thing in the United States to feeling like you’re in another country.”
Hook’s depiction of the place serves to underscore the sense of a world apart. The framing device of the church gates, the richly detailed shadow that the viewer’s gaze must cross to enter the secluded vale, the intriguingly winding road, the combination of detailed brushwork and more expressive daubs that helps direct the eye: Each aspect bespeaks mastery of a style the artist variously describes as contemporary realist, colorist, and impressionistic.
Regardless of what label you choose, it’s difficult to deny that Hook, at the age of 64, stands at a pinnacle of his career. He’s shown his landscapes in top invitationals and juried exhibitions, including the California Art Club and the Coors Western Art Exhibit. His works hang in public institutions including the Tucson Museum of Art, the University of New Mexico Art Museum in Albuquerque, and the Denver Art Museum, and in distinctive corporate collections including those of Forbes magazine in New York and Chevron Corporation in San Francisco.
Never content with accolades, Hook isn’t through climbing. With success, he says, “I feel obligated to deliver even more.”
Hook was born into high artistic standards. His grandmother, Mary Rockwell Hook, was a trailblazing architect of the early 20th century, a time when men overwhelmingly dominated that profession, and several of her works are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. His father, Eugene Rockwell Hook, was a respected photographer in Kansas City, MO, specializing in documenting cases for top local law firms. And novelist Willa Cather, who captured frontier life on the Great Plains and in northern New Mexico with an unsentimental eye, was a cousin of Hook’s grandfather.
During his Midwestern childhood, art “was one of those innate things,” he says, recalling “sitting on the front steps of my house at 5 years old, with a pencil in my hand, drawing the house across the street and wanting to get it right.” His grandmother kept him well-stocked with art supplies and also kept an eye on what he produced with them. When he was 11, she submitted a painting he’d made to a local art show in which most of the participants were adults. “Oddly enough, I got best of show,” he says.
For the most part, though, young Hook kept his talents closely guarded. “I was interested in sports, primarily tennis, and didn’t want my buddies to know that I was doing the art thing,” he says. So he avoided any art lessons in school, enrolling instead in weekend classes at the Kansas City Art Institute.
Still, by the time he graduated from Shawnee Mission East High School in Prairie Village, KS, his path was clear. Hook enrolled in the studio art program at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, where he earned his bachelor of fine arts degree in 1970. While honing his talents there, he also discovered he was allergic to the fumes of oil paints and switched permanently to acrylics as his creative medium of choice.
With his father’s encouragement, Hook focused on a career in advertising and continued his studies in commercial art, illustration, and design in the MFA program at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, CA. From there, a series of early jobs ultimately led him to Broyles, Allebaugh, and Davis, one of the largest ad agencies between Chicago and the West Coast, where he ultimately rose to partnership as a creative director.
With a busy working life, supporting his own family, and helping to raise a son and daughter, Hook let painting fall by the wayside. But that all changed during a heavy early winter snowfall in 1982. “I got cabin fever,” he explains, “and I started getting back into painting for the heck of it because I couldn’t go anywhere.”
He gave one of his paintings to his sister as a Christmas gift. “She took it to be framed at a local art shop and gallery,” Hook continues, “and the owner asked her, ‘Who is this guy?’ He contacted me and asked if I’d be interested in showing with him.
“That little launching pad put me into other galleries that saw my work,” and Hook developed a tough new routine. “I would go to work at the agency at 7:30, then try to get home by 7:30 at night to have dinner with the kids or at least see them before bedtime. Then, I would paint until about 2 o’clock in the morning. And I would generally paint at least one day on the weekend. I did that for about five years.
“In the long run,” he says, “you become your own best teacher, and I approached my art as a profession rather than an avocation.” But he also acknowledges the wise advice he received regularly from the respected artist and illustrator Joseph Morgan Henninger, who had been his mentor at the Art Center. “Advertising assignments would occasionally take me to Los Angeles, and I would visit him and bring 4-by-5-inch transparencies of my paintings. Joe would go over them and give me tips, like telling me to vary my brush strokes or use thinner paint in certain areas to let the canvas do a little of the work.”
The combination of dedication and sage guidance produced steady improvement in Hook’s work, and sales grew stronger. Eventually, he devoted himself to painting full time. That was when he saw an even more dramatic improvement in his work. “I realized,” he says with a laugh, “that I’d been painting tired.”
Reinvigorated, Hook’s work began to gain recognition in exhibitions and competitions from Denver to Santa Fe to Carmel. He won a prized spot in the stable of Santa Fe’s respected Meyer Gallery, which has now represented him for 25 years, and he found the time he needed to work hard at his easel and to study the artists he admired. “I’m a big fan of post-Impressionist American art, especially the Taos Society painters, California plein-air painter Edgar Payne, and Maynard Dixon, who transitioned from California to the Southwest and back.”
Indeed, Hook began his own version of Dixon’s peregrinations. Following an unexpected divorce in 1997, he moved to Carmel, where he bought an artist’s home onto which he added a studio with a glass roof that helps combat the effects of the area’s sometimes dense summer fogs. In 2000, he and his second wife, Kate, bought a condo in Santa Fe, where Hook has set up a second studio in a small spare room. “I’ve discovered that it doesn’t really matter what conditions I paint in. It’s what I have in my head that matters.”
Hook’s desire is to capture the awe he feels in the vast landscapes and wide-open skies of the Southwest. Working from photos and sometimes from plein-air studies, he strives to create iconic images that capture a subtle sense of wonder, such as ANCIENT CEDAR, which portrays a tree he spied one day along the Chama River north of Abiquiu, NM. “This painting is all about the language of the tree,” he explains, “with positive and negative shapes that fill the canvas but let the eye travel past to the landscape.”
Meanwhile, he continues to refine his technique while working with the single style of brush he prefers: a number 12 “bright,” which has a short, flat bunch of bristles that enables him to make a range of strokes, from thick and broad to edges as thin as a single hair. “It’s the brushwork that separates the boys from the men,” he chuckles. He also strives for ever-greater simplicity in his work. “I would like to be like John Singer Sargent in his brevity and economy of brushwork,” Hook says, “to do with one stroke what might otherwise take 10 strokes or even a day. No matter what you do, there’s never a substitute for craftsmanship.”
Featured in the December 2012 issue of Southwest Art magazine–click below to purchase:
Southwest Art magazine December 2012 digital download
Southwest Art magazine December 2012 print edition
Or subscribe to Southwest Art magazine and never miss a story!
MORE RESOURCES FOR ART COLLECTORS & ENTHUSIASTS
• Subscribe to Southwest Art magazine
• Learn how to paint & how to draw with downloads, books, videos & more from North Light Shop
• Sign up for your Southwest Art email newsletter & download a FREE ebook