Lorenzo Chávez | Below the Surface

Lorenzo Chávez’s pastel landscapes are imbued with a spirit of history and a deep connection to nature that goes beyond the visible

By Reed Glenn

You might say that Lorenzo Chávez began his art career as a kid in the back of a Rambler station wagon. Growing up in Albuquerque, NM, Chávez relished his family’s road trips. “Driving around the Southwest, I became very enamored with the landscape,” he says. Orange canyons, painted deserts, and mysterious mesas made vivid backdrops for the dramas staged in Chávez’s young mind. “I almost feel sorry for the kids today with their
Pods and video games. I sat and looked, and my mind would wander—what’s over that hill? When I paint today, those memories well up in me. I might be painting along a stream, but in my mind I see an old Native American crossing the stream. My mind travels beyond what is visible.”

Church at Canoncito, pastel, 18 x 14.

Very early in his career, Chávez liked to paint western scenes. But he soon discovered that he preferred what was behind the cowboys—the landscape. “I’m trying to get that sense of history, the land, and its connection with people before us and after us. It’s not just about setting up an easel and saying, ‘that’s a beautiful stream, let me paint that.’ There’s something below the surface.”

Chávez always drew as a youngster. He recalls going to a friend’s house, where “we’d open up comic books and draw, trying to duplicate what we were seeing. I connected with drawing from day one, in third or fourth grade. I drew portraits of the kids around me. I was very shy, and I think I still am. I couldn’t verbally communicate with others. But as soon as I picked up a pencil, I could communicate with them.”

Chávez’s high-school art teacher was Frank McCulloch, who is also a well-known fine artist in New Mexico. McCulloch “opened our minds to see beauty in all things—classic films, concerts, historical sites,” Chávez says. “We learned that what we want to convey as artists comes to us from many sources, and we’d find the best source that resonates with us.”

Work by the Taos Society of Artists also made a strong impression on the budding young artist. “My dad took us to Taos, and it was our first exposure to art,” he says. But ultimately, “What made art accessible for me was the Impressionists. I made a connection. There’s a trail that starts with Monet and Pissarro and continues to this day with artists who paint everyday, common things in a style that’s very exciting.” Later influences were the American Impressionists such as Willard Metcalf, the landscape paintings of Maynard Dixon, and early California Impressionists Edgar Payne and William Wendt.

Today Chávez remains open to new sources of inspiration. “I learn more about visual images through reading so many different books, especially Wallace Stegner,” he says. “I learned a lot about painting just by reading him, such as how we see the landscape, how we can see it differently, what we can bring to it. We bring our own vision to the landscape, but the landscape also communicates to us what it wants us to say. We play ping-pong with the landscape.”

Arroyo, pastel, 10 x 14.

One very practical cue Chávez has taken from nature is the background tone he uses for his pastel paintings. “I’ve gravitated to a warm, reddish gray,” he says. “Through my outdoor painting experience, I see that color as a common denominator. I call it the soup: a medium, warm gray that’s in the gray trees, little stones, and bits of grasses. There’s little tiny pieces of it in everything. I really like that natural color.” This is apparent in the soft, fleshy pinks and terracottas of works like ARROYO, or the greens of CHAMISA AND COTTONWOODS, or the hypnotic water in pacific impression.

When Chávez paints on location, he concentrates so completely on the landscape that everything else fades away. “I try to really focus on what I’m seeing and empty my mind of other things,” he says. “I allow myself to be open to that moment and live that moment as fully as possible. When I succeed, there’s a sort of magic that happens in the work, something that comes out that you couldn’t forcefully do. I’m hoping the strokes, or the pigments, or the edge qualities will communicate beyond the surface of the landscape and resonate deeper.”

Although Chávez sometimes works in oils, he is mainly known for his pastels, which were required materials when he was in art school. After graduating with honors from the Colorado Institute of Art in 1983, he continued working with them, feeling a “resonance and connection” with the medium. “As a kid I liked to stick my hands in the dirt, and when I first used pastels, they had that same quality,” he says. “It’s one of the few mediums outside of charcoal where you touch the pigment. I love to feel it in my hand. It’s like color coming out of your fingertips.”

In the mid-1980s Chávez began to get interested in landscape painting and studied with well-known artists Richard Schmid and Michael Lynch. On an oil-painting trip in the Colorado Rockies, he decided to try pastels. At that time he found no comparable instruction for plein-air pastel work. “That got me excited—hey, this is new territory,” he remembers. His goal was to achieve in pastel the same qualities that he admired in other artists’ oils. “I realized I had to figure it out on my own, and that was very thrilling. It led me to teaching workshops in pastel and en plein air, about 17 years ago.” Now, he says, pastel plein-air workshops are much more available.

Pastels have the highest pigment concentration of any medium, which gives them their special radiance. “Tiny crystallized pieces of pigment don’t get a chance to melt, so they bounce light around,” Chávez explains. “It’s the luminosity of that crystal that makes the difference. Those tiny little specks—the “bloom” of the pastels—are like pixels on a screen, tiny little spots of color. The more you leave a painting untouched, the more you use those little spots. If you rub it too much, you lose the bloom.”

Because they can be easily smeared and lose some of their powdery pigment, pastels are often incorrectly thought of as less permanent than, and therefore inferior to, oils. But when properly protected, pastel paintings last hundreds of years. “Glass covering a pastel is like varnish on an oil painting,” Chávez says. “As long as it’s covered, it keeps it safe. And today’s papers will last for hundreds of years, too,” he adds.

Winter Willow, pastel, 24 x 16.

Completely dedicated to both pastels and the landscape, Chávez plans to keep pursuing his painting path for the foreseeable future. Seeking landscapes of a different type, he moved away from his New Mexico and Colorado roots for a time. “When I hit 40, about 12 years ago, I had a wild urge to get out of this part of the country. So we moved to the Pacific Northwest—to Eugene, Oregon—for five years,” he says. Though he enjoyed the beautiful greenness and the amazing variety of vegetation, he says, “It taught me one thing: My heart is in the Rocky Mountains. For me, the definition of the West is based on the arid West.”

So Chávez returned to Colorado and today lives in Parker, just outside of Denver, with his wife, Dolores; they have two grown sons. “I’ve done still lifes, portraits, and cityscapes, but I just get more satisfaction from being in the landscape and painting in it than anything else,” he says. “I think it is the meditative quality—to stand out in nature and really look, to just connect with the landscape. Every moment is so unique, and all we can hope to do is grasp little bits and pieces and try to put them down on paper. Art has opened avenues of communication for me that I never thought I could have. The painted image is my way of communicating with my fellow beings.”

Abend Gallery, Denver, CO; Mockingbird Gallery, Bend, OR; Grapevine Gallery, Oklahoma City, OK; Betsy Swartz Fine Art, Bozeman, MT; www.lorenzochavez.com.

Upcoming Shows

Group show, Mockingbird Gallery, through April 8.
Solo show, Abend Gallery, through April 15.
Solo show, Betsy Swartz Fine Art, through April 22.
Scottsdale Salon of Fine Art, Scottsdale, AZ, April 21-May 19.
Gold Medal Juried Exhibition, California Art Club, Pasadena, CA, April 2-24.
Governor’s Invitational Art Show and Sale, Loveland, CO, April 23-June 5.

Featured in April 2011.