D. LaRue Mahlke paints landscapes suffused with the very spirit of creation
By Norman Kolpas
This story was featured in the March 2013 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Order the Southwest Art March 2013 print issue, or get the Southwest Art March 2013 digital download now…Or better yet, just subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss a story!
LAST SUMMER while driving home to Texas after participating in the first annual Artistic Horizons show in Bozeman, MT, Denise LaRue Mahlke swung through Yellowstone National Park. “One of the things that grabbed me there were the geyser pools,” she recalls. “They were infatuating to me. It was magical how they all looked so different. Some were like mud pots in opaque greens or reds. Others were clear, giant pools that looked incredibly deep and almost iridescent in shades of emerald and sapphire. One reminded me of a peacock feather. I could have stood and stared at them for hours, even with the smell of sulfur in the air.”
Mahlke and her husband of 36 years, Ray, took hundreds of reference photos. “It was extremely crowded at Yellowstone in July, and there would have been no way I could have painted on the scene,” she explains. Back home in Georgetown, half an hour north of Austin, she couldn’t get the pools out of her mind. “I kept thinking how, under the surface, they’re all connected, part of the volcanic activity in that area. Those pools are just glimpses of what’s really going on underneath.”
With such deep thoughts in mind, she began work on a 36-by-48-inch pastel painting that she named CONNECTIVITY, the first work in what she anticipates will become a series. With small pencil sketches, she first figured out “the breakup of space on the canvas, finding ways to lead the viewer’s eye through the work.” Then she prepared the painting surface itself, mounting onto rigid but lightweight Gatorboard a special sanded paper that has a microscopic “tooth” designed to grab the soft pastel medium. She treated the surface with a mixture of gesso and fine pumice powder. Next, she brushed in a light watercolor underpainting that aimed to capture the overall tones of the scene. “In some of the pools, a lot of what you see in the final work is just the underpainting,” she explains. Finally, working largely with the broader sides of her pastel sticks—wielding them more like brushes than crayons, a primary reason she thinks of her creations as paintings rather than drawings—she laid down layer after layer of color, gradually building a realistic scene of remarkable complexity and depth.
The finished work is a prime example of Mahlke’s talents and skills, which have led to her participation in some of the nation’s most prestigious exhibitions— including the Maynard Dixon Country invitational, the Coors Western Art Exhibit, the Cowgirl Up show at the Desert Caballeros Western Museum, and The Russell at the C.M. Russell Museum. Whether she’s painting geyser pools or desert cliffs, tranquil ocean inlets or vast cloud-filled skies, she aims to express meanings deeper and more profound than what might be gleaned from appearances alone.
It could all best be summed up by a quote from Andrew Wyeth that she keeps on display in her small home studio: “One’s art goes as far and as deep as one’s love goes.” A deeply religious woman, Mahlke aims always “to be aware of how God has blessed me, to see the world with that deep sense of wonder that God gives us all, and by the works of my hand to turn around and give it back in a God-honoring way.”
“I realized that painting the land and sky was my heart’s desire.”
THE DIVINELY endowed urge to express through art something about the world around her was an integral part of Denise Mahlke as far back as she can remember. Born 56 years ago in the Gulf Coast town of Bay City, TX, between Houston and Corpus Christi, she always seemed to have a pencil or crayon in her hand. “My first recollection, before first grade, was drawing my tricycle,” she says. “I just drew the objects that I saw every day.”Her parents took note of the budding talent and made sure to keep their daughter in art supplies, even buying Denise her first pochade box—a French-style portable easel—before her 10th birthday. For a time, they also signed her up for classes taught by Simon Michael, a renowned regional artist who made weekly visits to the local community center. “I was the youngest student, and I got to learn drawing from life, still lifes, charcoals, and acrylics. He helped me discover how to see shapes and brought out my abilities. He definitely put me on the path to being an artist and, having my parents be that supportive of me, too, I just knew that was what I wanted to be.”
Throughout her youth, Mahlke also received encouragement from her schoolteachers and classmates. “Everybody wanted me to draw horses for them, and that was how I made friends. I do recall painting signs for school events, too, and in my last year at Carroll High School in Corpus Christi, I painted a mural.” Going off to study at an art school after graduation, however, simply seemed out of the question, and she ultimately decided “to make my own way in fine art.” After marrying sweetheart Ray at the age of 19 and having two sons by the mid 1980s, she began painting portraits on commission.
Around that time, she also found part-time work in a frame shop and gallery in Corpus Christi. The gallery’s owner, artist Guy Morrow, encouraged her to work more seriously in oil pastels and invited Mahlke along when he and other artist friends went painting outdoors. While continuing to do portraits, for which she won local awards, she felt herself drawn more and more to landscapes. “Right before we moved,” she says of her family’s 1998 relocation to Georgetown, “I realized that painting the land and sky was my heart’s desire.”
She entered what she calls “a time of real discovery.” She pored through her issues of Southwest Art, she says, studying the works of respected landscape painters like Clyde Aspevig and Wilson Hurley and masters of pastel including Doug Dawson and Skip Whitcomb. She began traveling to take workshops whenever she could. In particular, she notes six taught by the celebrated painter and teacher Bob Rohm, and another four led by T. Allen (Tim) Lawson. “Tim was the one who showed me how to clarify and focus my vision for my paintings, to bring more thought and emotion to my work,” she says. “He has contributed greatly to my growth as an artist in the last eight to nine years.”
From all these studies, she says, one of the best lessons she learned was the importance of deep, thoughtful firsthand observation. “Being outside to observe,” she explains, “is like going to the truth. I love being out there to get some answers to my questions, to see how colors and values relate. Working from life is the best teacher.”
One of the best lessons she learned was the importance of deep, thoughtful firsthand observation.
Back in her studio, whether working from on-the-scene sketches or photographs, she then describes her painting process as one of asking herself probing questions about the scene she wishes to portray: “What is it that grabbed my attention? What is it that sparked me? Why do I want to paint this? What is it I’m seeking to get across to the viewer?” Organizing her thoughts in this way in the studio, she says, “brings back that original spark of inspiration and helps me hone my vision.”
Such a probing process helps her create paintings such as BEYOND BADGER CREEK, a view of Vermilion Cliffs National Monument in northern Arizona. As she has done several times in recent years, she stopped there last August—along with other top landscape artists including Len Chmiel and G. Russell Case—on the way home from the Maynard Dixon Country show in Mount Carmel, UT. This particular work, Mahlke goes on to explain, was one of her “first attempts to make an almost completely front-lit scene,” as the late-afternoon sunlight set the cliff walls aglow. The resulting dramatic shadows she captured “take you through the painting,” creating almost abstract forms in the foreground while sharply etching the distant cliffs against a darkening sky.
Such simplification in recent compositions, she reflects, “is a shift I can feel going on in my work. Finding the abstract composition underneath the painting is all about the design. To me, it’s what draws you across the room to take a closer look, to appreciate the work.”
In the future Mahlke sees herself simplifying and refining her work even more, while also beginning to explore other media: “I’m in an experimental mode right now. I’d like to try combining different mediums in one painting, like maybe an oil wash over a charcoal drawing.” All the while, she says, “I’m still doing the best I can to learn, to continue trying to be a student and retain that sense of wonder. I’m incredibly blessed to be doing what I’m doing, and I’m approaching it all with a spirit of thanksgiving and praise.”
Featured in the March 2013 issue of Southwest Art magazine–click below to purchase:
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