Stacey Peterson’s art brought her back to the Colorado mountains she loves
By Gussie Fauntleroy
This story was featured in the June 2014 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art June 2014 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story!
There’s an interesting paradox in painting landscapes, which Stacey Peterson discovered early on. It’s a bit of artistic wisdom that she’s reminded of each time she takes her camera or plein-air painting materials into the mountains, and it happened again not long ago as she was standing at the top of Colorado’s Independence Pass. Above treeline at 12,000 feet, Peterson gazed out at the vast panorama before her—sunlight cascading down peaks, green pines in the foreground, shining river snaking through a valley below. The temptation tugged at her—as it still does even though she knows better—to paint it all. But here’s what she has learned: When you try to include everything that excites you in a painting, it ends up not saying much.
Instead, in moments like this, Peterson stops and asks herself what one element in the scene stirs her so profoundly, what it is that really catches her eye. In the case of HIGH ALTITUDE, painted after spending time on Independence Pass, she realized that what she loves most about being above treeline are the massive forms laid bare. So she focused on that and left out the rest. “It makes a painting more powerful if you pick out the one thing that really elicits an emotional response, rather than trying to include everything that’s pretty,” the 35-year-old painter says, sitting in the walkout-basement studio of her Evergreen, CO, home.
As she describes the experience of intentionally turning her attention to certain aspects of the landscape, Peterson is reminded of another pivotal question she answered some years ago, one that determined the direction her art would take. Until that time, any painting she did—on a serious hobby basis when not at her engineering job—took the form of portraits and figurative work. Then she signed up for her first-ever plein-air workshop with acclaimed Colorado landscape painter Jay Moore. As the group was eating lunch one day, Peterson told Moore she had been painting the figure. He looked at her. “Where do you most love to spend time?” he asked, then added: “You really need to paint what you love.” Peterson’s response—outdoors!—was immediate, and it reached back to her childhood years.
As the youngest of three daughters in a non-outdoorsy family in Littleton, CO, Peterson’s earliest “wilderness” explorations took place with friends along the creek and pond near her house. In high school, she had friends whose families went camping in the nearby Rocky Mountains, and she soon became their “adopted child for the weekend,” as she describes it, smiling. As her passion for hiking, camping, and backpacking grew, it paralleled an expanding interest in art. Her mother collected original art, worked in a local gallery, and had often taken her infant daughter to work. So it was in a gallery, appropriately, that young Stacey took her first steps.
During junior high and high school, Peterson was inspired by two excellent art teachers. She gained a strong foundation in drawing and fell utterly in love with art. If anyone back then had asked about her career aspirations, she would have said, “Something in visual arts or design.” But her aptitudes spanned both sides of the brain; she also did very well in science and math. When it came time to consider higher education, her decision to attend Colorado School of Mines was influenced by a scholarship from the school and a chorus of family and cultural voices calling for a practical approach. “When you’re 17, it just seems like a smart decision and the secure thing to do,” she says of her—relatively brief, as it turns out—engineering career. “I thought: I can always do art on the side. I found out later that’s not the case.”
Peterson’s first job after college was with ExxonMobil in Houston, where she worked in process engineering, a demanding position involving travel and long hours. Had she been in Colorado, she would have unwound on weekends by hitting the mountain trails. In Houston, with few outdoor activities that called to her, she signed up for weekend art courses instead. That’s when she discovered a passion for oils—and when it started becoming painfully clear she was not in the right place. “I was miserable, a fish out of water,” she relates. “I’m an outdoorsy person, and I was sitting at a computer all day.”
So she and her husband moved back to Colorado, where Peterson designed air-pollution control systems for a time. The work was environmentally conscious, but she was still at a desk. When her daughter was born in 2006, she quit her job to align herself with what she finally recognized as her true path—a full-time pursuit of fine art. She had already taken classes at the Art Students League in Denver and the Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design, and then studied with landscape painters Jay Moore and Dan Young. When Moore suggested she consider where her heart truly wanted to be, the pieces of the puzzle started to fall into place.
And then the hard work began. “I was really awful at first,” she says of landscape painting. “But it’s what I love, so I devoted myself to getting better at it.” Interestingly, Peterson found her engineering experience extremely useful in learning to paint. “People think art and engineering are so different, that art is creative and engineering is calculating and finding the right answers, but I think that’s a bit of a misconception,” she says. The key to engineering, she points out, is solving problems, coming up with ideas, and thinking outside the box. In Houston, for example, one of her first assignments required learning an unfamiliar computer programming language and then putting it to use. “They handed me a book, and I had a month to teach myself,” she recalls. She applied the same approach in learning to mix colors, visualize and compose an image, and apply paint. After attaining the basics through workshops, she holed up in her studio for a couple of years, working things out for herself. Engineering taught her to be comfortable with trial and error, she says. And without overreliance on guidance from instructors or mentors, she found herself developing her own distinctive style.
This sense of self-reliance also came in handy when Peterson decided to leave the corporate world and launch out on her own. As the mother of a young child, and with a husband who also left an engineering job to start his own construction firm, she got used to people thinking she’d lost her mind. But she knew that art was what she needed to do. And the subsequent years have proven her right. In 2006 she was selected for inclusion in Southwest Art’s “21 Under 31” feature, and since then her work has earned a number of awards, most recently at the 2013 Oil Painters of America Western Regional Exhibition, the 2012 Salon International show, and the 2012 Rocky Mountain Plein Air Painters national show.
What this all means, on the ground, are extended excursions, often camping with her husband and children, in the mountains near places like Telluride or Crested Butte, CO, or Jackson Hole, WY. “Even just to be able to sit out there and observe and pay attention is valuable,” she reflects. Back in the studio, she looks through her photographs and oil sketches and allows herself to be drawn to the most compelling elements in a scene. For WINTER’S HUSH, one slice of an enormous amphitheater of peaks near Telluride was enough to express an exquisite sense of glacial beauty and calm, majestic scale. The handwritten notes she made on location serve as reminders not only of true color but also of aspects not captured by the camera’s lens. “When I’m out there, I think about what really strikes me, how big the mountains are and how they make me feel small, or how the light is dancing,” she says. “I write it all down.”
As she speaks, Peterson looks out the window at the pine forest beside her mountain foothills home. With her daughter off at elementary school and her son at preschool, she is taking advantage of one of the four days a week when she gets “down to business” in the studio, as she puts it. A small easel set up near hers and scores of kids’ paintings on the walls reflect the fact that even when her children are home, her days are organized around two of the most gratifying facets of her life: being an artist and being a mom. “I started out making decisions that technically looked like the right decisions, but on the inside, they weren’t true to who I was and what my passions were,” she says. “The big changes I’ve made since then have made me more comfortable in my own skin, more honest and authentic with who I am, and that translates into my painting. I love what I do. I’m really excited about getting into the studio every day.”
Elk Horn Art Gallery, Winter Park, CO; Mary Williams Fine Arts, Boulder, CO; Oh-Be-Joyful Gallery, Crested Butte, CO; Saks Galleries, Denver, CO; Wild Horse Gallery, Steamboat Springs, CO.
Featured in the June 2014 issue of Southwest Art magazine–click below to purchase:
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