Jeffery R. Pugh | Home & Family

Underlying personal meaning adds depth to Jeffery R. Pugh’s art

By Gussie Fauntleroy

Jeffery R. Pugh, Dine and Dash, oil, 24 x 36.

Jeffery R. Pugh, Dine and Dash, oil, 24 x 36.

This story was featured in the August 2017 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art  August 2017 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story.

There’s something to be said for that first blush of maturity it takes to step back from a new venture you’re not ready for. Jeffery R. Pugh took that step back—and in doing so, propelled himself forward with far more confidence and ability to learn and grow than he could have imagined. It happened after his freshman year at the University of Utah, where he’d signed up for a fine-art major in defiance of his pragmatic parents’ desire that he aim for a stable career. “It didn’t go well,” Pugh says of that first year of studying art. “I was so conceited. I thought I knew so much more than I did.”

Fortunately he knew enough to take a break. Instead of returning to school that fall, Pugh signed up for a two-year mission project through the Mormon church, which sent him to southern France, “the coolest place in the world.” There Pugh discovered more than the culture and landscape of some of the great French painters. In France Pugh discovered his own humility and gained an awareness of just how little he really knew. The experience of serving others “took me away from my own ego,” he remembers. “You realize an awful lot about yourself when you’re not just thinking about yourself.” When his mission was over, Pugh returned to his hometown of Holladay, UT, and re-enrolled in the University of Utah, where he earned a BFA in 2004. “The second time around, it was a magical experience. I threw away all my pretenses,” he says.

Today the genial 40-year-old artist shows no trace of that earlier smugness he saw in himself. He has thoughtfully listened to others, including art instructors and his father-in-law, painter Gary Ernest Smith. He has also listened to himself when it comes to making difficult and pivotal decisions, like exchanging his paintbrushes to work exclusively with a palette knife and leaving his day job to pursue art full time. Both choices paid off, even though quitting a secure job at the height of the economic downturn in 2008 brought its share of sleepless nights.

Pugh can be forgiven for thinking, as a teen, that he knew how to see. His grandmother was a watercolor painter, and as a boy he spent many hours at her house, painting side by side with her. It was a quantum leap from the pencil drawing he’d done before that, when he and other artistically inclined kids huddled over paper as they copied comic-book figures. His grandmother would pull out a book with instructions on painting a cottage, for instance, and the two would paint the same scene. “Before that, everything I’d drawn had been very linear, so to paint seemed impossible,” he says. “But she’d say, ‘No, no. You just have to break it down to colors and shapes.’” In high school he was invited to take advanced art classes, was introduced to art history, and refined his drawing skills.

The only boy among five sisters, Pugh grew up in a close and nurturing family. His father, a descendent of pioneers who settled in Utah in the 1850s, taught seminary and worked as an administrator in the Mormon church. His busy job was a counterbalance to the insecurities of having been raised on a small farm, where his own father—Pugh’s grandfather—sometimes drove a school
bus to make ends meet. Pugh’s mother was also familiar with the ups and downs of self-employment as the daughter of a Salt Lake City entrepreneur. Initially neither of Pugh’s parents considered art a “real job.” So when he announced his intention to major in fine art, they believed it was a phase he would grow out of. Instead it became a vocation into which he matured.

Back at university after his mission, Pugh switched his major to French, since by then he was fluent and imagined living and teaching English in France. He became engaged to Julia, whose father, artist Gary Ernest Smith, had seen some of Pugh’s work. A year after Jeffery and Julia were married, Smith sat him down for a talk. “He said, ‘If you don’t switch back to art, you’ll regret it. You need to do this,’” Pugh remembers. “He saw something in me that I didn’t.” Smith also encouraged Pugh, still in school at the time, to put down the brush and take up the palette knife. Not all his art professors supported such a change. Some considered the palette knife a “child’s toy, only good for mixing paint.” Others acknowledged that university should be a time of exploration. As for Pugh, a paint-loaded knife felt more natural in his hand than a brush, and he decided to stay on that path. “What I could do with it was crude at first, but I loved what I was seeing and knew I would get a handle on it,” he says.

Following graduation the young artist split his time between painting and a full-time job in information technology. Eventually he reversed the balance so he was painting 40 hours a week and working 20 hours at his job. Together it meant that for the first year of his daughter’s life he only saw her for an hour after getting home from work, before her bedtime each night.

Then his father-in-law sat him down again. “How many paintings would you need to sell to make what you earn in your day job?” he asked. “I did the math,” Pugh says. He realized it made more sense to paint full time than to sit in front of a computer for 20 hours each week.

He gave notice in February 2008, selling a painting on that day, and in April his son was born. He didn’t make another sale for several months. It was a scary period, but during that time, he says, “something changed. Those kids gave real meaning to what I was painting.” By then his painting had evolved from realism to a more abstracted approach and from tonalism to much brighter colors. His subject matter continued to focus on farm scenes and the rural landscape, imagery that has been close to his heart since spending time on his grandparents’ farm. (Ironically, as a boy he learned to milk cows but was terrified of them, while these days he’s often called the “cow man” for the frequent bovine presence in his art. “I can’t get away from them!” he jokes.)

While Pugh generally keeps a “blank mind” when sketching and photographing, allowing himself to be drawn intuitively and viscerally to certain scenes, once back in the studio he often discovers recurring themes—which overwhelmingly relate to family and home. FIELD PATTERNS, for example, contains the compelling composition, strong textural element, and graphic quality for which he is known. On another level, the painting was inspired by the artist’s children getting older—they’re now 12, 9, and 5—with the older ones beginning to stay away more during the day. Like the plowed field whose rows all appear to lead to a massive red barn, “all roads lead back home,” he says. “The kids will wander and zigzag, but home will always be there for them.”

Numbers also play an important role in the symbolism embedded in Pugh’s art. Early on he found himself painting objects in threes—three trees, three cows—representing himself, his wife, and their first child. Then there were four. Now many paintings, including FAMILY AFFAIR, feature five elements. In this case: two cows on the left and three more a few paces behind, one cow “looking at the viewer—that little playfulness of having been caught staring,” he says. Also significant is the large barn and a rising wall of clouds over the hills. “There’s an ambiguity in the clouds—they can be opportunities or disaster. But regardless of what the clouds bring, there’s a stability, the barn, a place for them to gather,” he says.

In his life as an artist and father, Pugh is mindful of providing that stability for his family. He leaves for his studio each morning at 8 o’clock after having breakfast with the kids and returns home like clockwork each evening just after 5. For years his paintings covertly expressed this depth of commitment and love, but lately he’s happy to have it out in the open. “People didn’t know there was another layer of meaning to my work. I’m humbled by that—that they were drawn to the work itself,” he reflects. “But I like having more people find out why I paint, as well as what I paint.”

Meyer Gallery, Park City, UT; David Ericson Fine Art, Salt Lake City, UT; Authentique Gallery, St. George, UT; Mountain Trails Gallery, Jackson, WY; Mountain Trails Gallery Sedona, Sedona, AZ.

This story was featured in the August 2017 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art  August 2017 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story.

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