John Taft is compelled to portray the beauty of the Colorado landscape
By Bonnie Gangelhoff
This story was featured in the July 2012 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Order the Southwest Art magazine July 2012 print edition here, or purchase the Southwest Art magazine July 2012 digital download here. Or simply click here to subscribe to Southwest Art magazine and never miss a story!
When Colorado painter John Taft received a drawing in the mail from his mother last year, he was puzzled and amazed. Taft had no memory of creating this third-grade “masterpiece,” and the rendering was an incredible foreshadowing of things to come. “The drawing is of an artist wearing a beret, and he is painting on location in the West with a dark-blue car behind him,” he explains. “On the back of the drawing it says, ‘What I want to do when I grow up.’”
Here’s the curious thing: Taft grew up near Buffalo, NY, and had not been farther west than Ohio at the time. And years later, when he actually did move westward to Colorado, he bought a dark-blue Honda CRV. “But I don’t wear a beret,” he jokes.
On this particular day, Taft is settling into his studio and recounting the circuitous journey that led to his life as a landscape painter in Longmont, CO, about 40 minutes from Rocky Mountain National Park. Behind him and leaning against the wall is a painting titled TOP LIGHT that depicts the snow-covered Rockies and which is headed for the prestigious Oil Painters of America show at Evergreen Fine Art in Evergreen, CO. Another painting, CHANGES, sits next to it and captures a Colorado field and irrigation ditch on a rainy, overcast day. The painting is one of 20 works that Taft has earmarked for his solo show at Vail International Gallery in Vail, CO, in July. “CHANGES stemmed from a cool, wet, breezy autumn day that was holding its own against the first signs of winter,” Taft says. “I found it very refreshing and invigorating and a nice contrast to the more usual sunny days of Colorado. The tonal quality and close color harmonies reinforced that feel.”
Taft’s studio is in a converted garage warmed by oriental rugs on the cement floor and with a spacious window that reveals a lush lilac bush in full bloom. ?As he unravels his path to landscape painting, the family dog, Sydney, an Australian shepherd and border-collie mix, barges into the room, looks around, and then sinks quickly to the floor to sack out. Taft’s love of the landscape harks back to his youth, he says, when he worked at his father’s wholesale nursery in upstate New York. “I think it was that experience working for many years in all kinds of weather that connects me so strongly to the land,” he says.
Although Taft showed a talent for drawing in his early years, he didn’t entertain thoughts about a fine-art career because he didn’t believe people actually made a living at the pursuit. Instead, when it came time for college in 1981, he enrolled in the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, CA, and followed a practical course curriculum in illustration. The first seeds for a career in fine art were planted during a painting class with artist Dan McCaw. “Dan was inspiring, and I think I realized back then that I was more interested in being a gallery artist someday than pursuing a career as an illustrator,” Taft says.
But it would take many years and many jobs in the television industry before he took such musings seriously. His art career, he recalls, began rather humorously when he took a brief break from art school to earn money. He was hired by an eccentric Frenchman living in Beverly Hills to paint an 8-foot-tall replica of Jacques-Louis David’s famous painting NAPOLEON CROSSING THE ALPS. The client demanded that Taft replace Napoleon’s face with his own. “And it turned out he wanted me to do the work for free,” Taft says.
Things got better after that, though. For the next 18 years Taft enjoyed a successful career in the high-end computer graphics field as a designer and art director in the television industry, sometimes in Los Angeles but mainly in New York City. He created animation packages for network news and entertainment shows, among other things. But by 2001, when Taft was the design director for a cable network, he had begun painting on the weekends and also began to take workshops with artists Jim Wilcox and Scott Christensen in Jackson, WY.
Shortly after returning from the Wilcox workshop came the event that permanently altered so many lives. On September 11, 2001, Taft was on a bus headed from his home in New Jersey to his office in Manhattan when he looked up from his newspaper to see smoke rising from the World Trade Center. Later, from the television network’s 15th-floor office, he saw the towers burning. “I think 9/11 brought into focus the seriousness of life and made me ask myself when I was going to become a fine artist,” he says.
A few months later, he joined an artists’ group that met over coffee and croissants at actor Robert DeNiro’s Tribeca Grill. The conversation centered on the integration of faith and work. “I began to feel called to painting. The net result of 9/11 and the discussions was a dramatic paradigm shift for me,” he says.
At that point, Taft says, he began to think about how much he needed to save in order to resettle in the West someday. He knew that he wanted to work toward becoming a full-time landscape painter and also live in the place he painted. One day in 2004, fate intervened quite unexpectedly. ?Taft went in to work as usual, and his boss fired him. But his boss also handed him a very generous severance check. The amount was roughly what he and his wife, Lisa, thought they should save to move and start over again. Their decision was a brave one—they packed up their four children, all under the age of 10, and drove to Colorado to begin their life anew.
That first year in Colorado, Taft recalls, he spent as much time in Rocky Mountain National Park as the park rangers. He sketched and painted for hours—the lakes, mountains, streams, flowers, and fields. “It was like school for me, teaching me many things, including such practical things as the fact that I really wasn’t interested in painting in the snow and wind when it was below 25 degrees,” he says.
Today the inspiration for his landscape paintings still stems from being on location in all seasons (except for the most frigid days) to do sketches in pencil and oil and take photographs occasionally. Once back in his studio, he works out design and color ideas with additional studies. Eventually Taft copies a study onto a larger canvas, first drawing in paint and then blocking in the major forms in color. Then he continues to add details. In the final stages of the painting process, aesthetic considerations dictate his choices, rather than absolute fidelity to his reference material.
Taft says he never tires of painting Colorado terrain because there is so much variety just a few hours from his front door. And focusing on the region allows him to stay close to his family. In all of his paintings, Taft says, his intent is to convey the profound visual beauty he sees in the landscape. “I have come to see the arts in general as a gift to mankind and beauty as nourishment to the human spirit. This gives me a sense of purpose as an artist,” he says.
Mark LeVarn, co-owner of Vail International Gallery, where Taft’s show is on view this month, recounts how a few years ago he was looking for a painter who could capture the spirit of the western landscape. Fellow Colorado painter Jeff Legg suggested Taft. “We wanted a master landscape painter who could paint in a large format. That was proving hard to find,” LeVarn says. “When we saw John’s work, we knew he was right. Jeff Legg told us at the time that John was one of the best, and he was right. People see the spirit of the West that John conveys in his paintings, and they are moved.”
Featured in the July 2012 issue of Southwest Art magazine–click below to purchase:
Southwest Art magazine July 2012 digital download
Southwest Art magazine July 2012 print edition
Or click here to subscribe to Southwest Art magazine and never miss a story!
MORE RESOURCES FOR ART COLLECTORS & ENTHUSIASTS