Walt Gonske | Brush Strokes of Life

Walt Gonske’s powerful, energetic style records the process of creating art

By Gussie Fauntleroy

Walt Gonske, Questa Afternoon, oil, 24 x 36.

Walt Gonske, Questa Afternoon, oil, 24 x 36.

Walt Gonske steps up into his much-loved paintmobile, a tall-sided custom-built box that, from the outside, appears to be a camper on the chassis of a Ford truck. Inside, there are no comforts of home—no bed, chair, table, fridge, or sink, no carpet, no knickknacks or personal touches. But there is everything Gonske could want.

Standing under a large skylight at the rear of the mobile studio, the 69-year-old Taos artist gestures toward a heavy wooden worktable on wheels, with storage drawers and an attached easel and palette. The table swings around so Gonske can paint looking out either a rear or side window, and it is secured to the wall while the paintmobile is on the road. The windows, at just the right height for the 6-foot-2-inch artist, swing up for clear views.

Instead of a bed above the cab, two large cupboards store stretched canvases in sizes Gonske uses most often—30 by 44 inches and 40 by 44 inches. Another cabinet contains more painting surfaces in a variety of finishes, sizes, and shapes. A custom-built cupboard holds rows of boxes of oil paints, and a portable heater means that even in winter, with windows open, the artist can travel and paint. “I always keep it topped off with supplies,” he says of his rig. “If I wanted to, I could stay gone for six weeks.” Crossing the bare linoleum floor in three steps, he adds with a smile, “I figure if I painted that day, I can afford a hotel room for the night.”

Not every artist could make that statement, but for Gonske it is close enough to be true. He may not sell every one of the 100 or so paintings he does each year. But after four decades as a fine artist, his powerfully evocative landscapes—with their signature bold brush strokes and strong sense of emotional authenticity—can hardly be created fast enough to meet collectors’ demand. Among the many honors Gonske has received over the years is a Gold Medal for first place in oil at the National Academy of Western Art, and his selection as featured artist at the Gilcrease Museum’s annual Rendezvous show in 2006.

Early on, young Walt believed illustration would be his chosen field. He copied comic strip characters as a boy and later found himself admiring the talent of illustrators working in New York at the time. Born and raised in New Jersey, he hadn’t yet experienced the shocking electric clarity of high-desert light, which would eventually draw him inexorably to northern New Mexico and into the world of landscape art.

Following high school Gonske enrolled in illustration courses at a Newark, NJ, art school but ended up discouraged by the institution’s failure to prepare students for real-world careers. “I got two good friends out of the experience and learned to ride a motorcycle,” he jokes. Moving on to the Frank Reilly School of Art in New York City, he found what he was looking for: a strong foundation in the basics of drawing and painting, and a springboard into men’s fashion illustration, which he pursued successfully in New York for five years.

Then came a family trip to New Mexico to visit his sister, whose western wanderings had taken her to Taos. Frank Reilly, unfamiliar with the art market in the Southwest, repeatedly told his students there was “no way you can make a living in fine art without a few gray hairs,” Gonske recalls. But in Taos, he discovered Reilly was wrong. Unlike New York, Taos and Santa Fe galleries were filled with landscape painting and other representational fine art. It was a revelation to Gonske. “Maybe I could move out there and paint landscapes and maybe even sell some and make a living—wouldn’t that be terrific!” he thought.

Spending a summer in Taos, he took rolls of photos, returned to New York, and created watercolor paintings of northern New Mexico scenes. He sent the best of these to his sister, who was living in Albuquerque by then. She approached a gallery, which accepted them on consignment. Before long Gonske, back in New York, received a check in the mail for $66, his share of his first sale. “It shocked me,” the artist remembers, smiling warmly. “I thought, Holy smokes! A fine-art check!”

Still, getting up the nerve to leave his illustration clients, family, and East Coast friends took a little more self-persuasion. So he took up a sheet of ledger paper and in one column listed all he would be giving up by leaving. In the other he wrote down his dreams and all he could gain by moving to Taos. The first column, he discovered, was startlingly short. He kept the paper in his wallet for a few months and then took the plunge. It was 1972. He was 29.

Walt Gonske, The Graveyard at Apache Canyon, oil, 28 x 30.

Walt Gonske, The Graveyard at Apache Canyon, oil, 28 x 30.

Forty years later, Gonske still lives on the same two acres just north of Taos that he purchased in 1979. His spectacular view of Taos Mountain finds its way into many of his paintings, as does his exuberantly colorful garden, which also serves as a workshop setting for other artist/instructors to bring students to paint en plein air. Gonske’s home and studio are one, just as his life and art are inextricably intertwined. Painting—he switched from watercolor to oils many years ago—is his passion; some might call it an obsession. The artist laughs and calls it a “healthy addiction. I just know that if I’m away from painting for a week or so, an internal alarm goes off, and I need to get back to it,” he declares.

With his paintmobile stocked and ready to go, Gonske is rarely away from what he loves. A little more than half of his work is done on site, with paintings as large as 40 by 44 inches often completed in one session. It’s a far cry from his first experience painting en plein air. Marking the spot for his easel with a rock, he returned for six days before completing the multiple steps his painting required: careful drawing, then thin colors to lay out the values and composition, then tentatively putting down paint. Just as in his previous illustration work, the process was highly controlled in an effort to produce a preconceived result.

It worked, in a technical sense, but Gonske became bored with preconceived results. “For years I was trying to be in control, to nail the drawing, nail the values, nail the colors. And I can do that,” he says. “But I found myself somewhat let down by the finished piece when I brought it back to the studio. It didn’t have the emotional impact I felt when I was first out there. So I started breaking the art-school rules.”

Now Gonske steers his paintmobile down back roads in northern New Mexico, or travels farther afield, or looks through hundreds of photos he’s taken over the years of old adobe churches, sun-struck villages, mountain streams, and other favorite scenes. Something catches his eye, like the shape of negative space and the darker areas around it in a snowy village graveyard. Or the way intense summer light reflects and shimmers off canyon rocks, or a purple mountain that keeps rising implausibly higher, or a field of flowers that dances in the summer breeze.

These days the important thing for Gonske is to allow each brush stroke to be propelled by his powerful, on-the-spot response to a scene, without knowing where the painting will lead. The results may not be predictable, but they are predictably filled with the spontaneous energy of light, emotion, color, and movement that is at the heart of life. Each painting is a record of the process of creating it, each brush stroke still alive and often containing a rainbow of colors. “I started pushing it more and more,” he observes, “pushing the color, the values, exaggerating the height of mountains for drama—I’m trying to express with paint what I feel.”

Yet letting go of control is more than a matter of painting technique, the artist believes. It’s a way of putting the brakes on the mind’s incessant chatter and entering deeply into the quiet of the moment, a place from which the artistic impulse naturally springs. “It’s a mind-shift away from repeating what I already know and allowing that unknowable, creative spirit to come through,” he reflects. “That’s easier said than done after 40 years of learning how to do this thing called art.”

But countless hours of standing at his easel in the back of the paintmobile have offered up invaluable opportunities, he says—and in the process he has created countless remarkable works of art. “How many paintings over the years would not have gotten done without it?” he asks, stepping onto the ground and shutting the paintmobile door. “It’s just fabulous. I love the thing.”

Claggett/Rey Gallery, Vail, CO; Nedra Matteucci Galleries, Santa Fe, NM; Saks Galleries, Denver, CO; Sylvan Gallery, Charleston, SC; Adobe Fine Art, Ruidoso, NM; Parsons Gallery of the West, Taos, NM; Keating Fine Art, Aspen, CO; www.waltgonske.com.

Featured in June 2011.