Tuesday, November 27, 2018

My Love of Landscape - Part 13

Part 13 of My Love of Landscape: Finding One's True Home - New Mexico

Autumn Splendor 20x28 Pastel - Available


We'd always wanted to return to that part of New Mexico.  Fond memories drew us back, but there were other reasons, too.  The landscape is unlike anywhere else, what with the lava fields, cinder cones, sandstone mesas and granite hills.  But it's also an ancient place where many cultures have lived and traveled:  the prehistoric Chacoan indigenous cultures, the Spanish explorers and their descendents, today's Zuni and Navajo tribes, and the Anglo ranchers.  In fact, the highway that goes through the area is nicknamed the "Ancient Way."  You can visit Inscription Rock and see carved into the sandstone petroglyphs made by the prehistoric indigenous cultures; phrases scratched out by the Spaniards ("Passed by here, the adelantado Don Juan de Oñate from the discovery of the sea of the south the 16th of April of 1605," but in archaic Spanish); and the names, incised with a 19th century flourish worthy of a stone engraver, of U.S. Army members who camped under the 200-foot-tall cliffs.  After climbing to the top of Inscription Rock and casting your eye over the ponderosa-clad hills and chamisa-studded plains, you can easily imagine these travelers off in the distance, slowly approaching the perennial pool at the cliff's base on foot, on horseback, in covered wagon.

When a house in that area came up for auction while we were in Sedona one winter, we bid—and won.  Although Sedona had been good to us, we knew we could go back to teach and hike.  We had many friends there.  Plus, it wasn't like we would be leaving the Southwest.  Everywhere I wanted to paint would still be just a few hours' drive away:  Santa Fe, 3 hours; Abiquiu or Ghost Ranch, 4 hours, with Grand Canyon just a little farther off; Arches and Canyonlands, 5 hours; and Zion National Park, 6 hours.  Even Sedona would be only 4 hours away.

Ramah Lake

Oil Sketch of Ramah Lake / on paper, 6x12

So, just before our annual spring trip east to Campobello, we moved.  But it wasn't until we returned to New Mexico in the fall that we were able to unpack much.  And first, we had to get basic systems running.  Although we'd been told the house, which had been empty for two years, had been winterized, we discovered major leaks when we turned on the water.  Also, anything with an igniter—furnace, ventless heater, pellet stove—needed to have the igniters replaced, as they were all broken.  We had electrical work to do, too, not to mention fixing windows and doors and getting things sealed up for winter.  Now living at 7000 feet, we knew we could expect winter, and had to be ready for it.  (Winters are still much sunnier here than in New England, but we do get snow and below-zero temperatures.)

My studio

That winter, we set up house and studio.  I have a grand studio.  It was the home's second-floor master suite, with a porch accessed by a pair of french doors, a long view of the valley, and a large bathroom.  Because of the leaks, we decided to de-plumb the bathroom (we have three others in the house) and convert it into a comfortable reading area.  A wall that is partially glass block provides a sunny southern exposure.  Next to this is a large dressing area with plenty of storage space for art materials.  (I still use the shoe shelves, though, for shoes and boots; what else can one possibly use such small cubby holes for?)  The bedroom is large enough that I have two studio easels set up as well as an office.  One easel is my primary easel, and the second I use to hold reference works or to loan to a student during my Private One-on-One Painting Intensive program.  The studio is also far enough removed from the rest of the house that I can play music while I work without disturbing anyone.

The immediate landscape offers much in the way of walks.  From our house, I can walk up the ridge behind us—we sit near the bottom of a long cuesta—to get views to the east of the dormant volcanoes that make up the Chain of Craters and, to the southwest, the mesa tops of Zuni.  If I hike a little to the west on the ridge through the ponderosa pines, I can overlook the lake and the candy-striped cliffs that tower over it.  Also, from our house, I can scramble down the ridge, cut across a few fields studded with piñon and juniper, and arrive at the lake itself.  From there, trails lead here and there, over the rocks, up the canyons and, rumor has it, to even a natural bridge.  (I have yet to get that far.)  And, if I want to drive, in just a few miles I can get to Inscription Rock (El Morro National Monument), El Calderon (an extinct and very accessible volcano), and the ancient Zuni-Acoma Trail, which wanders tantalizingly across the lava fields of El Malpais.  I say "tantalizing," because the trail is sometimes hard to follow across the knife-sharp lava beds, even with cairns.

Winter on Ramah Lake

Snow Melting 6x8 Pastel - Available


As I write, we've been at this new house for two winters.  This is our second and snowiest.  We had over a foot in one storm between the Christmas and New Year's holidays.  Smaller storms over the last few weeks have freshened the snow.  But between these, we've had abundant sunshine and temperatures near 50 degrees.  I've had several chances to get out and paint snow.  Even at 35 degrees, the strong New Mexican sunshine can feel almost tropical, even when you are surrounded by snow.  Later this spring, when it gets warmer and the days more temperate, my Private One-on-One Painting Intensive program starts up again.  One student at a time stays with us, and we go out painting every day.  I'm looking forward to sharing this landscape again, too.

Out for the day, Private One-on-One Painting Intensive

By the way, we have not, by any means, abandoned Campobello Island and Lubec.  We still plan to head there each summer, where I will teach and paint.  (As much as I love summers in New Mexico, I can't yet give up the ocean.)  But I've scaled back a little on the teaching for personal projects, and also to work more on planning painting retreats.  The retreats take our group—past students and experience painters—to other interesting landscapes:  Santa Fe, Taos, Abiquiu and Ghost Ranch, Grand Canyon, Zion, Lubec, Nova Scotia and Scotland, among others.  Some day, I'll write more about my thoughts on these "foreign" landscapes that aren't Ramah and aren't Campobello Island.

And this brings us to the present.  While writing these essays, I've tried to puzzle out the origin of my love of landscape and how I became a painter.  I think I've discovered a few things.  You can love the landscape—meaning you can have a love of landscapes in general—and you can also love a landscape, meaning you can love a particular place.  Some of these places we return to, again and again, but others we enjoy only once in person.  The latter, however, we can revisit in our minds, and if we have painted them and thus studied them, the memory is all the more vivid.  For me, painting is a way of connecting completely with these landscapes.  I'm not just using my eyes to see them and my hand to copy them, but all my senses come into play.  I smell the cottonwoods, I hear the rattle of their leaves in the breeze, and sometimes, I swear, I can even taste them in the air.  While all this is going on, neural connections are building, strengthening, duplicating.  The fabric of the landscape before me becomes woven into the fabric of my self.  As much as my collectors prize my paintings, I prize my experiences.  For me, in a way, the painting is a beautiful by-product of a beautiful experience.

That's it for now.  I'm living in beauty.

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