When Hadley Rampton travels she is drawn, she says, “to the old places. There is history there. When I travel that is what really intrigues me, that is what really excites me… and I also really love history. I want to get to what the truth of these places is.”
These travels come back with Rampton as series of watercolors, scenes of people and places, from broad city squares to intimate town corners. Rampton is probably better known, however, for her oil paintings, large-scale works that reflect her love of the outdoors and share with the watercolors a strong architectural underpinning and a masterful use of color. Both are on exhibit this month at Salt Lake City’s Phillips Gallery.
A local girl, Rampton grew up in Salt Lake City, where she began drawing by copying the images in her mother’s art history books. She had an active youth, filled with ballet, tennis, swimming, track and plenty of times outdoors. She studied art at the University of Utah, where she says she became a bit too formal for her liking. Her study of architecture gave her a strong grasp of structure and perspective and the ability to render near perfect lines, but she wanted to loosen up. She was principally a figurative painter when she left school, and it was during a trip to Italy, when she was wandering the streets of Florence, that she realized she wanted to be a landscape painter. She has stuck to that path, pursuing her version of truth whether exploring the mountains of Utah or traveling across the lesser-known parts of Europe.
Rampton’s travels are, she says, “a better way of understanding the rest of the world than through the headlines. I like to take the trains, I like to get past what is put on for the tourists, and to really get into what the real feel of the country is, what the real people are thinking there, and what their lives are.”
Her most recent travels have taken her to Hungary, Turkey, Georgia, Romania, Bulgaria, and Armenia. “These are parts of the world that were under communism and have strong senses of themselves. Then you look back over the centuries and their history of invasion, by the Byzantine Empire, and then it was the Ottoman Empire, and then the Russian and communism, they all still have their own pride in who they are.”
There is something very special about the human experience, that through wars, recessions, famine, natural and human-caused disasters, we can still, through it all, look to art and the messages it brings — and at these peak times of turbulence, most often that message is about what it means to be human: it is about truth. Equally special is the phenomenon of the artist who herself lives a life that is the search for truth. This is the undisclosed distinction of Rampton, whose art is her means to find, to express, and to learn “about what it means to be human.”
When she’s abroad, Rampton works in watercolor, a medium with a magnificent history associated with major artists and artist travelers who have enjoyed the practical as well as aesthetic benefits of the medium. Watercolor’s malleability of application is very desirable for those who can appreciate milder tones and enjoy the structural interplay and relationships the medium allows. These requisites define the work of Rampton, an avid colorist who uses pen and ink to define her structural edges, thus adding immense dimension and making the whole piece “pop!” Her colors do not get lost at a distance but in her method stay true and strong, no matter how far away the viewer may be standing.
Rampton’s past series of watercolors finds the penetrative artist looking closely at dusty streets, brightly colored buildings, sidewalk cafes, village bazaars with much interplay between the old world, that is lost in muted and faded tones and designated by the expressive pen usage of the artist to get into cracks and the crevices, and the bold world of the new. In Rampton’s “Adhan, At Dusk, Istanbul” (watercolor and ink 12” x 16”) one sees the 6th century Hagia Sophia presented in the distance under the late afternoon sun at the call for evening prayer. The artist’s view of the Turkish capital is lively and modern. Rampton sees the bright colors of the automobiles, the youth with vivid nylon backpacks on their backs, women walking about freely together with varying degrees of dress, a kiosk with a bright top serving refreshments for a hot late afternoon; this is a scene that could take place almost anywhere, the presence of Hagia Sophia being the only indication that this is old Istanbul. We see in these early works an artist not only painting, but also an artist questioning and searching for truth amidst what one thinks one knows and what actually is.
Rampton’s current work may give the initial impression that these are a series of romanticized compositions; that Rampton has given up her search for realism for a new perspective towards a more idealistic notion of reality. But upon closer inspection, the viewer will see they are wrong with such generalized inference. Rampton’s color palette has indeed changed — it is a less bold color systematization and more playful and lighter use of color conducive to the settings. A work like “Early Evening, Budavari Palota,” is grandiose, with its historic monument and late-neo-Classical edifice: the painting almost resembles a history piece. But not too distant from the frontal plane, sitting on the rim of the plaza, are two young women who are unmistakably 21st century in hair and dress. Also, the exaggerated pen and ink that is Rampton’s signature method is applied very liberally, giving far greater depth to crevices and breaks in masonry in and around the plaza, emphasizing the historical dynamic between past and present tense. These subjects may be larger with historic and monumental facades, but historical realism is but one more aspect in an artist’s search for truth made more apparent in scenes that emphasize the notion of temporality and the reality of present, past and future.
As exquisite as Rampton is with watercolors, she is equally adept with oils. She says, “this kind of energy, this excitement that I feel when I am traveling, as much as when I work with oils, I feel the same. It’s exciting and I am energized and I want to do something with it.” Rampton’s subject when she returns to her home in Utah and works in oils is nature, primarily landscapes of aspen groves executed in her singular style.
The excitement felt for the vestigial remains of ancient civilizations in a contemporary setting…is the same as for a grove of aspens? How can this be? Says Rampton, “Whether I am traveling or up in the mountains and it is gorgeous, it is the same. I grew up here, our nature is a huge part of who we are.”
In the dusty streets of Georgia, Rampton shies away from the touristy, brightly lit bistros and experiences the most essential Georgia she can. What, then, is essential about Utah to Rampton? It is our wilderness. It affects all who live or visit here and the honest manner she employs in her brilliant work to depict it is true to the nature of Utah.
Rampton’s approach is not to paint the structure of a particular tree, one defined against the next, to form a grove. Far from it. Just as in her watercolors, in her oils Rampton is fascinated with color harmonies, contrasts, groupings, and looks to the light of day and the saturation upon the grove, to create a composition that, when looked at without the spindly delineated line of the tree, would be entirely abstract.
“I am very much drawn to the abstract expressionists and their way of thinking,” Rampton says. “For example, this is paint on canvas, so I am drawn, especially with the newer work, to heavier brush strokes, much more broad so you are really thinking about color relationships and how to create these strokes, not blending.” She continues: “A lot of it is that I really enjoy different ways of applying paint. I do love color so both in my oils and watercolors my color is enhanced, not in a fauvist kind of way, but I am always interested in color relationships.” These very real aspects of painting are very much the proto-Modernist way of thinking, about considering the reality of painting and the reality of paint, as opposed to trying to fool the eye with illusion, using the same formulas the academies have taught since just after the Renaissance.
The result is that Rampton’s oil paintings both have a universality about them, a sense of abstracted form and structure that points towards a common experience of the landscape, and a very real sense of the local: those who love Utah’s unique landscape will immediately recognize their surroundings when they find themselves immersed in one of Rampton’s landscapes.
As Rampton seeks reality in her travels, with every fragment of truth gained, she learns about the people she meets and their ways of life. Rampton does not stop being a seeker once she returns to her home. Her methodology to her painting of wilderness seamlessly grants her recourse to her unending search for truth and deeper understanding of the world she exists in. More importantly, and more fundamentally, she finds in her search, a greater manifestation of her personal, very private, very real, and honest reality.
Ehren Clark studied art history at both the University of Utah and the University of Reading in the UK. He is now a professional writer living in Salt Lake City.