David Maestas doesn’t regard being an artist as a career choice, or something he necessarily initiated at a certain point in his life. It is a way of life, and how life always has been. “I think being an artist is a full-time thing, from the moment you wake up to the moment you go to sleep, and it is your power of observation, the way you look at things,” he says. “It’s almost like a sensitivity to things that most people would miss. Maybe you walk into a room and you see things happening all around, but your mind fixates on a ray of light breaking through glass or a salt shaker, the way it makes a star; it’s having that sensitivity throughout your day, and having that awareness and taking it all in—it can be a bit overwhelming.”
That impulse, that unique sensitivity can be a double-edged sword: the same sensitivity may be what influences the anxiety and depression the artist suffers from; but it also allows him to produce something that functions as “an escape, or maybe a refuge, for all of the emotions I experience.” Painting is very much a personal expression for Maestas, opening doors to spiritual, emotional, intellectual, and transcendent struggles. It is evident in the relationships of strong color and bold tonality in his abstract canvases, 20 of which will be featured later this month at UTah Artist Hands. They are done, the artist says, “in a new palette and loose style that is less geometric and linear,” and in a play with inner emotions and outer materials that stretches back to his boyhood.
Maestas was born in Chama, N. M., and grew up in a family of six boys who inherited their artistic talent and impulse from their mother. “I think the first time I remember picking up a brush was with the little Crayola cakes, the little set that you bought for $1,” Maestas says. “I remember messing around with the paint and seeing the paint and what it would do, mixing it with water and moving the paint and turning the paper, and seeing and being fascinated with what the paint was doing, not even being concerned with creating anything that meant anything to anybody. It was just about the paint and the paper and what it would do, and how they would interact.”
He would get lost in the process for hours at a time, locking himself in the bathroom for privacy. The results were not always as comprehensive to his brothers, who would tease him with, “What is that?” “I didn’t know what abstract art was,” says Maestas, “but I knew it felt good, it felt right, it felt right creating it, so I’ll always remember saying, ‘This feels good.’”
“I think I found out early on that art was what I was good at,” Maestas says. Academic subjects in high school were sometimes a struggle, but art paid dividends: he won art contests, received scholarships, gained attention. “I was creating work people wanted to see, using rendering skills: portraiture, wildlife. I guess I did it because I liked the reaction and the praise that people gave me.”
It was at the University of Utah that Maestas found his footing as an artist. His study of painting and drawing “was like a basic training in the military… no encouragement, only critical words,” he recalls. Yet this is where he began exploring the history of abstract art, discovering artists, like Jackson Pollock, who would become lifelong touchstones. “[Pollock] is probably my favorite American painter. If there was anyone to do something different, to say, ‘This is mine and this is where I’m going to take it,’ it is Pollock, and I like that courage. It’s a beautiful thing to have that courage to be able to pursue that.”
Maestas found his own courage to pursue his dream of becoming an artist in 2001, after one of his brothers died of bone marrow cancer. He applied to the Park City Kimball Arts Festival, where he sold well, and was soon picked up by UTah Artist Hands. He was working mostly in pastel, creating minimal landscapes with trees and moody skies, and figurative work he referred to as “spirit figures.” Pam O’Mara, of UTah Artist Hands, was struck by his figurative work. “He was doing these women, and they were mysterious, and I couldn’t shake them and kept thinking about them after the festival. They drew me in with an ageless, mysterious and feminine quality. I always had a connection with David because I saw that ability to portray women, and trees, and how it’s possible to draw so much passion from a pastel.”
His relationship with the gallery helped solidify his position as an artist at a time when he was raising a young family (he has three girls). In 2007, his work began to change, becoming much larger and more abstract. “The abstracts on canvas were a complete surprise to me,” says O’Mara. “The thing I liked the most about them was that they had the same kind of passion as the other works.” They also sold well, and Maestas was accruing a growing following when the economy came to a halt in 2008 and 2009. Like many artists, he was forced to pursue more prosaic ways of earning a living. “I had to go back to work to support the family at the credit union,” he says. “Family always first.”
His exhibit this month at UTah Artist Hands is his first solo show in six years. Titled “Awakening the Soul,” it shows a mature artist engaging with the work that serves as a release and a revelation. The works are not easy, touching with their energetic brushwork and vibrant colors dark areas of the soul; but the show is not without hope, moments of joy and splendor blended in with the struggles.
In one of these new works, “Road Paved in Gold,” we see what might have been a road paved in gold, a hope that might have at one point given way to despondency. There is a darkness that consumes, and a light that seems to be losing its way to blackness. It is not a happy painting, one perhaps redolent of childhood recollections, when hope was brighter. There is a sense of being consumed with spiritual, emotional and intellectual disturbances, and a feeling of being trapped in a space inside the mind and body, to what feels like light shrinking, and fading dimmer and dimmer as gradations of shadow overcome. But there is a radiant gleam from the right side, a pure light, saturated, where can be found a purity of optimism.
Maestas also paints canvases loaded with color such as “Vida Mia Dolores,” a painting dedicated to the artist’s wife. In the painting full of color one can feel this love Maestas has for his wife, a love from Maestas that is very real and potent and even though the canvas is very powerful, at times dark, it is passionate and overwhelms with life and love.
Meaning “House of Glass” in Spanish, “Casa de Vidrio” is a painting that is brutally beautiful and honest and like a house of glass, can be interpreted in various ways. For Maestas, a prisoner of anxiety and depression, it is a subjective place that he can see out of but nobody can see in. With chaotic blackness above and devastating maelstroms below, what else is there? But for those with an objective eye from beyond, who can witness the sublime beauty that Maestas has created, it is all a matter of perspective. Many who see Maestas’ creations may marvel at the astonishing power and beautiful intensity, and remark at his mastery of abstraction and the forcefulness of the emotions expressed; but they may not realize that for the artist who created it, whose art it is, it is the very recompense and release for his suffering.
“When you have anxiety and you are an anxious person and you constantly have to be moving, it’s a mental disorder, both anxiety and depression, and I think part of that anxiety comes from having that sensitivity to everything that is going on around you,” he says. “So when I start painting, it’s kind of a release. But when I try to do it consciously, it does not work. The only way that it works is if you have the courage to start a painting—and the best paintings come from the journey, and never knowing where it’s going, and never knowing what is going to happen.”
“Her Soul is like a Waterfall,” like much of Meastas’ work, is a collision of forces. Here it seems as if he has occupied a particular space of hardship, blue blackness, for far too long. The levee has ruptured, and the beauty that is her soul, like a waterfall, has come rushing in, overcoming a darkness with a glassy effulgent orange, and life and vitality fuses with the space of emptiness and despair.
Painting and art for Maestas is a mental, emotional, and spiritual state of progression towards self-mastery and self-realization and he could not have one without the other. He says, “If I can get in a relaxed state of mind and start moving the paint around, it’s like music, it’s like jazz, this thing happens and I respond to it, then this thing happens and I respond to it. Anybody can do that, but what you can’t teach somebody is to know when to stop, to know when it is done, because it has been 20 years, the only reason my work is at where it is now is because I know where to stop. I know what the process is, but knowing where to stop is what most people can’t get. I’m still working on it.”
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.