Maynard Dixon captured the dry heat of our desert landscape in dusty yellows and browns, but he could also remind us of quieter nights and bright skies with an array of blues and greens. Each painting of earth, sky, or being is a graphic depiction of shapes created by light and shadow; depictions that cause a stillness and peace that resonates with a familiarity that is as different between people as it is between places. A sense of home.
Maynard Dixon: Searching for Home, currently at Brigham Young University of Art, is drawn principally from one of the largest collections of Dixon’s artwork, begun with the university’s purchase of more than 85 paintings in 1937. It is commonly said that “a picture is worth a thousand words,” and Dixon’s varying perspectives of the American west create a mountain of narratives and questions, whether he is depicting the small houses and windmills of Anglo ranchers or Indigenous people at home among towering redrock. He highlights and honors the differences between these two worlds, which converge in the same, vast landscapes that so enraptured him.
Dixon began his career in the city, in San Francisco, but as he came to know more about the vast landscape of the west, he began to yearn and grasp for the mesas and yellow landscapes that he associated with freedom: a place where he felt closer to the divine, and more able to change for the better.
“Pioneers,” an extremely large triptych, which calls to mind Christian altarpieces, puts two men on horses in the center, as if saints leading the way to a bright, new future. In the distance, on the left are covered wagons making the trek, and on the right some buffalo. The blue and green brush strokes paired with the yellow and orange give a sense of the desert grasses with mountainous clouds and wide open spaces that give a sense of the dream promised by the American west. nTreeless horizons are overshadowed by huge, towering cumulus clouds with the sun hiding off behind them or somewhere far in the distance, out of view. He paints the rolling hills and flat mesas in the simplicity true of the desert landscape. Rocks rather than foliage create dense patterns that stand steadfast against wind and storm, unlike a forest’s wavering and fragile greenery and so different from the San Francisco cityscape.
The draw of this landscape is revealed in the poems by Dixon, also part of the exhibition. In “Making Strong” (1919), he writes:
The sky has a power
I sing to the sky. . .
Now you make me strong!
I go on the high mountain
Now you make me strong
I go to the all sky
An early work, “Pioneers” was completed before Dixon really came to know the Southwest, but he spent much of his later life there, moving to Tuscon, Arizona, and eventually making a second home in southern Utah. He traveled the area with his third wife, painter Edith Hamblin, visiting the small Mormon communities that surrounded them. Dixon admired the perseverance and dedication he saw from such neighbors, and many covered wagons are seen in various works.
Dixon often traveled to the Navajo and Hopi reservations of Arizona. He painted portraits and scenes of the people there as well as the landscapes. In his portrait of a Hopi Man, Dixon uses bright reds and greens to portray the pattern of the blanket his subject is wrapped in, the vertical lines of the fabric in stark contrast with the almost hazy, horizontal lines of the surrounding landscape. There is a reverence in Dixon’s interactions and depictions of the Indigenous people that he came into contact with. The Navajo and Hopi in the Southwest, and the Blackfeet and Flatheads of the Northern Plains, heavily influenced his imagery of brush and pen. In works like “Lesaka Waken,” of a large, towering figure that acts as the bridge between earth and sky, Dixon could romanticize his vision of the southwest and its inhabitants. But in others we see weather-beaten faces and old age: evidence of a life that was anything but easy.
In some of the smaller, less ambitious works, we see Dixon portraying a world he came to know well, one he lived in, created a home in. In two portraits on view here, one of Antonio Mirabal, a leader of the Taos Pueblo, and the other of Levi Walker, one of the oldest citizens of Mount Carmel, Dixon captures the same strength of character, intelligence, and presence. Both men are captured from the same vantage point: as if in mid-conversation with a dear friend in the comfort of home.
Searching for a Home, presenting Maynard Dixon’s written and visual art, is a great opportunity to appreciate the many cultures that inhabit and the outstanding beauty of this place we call home.
Maynard Dixon: Searching for a Home, Brigham Young University Museum of Art, Provo, through Oct. 7
Karilee Park is currently studying art education and the impact of an artistic identity. She creates using a variety of mediums such as drawing, poetry, and bursting into random song in public.