Eric Maisel, author and creativity coach, recently asked a group of painters to think about what their work means. “Why do you paint? What meaning are you making as a painter? Why do you choose the subjects you paint?” For an artist at my level, these were tough questions to ponder for I haven’t yet settled on any particular subject, and my skill level…well, let’s just say I have a long way to go to feel competent.
I can easily identify the meaning of certain series of paintings I’ve completed. But for my favorite subject — landscapes — I find myself unable to clearly articulate why I’m so compelled to paint them and what these paintings mean to me or, hopefully, to a viewer. So I decided to pose these questions to several landscape painters whose work I especially admire: Earl Jones, Hadley Rampton, Susan Gallacher, Shawn Rossiter and Richard Garland.
Earl Jones has been painting landscapes for the past 55 years. At first he was attracted to the old farms and homesteads where his ancestors had settled. “They had charm for me,” he says. But the old farms and barns have disappeared. Now, Jones finds his painting subjects in raw, undeveloped land. “It’s the left over stuff we admire, the land that isn’t used.”
But, why, Earl? I probe. He suggests that he’s looking for relief from the kind of development that we have to encounter every day in our ordinary lives. He confesses that he’s a political news junkie and often finds himself thinking about current issues and problems. “Maybe I should paint tortured prisoners [in Iraq],” he says, “but I’m not really interested in doing that even though it’s always on my mind.”
Not only has Jones painted in many Utah locations, he now has a home near Reno, NV, and he enjoys painting the beautiful, undeveloped farm country of western Nevada and eastern California. He’s always looking for new locations, too. He sketches and paints smaller canvases in plein air. For larger paintings, he takes photographs back to his studio and paints there.
While some painters paint those postcard-perfect scenes – the iconic views of American countryside, others find beauty in the ordinary. Jones says it’s the shapes, values, and color that suggest a painting for him. “It might be something that would ordinarily be overlooked, but framed properly it would be something worth looking at.”
Jones’s work is on display at Phillips Gallery through mid-November.
Susan Gallacher paints landscapes because of the experience of being out in nature. Shes’ attracted to the “colors, the disarray, and dishevelment of nature.” She finds the overwhelming beauty of nature makes her want to capture that feeling, “not to replicate the scene,” she says, “but to capture the feeling of it.”
Though many of Gallacher’s paintings are painted plein air in San Pete County, around her home and studio in Spring City, she also paints urban scenes. She is attracted to commonplace subjects and feels, in fact, “it is our role and responsibility as artists to take the commonplace, that the average person wouldn’t even see, and show the beauty of it.”
In her studio, Gallacher brings in bits of nature and paints still life subjects. Finding beauty in the ordinary is sometimes taken to the extreme. She recently picked up a piece of mangled tail pipe in the parking lot of her studio and couldn’t wait to include it in a painting. But why, Susan? I probe. “The way the ends of the tail pipe curl and get thinner is very graceful.”
Susan Gallacher’s work is always on display at her own studio and gallery – King’s Gallery, 2233 South 700 East in Salt Lake City. Her work is also on display at Apple Frame in Bountiful and at Southam Gallery in Salt Lake City.
Richard Garland, whose landscape painting won Best of Show in the Utah Watercolor Society fall member show, gets up early every morning and paints at least one picture before going to work. His wet-in-wet landscapes are delicate and ethereal in mood. He has photographed and painted the Wellsville mountains so often, he knows them like the back of his hand. While inspired by his Cache Valley surroundings, Garland says he paints from memory the landscapes of his native North Dakota, which is not unlike the flat farmland of Cache Valley.
When asked why he paints landscapes, he responds “I can’t paint anything else.” This, of course, is not really true. At last month’s Ogden Arts Festival, Garland’s booth featured exquisite paintings of irises from his wife’s garden.
Garland’s prize winning landscape will be on display at the Michael Berry Gallery through Nov. 8. Garland’s work is also available through The Magpie’s Nest.
Shawn Rossiter, whose landscape paintings are shown at Utah Artist Hands, explains that he first chose to paint landscapes as an escape from heavier academic studies.|7| “When I first started painting I had just left a Masters program in Comparative Literature where I was studying Holocaust literature and a lot of critical thinking. Pretty heavy stuff. I think I turned to art as something direct, sensual, immediate; and the landscape (and abstracted sense of landscape which I’ve also done) seemed the best outlet for that. Also, I’ve lived in various places throughout my life and continue to travel a lot so I “look” a lot at the landscape and enjoy it. Even when I’m not actively painting landscapes I find myself doing them in my mind as I drive around.”
Hadley Rampton, whose work is represented by Phillips Gallery, explains that what draws her to landscapes is “being out there” there’s a different energy to being outside rather than inside. In fact, she says, “It’s not so much wanting to paint a landscape, it’s more about being out there in it and the painting is a byproduct of being out there. I’m not trying to paint exactly what I see. It’s more abstracted. I let my senses take things in and then let things happen on the canvas. It’s difficult to be out in the mountains and not feel inspired.”
Most of Rampton’s work is plein air, start to finish, which is a bit surprising because often her canvases are quite large. Then, too, her strokes are large, often applied with a palette knife, communicating to the viewer the physical energy that goes into her work.
Even her watercolors paintings of street scenes in Italian cities are done partly on site and later completed in her studio.
Aside from those street scenes, trees figure prominently in Rampton’s work. “Why?” I probe. She hesitates then says, “It’s an interesting composition that catches my eye. Trees bring a vertical to an otherwise horizontal landscape. And I’m drawn to aspen trees because of the contrasting light bark against a darker background.”
Rampton, as well as the other artists I interviewed for this article, seemed not particularly interested in analyzing their work and its meaning. I sensed an intuitive, rather than calculated, motivation for painting landscapes. Some “in-the-moment” response to nature prompts them to choose their subjects and unique ways of seeing and capturing what they see. Regardless of their differences in style, process, and painting medium, their work clearly demonstrates a loving, passionate response to their subjects – a valuable lesson for this developing artist.
As I complete this article, I am in the Georgia countryside, looking out on my sister’s backyard of pine trees, scrubby weeds, and a woodpile. The day is overcast and very windy. I’m attracted to the contrast between the gray sky and the colors in the trees, the power of the wind as evidenced by the motion of the weeds and tree tops. It’s nature at its most ordinary, yet it has a mood and majesty worth capturing. I get out my paints and start to work.
Sue Martin holds an M.A. in Theatre and has worked in public relations. As an artist, she works in watercolor, oil, and acrylic to capture Utah landscapes or the beauty of everyday objects in still life.
Categories: Visual Arts