Short Story: Two Artists Search for Someplace Better

Two lanes and no shoulder, the wet asphalt slithers before us like squid ink linguine fresh from some giant cauldron of boiling water. It was the wettest summer in decades and afternoon storms had become a not surprising bane of our efforts to paint outside every week. Rowena was at the controls of her burnt orange Honda Element, The Pumpkin she called it. It was styled like a hollow box on wheels, but it was terribly convenient for hastily and easily packing whatever inside, as our only slightly damp mound of plein air gear attested to. We were ostensibly scouting new locations for future painting trips, but the hilly country covered in Dijon mustard hued grass kept rambling on as the miles passed beneath our tires.

Photograph of a black top road going into the distance amisdst a green and brown grassy western landscape.

“Do you see any place you want to stop?” She asked.

I let spots of grey green sage brush and dark rain soaked wooden fence posts flash by on both sides for a moment before I answered.

“Let’s keep going.” I finally said.

I was in a languid mood, and I hated it, but things weren’t right. We had one rule on these trips, if one of us saw something we wanted to paint we just had to mention it and we would stop. But why couldn’t I open my mouth? Over there, next to the lake that was a brighter shade of celadon, was a knoll of a hill. I reasoned it had been left behind by an Everest sized glacier from the last ice age, or maybe it was the remnant of a sandbar from ancient Lake Bonneville. Either way, the clouds had broken, and a window of light was illuminating the top of the knoll with a color the exact shade of a bottle of 1605 recipe Chartreuse. It was beautiful, but was it worthy of a painting? What would the background look like? Didn’t the top of the hill create a tangent with the mountain across the lake? Maybe if we drove a little farther we would find someplace better.

It was another day and we were driving again. We were heading up Emigration Canyon, a place neither of us had been before. But we realized that wasn’t entirely true. At the mouth of the canyon Rowena stopped The Pumpkin to let a woman with perfectly coiffed blonde hair, and her three straggling children cross the road in front of us. Their destination, Hogle Zoo, was on the other side of the road. The first time I went to the zoo I was twelve. It was a field trip with my school. When we boarded the bus to leave, I heard other kids talking about seeing tigers and wolves. I realized I had missed half of the animals. The woman and children finished buying their tickets and disappeared between the totem-like pillars of the entrance. Rowena and I looked at each other. Should we paint at the zoo? I had seen the tigers and wolves since, but the road that went beyond the zoo was fresh.

Spindly branches with the look of desperate growth and unbelief in predictions of continued summer rain formed tunnels of cadmium green. I imagined The Pumpkin was the only thing not green for miles, except for the wool grey of the pavement, but it was clearly losing the battle in keeping the vegetation at bay. To a high desert dweller’s senses the verdant land was unexpected and joyful at the time of year when brown was the expected dominant color. But there was too much of it. Sightlines and open space that let a painting breathe were non-existent. That was the excuse we exploited to keep on driving. If we kept looking, there would be someplace better just up ahead.

The road finally crested. Before us was a hill-ringed reservoir with a single miniature boat speeding at the rate of a cooling lava flow across the water. A hot reflection from the surface stabbed at the eye. The rain must have skipped this part of the landscape. Crackly yellow grasses and tan-grey weeds dominated the undulations. There wasn’t a spot of green or even a single tree within throwing distance of the water’s edge. It was the surroundings of a typical Utah lake.

“Do you want to go check it out?” She asked.

I was silent. The only sound came from the idling engine and the blowing of the air conditioning as the Honda paused where the road split. Left led down to the lake. Right followed the ridge out of the canyon. There had to be someplace better, more exciting subject matter to paint, farther on.

“No, go right.” I replied.

We were at a different fork in a different canyon. One hundred foot tall pines cast the pavement in shadow, and like a slot canyon the only way to see the sky was to look straight up.  It didn’t appear promising for a painting, but we were thirsty and Rowena remembered there was a spring in this canyon and thought this might be the spot. She parked The Pumpkin just around the bend on the left fork.

Even before we opened our doors the rumble and hiss of falling water permeated through the car walls. Only thirty feet from the road, water from a bulging creek rolled down the mountain and into a culvert under the road before it continued its gravity powered journey. The earthy smell of the forest floor and the acidic spike of pine clutched at the nose. A fallen tree hovered above the waterfall, the banks on either side providing just enough clearance to keep it from becoming a dam. Fresh summer greenery flecked with white and yellow flowers made the foreground, and a small ravine, obscured into mystery by the low boughs of the pines, twisted behind the creek. This unsought place was someplace better. It was time to set up our easels and paint.

Change in My Path of Art

Right now I’m in-between the last painting and the next, so I’ve been working on my artist statement and that has led me to reflect on all the changes my art and I have undergone.

I grew up on a fodder of commercial art like most people, but having been blessed, or cursed, with a visual awareness beyond the intentions of the advertisement, these images shaped the way I viewed art and the world.

Unlike a lot of other artists I read about, I didn’t grow up surrounded by paintings, or have family, friends, or community members who talked about art, or even thought that art was something to talk about. I lived in towns so small that my family made up nearly a sixth of the population. In places like that you were lucky to find a single real painting, and you would only get to see it if you happened to be invited in to the owner’s house and stumbled across it. (I knew of exactly one oil painting in the entire area, it was in the front room of a friend of the family’s house. I touched it once when I was left alone in the room. I was amazed at the texture of the trees of the landscape. I was afraid that I would ruin it, so I never told anyone about it until now.)

So, when I started to make art of my own, I naturally started with what I knew. Bright colors, dynamic in-your-face visual calls to look at me, look at me, that made up the entire world of what I thought I liked and what I drew or painted.

I mostly drew what I now realize were illustrations of stories in my head. Fantasy vehicles and creatures usually involving guns, missiles, and fire made up the bulk of what I would do. A little later I remember my oldest brother got this print of an old cowboy sitting behind a table playing cards done in pencil. I don’t think he ever knew, but I would sneak into his room when he wasn’t there to go look at it and just try to figure out how someone could do that. I was also a very quiet boy, and I don’t remember if I mentioned to anyone what I was doing, and it never entered my world view that someone could actually teach you to make art like that.

I did have two things going for me, my oldest brother drew a bit here and there and I was always fascinated by what he did, but he was in the same situation I was, except he had a few more years experience. And the second thing was my mom.

My mom wrote, illustrated, typset, art directed, and did everything else except print and sell, my dad did those, a series of what she called children’s books, but were really family activity books that also included history lessons, quotes, games she made up, songs she composed, poems she wrote, puppet shows, audio recordings, display boards, and anything else that was humanly possible to stick in a book format during the 1980’s.

My mom had no training in art and as I see it now, also suffered from the same isolation that I did, but what she did provide was an intensely creative fountain that wordlessly influenced the way I thought and who I was.

After a while she quit making the books, and my family eventually moved to Salt Lake City. Nothing much changed for me artistically, except there was now a possibility that I might bump into something.

That something was the lucky encounter with the book The Art of Michael Whelan when I was fourteen at a book store. Michael Whelan is a living legend in the book illustration world, but at the time I didn’t know anything about him other than remembering a few of his paintings on the covers of books I had read.

The book was $70.00. It was the most expensive book I had ever seen up to that point. It was a lot of money for my family, there was no way they were going to spend that much on a book for me. I’m not sure if my mom suggested it or I did, but I ended up doing extra chores to earn some money. I would work all week and every weekend I would walk about a mile to the bookstore to look at the book and make sure that it was still there.

I don’t know how many weeks it took me but I eventually had enough to buy the book. That was a glorious day.

His art called to me with familiar bright colors, but there was also something more subtle working on my sense of art. Even in Michael Whelan’s most dynamic painting, there is a sense of calmness, or contemplation. The lonely spirit of his art was a match for my own. As a kid where the closest friend was miles away, I learned to become comfortable with being alone with my own thoughts, and the people in Michael Whelan’s art reflected that feeling back at me.

It’s still a theme that runs through my art, but maybe on a more subtle note.

The changes in my art have slowly moved me away from the bright colors and subject matter that commercial art demands into an area that I never thought I would visit.

The strange land of still life is where my current path lies, and I wonder how I got here, and how long the road will be.

Michael Whelan’s website