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Conversion of a Purist

In the early 80’s, I spent a lot of time traveling and painting on the back roads of Mexico. I walked, hitchhiked and road buses, crisscrossing the country from north to south, and east to west. The country was safe, the people were gracious and the adventures were profuse.

There were a couple of areas that held great appeal, and I would return to them several times over the next fifteen years. One of those places was the Barranca del Cobre.

The Barranca del Cobre (Copper Canyon) is a system of six canyons in the southwestern part of the state of Chichuahua, Mexico. It is three and a half times the size of the Grand Canyon and fifteen hundred feet deeper. The more alpine regions of the canyon sport pine trees and forests of oak, whereas, the bottom of the canyon, where water is more plentiful, provides a tropical climate that accommodates fruit and palm trees.

The canyon is home to the Tarahumara Indians. These gentle, but hearty, people have inhabited the canyon for centuries. Their livelihood is primarily agrarian (maize is the main crop), but they have also domesticated cows, goats and chickens. Although there are a few small pueblos, the vast majority still live in caves, and shacks fashioned from the available timber. It is the inhospitable nature of the canyon that has, over the centuries, provided them with solitude and independence.

Painting the Tarahumara was my main objective for going to the canyon.

I would usually begin my trips to the canyon by catching the Chihuahua – Pacifico train out of Chihuahua city, and disembark at the village of Creel, located on the north rim of the canyon. That was the easy part. Getting around in the canyon posed another set of problems. There were lots of trails, but few roads, and they were single-laned, dizzying and often impassible.

Old-fashioned trekking got me to some places, but often I would hitchhike on the lumber trucks, or find someone with a pick-up and pay them a few pesos to leave me off in areas that I wanted to paint. Often things worked out just right, but occasionally the going was a bit arduous. All in all, I got some great paintings, some good adventures and a truckload of stories I’ll share some time.

At that time in my life, I was a firm believer that an artist should only paint what he has experienced first hand. If one wanted the experience bad enough, no obstacle was too great to overcome. I was virtually dogmatic about it.

So, one hot day, I found myself sitting in a Santa Fe bar with an artist friend of mine (who shall remain unnamed). He had currently achieved some acclaim, painting large pieces of Tarahumara Indians performing the matachines dance – a twice a year ritual that takes place at Easter and in December, for the Feast of Guadalupe.

The previous December, I had journeyed to the canyon for the Feast of Guadalupe. On the snowy rim, I was wearing a down jacket and boots. Later at the bottom of the canyon, I had to cut off a pair of pants to make shorts, and had a Tarahumara make me a pair of huaraches, so I would have something cool and comfortable to walk around in.

The Tarahumara danced all day, and at night the dances moved into the small adobe church, where they danced late into the night by the light of hundreds of candles. I sat with the Tarahumara at their bonfires, drinking tesguino (homemade hootch), and eating something unidentifiable from a boiling cauldron. I painted by candlelight and firelight, and the whole overall experience was pretty awesome. It was certainly worth the effort.

Here are a few of the watercolors from that trip:

Tarahumara Goat Herders
Feast of Guadalupe
Night Fire – Cusarare Wedding Night – Batopilas


So I’m talking to my artist friend, figuring we’ve got some common ground and some stories to swap. Much to my surprise, he tells me that he’s never been to the Copper Canyon, but uses a friend’s photos for information. Needless to say, I was a bit outraged by this disclosure. I just couldn’t see how one could separate the painting process from direct experience. I never looked at his work quite the same way again.

About three years later, I had a one-man exhibition at the Americana Museum in El Paso, Texas. Towards the end of the show, a fellow came in and bought four pieces and commissioned and good size Indian dance painting.

When I went back down to El Paso to deliver the commission, he asked me if I could paint a large historic painting of Fort Bowie, that used to be located in the southeastern part of what is now the state of Arizona. I said, “Of course”. So we negotiated a size and price, and I began my five-hour drive back to Santa Fe.

On my journey home, I realized that I had just crossed my “you have to experience it to paint it” line. I had some soul searching to do.

So, for the first time, I began contemplating on the historical paintings that were produced by the Classicists, the American Illustrators, and many of my heroes, including Sorolla, Repin and Fechin, to name but a few examples. Obviously, they were not there to experience the historic moments that they interpreted in paint, but the paintings were brilliantly conceived, exquisitely painted and had certainly achieved validity as “great art”.

I began to recognize that I had been trapped in my own dogmatic beliefs, and that I needed to get off of my point of view. After all, isn’t a great work of art just that – “a great work of art” – regardless of the source of the inspiration?

So I began to research Fort Bowie. I found some old photos and read as much literature as I could find about the circumstances surrounding the Fort, and its significance during that time period. I tried to picture myself living near and relying on the Fort’s presence. Eventually, an image began to form, and I began gathering data that I could use to construct a painting that would represent my vision.

The painting came out well, the collector was pleased, and I had opened up a whole new genre to augment my eclectic subject matter. He eventually commissioned twelve large oils commemorating El Paso’s Quadra-centennial, and three large works on the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

Although personal experiences still source the vast majority of my paintings, I have continued to paint romantic and historical pieces. They require a lot of research and numerous studies. But I’ve enjoyed the challenge of adding my personal perspective to historical incidents.

Here are some examples of paintings that I’ve done over the past several years:

Along the Emerald Mere (36x48 oil) Intruder Alert (36x48 oil)

20 Noviembre, 1910 (28x48 oil)


For more information along these lines, check out my January, February and March -  2008 newsletters on the American Illustrators and narrative painting.

Happy Painting!