Seeing the mysterious in the everyday
Someday, everything is gonna be different / When I paint my masterpiece. — Bob Dylan
It’s late at night in the green springtime, and I’m wide awake in the studio, Van Morrison on the CD player and a pastel painting slowly coming to life on the easel before me. Hayfields and a line of cottonwoods, red hills dotted with junipers; behind them a jumble of mesa and mountain, clambering into the sky. It’s more or less generic scenery, nothing especially grand, the kind of landscape I once hurried through on my way to wilder places. I still love the canyon country, and the desert and the mountains, but this valley on the Western Slope is where I’ve planted my heart.
I stare and stare, Czeslaw Milosz writes. It seems I was called for this/To glorify things just because they are. That’s as good a job description for an artist as any I know. Tonight in this room, I work on remembering how sunlight walks through the world outside. I want to hold that light in my hands, the way the trees and fields do, and somehow put it down on paper, and keep it there, forever.
It’s never as easy as a person might like it to be. The West is just too darn big to fit in a painting — too vast and bumpy and quick and noisy, too fragrant and prickly and strange. My job is to shrink it down and flatten it onto a little piece of paper — something that in my more rational moments I know can’t really be done.
I keep trying, though. I don’t know what else to do. I suppose I paint for the same reason I would never make a good Buddhist: I am much too deeply attached to the physical world. I was born nostalgic, I think, haunted by time and the movement of shadows; I miss things before they even have a chance to disappear.
You can blame all this on my childhood. I grew up in an Air Force family, schlepped from one end of the country to the other, and back again. We never got to visit Europe, and we envied the people who did, but we saw places like Chugwater, Wyo., and Wewahitchka, Fla.; Civil War battlefields and old ghost towns and Southwestern Indian ruins. I loved every inch of the journey, not just the mountains and oceans and deserts, but also the weird and wonderful sidelights: the tacky decaying roadside attractions with mangy two-headed goats and concrete dinosaurs; the postcards of giant fish and jackalopes and Floridian tourist havens like “Monkey Jungle.”
But I also remember how it felt to pass through nameless small towns at twilight, watching the darkness flow around our old car like deep and mysterious water. We drove past houses where families lived, with warm bright windows and the comfortable smell of cooking; we left behind trees and fields and lakes we would never see again. Sometimes I felt as if bits of my heart were caught and pinned by the wayside, held hostage to every tree and sunset and horse and passing train.
So I learned at an early age that you can’t hold on to anything — and I have spent my entire life trying to do it, anyway. Which is why I became an artist.
The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes. — Marcel Proust
I started out painting mostly in watercolors, self-taught and clumsy in the natural world, sitting on the ground in front of my subject. I wanted to learn how to see the world — and you see a lot more clearly when you draw or paint. You notice how things are cobbled together, how branches reach and shadows wander; you discover the unexpected colors that glow in everyday objects.
For a long time I lived in an old mining town, high in the Colorado Rockies. I took my paints on backpacking trips and bicycle rides and casual morning walks, but somehow it seemed that I rarely did a landscape that satisfied me. I kept at it, anyway, painting as well as I could: wildflowers and aspen groves, old ramshackle mines and cute Victorian houses. I made sparkling little watercolors, as bright and busy as birds, and people began to buy them, and it was good.
Then I fell down a flight of stairs and wrecked my back, and it changed my life. Suddenly, I couldn’t paint any happy little watercolors, because I wasn’t a happy little person. More and more, I turned to pastels, making cold and dark and wintry pictures that even I found depressing. The people who’d bought the happy watercolors shivered and quickly moved on, and I stomped around with my bitter cane and resented my stupid existence.
Then, one day, I started drawing an arch from Canyonlands, something I’d seen on a backpacking trip, just months before my accident. And the arch came alive behind my eyes, and grew beneath my hands on the paper: bright and glowing sandstone against a blue and perfect sky. I thought it was the strongest thing I had made in my life so far. It was as if I had found new colors, mixed out of memory and deep desire — as if once I could no longer go to the wild, the wild had come into me. The accident that had broken my heart was making me a real artist.
I left the high mountains, and came to this Western Slope valley, and kept on painting the secret places I carried inside my head. It took a while to learn this new landscape, with its intricate weaving of wild and tame, to find a way to describe the orchards and mesas and river and sky. I painted canyons and rock art and ruins, inspired by my old sketches and snapshots. I drew the Black Canyon from its rim, and homed in on Paonia, painting houses and twilight skies like those I remembered from childhood.
One night I had a dream — I spend some of my finest hours asleep — in which I found a book of paintings called Vincent Van Gogh in the North Fork Valley. Even in the dream, I was surprised. “I never even knew he came here!” I said as I turned the pages. In the dream paintings, the valley I knew came alive with Vincent’s touch. And though my paintings still don’t look like his, he helped me find my way.
The figure of a laborer — some furrows in a plowed field — a bit of sand, sea and sky — are serious subjects, so difficult but at the same time so beautiful, that it is indeed worthwhile to devote one’s life to the task of expressing the poetry hidden in them. — Vincent van Gogh
I don’t understand why other folks paint — or buy — so-called “Western” art — the kind with noble Indians and leathery cowboys and soft-porn pseudo-Indian maidens, their buffalo robes sliding off their shoulders as they romp with suspiciously well-groomed wolves. What’s the point of it? Like most artists, I am opinionated as hell, and I tend to think we have more than enough cowboy-and-Indian crap already, and that nobody needs to paint any more of it — unless, of course, the painter really is a cowboy or an Indian.
I guess we all paint the things that call to us. I spent my childhood yearning for home, and now I paint the home I have at last. If I ever climb the high mountains again, I’ll paint the view from the top. But now I paint my North Fork Valley, and the light that falls across its fields — rich and golden and heavy as honey, light like the glory of God.
When I am 80, you will see real progress, the Japanese painter Hokusai said in his old age. At 90, I shall have cut my way deeply into the mystery of life itself. At 100, I shall be a marvelous artist. At 110, everything I create, a dot, a line, will jump to life as never before.
Well, I’m not even halfway there yet, but I think I know where I’m going.
Diane Sylvain is covered with pastel dust in Paonia, Colo., where she also works with words at High Country News.