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It was not until this, our fourth winter in New Mexico that I started to pay attention to the huge area of canyons, cliffs, and arroyos directly across the highway from our road. Before this year, it was part of the majestic high desert landscape surrounding our town but I didn't think to explore it. As a midwesterner, I'm not used to assuming I can walk in places that might be private. But now I know that, like so much of this part of the country, these are public lands under the Bureau of Land Management. There are no signposts or marked trails, but you are free to wander. Once I began to explore this landscape its beauty opened up to me. Now I walk there four or five times a week, always grateful to live just down the road from such a wild and amazing place. In the past months, I've valued this area even more as a place of peace and refuge. Just off the highway a quarter-mile from our house, this wide, flat area, threaded with large and small arroyos is bounded further in by spectacular cliffs and odd rock formations called hoodoos. Though I seldom see any other people when I'm there, ATVs have made convenient walking tracks through the more accessible areas. Over time I've gotten familiar with most of the trails, tracks, and arroyos, and I now have a mental map of how to get to certain favorite places. I especially like to cross over the ridge of rock and go down into the next valley, where highway noises and sights of the village disappear. I've also climbed up high to see how the various canyons and cliffs connect in the larger landscape.
Cholla cactus in bloom in the arroyo
Sometimes, I walk mainly for exercise, paying attention to my fitness app, and sticking to the main trails where I can walk at a good pace. Or I have a destination in mind and head there directly. But more often I just wander and look, and get lost in what I see, the textures, colors, lines, and shapes of the land. The dry, packed earth is a neutral background for nature's drawings--heaps of deadwood and tumbleweeds, cacti, juniper, and wildflowers, deep crevasses and odd shapes in the cliffs, intricate patterns in rocks, the skittering trails of lizards. Inevitably these visual impressions are finding their way into my work. Shapes and colors of cliffs and boulders, and mark-making inspired by the plant life and rocks. But beyond abstracting from the visual aspect of the landscape alone, there are ideas and feelings that interest me. In several recent paintings I've built up texture and somewhat random shapes and marks to try and capture the sense of fragile and intricate life forms in this seemingly barren environment. Warm, subtle color is broken by jagged and frenetic line. The high desert is a place of contrast with a sense oif deep time.
Untitled, 16"x16", oil/cold wax on panel.
I've also been using dry stalks and other plant remains that I pick up on my walks for mark-making in paintings and drawings.
Here is a drawing done with gouache and ink. The gestural marks are made with a dry yucca leaf.
Untitled, about 12"x18", gouache, ink on paper
It amuses me to gather these bits of nature, bring them back to the studio and play around with what kind of marks can be made. But they also serve a serious purpose of connecting the work directly with what grows in the desert. I feel I'm getting closer to expressing an essence of this place, at the same time that new ideas keep unfolding.