I’m new to Santa Fe—why wouldn’t I attempt to paint the aspens? Isn’t that what people do? They move to Los Angeles to be actors, writers and musicians; to New York City to be (different kinds of) actors, writers and musicians; and to Santa Fe to be painters. Forget that I’m still learning how to use my camera properly; my assignment is to paint the aspens.
I won’t be stopped by the fact that I’ve only succeeded with latex paint. I also had a run with screen-printing, and it proved difficult for me to press paint through an image I had impressed on a screen. The original image came from George Grosz—a drawing titled “Licht und Luft dem Proletariat” (“Light and Fresh Air for the Proletariat”). Vincent van Gogh did a similar piece, a painting titled “The Exercise Yard.”
Anyway, I was a starving artist, new to Santa Fe. I didn’t have any paints or canvases, so I headed over to Hobby Lobby to buy some watercolors for that “the-paints-just-have-a-life-of-their-own” look, but the least expensive materials I could find were oil pastels for $2.50. Being a conscientious artist, I resolved to use paper from the office recycling bin for my canvas.
Grabbing my materials, I headed for the door, pausing at my editor’s desk one last time to beg, “Can’t I just take some photos of aspens instead?” She responded with an unaffected “No,” so I drove up Cerro Gordo Road to the Santa Fe Canyon Preserve to find my vista.
Hiking a few miles in, I took a seat on some boulders overlooking Santa Fe. The bright run of autumn aspens signified the Santa Fe River, my target area.
I closed my eyes, took a deep breath and remembered the words of my seventh-grade art teacher: “Paint what you see, not what you think you see.” So I opened my eyes and brought pastel stick to paper, discovering that which I had already known: I have zero technical ability to draw or paint, nor the patience to learn. I’m a writer, damn it; that’s my art.
OK, OK, the entire Santa Fe valley was too ambitious a project. I grabbed a few leaves off the ground and headed to a quiet place. Done in the photorealist tradition, a leaf might be just as tedious a subject to duplicate, but in the hands of an untrained abstractionist such as myself, it becomes more the idea of a leaf.
My teacher’s advice brings to mind an anecdote I once heard. A man asked Picasso why he didn’t paint things as they really appear. Picasso said he didn’t understand, so the man produced a photograph of his wife, saying something like, “This is my wife. This is what she looks like. Why can’t you paint her like this?”—to which Picasso responded, “Your wife is flat and four inches tall?”
My aspen leaf is yellow—chrome yellow as it says on the stick, though I did attempt to darken it. But my perspective is completely off the page: I moved to Santa Fe to have a baby (family nearby) and to give my opinion of the work that real artists do. I’ll leave the aspen painting to the retired lawyers and art history majors.