Light of the Western Landscape: an interview with artist Lorenzo Chavez, part 1
Artist Lorenzo Chavez has participated in Pastel Societies’ major exhibitions in 3 countries (America, Spain and France, for those keeping track), been featured in articles in just about every respected art publication in the United States (including Plein Air Magazine, American Artist Magazine, Southwest Art, Pastel Journal and Art of the West, to name a few) and is represented by no fewer than five major fine art galleries and yet it’s his connection with the natural world around him that gets him most excited. “The colors, textures and light of the western landscape inspire and guide my work,” his artist’s bio states. I had the great pleasure of sitting down to talk with this expressive and genuinely kind artist about his passion for the landscape and the circuitous road that helped him find his true calling - this is part 1 of his story.
Tbird: Hi there Lorenzo, can you please tell us a little about yourself?
L: Sure, Hi Savina - my upbringing was in New Mexico. I was born and raised in Albuquerque. I was born in 1959 and was pretty much raised in the Albuquerque area, so a lot of my influence it terms of art derives from that early childhood. But as a high school student, I was already interested in the arts (in fact, I had a one-man show at my high school) and just prior to graduating from high school, I was already kinda focused on pursuing a career that related to the arts somehow.
A friend of mine had moved up to Colorado the year before (he was a year ahead of me in high school) and was going to the Colorado Institute of Art in Denver and he came back & showed me the portfolio and it gave me a direction and I decided to pursue that angle, to approach the commercial art. So I moved to Denver in the late 70s and went to the Colorado Institute of Art. It’s a 2-year program that teaches artists to become art directors. At the time it was all hands-on; it was pre-computers, so everything was done by hand - hand lettering. So we had a full rounded course curriculum of anatomy, figure drawing, color theory, design - you name it, all these things that relate to becoming a better painter as well as guiding us in the direction of becoming an art director or an illustrator; it sort of varied according to how people were doing their assignments. I tended to kind of like more of the illustrative look, so a lot of my training ended up going more toward that than say, just say brochure making. So that was a 2 year course, I went for about a year & a half, ran out of money & moved back to New Mexico for a while and worked to earn a few more bucks, came back & finished my schooling in about 1983 in Denver.
Tbird: So your focus in the beginning was more on commercial art?
L: It was - in high school I was definitely influenced by a lot of fine art: drawing & painting. I was lucky to have an instructor who’s still a painter in New Mexico and actually had one of the first lithography studios in a high school for all of New Mexico. So I feel fortunate that I got that opportunity to explore that medium.
I was very influenced by the fine arts, but I’d never really met a professional fine art painter or even a graphic designer; I had no influence in that regard, so when I saw the graphic arts, I saw it as one direction to go and make a living doing what I really enjoyed doing, so I pursued that
I had a passion more for doing something creative and it gave me an avenue I could pursue so that I could pursue that. I didn’t know where it would take me; I didn’t set out to become a fine art painter or a graphic designer, I just knew I really enjoyed drawing and I liked sitting at a desk with a pencil and a pad of paper or colors and I could just spend hours doing that, so I thought “is there anything I could do that relates to this where I can make some money” (chuckle).
Tbird: Do you think that a lot of your style was developed more on your own or do you feel like going to school was helpful for you?
L: I think more of the fine art came out afterward. I continued to draw & paint on the side in addition to doing graphic work, but even as a high school kid, there were books that I ran across that I became really highly interested in the western painters - obviously Russell & Remington. As a child in New Mexico, I was exposed early on to the works of the Taos Society of Artists. At the Albuquerque Art Museum, I got to see original examples of their work. I just remember that having a major impact on, whatever that is - that little bug that gets in you that says, ‘oh, this is fabulous - I like this!’ So I had those influences.
Actually in high school, a good friend of mine happened to go up to Sante Fe and saw an exhibition of an artist named Ned Jacob, who was a pretty renowned western painter at one time. And he brought a book back and shared it with me and I just remember being blown away & entirely inspired by what I was seeing in the book. And he was a fine artist. I still had not met any fine artists in person, just in terms of books, so that’s why going into graphic arts, I was starting to meet people that were doing that. So I would say the training was wonderful. I feel good that I went when I did because the training was all hands-on. We had to actually use tools - pencils, pens, brushes; we had to try all the mediums. Today I think the graphic designers kind of get behind a computer and they aren’t given the tools that we are in the fine arts. So I felt it was good in that regard and also the exposure to the other young, hungry artists that I met along the way.
And in addition to that, the city of Denver - I didn’t know the influence would be so great moving to Denver because there’s a lively arts scene here (fine art scene as well as commercial art scene), but also the museums that abound here. The Denver Art Museum was walking distance from me and I could be exposed to a lot of wonderful paintings. I moved up here without a car, so I kinda got around on foot or by bus or had friends drive me whenever I could. So I moved to Capitol Hill of Denver, which is close to downtown so that I could walk to the museum districts.
Tbird: Sometimes walking or bus riding can be good for an artist - it gives you time to notice things, unlike when you’re driving in a car.
L: That’s interesting, I’d never thought about it in that way, but I think you’re right; just slowing down and taking things in. There’s so many things that can guide you to this sort of passion - for me, painting landscape. As a young kid in New Mexico I used to run long distance - I was a distance runner, so we used to run for miles through the back trails along the washes & arroyos of New Mexico and in the mesas and along the foothills and the mounds. You know, now that you talk about that, slowing down and taking it in on that level; that probably was an influence.
Tbird: So you think running through those washes & arroyos may have been an influence on why you chose landscape painting in particular?
L: You know, I think so! Because when you mentioned walking in Denver, there were a lot of times I would - not only as a kid running around in
New Mexico, but when I moved up here I was still walking and often times I’d have to take a short cut along the creek & I was just inspired by what I saw. In fact just yesterday I was walking along the creek doing the same thing I did whenever that was - how long ago? Early 80’s - I’m doing the same thing today, just now I’ve got my eye trained as a painter & I'm looking for sites. But things really haven’t changed that much for me in terms of that passion for that, but it definitely has amplified & become more interesting.
Tbird: Wow, that’s so understandable then - your emotional connection to the landscape. Are there other artists in your family?
L: No, the only one I can kind of point to is my grandmother on my mother’s side, who used to be pretty creative in terms of weaving and making
things. That’s about the only creative person I can remember being exposed to as a young child. So, I’d have to say no direct…I think it’s interesting where these things come from, you know? I think my parents used to take us to the art museum in Albuquerque because it was free - it was a free thing to do with the family. I don’t really think my parents had that much of an interest, they were just sort of ‘hey, this is free, let’s go!’ (laugh). But that had a big impact on me. I don’t think it was intentional, but it did. It really had this impact that I still cherish today.
Tbird: Were they supportive of you becoming an artist, because a lot of families or parents would hear their child wanted to become an artist and they’d try to direct them into a different career. How did your family react when they realized that you’re an artist?
L: Yeah, exactly. I would have to say, except for my mom - my mom was very supportive, my dad a little more cautious and I think he would have liked to guide me in a different direction. But I think actually the commercial idea - going to a commercial school, which essentially was a trade school, kind of appeased him somewhat. So that probably also played into that - it satisfied him and satisfied me at the same time.
One of the funnest things I think I ever did - I think in high school - we were raised Catholic and so my mom and father were connected with the church pretty closely and there was a church out in eastern New Mexico and they were needing a banner - a procession banner for the church and she (ed: his mother) got them to ask me to do a banner for them; to paint Jesus on this banner to be used in church and it was fun because I could say I’ve actually had a piece of my artwork blessed!
Tbird: And not many can say that!
L: Yeah, so that was fun - so there’s a little influence there as well.
Tbird: Speaking of painting, what mediums did you use at that time?
L: Probably for that - it was probably acrylic paint. I know I wasn’t exposed a lot to oil, mainly because it was probably messy to handle in our house. I did a lot more drawing back then, and then a lot of probably watercolor and acrylic paint. I know I did a lot of watercolor because I still have friends from junior high that show me paintings I gave to them or they bought from me for 50 cents or whatever.
Tbird: That was a good investment!
L: Yeah, early on I was very influenced by painting, especially western subjects. I was just drawn to cowboys or natives, so I did a lot of that early on and kind of saw myself moving in the direction as far as my fine art. I did a lot of character portraits of cowboys or natives. Eventually that subject led to my first gallery in Denver, where I’d show more of - I call them character portraits. And I was definitely influenced by New Mexico, the natives around New Mexico and some of the western paintings I’d seen, both in book form and in western movies I’d seen.
Tbird: What was it about the characters that fascinated you - was it the look or was there a story in your head?
L: You know - interesting, interesting…Thinking back on it, I think it was more of the look and I just always have been fascinated by the figures going through the landscape. You know one of my favorite things in movies - in westerns - is there’s a big opening scene, where there’s a big panoramic landscape and a figure on horseback going through it.
In fact, I just was at the Denver art museum a couple of days ago and they have a show by the Taos Society artists and a couple are of Hennings's little native figures riding through the New Mexico landscape - I still got a thrill with that! That’s where I think eventually the figure became less important and the landscape became most important. That landscape was always in the back drop and I didn’t realize it until suddenly I removed the figure and it was like, ‘wow! That’s what’s so exciting - the great American west that they’re riding through!’
Tbird: Your work is so expressive that when I look at a piece of it, it’s easy for me to place myself in that location - you have so much detail and it's so emotional. Was allowing the viewer to place themselves in your images a conscious thought or was that something that naturally evolved from your style?
L: First, thank you - I appreciate that compliment; that’s one of the highest compliments and I really appreciate your words. I don’t know if initially it was a conscious decision, but I think as I’ve grown as a painter and grown as a human, more importantly, that the emotion I experience outside or the emotions - it’s give and take; it’s giving me and I’m giving it through experiences or through what I’ve read…
I love history of the old west and I see it as sort of a give and take…So I do, I feel that emotion and I think more importantly than finessing or beautiful mark making, I feel that if I can convey an emotion then I’ve really said something. I think it’s more long lasting and more prevalent and as a straight landscape painter, one of the concerns is that our work is not ‘of this day.’ You know, as soon as I add a car or a modern home, it becomes a subject that 100 years from now will be thought of as ‘today.’ But I think if I can put an emotion based on my experiences of living in the 21st century, but also being influenced by the westerns of the past and the history of the past and combining those two and the subtle things that have changed in the landscape, I hope my work will be perceived as a landscape that was created of this day and not something of the past.
Stay tuned for part 2 of our 4-part interview!
Lorenzo is also one of the instructors for Maynard Dixon Country Workshops 2016. Keep an eye on this page for more information.