Where Canvas Meets Spirit Of Place
PROPPED up against my computer is a print of a painting called "July Evening, Lake Tamarack, Millbrook" (1983). It has an Old Master look of quality - first-rate technique, subdued but rich color, and fanatical realism touched by grace. The lake reflects the "S" curve of the hill and the sky overhead with such refinement that it looks as if it could have been painted in the 17th century, but there is something peculiarly contemporary about it, too.Skip to next paragraph
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The painter, Joellyn Duesberry, is well grounded in the work of Dutch and Flemish atmospheric landscape painting. She worked for over 20 years as a fine-arts appraiser, handling great works of art, including the work of Dutch and Flemish masters.
She became an appraiser as a means to support herself while she pursued her real vocation as an artist. She knew at a very young age that art would be her life. But the 1950s was no time for a Virginia belle to take up art. While she believed art history would be a great support to her own artistic endeavors as well as a decent livelihood, there was a hazard: She might find herself intimidated by the great achievements of the past.
"And of course I did feel those emotions," she says as we sit in the Denver Art Museum, looking at a current show of her paintings. "So I set about increasing that knowledge, rather than avoiding it. I actually tried to acquire a survey of occidental art - cutting across centuries... .
"It was daunting to come home and think I had anything further to say. And that's where my resolution about what to tackle started forming. That is, I secretly nourished the notion that I had something to add to an ancient tradition - having not the faintest notion of what that would be," she says.
She had started out as an abstract painter but switched gears abruptly as she emerged from a health crisis at 25, determined to paint the natural world - "nothing unknowable, surreal, or frightening. Nothing unworldly as the abstract world had been for me - noisy, intimate forms that had no relation to anything else I knew." She realized she wanted to explore her relationship to nature and to the past.
Painting from nature was passe in the late 1960s and '70s. This decision meant a peripheral, pariah existence in the art world. But she didn't care. She was willing to accept the outsider status because she saw how a consciousness of quality was slipping from the upcoming generation and from art criticism.
Then in 1977 on a 30-day hike in the high Andes of Peru, Duesberry saw Machu Picchu at sunrise, and it turned her into a landscape painter. "I suddenly realized how vast this planet was. There were no trees - brilliant purple hills and blue veins of copper and glaciers melting into green pools." When she returned home she would go off on retreats for months at a time to Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket islands, and to the Hudson River where she lived in an orchard in a 17th-century farmhouse. She painted that orchard in every season.
For Duesberry, 1985 was an important year. She received a National Endowment for the Arts grant large enough to enable her to quit her job and devote herself to painting full time. She married and moved west, and later the same year had the opportunity to study with Richard Diebenkorn at the Santa Fe Institute. That was a great experience, she says, because not only was he extraordinarily generous with his gifts, but he gave her confidence. "He saw that the bones of what I did was much more important tha n the pleasing skin."
She shows me one of the paintings she did for him that summer and points out how the problems of composition are the same as they would be for an abstract painting. Diebenkorn told her she had good "mental furniture." He told her to ask herself always what was the reason she was painting a piece and what in the structure was so appealing.
"All of a sudden he gave me justification for habits I'd already formed: One, that I return again and again to the same place; two, that I have much more faith in the broad first movements of my brush than in the hours I finish a painting; and three, the problems of making paintings as designs on two-dimensional surfaces are absolutely the same whether you are an abstract painter or a landscape painter or a portrait painter, it's all the same thing."
If she had a table with some bread, lemons, and a bottle, she explains, she would be dealing with the same problem of fitting those objects into a panoramic space and making it interesting: how to make the eye jump back and forth, make the eye wish to revisit the space between the lemon and the bottle (in a still life) or between the church and the tree (in landscape). If the painting were abstract, she would find the same challenge in nonreferential forms.