serves almond tea in a red-and-white polka-dot tea set, with raisin
and chocolate chip cookies baked by her two young daughters. Assorted
animal soundsthe sporadic shrieking of cockateels, the soft
scuffling of a lop-eared rabbit across the smooth floor, and the
chattering of a guinea pig named Albert (as in Einstein)fill
the room, along with warm sunshine filtering through flowers and
tomato plants on the south windowsill.
life, like her art, is about expressing fullnesseyes wide
open, all senses engaged. It's the way she paints. With the back
of her Toyota pickup or van set up as an outdoor studio, she matches
the spirited, impetuous northern New Mexico sky and land with her
own energetic style. All her paintings are done en plein air,
even 9-foot-wide canvases that she clamps onto boards on the side
of her van to make an enormous, wind-resistant easel.
Louisa McElwain, Desert View: Afternoon Sundown, Afternoon, Flat Time
Oil on Linen, 14" x 14" each panel
15 years of painting outdoors in New Mexico behind her, McElwain
has developed the technical skill, familiarity with patterns of
weather and light, and ever-deepening connection with the land that
allows her to plunge into the creative experience. The resulting
painting leaves the viewer with a unique understanding of what it's
like when sky, clouds, wind, arroyos, and mountains fill up the
dancing to the tempo of the evolving day," she says, describing
the very physical experience of painting outdoors. "A painting
is like frozen choreography, like a ballet that you can see all
in one moment. It's made of marks that are gestures made through
time to the rhythms of nature. Every day has a different kind of
rhythm. On some days the wind is a big factor, on others it's insects
or heat or cold."
Louisa McElwain, Poca Sombra, Pascua, Oil on Canvas, 30" x 30"
For years McElwain
has been known for using only palette knives to apply paint, a technique
that allows her to work swiftly and precisely. It was a need for
haste that first gave her the idea of trading in brushes for knives.
On the shore of the Chesapeake Bay many years ago, the artist was
in the middle of a painting when she realized the sun was dropping
quickly. She scooped some paint onto a palette knife and spread
it on the canvas. She was delighted with the lushness of color and
texture, not to mention the ability to capture the scene before
the light was gone.
has taken to applying paint with the flat edge of the knife as well
as the point, producing less of the cake-frosting effect characteristic
of her earlier work. At the same time her growing affinity for the
land in general, and certain places in particular, comes through
in her work as an authentic and immediate expression of wonder.
Louisa McElwain, Hoodoos and High Clouds, Oil on Canvas, 30" x 30"
first came to New Mexico I was looking at the landscape in a very
objective way," she says. "I can remember looking at some
of those cloud formations and thinking, 'I can't go out there and
paint that.' It was not a relationship I was ready for."
But it was a
relationship she was destined to developthe seeds of which
had been well planted during her childhood on a New Hampshire farm.
As a girl she spent many hours walking in the woods with her father,
a man she describes as an "educated Yankee farmer, sort of
a radical thinker and philosopher." McElwain's mother, the
artist concedes with a wry smile, "was interested in me turning
out to be a slender, perky, popular tennis player." But she
was also a woman with a deep love of growing things and a passion
for animal rights, both traits that she passed on to her daughter.
Louisa McElwain, Arroyo de la Barrancos, Oil on Canvas, 12" x 16"
has a deep appreciation of poetry. "I experience an affinity
with poets," she says, turning the pages of a thick paperback
with yellowing paper edges, an anthology of American verse. She
stops at the poetry of Walt Whitman. "The way he uses words
to stretch their meaningWhitman was just so full. He was so
open to life."
For the artist,
of course, poetry's equivalent is paint. "Paint is a sensuous
medium and has expressive potential that is boundless," McElwain
says. "And for me, it's about giving myself permission to explore
the sensuous nature of paint in spite of that little, niggling art-school
voice that says, 'She's being too seductive with the surface!' I
shut that out; I've muted that voice."
Louisa McElwain, Chamisas & Clouds, Oil on Canvas, 16" x 20"
She does rely
on things she learned in schoolshe attended several prestigious
art schools in Pennsylvania and Massachusettsand has been
especially influenced by Josef AlbersÔ theories on color and light.
She also has a solid foundation in drawing, thanks in particular
to time spent intensively studying classical figure drawing with
an 82-year-old Italian maestra in Florence.
the East Coastheading with her dog, paints, and pickup truck
to New Mexico instead of New Yorkshe discovered that her own
style erases boundaries. She calls it "post-modern romanticism."
Romanticism, as she sees it, encompasses her love for animals, Brahms,
thriving flower and vegetable gardens, poetry, and untamed nature,
as well as the sensuous smell and texture of oil paints. The post-modern
tag means that McElwain has rejected the rules of formal modernist
aesthetics. She celebrates surface texture and paint for its own
sake, as did the abstract expressionists. She also draws the viewer's
eye into the depth and illusion of a landscape through the filter
of her own passion and perceptions.
Louisa McElwain, August Arroyo, Oil on Canvas, 28" x 68"
fortunate to have been exposed to these ideas, and I'm devoted to
synthesizing these things in a new wayto bring them in concert
with each other," she says. "I experience life in a very
holistic way, and I want my paintings to be very whole."
holism has taken on a literal twist. Out in the wind on summer days,
insects and dust sometimes end up stuck in thick, wet paint on a
canvas. McElwain used to pick them out and sometimes still does
when they are distracting to the image. Recently, though, the bugs
have led her to ponder the simultaneous existence of two very different
realities that make up her experience as she paints. One is the
gloriously sweeping vista before her as she stands on a bluff, palette
knife in hand. The other reality is tactile and immediate. It is
soft soil, grass, sage, and bugsÊas well as a reminder of humanity
in the form of broken glass or a crushed beer can near her feet.
Louisa McElwain, The Tumacacori from Palo Alto, Oil on Canvas, 15" x 30"
these divergent elements, the artist has begun incorporating bits
of the physical world into her art. If the corner of a canvas picks
up gravel or bits of grass when it touches the ground, she may leave
them there. Sometimes she even deliberately sticks tiny pieces of
fragmented bone or broken glass on a painting. "I don't see
putting physical things on the canvas as a judgment against human
desecration of nature; it's more like a blessing, like Navajo weavers
used to do when they wove tiny bits of horse hair, bone, or pottery
into a blanket as a blessing to the person who was to receive it."
also changed her thinking about finding new landscapes. For a while
she constantly scouted out different spots, spending hours roaming
the back roads. Then she realized the weather, clouds, shadows,
and light offer infinite variety themselves.
of like going out to meet a friend or a mother or a lover,"
she says of her favorite places. "It's familiar, but it's always
different. I remember I had a fear once, maybe 10 years ago, when
I wondered if I could keep this up, if I could keep doing these
landscapes over and over again. But life just keeps renewing the
questions and the longing to be open to new things, and it's endlessly
stimulating. "I transcended the fear of being repetitious by
realizing that never will it be the same twice."
wrote about Mallory Lake in the January issue.
Return to Louisa McElwain's Paintings
Louisa McElwain, Santa Rita's Rain, Oil on Canvas, 18" x 24"