Still Life, Santa Fe

© Durga Yael Bernhard

In 2006, I visited my second cousin of blessed memory, Steve Marvin, and his wife in their home in Santa Fe.  It was my first and only trip to New Mexico, and I enjoyed it immensely.  Steve and Cece made me feel very welcome.

Santa Fe was a new and different subject for my artist’s eye. I could see why the license plates called this place “The Land of Enchantment.” There was something stark about the landscape, and the dry air made for sharp-edged shadows and high contrast.  Yet the many hues of sandstone were soft and subtle as skin tones, and the muted tones used in southwest architecture and interior design were soothing to the eye.

This contrast was found in my cousin’s home, too, where a photo of a native American woman seemed baked onto the smoky purple wall; a table of wood had a diagonal grain like water; and a black place mat foiled the bright colors of flowers in a vase.

I brought a roll of painting paper and some gouache paint – my most compact supplies for traveling.  Could I establish a relationship between a dark face staring defiantly to the right, with an ordinary bunch of lilies?  Could I bring geometric shapes into harmony with the curves of petals, an arc of cloth, organic swirls of wood grain?  I wasn’t sure.  To make the challenge more interesting, I chose a sheet of colored paper – the color of the shadow on the woman’s cheek, purple-brown sandstone.  It was nearly the darkest tone in the painting, forcing me to paint light on dark, and giving the whole painting a strange undertone.  This is what I call a “liberating restriction.”

I think I pulled it off, but unfortunately the paper wrinkled a bit.  I did my best to flatten it out, and gave the painting to Cuz Steve.

I wish I had more time to paint still lifes.  They’re the best teachers, as Paul Cézanne, my greatest teacher, proved to the world.

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