These paintings are inspired by the Chama River valley
in Northern New Mexico. The river in this valley is Federally listed
as a National Wild and Scenic River and it flows through the western
portion of the Santa Fe National Forest. The valley is defined
by brightly colored cliffs made of layers of sedimentary rock.
Tall buttresses of resistant Jurassic sandstone over Triassic mudstones
were created by ancient seas two hundred million years ago. The
top sedimentary layer is peach colored, the intermediate layer
is pale gray and the bottom layer is russet. Younger dark gray
Cretaceous sandstone caps the mesa. The river is edged by bright
green vegetation and bordered by grass and sage brush flats. Pinyon
and juniper trees provide dark green accents while the slopes above
the cliffs are blankets of darker green Douglas fir.
To guide my paintings, I made an abstract white cardboard model
to represent the confluence of the Rio
Gallina with the Rio Chama. Channelling from the north through
canyons, these rivers descend to form the valley of 'Piedra Lumbre'
(Shining Stone), so named by the early Spaniards. The model depicts
vertical volumes of varying heights, in groups of three, situated
on three sides of the confluence. The volumes are sculpted to be
wedge shaped, narrow toward the water, and wider further back.
The face of each volume recalls the special aspects of the valley's
cliffs: colored horizontal rock layers bounded above and below
by vegetative or mineral slopes. Each cluster of volumes has a
mix of three heights with the highest in the center. The volumes
are separated slightly to recall the fractured cliff faces. The
faces of the volumes produce the surfaces on which the shadows
fall. The model base is stepped to place the clusters at differing
heights and to allow the water to show. Several elevation drawings
were made of the model which became the painting layouts.
The model was photographed looking along each water course with
a single light source in order to obtain crisp shadows, areas of
raking light and areas of direct light. This information is noted
on the painting layout sheets. From our photos taken in the valley,
the colors were determined for the river banks, the broad flats,
the slopes, the vegetation and the rock faces. I developed a system
to assign paint colors for the various areas of the layout sheets.
The closer volumes are darker than the distant volumes. More mineral
material shows in the foreground while more vegetative material
shows in the background. The sky was graded horizontally from dark
overhead to light near the horizon. There are approximately forty-seven
colors in each painting.
The Chama Valley has interested numerous painters
including Georgia O'Keefe, Elizabeth Rickert and Joseph Biggert,
to name three whose work I know. The word Chama is a Tewa Indian name.
Nearby, was a former pueblo where annual wrestling contests took
place, hence 'The Wrestling River'. The contests still go on, however
on the grand scale of deep time, between water and rock.
Malcolm Montague Davis