Preservation and silly painting

Marie McCallum's "Mesa Motel" hangs on display at the Durango Arts Center Tuesday./Photo by Todd Newcomer.

by Jules Masterjohn

Have you ever noticed how much painting there is in the world? It has been the preferred medium of artists throughout time. From the cave paintings of the Old Stone Age, the vase painting of the ancient Greeks, and the Renaissance frescos on the walls and ceilings of the Vatican, to the light-filled Impressionist landscapes of France, the history of art is primarily the history of painting.

One of the compelling aspects of painting is that it is an illusion in two dimensions, a window into another world. Two local painters who masterfully create such illusions are John Grow and Marie McCallum. Both are recent prizewinners in the Durango Arts Center’s 30th annual Juried Exhibit. McCallum was awarded the “Juror’s Choice,” and Grow won “Best of Show.” Each has been recognized in past juried exhibits at the DAC as well, receiving awards for their well-crafted and realistically styled paintings.

Marie McCallum created her painting, “Mesa Motel,” as an act of preservation. This photorealistic work depicts an aging motel sign that, until recently, presided over the intersection of Highway 160 and County Road 234, a.k.a. Elmore’s Corner. The sign, McCallum writes, “conjures up images of road trips of times gone by when small motels dotted the landscape as welcome resting places after a long day on the road.” Owing to her years working in the sign-painting business in Los Angeles, McCallum knew what a great painting it would make, having driven past the motel sign for more than three years on trips between her home in Bayfield and Durango. Seeing the construction on Highway 160, McCallum foresaw its removal and photographed it in preparation for making a painting, and “preserving some relic from the past.”

The painting is a graphic combination of near complimentary colors – an azure sky wraps itself around the cadmium yellow “MESA,” which hovers above the highly contrasting arrangement of the white “MOTEL” on the sign’s blackened background. Neon tubing, once illuminated with gas, casts interesting and prominent shadows on the sign’s weathered surface.

With her studies in trompe l ‘oeil techniques at California’s Otis College of Art and Design combined with a background in the commercial sign industry, McCallum drew from her knowledge of painting and graphic art to create “Mesa Motel.” She projected the photograph onto a canvas, traced the image’s forms and began mixing the paint colors to be used. “I like to paint with all the production techniques that I have learned. I like to draw, but I like to paint more, so by mixing up all the paint ahead of time, I can really focus on the painting aspect and not take my thoughts away to mix the colors individually.”

No stranger to winning awards, McCallum took “Best of Show” at the Durango Arts Center’s 2004 Juried Exhibit for a large-scale oil painting, “Mesa Cattle.” Her painting depicts four black-and-white life-sized Holsteins staring out at the viewer and was inspired by her neighbor’s herd. Realistically portrayed, one can almost smell the cows.

This year’s “Best of Show” award was given to John Grow for his surrealistic painting, “In The Beginning Was The Word,” a dreamscape conjured from Grow’s sleeping and waking worlds. One morning last year, Grow awoke with a nearly complete painting idea in his mind, which came to him “in a flash.” Through the intervention of his imagi

nation, “In The Beginning” developed into a whimsical romp of possibilities, with a cast of “angel/faeries” wearing medieval dress and carrying wooden alphabet blocks and other objects. These angelic interpretations cavort with dinosaurs of all sorts, floating in a cloud-clad heaven of color. An intricate and amusing painting, one that elicited loud giggles from my mouth, Grow puts this painting into the category of works he calls his “silly” paintings. One of the first paintings in this genre was “Fingertip Dreams,” which landed Grow the top award at a DAC juried show a few years ago.

On first glance, one would expect “In The Beginning” to be telling a story, filled with symbolism and meaning. The truth is, as Grow put it, there is no “elaborate program of symbols” in the painting. He did, however, admit to painting some “private jokes,” intentionally combining certain images. One such inside image is the angel holding a letter “Y.” Here the artist poses a question about the unknowns in life by casting his former wife as the bearer of the alphabet’s 25th letter. Through whimsy and impeccable skill, Grow lures us into a world of both personal and the universal possibilities. His painting hints at life’s nagging mysteries and the option that there may be bigger forces at play. He writes, “The angels/faeries are the messengers who accomplish the mysterious transitions from potential to ‘real.’ They are the leading edge of becoming.”

Grow flirts with ideas from quantum physics with his faeries carrying letters and alphabet blocks, each representing potentiality where letters might become words that might become ideas. He writes, “This painting is about the philosophical/scientific proposition that ideas may exist in a way that is entirely independent of the physical manifestation of anything, (including, perhaps, the existence of the thinker to have the thought.)”

Known over the last 25 years for making exacting paintings of trains and landscapes, Grow has, in the last few years, let his inner child come out to play. Clearly confident with his facility as a realistic painter, Grow now combines perfected skills with his light-hearted, thoughtfully informed visions as an artist. Grow has turned a big corner, a quantum corner, with “In The Beginning Was The Word.”

The paintings by McCallum and Grow are on display at the Durango Arts Center through Jan. 27. Gallery hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesday - Saturday.



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