Familiar landscapes

The naked silhouette of the La Platas peeked over the edges of the sandstone cut. This was the transition zone, the place where mountains become canyons and ponderosa gives way to piñon. I stared openmouthed for what could have been seconds, minutes or hours, hypnotized by the image.

A finger gently tapped me on the shoulder. “Are you ready?” my wife Rachael asked, bringing me back to reality and into the hum of climate control. I pulled back from the view, panned away from the oil-covered canvas and into the indoor gallery space. Rachael also nodded at the dramatic painting, we shared a smile and then left the exhibit. It wasn’t the first time that artist had rattled me, and I hope it won’t be the last. Stanton Englehart’s work and world have always spoken to me.

Maybe it was the fact that I slid out of the womb and straight into Englehart’s landscape. Since leaving diapers, I’ve had the good fortune to chase red rock canyons and regularly gaze on that silhouette of the La Platas. Yep, I’ve done more than a few turns through Englehart’s back yard.

I’m proud to say that I earned my first speeding ticket at the tender age of 16 just outside Stanton’s birthplace of Lewis, Colo. (80 mph in a 55 mph at the helm of my beloved Jeep CJ5). I also managed to cast an Adams Irresistible or two into the Lower Dolores before McPhee Reservoir trashed the fishery. And I cut my adolescent teeth ranching beneath the Lone Cone and clocked dozens of years passing beneath the watchful eye of Sleeping Ute Mountain.

Through the years, these places have grown into some of my favorite haunts on the planet, locales that left indelible marks on my personal canvas. And looking at many of Stanton’s works feels like a trip down the ultimate Technicolor slideshow of my early days. The works stick out more like memories than mere canvases, and Stanton often painted the spaces the way my mind wants to remember them.

Like many Durangoans, I was heartbroken when Stanton passed beyond the final horizon a year ago last week. But I also know that he left a brilliant trail of work, friends and fond memories in his wake. I’m most grateful to still be reveling in his bold brushstrokes and breathing in some second-hand crazy wisdom.

As chance had it, Stanton came to my rescue again two weeks ago. Saddled in my office chair, I was supposed to be penning a piece on hydraulic fracturing. Instead, I haphazardly typed “Stanton Englehart”

into a Google image search (please, don’t tell the boss). Rather than writing about the destruction of the local landscape, I found myself rejoicing in dozens of images of twisting arroyos, deep western horizons and surreal but familiar slices of the Four Corners.

The first click of the mouse had me piloting Stanton’s bright yellow, imaginary biplane through the cut between Mesa Verde and the Sleeping Ute. Another click swept me upstream on the Dolores River and into the heart of the San Juans. On page 2, my “search” led me to a fresh landscape, a painting I’d never seen. I followed the lead, and a couple more clicks found me strolling down Ruby Lane, an eBay-like site for art and antique buffs.

“The strength of the painting is the very simplicity of the image,” the seller wrote, “a large Western sky and horizontal red rock country in the lower portion.”

There was one “glitch,” however – “The painting is in excellent condition, with the possible exception of a red spot in the sky, which looks strangely to have a tight small pencil circle around it (evidently some kind of foreign matter that might have been there since the work’s creation),” he added. Having seen this “foreign matter” in several other of Stanton’s works, I dialed, credit card in hand, and snatched up the painting at an impossibly low price.

As it turns out, the work had found its way out of Durango and down a roundabout path to San Jose, Calif. There it sat dormant for months, resting under dozens of other works in the art dealer’s apartment. He’d picked it up from a junk sale in Albuquerque, but had no idea whose work he was buying. The dealer was simply drawn, almost hypnotized, by the image.

To add to the puzzle, the piece’s title and author had both been torn off the painting’s backing by a rogue hand. The partial words, “…ining!” and “...glehart” were the only clues to its identity. But magnifying glass in hand, the dealer managed to sleuth out the artist. He eventually found “S. Englehart” written in tiny letters, listed it for sale and the rest is history.

Fittingly, the piece arrived at my front door on the anniversary of Stanton’s passing. And as I pulled the piece from the box, I was drawn into another familiar landscape. “It’s good to know the painting’s going home,” the art dealer had told me. He wasn’t wrong.

– Will Sands



In this week's issue...

January 25, 2024
Bagging it

State plastic bag ban is in full effect, but enforcement varies

January 26, 2024
Paper chase

The Sneer is back – and no we’re not talking about Billy Idol’s comeback tour.

January 11, 2024
High and dry

New state climate report projects continued warming, declining streamflows