1953 - 2013
Louisa McElwain adores summer storms, especially the way the light changes and the clouds dance across the horizon ahead of the rain. Living in the country, 20 miles outside of Santa Fe, New Mexico, Louisa is in tune with the changing weather. If it looks like "one of those days," she is quick to pack up her pick-up truck and head out to find that "power spot" for what she likes to call "a dialogue with nature." Once there, she moves quickly, stapling a large canvas to a makeshift easel mounted on the back of the pick-up. The tailgate provides a table for all of her paint – large globs squeezed in strict order from dozens of tubes. With palette knives and masonry trowels of all sizes, including some attached with duck tape to long sticks, she goes to work.
Although she is painting the New Mexico landscape, Louisa is really looking for a balance between her experience with the environment and the physical reality of paint on canvas. She believes "the marks, strokes and gestures of paint express forces of nature, both internal and external." Jackson Pollock once famously said, "I am nature." That resonates with Louisa who believes that this idea of working from the inside out while honoring plastic reality of the materials, is the most important contribution offered by 20th century American painters in the Abstract Expressionist Movement. "My painterly heritage is the New York School," says Louisa. "I am an abstract painter who paints outside." And for Louisa, the act of creating is a work out – she calls it "extreme painting." "I often feel energy, like electricity, surging upward from the ground, through my knees, through my arms and right on to the canvas."
A self-described eccentric, a "pop-culture wallflower", she has always felt little bit like an outsider, but painting provides the place where she is alone, but not lonely; challenged, but not frustrated; and searching, but not lost. "It took me years to recover from art school, but solitude in beautiful wild places brought her "face to face with God". As a woman of deep faith, Louisa believes that through her painting and her intense connection with nature, she has strengthened her relationship with God. "I am humbled by the glory of his creation, and overcome by gratitude for his blessings."
Louisa grew up on a farm in New Hampshire's Merrimack Valley in the 1950's. Educated at Harvard and certain he did not want to go into the family's shoe manufacturing business, Louisa's father decided he "wanted to return to the soil." It was an endeavor that ultimately failed financially but proved prophetic for Louisa.
"Growing up on the farm was where I developed a love of nature that has become the basis of the way I relate to everything, especially painting," she says. Animals on the farm inspired her earliest drawings, although her mother was not amused by her choice of canvas. "Horses made me want to draw," she says. "The first drawings I can remember were on the wallpaper above my headboard in my bedroom. Louisa loved the farm. It was a perfect place for a little girl to begin connecting nature with art.
As a young woman and a young artist, Louisa admits that she had been a dropout. She attended five different colleges, foreign programs and universities looking for someone who could teach her what she wanted to learn. Starting off, she enrolled at what she calls "a little draft dodger (Hampshire) college" in western Massachusetts. She soon confronted the doctrine of urban modernism that reigned there. The head of the art department was into "non-hierarchical painting", where everything is symmetrical. In a lecture one day, the professor put up a slide of an equestrian painting by Titian, but the image was upside down. He asked the class what was wrong with the painting. Louisa knew what was coming. "One of the 'bright' students answered, 'well, obviously the composition falls apart when the painting is upside down.' At that moment I knew it was time to go," she says. Louisa dropped out of Hampshire College, and took off for Italy to study drawing with a famous portrait artist.
And she had a great time - twenty years old, living in Europe, traveling to Venice and Rome, and learning from Italian masters. For a young art student it just doesn't get much better.
"It was traditional art training through drawing from live models," she explains. "We worked on the full figure in the morning and then portraits in the afternoon. We spent at least two weeks on a drawing; measuring, working on construction, using a plum line, and learning how to measure proportion with a stick, slowly developing tonality by means of finely hatched lines made with vine charcoal. By getting a long look at the pose, we had the chance to really understand what we were seeing. In an American art school a long pose would be twenty minutes! That's long enough to commit to something that might look ok, but is not understood." She would soon return to the American art education arena, but this time with more confidence.
Looking at a Louisa McElwain painting today, the importance of color is clear. Bold strokes of thick paint cut across the canvas forming a collage of colorful shapes that meld together into an abstracted landscape. Louisa isn't interested in realism. "I like painting with sticks (palette knives) because it disengages my ego - that part of me that wants to be about describing things. I do like to draw and I do like to be right, but when I'm making a painting I want it to be as much about the paint as the motif. The palette knife doesn't allow me to articulate things in a drawing way, but it does have an additional dimension of expressing the sensuous quality of paint. It expresses more of the physicality of the material than I'm likely to achieve with a brush." But what comes so naturally now, wasn't always inherent. Louisa learned about color from some of the best teachers of the time.
After returning from Europe, Louisa attended a summer session at the Skowhegan School in Maine. She spent an eye-opening three months working with the likes of Alex Katz and famed landscape painter Neil Welliver. "It was paradise for painters and sculptors. We had little cottages on the lake, and up on the hill old dairy barns had been turned into great studio space. For those of us who wanted to go out and paint landscapes, the kitchen would make a bag lunch and we'd jump in the back of a pick-up truck. Maine is so broadshouldered and open - great things to see and paint. It was a wonderful experience." Skowhegan was life changing for McElwain. She left Maine committed to landscape painting. "Alex Katz once told me 'you have to find your own way to say the grass' which I took as a mandate: the sacred duty of every artist to find one's own voice." And she has never wavered on that commitment.
Another crucial part of Louisa's artistic education came from Joseph Albers by way of Welliver, at the University of Pennsylvania, where Louisa finished up her undergraduate degree. Albers, the famed color theorist, championed the idea that color derives its meaning from its context. At Penn, where he was a professor, Welliver applied those color principles to his own work, and Louisa was paying attention. "Welliver was almost scientific in his approach to color," she says. "He reduced color in nature (phenomenological color) to some very dynamic and simplified relationships of flat pieces of color – each piece of paint has its own identity. It's almost like the pre-digital pixalization of color.
Instead of relying on a tonal structure, a painting is built on the relationship of colors. I came to understand how light is created in a painting through the relationships of colors to each other, rather than by a tonal structure of lights and darks."
After Penn, Louisa's career took an unexpected turn. She married a young architect who happened to love fly-fishing. They traveled to Canada, the Jersey shore, the Florida Keys, Turkey and Greece where he caught fish and she painted fish. "Fish are fabulous, interesting, beautiful animals. I was particularly interested in painting them just after they were caught when they were gasping for breath – they are so expressive," she laughs as she realizes how grim this sounds. Morose or not, those fish opened up new opportunities.
She got her first show - Fish of the East Coast at Sessler's Bookstore, owned by Graham Arader, on Walnut Street in Philadelphia, and from that she secured a big commission with Robert Venturi's architectural firm for the Philadelphia Zoological Society. "In a cathedral-like former antelope barn we created giant dioramas. My mural, a 12x40' oil painting, depicted an Upper Cretaceous swamp with several species of dinosaurs. It was a multi-sensory playhouse for children," she explains. An ambitious assignment, it kept her busy for three years. She also explored the use of palette knives. Using masters like Van Gogh as inspiration, she marveled at how he "unloaded paint off his brush to create marks that were so full of sensuous authority."
When the project was over, Louisa moved to Santa Fe almost on a whim. She read an article about how one in seven people in Santa Fe was involved in the arts. "I thought it would be a stimulating creative community –sitting around in cafes talking and arguing art." So she moved. And while the social scene didn't turn out exactly how she had envisioned, the painting was great. Everywhere she turned there was a new vista to paint. Louisa went to work, quickly got a gallery and started selling out.
She also started a family, designed houses which her husband built and the family would live in them until they would sell, and then he would start all over again. By the time her second daughter was born, the family had moved eight times and Louisa was getting tired. "Soon after we built a big house in the country, he told me he thought he might want to move to Fiji. I started to get the idea that this wasn't going to work out," Louisa says. And she was right. The subsequent divorce was long and painful, but as always she found solace in her faith and in her painting.
Louisa needed a sanctuary where she could recharge and rebuild. She found a property north of Santa Fe; 13 acres where she could raise horses and cows - Irish Dexters and Norwegian Fiords are her preferred breeds. Her cluttered studio sits to the front of the property with a view of the orchard where a dozen cows graze. Although surely similar to her father's farm, Louisa seems to have let go of her eastern roots. As she walks the property, Louisa looks like a woman comfortable in the high desert country. A wide-brimmed hat shades her face from the brutal southwest sun, her strawberry blond hair is braided and flipped over her right shoulder, heavy turquoise and silver bracelets wrap around each wrist, framing hard-working hands.
"The farm is a creative endeavor. Instead of a canvas that's 13 inches, I have one that is 13 acres," she explains. "I have maternal feelings toward my farm." It takes a lot of TLC, but she is happy to give it. She also, of course, paints almost everyday, always finding inspiration in the majestic New Mexico landscape, adamant about staying true to the "sacred mandate to authenticity and originality." So she is actively looking for new challenges.
Through years of hard work, Louisa has found her voice as a painter; her unique perspective on the landscape is evident. For Louisa, painting is an expression of her connection to God through nature and exploring the sensuous potential in oil paint. It is authentic, powerful and real – every stroke on every canvas is full of conviction and color that comes from a weathered heart.
Selected Museums + Collections
American Embassies: Sanaa, Bogota, Singapore, Bahrain
Coors Brewing Co., CO
Desert Caballeros Western Museum, Wickenburg, AZ
INA Corp., PA
NATO Headquarters, Brussels
Peat Marwick, CA
Philadelphia Zoological Society
Phoenix Art Museum, Phoenix, AZ
St. Vincent Hospital, Santa Fe, NM
The Booth Museum, Cartersville, GA
Tucson Museum of Art, Tucson, AZ
University of Pennsylvania, PA
University of Texas Law School, Austin, TX