By Donald J.
P. A. Nisbet travels
from Arizona to Antarctica to paint the forces of nature.
bustle of traffic on Canyon Road in Santa Fe, NM, a small adobe
building hides away on quiet Garcia Street. In the 1920s artist
John Sloan used it as a studio during his summers in the city. Today
the one-room structure is occupied by another painter, P.A. Nisbet,
whose stark works capture landscapes the cool blue sky, stalward
cactus, and rusty-red soil of the southwestern desert that
have remained unchanged since Sloans day.
A fading pair
of snake-eyed dice is painted on the front door; it seems that in
the 1920s the studio doubled as the local craps club. Inside, north-facing
windows some 10 feet tall let light into the room, onto its wooden
floors and doors and a kiva fireplace in the corner. Nisbets
art books take up much of the space, as do his easel, paints, several
large works in progress, and numerous small oil sketches on the
wall. And then theres the 50-year-old painter himself, with
his direct blue eyes and warm, ready smile, whose solid build fills
the space before his easel.
P. A. Nisbet, Old Walpi, Oil on Canvas, 27" x 26"
For an artist
whos known for his paintings of desert vistas, it seems ironic
that Nisbets art career started in the middle of the ocean.
After graduating form the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill,
with a degree in history, Nisbet received a commission in the U.S.
Navy and served as a line officer at sea, including a 10-month tour
of duty in Vietnam. He had enjoyed painting since he was 10 and
kept it up during his service. While in his second year, he presented
a painting of his ship to the Secretary of the Navy. Two weeks later
Nisbet received orders to report to Washington, DC, to become director
of art services for the Navys Office of Information.
completed his four-year duty in 1974, he worked for eight months
at a Washington, DC, graphic arts firm, then founded hie own freelance
commercial- art business, which eventually had more than 25 national
organizations as clients. But Nisbet was drawn to wide-open spaces.
While traveling to Sand Diego in 1974, he had passed through the
Sonoran Desert and had been moved by its austere beauty. "I
say parallels between the ocean and the desert; they echo one another,"
he says. So in 1980 Nisbet packed up and moved to Phoenix, AZ, to
paint desert landscapes.
Since 1985 Nisbet
has called Santa Fe home, but he returns often to Arizona. Hell
throw camping equipment into his four-wheel-drive truck and spend
weeks exploring the lower Sonoran Desert. Nearly inaccessible, this
arid terrain is marked by extensive lava fields, volcanic cones,
craters, arroyos, and vast stretches of desert. It is a dangerous,
thorny land but a rich one, and Nisbet is often awestruck by it.
"My vision explodes outward into the vast blue vault of deep
space," he once wrote in his journal as he reached a mountain
summit. "One can never reach the horizon. It is forever elusive,
like fleeting clouds. The earth appears translucent, and I begin
to perceive layer upon layer of color as the ground falls away to
the horizon. These layers are similar to thin sheets of stained
glass interacting with one another to create the sensation of transparency.
P. A. Nisbet, Dike
and Bright Sun, Oil on Panel, 9" x 12"
While the desert
will always be a favorite of Nisbets, he has since discovered
two other regions that have profoundly influenced his work
the Grand Canyon and Antarctica.
Nisbet is one
of few artists who have ventured into the wild, pristine wilderness
of Antarctica. In 1995 he received a grant to participate in the
National Science Foundations Antarctica Artists and Writers
Program. For several months he worked out of McMurdo Station on
the edge of the Ross Sea. The shelters used by early British explorers
Robert Scott and Sir Ernest Shackleton are still near there, he
says, everything in them still intact.
initial reaction to Antarctica was shock. "The sky is ashen,
a uniform dome of dead tonality broken at the horizon by long finger
clouds that scrape the surface of frozen McMurdo Sound," he
wrote in his journal. "Everything is vast and undefined, a
classic surrealist nightmare. Of the many landscapes I have witnessed
in my life, this is the most dreadful, purgatorial apparition of
them all." But Nisbet quickly succumbed to Antarcticas
spell, especially when he made a trip to the South Pole.
Antarctica special is that there are few distractions to dilute
the awesome power of natural beauty," he says. "It comes
in massive doses of brilliant light, vast crystalline distances,
and chromatic intensities strong enough to make a grown man cry."
P. A. Nisbet, Cliffs of Elk, Oil on Canvas Panel, 13" x 10"
for Antarctica, Nisbet had ventured into the back country near Telluride,
CO, under blizzard conditions to see if he could paint during extreme
weather. It was nearly impossible. Thus Nisbet created a painting
system for the subzero conditions of Antarctica: When temperatures
dropped below minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit, he would put his oil
paints aside and instead choose shades from a swatch book of 2,700
colors, noting his choices using a tape recorder or notepad.
While in the
field Nisbet used this system as he explored the ice walls of the
Barne Glacier, the high reaches of Mount Erebus with its smoking
volcanic plume, and the fractured ice pack of the Ross Sea. Back
at McMurdo he would try to replicate his experiences in oil sketches.
After 3 months, Nisbet returned from Antarctica with 40 paintings.
One of them was selected for the dustjacked or science-fiction writer
Kim Stanley Robinsons latest novel, Antarctica.
Nisbet has investigated the gorge created by the Little Colorado
River, where it swings northwest past the uplift of Gray Mountain
to eventually join the Colorado River, 50 miles downstream. The
Little Colorado River has carved a dramatic, precipitous canyon
in the dark volcanic formations; Nisbet can stand along the canyon
edge and look straight down 3,000 feet. He is creating small oil
sketches of the sheer walls, showing how light and shadow interact
among them and the surrounding terrain.
the desert, the canyon, and a land of ice spires may
seem merely like interesting places on a map. But for Nisbet, and
for his art, these three regions speak less about geography and
more about psychology and spirit.
P. A. Nisbet, The
Portal, Oil on Canvas, 38" x 50"
Nisbet is self-taught,
strongly influenced by the landscape painters of centuries past,
the romantics who reacted to the loss of nature by depicting it
as a place of spiritual redemption. He credits J.M.W. Turner as
his most powerful inspiration; others include Caspar David Friedrich,
Fredrick Church, Thomas Moran and John Kensett.
of these artists can be seen in his careful process. Before starting
a sketch in the field, Nisbet walks the landscape for an hour or
more. Then he paints small sketches a sort of visual shorthand
on masonite or sections of pre-cut, rolled canvas that he
tacks onto a board. When finished, they dry in a box. Back in the
studio, the field sketches inspire larger paintings that are created
with multiple layers of paint and glaze.
and towering clouds, as well as the subtle qualities of depth and
light, mark his paintings. Nisbet tries to capture the ethereal
spirit and deep space of a specific landscape. One technique he
uses to accomplish this is to slightly curve the horizon so it appears
to be viewed from high above.
are not exclusively about nature." Says Nisbet. "They
are about my relationship with nature, which suggests an interaction
not a description of something external to self," says
Nisbet. "Furthermore, I believe the purpose of art is to illuminate
a spiritual source." As such, Nisbets paintings are a
way for him to personify that which amazes him. Like another, earlier
traveler of desert landscapes, painter Maynard Dixon, Nisbet is
touched by an unknown presence. He is drawn to excursions into lands
where few go by his quest to discover the underlying forces of nature.
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