Stanton Englehart often described Gaia, the ancient Greek earth mother, as “the real driver of our lives.”
Englehart, who died April 22, 2009, was a child of the Southwest, an eminent landscape painter of canyons, mesas and skies who founded the art department at Fort Lewis College in 1961 and taught for more than 30 years. In his lifetime, he created more than 5,000 works, mostly oil paintings and mixed-media pieces.
When you encounter a mature Englehart landscape painting, you recognize it immediately. There are several permanently on display in the Community Concert Hall at Fort Lewis College. Many can be seen throughout Durango in banks, dentist offices and certainly in many private homes.
Englehart often used a large-scale format. Large or small, his landscape paintings expressed a majestic sense of earth and sky filtered through a tellingly Modernist lens. He deployed broad areas of flat, vibrant color and often veered into pure abstraction. And he always held a deep reverence for the earth as his principal subject.
Few people know about his early figurative work, explorations into the personification of Gaia, the Greek term for Mother Earth.
Before his death, I interviewed Englehart many times for his annual solo exhibitions at FLC. The subject of his unusual, early figurative works often came up. He told me he created The Women Series while in graduate school at University of Colorado in the 1960s. I recall him saying he was swept up by several cultural currents, particularly environmentalism and emerging feminism. These twin concerns merged in his imagination and surfaced in a series of mixed-media works. A selection of those studies is now on display at the Durango Arts Center. It’s the first time they have been exhibited together.
If you remember the huge Englehart retrospective at the Anasazi Heritage Center in 2010, you saw just enough of these haunting images to tantalize.
Personifying Earth as a woman is an ancient practice. The Greeks addressed the mystery of life, death and nature by inventing the gods, human counterparts, to represent natural phenomena – love and grief as well as the sea and the sky. Hesiod’s “Theogony” describes the genealogy of the Greek gods and goddesses. Hesiod tells us that after chaos, Gaia emerged, and with various partners, brought forth mountains, canyons and deserts. In Greek art, Gaia is portrayed as a beautiful woman.
Englehart modernized this metaphor. In his imagination, Mother Earth is a woman under siege. It was his way of expressing his double concern for Earth’s plundered resources and the subordination of women. When you view his masterful mixed-media works, keep this imaginative leap in mind.
In the book, Stanton Englehart, A Life on Canvas, edited by Jules Masterjohn, she writes about the painter’s use of symbolism in The Women Series: “The female body, which has historically represented the idea of perfect beauty and femininity, is bald and dismembered, tyrannized by linear elements, and floating in a maelstrom of emptiness.”
Strong words for strong images.
Each of the works in the series is artfully conceived and definitely of our era. It took someone of Englehart’s imagination and talent to reconceive an old metaphor for our earthly home under siege.
The summer after Englehart’s death, Music in the Mountains chose one of these works for its program cover and posters. The theme in 2009 was “Passion,” and Gaia, her arms in a self-embrace, stretches upward yearning. Thank you, Guillermo Figueroa, for your inspired choice and appropriate tribute to one of the Southwest’s important painters.
Judith Reynolds is an arts journalist and member of the American Theater Critics Association.