The Aspen Zone: Veryl Goodnight’s Inspiration from Arts Perspective

“I didn’t know you were an artist, too!”

It’s an odd remark, no matter how innocent, and one that often takes Veryl Goodnight by surprise. The accomplished Western and wildlife sculptor is amazed at how often she hears those words when a collector or fan sees her paintings for the first time. Ironic, because Veryl Goodnight began her artistic career in the 1970s as a wildlife painter, studying with James Disney and Ned Jacob in Denver. She began sculpting as a student of Ken Bunn and considered it a way to teach herself anatomy in order to become a better painter. But sculpture dominated her career. It wasn’t until she moved back to Colorado in 2006, from Santa Fe, New Mexico, that she found the time and the inspiration to paint again.

Goodnight and her husband, Roger Brooks, live between the brow of Mesa Verde and the La Plata mountain range, near Helmet Peak. Within a 30-minute drive, Goodnight can explore groves of aspen trees, the headwaters of the La Plata River, the barren alpine tundra above timberline, or the red rock canyons to the south. Herds of elk and deer are abundant, joined by the occasional bear, mountain lion or coyote.

The famed warm light of New Mexico, the dramatic sky and barren landscapes are what initially attracted Georgia O’Keeffe, E.L. Blumenschein, and Ernest Martin Hennings to the area. That light continues to inspire dozens of contemporary painters. However, for Goodnight, inspiration comes from more than warm light. It comes from the dramatic landscapes of Colorado.

“I absolutely love the mountains. There are mountains in Santa Fe, but they don’t have the grandeur. I did not like the high desert piñon and juniper landscape. For me, the aspen zone is my favorite altitude.”

And while Colorado does have the occasional warm, dramatic sky, there are often a lot of high, thin clouds that create an overcast, flat light. Those are good days to sculpt for Goodnight. On clear days, she goes out into the land and captures in plein air the dramatic peaks, snow and wildflowers on small canvases. Some are then turned into larger studio paintings. She completed about 40 plein-air works in 2010, but only 6-8 of those made it into frames for exhibition and sale. She completed about 6 easel paintings as well, compared to the 3 sculptures she finished.

She’s finally gotten into the rhythm to be able to move freely between painting and sculpting, but it took some time. At first, when she began painting again, it would take a day or two to transition back into sculpting and vice versa. Now, the two seem to flow smoothly. Her goal is to split her time equally between the two and to create sculptures and paintings that go hand in hand. Though her painting is inspired by the effect of light on the landscape, her sculpture is about capturing movement — accurately depicting the movement of feathers on a rider as the horse picks up its gate or the swish of a girl’s skirt as she’s leading a cow. And she is actually known to sculpt not only the animal, but the landscape as well. One of her recent works, “High Country Summer,” is of an elk calf emerging from a field of mule’s ear flowers.

“I deal with mass in both my sculpture and my painting,” Goodnight said. “By trying to sculpt something like flowers, you have to be careful with mass.”

She writes about the comparison between sculpture and painting in her new book, No Turning Back: The Art of Veryl Goodnight, which was published to coincide with her 40-year retrospective at the Thomas Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, Oklahoma in April 2011.

“Painting is an illusion. The challenge comes in taking paint and creating a sense of light and an illusion of three dimensions on a two-dimensional surface. It is a challenging balance to get the correct value when striving for the correct color and color temperature.”

Painters and sculptors are both fine artists. Whether abstract or realistic, the considerations are the same: composition, line, positive and negative space, light and shadow. Goodnight goes on to explain that sculpture has the added challenge of needing to incorporate these elements from 360 degrees, as well as from top and bottom. In sculpture, a limb, head and torso are “drawn” from every conceivable angle, and symmetry is vital.

Goodnight takes up her paintbrushes, her easel and, as the days get longer, she may sculpt in the morning and spend her afternoons painting. The painting may be more for herself than anything else; a time to be in the landscape she loves, trying to capture that symmetry, that light, on canvas before the moment is gone. She’s always been an artist, but now she is both painter and sculptor of the animals and the landscape she loves.

This article originally appeared in Arts Perspective magazine.

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