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OPINION | MIKE MASTERSON: Answers in us

by Mike Masterson | November 8, 2022 at 4:53 a.m.


Editor's note: Mike Masterson is taking the day off. The original version of this column was published Sept. 29, 2013.

Spending time in New Mexico has refreshed a lot of memories for this Ozarks boy. After high school in Albuquerque and entering the University of New Mexico in 1965 (initially as an arts major before switching to journalism classes taught by newspaperman and best-selling Western mystery writer Tony Hillerman) I grew intimately comfortable with the boundless vistas, reddish mesas, towering mountains and deep arroyos etched over centuries into the landscape.

Given that background, it didn't seem unnatural when, thanks to an early birthday gift, I was able to attend a four-day outdoor workshop taught by Roger Williams, one of New Mexico's premier fine-art oil painters. The accomplished artist already had a full class, but thankfully squeezed me in.

The opportunity arose after decades away from brushes and canvas. I enjoy the aroma of oil paints. It reminds of paint-by-number Christmas gifts. At this stage of life when so many of us seek new interests and challenges, this opportunity was serendipitous. To study painting with someone of Williams' stature ranks as a bucket-list item, even knowing that whatever I layered on canvas would be appreciated by those who love me most (and are willing to lie to prove it).

Williams' paintings always capture the essence of his subjects, whether it be a mother and child inside a cathedral, a chapel wedding on a snowy night, or life in a pueblo. He's become recognized and appreciated in New Mexico and the West because he displays the ability to blend reverence and beauty into his work more skillfully and effectively than most.

He also becomes a philosopher in explaining the act of painting and its deeper significance to our existence. High above Santa Fe as the group looked out over a turquoise sky and the changing aspen forests and layers of blue and purple mountains, Williams explained that "the molecules that form the paint used by artists past and present are the most valuable molecules on the planet."

Considering what even the smallest paintings created by art's many masters and other creative spirits through history will fetch today, I'd say Williams is right. Santa Fe is said to be the world's second most-active art market. Williams' work has been displayed for years at Joe Wade Fine Art.

The personable Williams sees far deeper than the obvious. Not only does he paint--sometimes more than one canvas daily in his home studio on five acres outside town or outdoors "plein air" among the hills and mountains--he also reads continually about the mystical aspects of consciousness.

In discussing one's intentions behind painting on the first morning, Williams suddenly offered up the words "reactive and creative." He then explained that someone painting with passion from their heart's energy will note that the only difference between the two words is the letter "c" has been moved. "When you 'c' things correctly you become creative," he said.

He went on to say that most who view art (including many who paint) overlook the "sacred geometry" involved in an effective painting. That geometry invariably involves what some know as the Fibonacci Spiral, also called the "golden mean."

That probably sounds odd to readers until they realize he is talking about the mathematical spiral of life shared by galaxies, sea shells, hurricanes, our inner ears and even our DNA. "Picasso used sacred geometry effectively," he said. "The best painters always do."

The artist (who bears a vague resemblance to actor Richard Gere) was clad in a paint-smeared shirt and a ball cap with his ponytail threaded through the back. He looked the part that he's embraced with such obvious affection.

He also told us anyone who paints should be fully present and energized at every point in the process, from sketching to applying the lighter coat of underpainting and finishing the creation with devotion. "The future and past are irrelevant, right?" he said. "So the 'now' part is the gift. That's why they call it your 'present.'"

As the first day wore on, the class set up tripod easels over a swath of mountainside, sketched their subjects, then took brushes in hand for the moment of truth. Williams made sure to keep circulating, spending instructional time and offering help.

His advice followed as surely as the sun overhead. "Strive to be the best you can be without fear," he said. "Every painting is a self-portrait. Who am I with my own art? What am I trying to accomplish? Ultimately you'll discover the answer is joy."

At day's end, I wove my way down the snow-capped Sangre de Cristos with visions of reds and blues spinning and Williams' words still ringing. My favorite of his messages: "We humans always are tempted to look to the outer world for something we already have within ourselves."


Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist, was editor of three Arkansas dailies and headed the master's journalism program at Ohio State University. Email him at mmasterson@arkansasonline.com.


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