LOUISA MCELWAIN 1953 - 2013
Louisa McElwain’s paintings tell her story in vivid swaths of color and light that dance unyielding across the canvas. Not merely a catalogue of her career and life, they chronicle the artist’s journey into the heart of the Southwestern landscape. They recount her transcendent experience with subject and medium, even as they become a narrative about energy, its genesis, and eventual manifestation on canvas.
An innate desire to channel nature’s magnificence lay at the center of McElwain’s work. Through thick, heady strokes of luminous pigments, she managed to build a connection among physical, spiritual, and external forces in two dimensions. To achieve this, she harnessed the paint’s ability to capture and suspend energy—a gift made visible in the rich hues, intricate light play, and variety of textures that fill every piece.
McElwain’s abstracted landscapes, painted en plein air, peel back the curtain of romantic conformity to expose the pulsating core of her subject matter. A coalescence of representative and abstract styles, the paintings give equal validity to theme and material. The imagery has been distilled down, filtered through the artist’s lens, and infused with palpable dynamism. Ultimately, the objects are represented by their most fundamental elements: light, color, line, and shape.
Open compositions evoke a vastness within each scene, while also fostering intimacy among the fluid, inviting brush strokes. Whether a mountainous panorama or a dense grove of trees, every space is full of life that seems to burst forth from the picture plane. The land beckons us into its space to share in an exchange of beauty, light, and energy. Not simply representations of some far off place, McElwain’s paintings are localized, self-sustaining entities—physically present, tactile, and accessible.
Never content to record a singular point in time, McElwain painted the mountains, trees, arroyos, and rivers of the Southwest as they transformed across the hours, changing color and demeanor with the earth’s steady rotation. She described her work as “a dance to the tempo of the evolving day,” and in that vein, the deliberate yet expressive ribbons of paint possess a subtle kineticism as they populate each canvas, ascending and falling, protruding and regressing, flourishing and receding.
McElwain worked exclusively onsite, surrounded by the elements she sought to channel into her work. Her truck, the rear end and tailgate modified to hold large canvases, served as vehicle, easel, and palette, transporting her to each site, as well as to the mental place where she could find the clarity to create. Such total immersion allowed her to more fully connect with her subject matter, and to converse with nature organically. “I’d feel like there was no room for invention, there was no space for the unexpected,” she said of working in a studio.
McElwain, who believed in always using the largest tool for the job, painted with palette knives and masonry trowels, often attached to a long stick. Such tools afforded her the freedom to move with the paint, to allow it to go where it needed to go. She relished this “interaction with the sensuous potential of the paint,” and referred to her process as “extreme painting.”
As much as McElwain’s drive to create was rooted in physical interactions with the landscape, so too did she embrace the intangible. To that end, an overt sense of spirituality flows throughout her body of work. She recognized the Southwestern landscape and its traditions as sacred. “The more I painted in these places, the more that I realized that I’m not the origin of this creativity that’s flowing through me,” she said. She described her creative process as a sort of a rapturous event, wherein she felt an “incredible power” rising up through her body and materializing in soulful, lucid gestures in paint. “I often feel energy, like electricity, surging upward from the ground, through my knees, through my arms and right on to the canvas,” she explained. Guided, if not overcome, by this energy, McElwain could let go and engage with the paint on an instinctual level.
Invariably, McElwain’s canvases embody a unique spirit as visual interpretations of the bold forces that inhabit this earth, and likewise, us. They exist as a confluence of artist and nature. “I feel God gave me eyes to behold His glory,” McElwain said. “I find it infinitely fascinating to meet the challenge of exploring and expressing what is true about my experience of God’s creation.”
Born in Nashua, New Hampshire, in 1953, McElwain grew up with a deep appreciation of nature. She pursued fine art from the beginning, and sought out a formal education at several East Coast colleges and through private instruction in Italy before settling into her creative niche during a summer session at the Skowhegan School in Maine. There, she found the freedom to embrace the landscape in her own way, channeling her love of naturalistic scene painting together with a keen interest in the materiality and process of creating a piece of art. Working under renowned modern realist Alex Katz, McElwain learned the importance of finding her true artistic voice, of speaking from the truest part of herself to communicate her creative vision. Following her stint at Skowhegan, McElwain enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania and studied with noted landscape painter Neil Welliver before earning her BFA.
McElwain cemented her place in the contemporary Southwest canon when she moved to New Mexico in 1985, answering the call to engage new surroundings. She spent the next twenty-eight years painting a robust, ever-changing landscape that enchanted and challenged her on a daily basis.
McElwain received numerous awards throughout her career, among them a first place prize at the 2012 Durango Arts Center Four Corners Commission Exposition; the museum purchase and best of show awards at the 2010 Cowgirl Up! exhibition at the Desert Caballeros Western Museum in Wickenberg, Arizona; and best of show at the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame’s 6th Annual Heart of the West Exhibition in Fort Worth in 2010. Her paintings can be found in many corporate and public collections, including those of the American Embassies in Colombia, Bahrain, Yemen, and Singapore; the NATO Headquarters; AT&T; Nokia; Coors Brewing Company; Pepsi-Cola; the Phoenix Art Museum; the Tucson Museum of Art; and the University of Pennsylvania.
More than a window onto the world, McElwain’s paintings endure as a window into the artist’s mind and soul. Emblems of the sanctity generated from artistic expression found deep within oneself, they carry her legacy of passion, energy, and an abiding love for the land—forever preserved in the paint she heralded as a conduit for the sublime.
EVOKE Contemporary was established in 2009 and is based in Santa Fe, NM.