Alum’s Paintings Bring Southwest to Mass.

Artist Margaret Jean (Margaret Taylor ’57). Photo by Carol Lollis

Art Person: Margaret Jean—painter

Reprinted with permission from the May 30, 2014, Daily Hampshire Gazette

Though she grew up in Austin, Texas, Margaret Jean recalls that, like a lot of teenagers, she wanted to try living somewhere else once she was on her own. She ended up attending Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley and, after stints living in Montana, New York and Chicago, settled in the Valley in the early 1970s.

But Jean, 78, a painter and woodcut artist who lives in Amherst, was eventually drawn back to her roots. Much as she’d come to love the colors and feel of New England forests, she felt an urge to revisit the open spaces and dramatic landscapes of the American Southwest and capture those features on her canvas.

“I wanted to see that big sky again,” says Jean, whose exhibit, “My Backyard and the Great Spaces of the American Southwest,” is on view through June at the Jewish Community of Amherst. She points to a recent interview with Larry McMurtry in The New York Times in which the noted Texas novelist and screenwriter describes feeling “sky-deprived” when he spends any extended amount of time in forested landscapes.

“That’s exactly how I felt,” Jean says. “And I wanted to see a different set of colors. I really became a bit obsessed with going back there.”

Between 1993 and 2003, Jean traveled once a year to the Southwest to immerse herself in the landscape, taking notes in journals and making sketches and studies in ink or watercolor for later oil paintings. Sometimes she’d use photographs for reference as well — and on occasion she’d even do a watercolor from memory.

From the red-rock canyons of southern Utah, to the Grand Canyon and Painted Desert of Arizona, to the rugged country of Big Bend National Park in Texas, she looked for places that offered depth in both land and sky.

“San Juan River Canyon,” for instance, captures that southern Utah river in its deep canyon, winding past layered goosenecks of eroded sedimentary rock. The top third of the painting, though, is dominated by a distant line of cliffs and a hazy sky that seems to stretch into infinity.

The desert can be harsh, but Jean brings a bit of modernism and abstraction to her landscapes, softening the edges and making it a beautiful, inviting place. Her warm colors also lend to that feeling. On the other hand, her work can be focused on the sky itself, with storm clouds sometimes reaching epic proportions above a mesa or plateau.

“Sometimes when I was making a sketch or doing a watercolor of something I wanted to paint, I would think, ‘How am I going to capture all that sky?’ ” she says. “It was a matter of framing [the painting] in the right way, and I devoted a lot of thought to how I would do that.”

Her JCA exhibit includes sketches, watercolors and field notes so that viewers can understand the processes that went into creating her large oil canvasses. The show also pays homage to Jean’s adopted Amherst home, with paintings of spare winter trees and their shadows on snow, which she made by looking out her windows.

That said, the Southwest remains one of her favorite subjects, both to visit and to recreate with her art. “It’s a magical place,” she says.

— By Steve Pfarrer. Photos by Carol Lollis