Red Rocks near Gallup by Mary Silverwood
A Love Affair with Landscape
It’s easy to feel drawn to the texture and nuance of a Southwestern landscape. Throughout the day and year, the light hits our exaggerated mountains, plateaus and valleys, playing with shadow and color. Many artists have been drawn to capture that play of light, but few truly master it. One such master is the late Mary Silverwood. Silverwood originally studied art at the University of Texas before relocating to California. Once on the West Coast, the young woman realized she had no idea how to actually become an artist. After floundering a bit, she decided to do something practical: she studied accounting at Sonoma State. After only two weeks, Silverwood found herself back in the art department, where this time she discovered pastels. Until then, Silverwood had only been exposed to oils. After experiencing pastels, she never turned back, soon launching her career as a recognized artist in that medium. “She loved color,” says Joyce Robins, a close friend who represented Silverwood for 13 years at her gallery on Galisteo. “She also loved the earth, so it came naturally to her to paint landscapes. What made her distinctive was her expansion of intense color. I always felt like her paintings were so much more than just a picture of a scene; it was her love for the earth that came through.”
Deep Blue Mountains
Silverwood enjoyed traveling around with her camera, taking photos of particular scenes. Back in her studio, she would reproduce those scenes in dramatic hues. Originally, Silverwood painted California before drolly observing that everywhere she liked was becoming a vineyard. A friend suggested she visit New Mexico.
The moment she got off the plane, Silverwood found she needed 20 colors of blue she’d never used before. It was the first of many trips, coming to New Mexico to take photos and then going back to California to paint. After a while, the frequency of her trips made the commute seem ludicrous. In 2000, Silverwood moved to Belen.
“I represented Mary from 1996 to 2009,” recalls Robins. “When my gallery closed, I brought her work to Ventana with me. Once Mary started painting New Mexico, the work just poured out of her. It was so well done. She gained a huge reputation and was very well respected. Her work was beautiful, and collectors loved it.”
Chaco Series no. 75
“Composition and color are the most important aspects of my paintings,” Silverwood once explained. “I have hundreds of pastel sticks in my studio, and just the colors alone are enough to get me started on a painting. I draw upon the shades and tones of nature, but I like to exaggerate them, dramatizing the emotional exuberance the landscape conveys to me.”
Silverwood was a humble artist. Even after she achieved recognition, she admitted to Robins that she hadn’t really believed success would come to her as an artist. After Silverwood fell ill, Robins remembers how the lawyer came by a few days before Silverwood’s death, and exclaimed over the captivating paintings the artist had produced during her lifetime. She responded, “I am good, aren’t I?” Robins found the moment incredibly satisfying, as she believes her friend finally recognized her life for what it was: a veritable flow of creative talent and energy.
Robins is the executor of Silverwood’s estate, a role which reflects the close friendship the women enjoyed. The painter was prolific; Robins estimates she sold at least 30 Silverwood paintings a year. Her estate left about 300 original pieces, though only five of her highly regarded Chaco Canyon series remain.
In the early 2000s, Silverwood visited Chaco Canyon for the first time, and the setting left an indelible mark on her work. She knew instantly she had to paint the national historic park, despite her identity as a landscape painter. The Chaco Canyon series was a distinct turn in Silverwood’s career. She took an abstracted approach, rendering the ancient walls and windows in an intense saturation of color. “They’re so minimal,” describes Robins, “especially in contrast to her previous work.” Robins asserts that the Chaco Canyon study affected Silverwood going forward by emboldening her already brilliant use of color.
“She loved the places she painted, and she wanted to ensure someone else experienced that place the same way she did,” Robins reflects. “She wanted people to love and experience New Mexico. She just couldn’t get enough of the landscape.” Mary’s work continues to remind people of the high desert’s power and lure.