By Jeffery Sparks
“There are some who can live without wild things,” said naturalist Aldo Leopold, “and some who cannot. Like winds and sunsets, wild things were taken for granted until progress began to do away with them.” Texas artist, V.... Vaughan, knows all about this sort of progress. Suburban sprawl reached the edges of her family’s 200-acre, multi-generational farm last year. Then, construction began on new roads and a toll road adjacent to the property. Vaughan’s farm (the place she has painted for the past 30 years) is vanishing into extinction.
“This reality hit hard,” she explains. “I had expected to tell stories to my grandchildren here.” Knowing that her family had to leave, and that the land had fallen into the hands of developers, she decided to do something about it. Beginning last summer, this energetic artist launched her “Last Year on the Farm” project, a pledge to herself to paint one painting of the farm, every day, and that these paintings would chronicle her final year on the farm. “I painted 365 small, plein air paintings. Sometimes I did this in my studio overlooking the northern sections of the farm, but my greater studio was the outdoors, in the fields and rolling hills of the farm itself.” It was out there where Vaughan felt most at home.
It is an incredible achievement. “I produced at least one painting every day, but within this whole ‘Last Year’ series there were four groups of paintings that correspond to each season of the year. I call these my ‘24-in-24,’ which is just like it sounds: 24 paintings in 24 hours. Each of these marathon sessions was named according to the season. I had a ‘Fall Day’ series, a ‘Winter Day,’ ‘Spring Day’ and a ‘Summer Day’ series.” Vaughan admits that she could not escape life’s normal interruptions, even for a day, and so the ‘24-in-24’ paintings were each accomplished within 18 hours. “This was not as hard as one might think. So often all you have to do is turn just a little bit and a new painting presents itself.”
By painting the same landscape for an entire year, it would seem that Vaughan embraces the old adage “paint what you know,” but she is quick to take issue with that notion. “I call that idea ‘the comfortable familiar.’ We cannot paint something we think
we really know. The things I want to paint are the things that make me ache, because I cannot grasp them fully! In fact, I am most drawn to this
farm and this
landscape because it continually surprises me. Just when I think I know it, something about it changes.” Vaughan pauses to reflect on the import of that statement. She explains that the farm, to her, is like an aging loved one, knowing too well that the change that is coming soon will be a permanent change.
This “change” provides the energy and excitement in the “Last Year” painting project. “That sense of change,” Vaughan adds, “is the driving force for this series, and it shows! These paintings capture all of the seasons: the warm sunsets, the driving rainstorms, the cold black nights, and even the lightning storms of Central Texas - everything. You see,” Vaughan continues, “a painting is all about communicating the impression
. Before I pick up the brush I ask, ‘what impresses
me about this subject?’ There is some instant reaction that I want to capture, so I set about to define it, then to refine it, and to describe it with paint. I have found, most often, that the impression
is usually contrasts
, such as light against dark, or warm against cool; the more subtle the contrast, the more impressive the work of art.”
Vaughan’s final day on her farm was Dec. 2, when she painted her “Last Fall Day - 24 Paintings in 24 Hours.” As the “Last Year” painting project drew to a close, she reflected on some important lessons that she has learned both as an artist and as a woman this past year. “Artistically, painting every single day has made me a way better painter. That is the most obvious change that has occurred this past year. However, I believe that the best lessons are those you do not see. These lessons are the story of life. We are not defined by where we live, or what we own, but by who God says we are - individuals created for a purpose.
“My message, especially to women in the arts, is that our place - a land, a house, a family and possessions - cannot define us; they do not make us whole or complete us. And though I know this is absolutely true today, tomorrow I will probably fall apart and stomp my feet about having had to leave the farm. Yet the lessons I have learned this year teach me, wisely, to simply let go and let the seasons change. And, they do, right on time, as faithfully as God has promised they would. The ground is barren when there is no nurturing rain; the sun comes up after terrible storms; the fields become ‘white for harvest’ when they have been watered and are ready to yield their abundance; cows are fed when we wisely put aside hay for the lean times. For over 30 years I have been the ‘artist’ here - observing - with a deep desire to communicate what this farm, and its life, teach.” Now, that wisdom and those lessons live on in Vaughan’s series of 365 paintings.
For the greater part of 2008 Vaughan will take her “Last Year” project on the road. The Great Plains Art Museum, on the University of Nebraska campus in Lincoln, Neb., will be the first to host V…. Vaughan’s “Last Year” project. Vaughan’s work will show at the museum from Jan. 2 through March 15. A book is also forthcoming.
While one can honor Virginia Vaughan for her painting journey (and honors will be most certainly forthcoming) one cannot help but to react to her story. It is, after all, our story.