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Susan Altstatt: Western Artist

Susan Altstatt: Artist's Statement

Western art was always about the frontier, that moveable edge between ordinary human life and wilderness. In the nineteenth century that edge crept steadily westward across The North American Continent, and artists followed, creating the iconic images which defined America, the Indians, the pioneers, the miners, the cowboys, the railroad men, right down to the stout-hearted adventurers in Model A Fords, getting their kicks on Route 66.

I was once asked if I could copy Charley Russell paintings. And indeed I could. It was very educational. I would love to paint exactly like Charley Russell. But I know that if I do now exactly what Russell or Remington or other early western painters did, my finished product will differ radically from theirs. They lived with the cowboys and Indians they painted. I don't. If I were to ape their subject matter, I would be dealing in nostalgia and anachronism. Nostalgia and anachronism are well liked, and easy to sell. But they are not what Russell and the others painted. They painted an era passing before their eyes.

I determined that, as the impressionist Manet put it, "I am of my age, I must paint what I see". Eras are still passing in the 21st century west. Looking for the frontier is looking for America. I determined that I would go out to the deserts of California and Nevada, and paint only what I myself could see and photograph.

The desert is the most extreme form of wilderness. The California and Nevada deserts are now depopulated compared to what they were a hundred years ago. Changing times and economics have forced the miner, the cowboy and the Indian off the land. Trains no longer need to be watered and refueled, so the little towns along the track have withered. On the freeways which now span the desert, a driver can get from Las Vegas to Los Angeles nonstop. The frontier has receded. But it's still there.

In the desert, that old raw edge between humanity and wilderness is always visible and on the move. The desert is splendidly full of life and death. Life sings and blossoms, creeps and swarms in the desert. Death is everywhere as well. The desert takes everything apart. Sun, wind, rain, floods, and vandals, both two-and four-footed, all wear away at manifest destiny. Many of the old desert buildings (and old desert men) I have painted are no longer standing. That used to trouble me a lot. Now I realize, it's the name of the game. I am painting life, death, and the passage of time.