CREATIVE PEAKS: Hidden in the Light

By on April 5, 2016

Teton Artlab artist in residence meets the mountains and skies of his dreams.

Artist James Naughton’s interest in Thomas Moran influenced his work and catalyzed his journey to Jackson. (Photo: teton artlab)

Artist James Naughton’s interest in Thomas Moran influenced his work and catalyzed his journey to Jackson. (Photo: teton artlab)

JACKSON HOLE, WY –  More than 140 years ago Thomas Moran joined the Hayden Expedition, one of the first government organized exploration parties of what would become Yellowstone National Park. Moran’s paintings and sketches of the massive waterfalls and spouting geysers influenced Congress to create the world’s first national park.

It also, more than 100 years later, caught the eye of James Naughton, then a student at Leeds University in England.

The work reminded Naughton of the artist J.M.W. Turner, who had influenced Naughton’s paintings. But Moran’s work captured American subjects that appealed to his boyhood dreams of big adventure. He then learned Moran was born in his same hometown of Bolton, England, and his fascination grew.

Naughton’s interest in Moran’s work led him to Jackson, where this month he’ll work as Teton Artlab’s artist in residence, painting some of the same scenes Moran immortalized decades before.

“We both seem drawn to the drama of light in the landscape and his work gave me a great deal of confidence in using bold colors for the first time when I decided to try and paint professionally,” Naughton explained. “As time went on, the influence of Moran gave way to my desire to create a vision which I felt was more unique to me. So now my work is derived from experiences of the landscape but I am not recording facts in the same way as Moran, so I’d say the way the paint moves plays a bigger part in what I eventually produce.”

Naughton’s work stood out in a competitive applicant pool. The classical styled paintings immediately reminded Travis Walker, executive director of the Teton Artlab, of Moran and Albert Bierstadt.

Naughton’s dramatic sense of lighting also catches a viewer’s eye. “He’s really good at God rays and that kind of aesthetic,” Walker said. “But he does it in a way that isn’t hyper real, but very painterly.” Using a wet brush, Naughton’s careful strokes are discernible in the finished painting.

Naughton wanted to come and learn in the same area Moran painted. The time in Jackson will allow him to explore the area and paint it.

Immersing himself in the landscape and fully experiencing it are important artistic tools for Naughton. He then uses the painting process as a memory trigger for a sense of place. “So initially, I have no idea what will emerge,” he said.

Lighting is a central and defining part of his work. Even when he was a student painting people in pubs, light intrigued him. That continued when he became a professional painter focusing on landscapes.

Light gives drama, but also gives work a spiritual quality, too, Naughton said. People have a sophisticated and strong relationship with light, he hopes his work reveals something of that.

“Because of the way I work I believe that paint has its own way of communicating the nature of light, a bit like a secret language and my job is to try and keep discovering that rather than knowing everything I can within my control,” he said. “It’s an exciting way to work, but can be frustrating too at times.”

He hopes viewers are somehow overwhelmed by his work, that they find something personal and universal in his paintings, while also feeling that sense of mystery and surprise Naughton feels while he paints.

While in Jackson, Naughton wants to explore the area, but also learn from other artists. He hopes to fully experience the place, draw inspiration and create new work. He’ll be in residency at Teton Artlab through April. An open studio has not yet been scheduled, but will likely be held near the end of the month.

This is the second year Artlab hosts a different artist working in Jackson each month. It’s the result of a residency program Walker began cultivating in 2009. Two hundred and fifty artists applied from all over the world this year. PJH

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