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Stirring Moments Colored by Memory

STANDING in a high mountain stream of the Sangre de Cristo Range, Russell Hamilton reels in a trout. More often than not, he tosses it back. But what he does retain is a vision of the light and forms of a magical, mystical place. He takes no photographs and makes no drawings on site. Once back in his studio, however, he executes in one burst a fresh and vital sketch, usually monochromatic, whose marks are symbols of textures, of currents, of walls of foliage, or air, space, and structure.

By distancing himself from the scene, Hamilton is able to see from within and present the essentials of a stirring moment. He works with the image in subsequent pastels, prints, and oils. It's as if he is developing the theme of a fugue, keeping a strong abstract structure, but adding color and energizing the textures to achieve what he calls "a certain resonance."

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We talked recently as we strolled through his spacious studio in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Lois Tarlow: When I first saw your work about three years ago at a solo show in Santa Fe, the subject was mostly backyards with adobe walls, doorways, and glimpses beyond of the Southwest. Some pieces were in late afternoon light and shadow, and others were in the nighttime. The personal point of view, the strange, even quirky cropping of the scenes, the flat planes of shadowed walls made these pieces strongly abstract and mysterious.

Russell Hamilton: Those are the things I intended to put in the work, so I'm glad that's what you liked. I think that description is also true about these new mountain landscapes even though they are more scenic than the previous work.

They may be more scenic, but they are also more tough-minded. They have to have been done by someone who has spent a lot of time with graphic media - drawing, printmaking, or pastel. Your hand seems to carve out the textured forms and planes.

In college, I majored in both printmaking and drawing. It was all black and white. With pastel I worked out color for myself.

Your color is very personal. In the backyard pastels, it is appealingly offbeat. In these new landscapes, I can't call it soft or ingratiating, because it is often saturated just as it is in clear mountain light.

I do have my own specific way of working, coming from years of printmaking and pastel.

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There's something about the way you handle pastel that looks as easy as breathing.

Pastels are very special to me. They are at the tips of your fingers, you don't have six inches of brush between you and the work.

Your drawings are also remarkable. They have such an immediacy that it's hard to believe they weren't done at the scene.

I always think of the drawings in terms of marks, how to make that mark do what I want. The marks become an alphabet for structuring forms and space in ways that aren't quite the norm. I'll show you some of the sketches I did after my trips.

They are very calligraphic. They are like stream of consciousness in visual terms. Have you shown them?

No, they're really just for me. I could pick any one of these and show you how I took off from it. This drawing came from a camping trip in the mountains and led to a series of monoprints both in horizontal and vertical formats. Next came a somewhat distilled pastel and then two paintings with different compositions. This is my general work process.

Have you always lived in Albuquerque?

No, I'm from Missouri, where I grew up on a dairy farm. We were probably 50 years behind everybody else. We didn't have any mechanical machinery. My three brothers and I milked cows by hand and put up hay with pitchforks. I left the farm to go to engineering school at the University of Missouri at Rolla. After studying physics for two years, I decided those people were too weird. They'd eat, sleep, and drink differential equations until the weekend, and then they'd go crazy.

How did you get from physics to art?

I was always interested in art. In high school, I didn't know which way to go. I didn't know anybody that had been an artist. In southwest Missouri, that wasn't something you contemplated. There was talent running through my family. My maternal grandfather was a sign painter at a time when it was an art form in itself. He painted those big trucks with all that decoration and gold. My dad had a couple of sisters that did art but never as a serious pursuit.

I spent all my spare time at engineering school in my room working on art. After two years, I switched to the state university, which has a good art department. Except for one painting course, I studied drawing and printmaking. Then I came out here to Tamarind, where I got my Master Printing standing.

Tamarind's a very respected print studio. Do you still make prints?

At least once a year I try to do a print. Last summer I did this suite of linocuts with built-up layers of transparent colors. As the layers built up, the surface became glossy. Look how the paint squishes out along each little mark. It looks like a painting. There are six prints in the suite - three vertical and three horizontal. Three day and three night. When I finished these, I felt there wasn't much else I could do with the subject of my backyard. It was a suitable ending.

I think it's very interesting how the application of the medium has changed from the backyard series to the desert works to the new mountain pieces.

It has to do with the simple nature of the subject itself. Both the yard and the desert pieces lent themselves to big, broad areas, patterns, and colors that made the shapes and spaces basically abstract. But when you're standing in the middle of a mountain creek, you're in it. It's all around you, and it's very tactile. My intention is to capture that variability. The great thing about fly fishing is that it makes you an integral part of the place. You become another predator. You have to be aware of ev erything around you.

I have to tell you that I think you're quite brave to take on this subject matter. With your daring color and highly textured areas, you're hanging over the edge.

That's exactly what pushes them beyond being just another picture of mountains. We can talk about aesthetic and technical issues, but when it comes down to my working, it ceases to be any of those things. It just becomes a matter of making the painting. It's a thinking sort of endeavor.

Yes, but you're recreating what excited you, your emotional response.

Oh, sure, they are very personal in that regard. I consider them to be real indulgences.

These are my love songs to the mountains. Because of these mountains, I could never move back to Missouri.

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