With paint and canvas, 30 artists create works to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Texas state parks.
Artist David Caton, who has a knack for painting moving water, carries an easel, canvas and set of paints as he hikes along the Frio River at Garner State Park. At a particular spot, the river tumbles over rocks and a limestone shelf to form a set of rapids. Caton settles in to paint the scene on his small canvas as a study for a larger work.
At LBJ State Park and Historic Site, painter and muralist Fidencio Duran looks for artistic inspiration at the Sauer-Beckmann Living History Farm, a place that reminds him of his own rural Texas childhood. As the chickens peck at feed and workers tend the garden, Duran finds the subject he wants to paint: two women working with wool and spinning thread outside a cabin.
The two resulting artworks from Caton and Duran are part of The Art of Texas State Parks: A Centennial Celebration, 1923-2023, a portfolio of paintings commemorating the 100th anniversary of the state park system. Thirty artists (primarily landscape) from across Texas were assigned two or three parks each.
“This is the first time in the history of state parks in Texas that we’ve commissioned a group of artists to do a visual survey of the parks of Texas,” says art expert and project co-organizer William Reaves.
“They spent a year and a half painting and capturing the park from their perspective in the time they were there. It’s not only a fabulous exhibition of landscape paintings but a historical record of the state parks of Texas.”
The paintings, done in a variety of styles, were collected into a book from Texas A&M University Press and will form a traveling exhibit across the state
to serve as a visual celebration of state parks during the anniversary year.
Here’s a sneak peek at some of the artists:
Billy Hassell’s boldly colored visuals portray Caddo Lake, Daingerfield and the future state park Powderhorn.
South Texas native Noe Perez strives to reveal the beauty of his region in his paintings of Mustang Island and Goose Island.
Husband and wife artists William Montgomery and Margie Crisp incorporate their lifelong love of nature and naturalist knowledge into their paintings — Hueco Tanks and Fort McKavett for Montgomery and Franklin Mountains and South Llano River for Crisp.
Clemente Guzman III was the staff artist for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department for almost 30 years, and he builds on that experience with his paintings of Palmetto, Government Canyon and Lake Somerville.
Marfa artist Mary Baxter takes canvas and paint into the wilds of the Big Bend region to create works reflecting Devils River and Chinati Mountain.
"These are not the first artists to have wandered out and painted the lands that are the state parks of Texas," Reaves says. "Those places that are now state parks have attracted artists from the beginning."
These current paintings of state parks build on a rich history of Texas landscape art that includes Julian Onderdonk's bluebonnebts, Frank Reaugh's longhorns, Porfirio Salinas' Hill Country scenes and works from notable Texas visitors such as John James Audubon and Georgia O'Keeffe.
"There's a great diversity of paintings here, both in subject maater and style," says Andrew Sansom, project co-organizer and former director of TPWD and the Meadows Center for Water and the Environment. "We've got water; we've got wildlife. These artworks broadly reflect the parks as they are today. It's a worthwhile and exciting project, and I hope there's a real benefit for state parks."
Each artist created paintings for the book and exhibition and additional paintings to be sold to benefit the Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation, TPWD's nonprofit partner.
THE ART OF GARNER AND BIG BEND RANCH
IN CATON’S GARNER PAINTING, Blinn Trail Rapids, the Frio transitions from the white turbulence of the rapids into the clear, green-blue water for which the river is famous.
“I’ve painted these rapids a number of times,” Caton tells patrons at the Foltz Fine Art sale of state park paintings last summer in Houston. “I’ve set up there probably 15 times. They’re maybe the biggest falls in the park. I like it because of the colors of the water. It’s dramatic. People like moving water, and I love painting water.”
Caton moved from Houston to the Hill Country town of Utopia to be closer to Garner, Lost Maples and other Hill Country scenic spots — and Big Bend.
Garner and Big Bend have been the primary subjects of Caton’s work for several years. In addition to Garner, Caton also painted Big Bend Ranch and Davis Mountains as part of the state park centennial project.
“I would say that for me, Garner, Big Bend and Big Bend Ranch have changed my life,” he says. “They’ve changed the type of painter I am. They’ve affected my subject matter and affected the way I think about landscape. To be asked to be part of this project was truly an honor and a privilege.”
Caton is known as a skilled painter of water and rivers, and that skill is evident in Blinn Trail Rapids.
To paint water, Caton explains, “You have to come up with a strategy. What are you looking at? What exactly are you seeing?”
He broke the process down to three layers.
“The first layer is what’s being reflected on top of the water, and that might be trees or sky, or it might be glinting light if you’re looking into the sun,” he says. “The second layer is what’s under the water. I try to get a base color of the general color of what I'm looking at under the water. And then I’ll put in my values like the bottom side of a rock and a shadow, but all underwater. The third layer is the refracted light hitting those rocks, like the dappled light under the water of swimming pool.”
For Caton’s Big Bend Ranch work, he set up his easel on the Big Hill, a well-known landmark on the River Road with commanding views of the Rio Grande to the west. Instead of that view, he turned his easel in the other direction, toward Colorado Canyon, for his painting, To the East.
“I wanted to do something dramatic, almost theatrical,” Caton says. “The Big Hill looking east — that’s such a fantastic, dramatic view that you see with all the canyons zig-zagging off in the distance.”
For each artwork, Caton creates small “plein air” paintings — on location outdoors — and takes those back to his studio to produce larger works. The plein air studies — whether of water or canyons — allow Caton to capture the mood of what he saw in nature.
“I don’t care a whole lot about, you know, is that rock right where it should be,” he says. “I try to get it as close as I can, but I’m really spending my time concentrating on color and really trying to nail the impression of the way the light looks.”
THE ART OF LBJ AND LOCKHART
FOR FIDENCIO DURAN, his visit to LBJ State Park’s living history farm — where park rangers in historical clothing gather eggs and churn butter — was a trip back to his own childhood growing up in rural Central Texas.
“My parents worked as tenant farmers, and we lived on a on a farm, with cotton fields mostly,” Duran says. “My grandparents lived right down the road, and they lived in a very small little house with a wood-burning stove. We always had chickens, and we also always butchered a hog in winter for meat and raised our vegetables. It takes me back quite a bit.”
Duran is best known for his large-scale narrative murals that can be seen in places such as Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. His work depicts the daily life of his Mexican-American family and community — playing dominos, preparing meals in a kitchen, watering a garden.
“It’s very, very much tied to my childhood upbringing, which I have used as the foundation of the body of work for which I am recognized and which really propelled me into my career as a working artist,” says Duran, who grew up outside Lockhart and was also tapped to paint Lockhart State Park for the centennial project.
His connections to Lyndon Johnson go deeper than their shared small-town upbringing. Duran’s family benefited from Johnson’s rural electrification program, and Duran participated in Head Start, a preschool program initiated by LBJ.
At LBJ State Park, the women spinning thread and carding, or combing, wool, reminded him of his mother, who sewed clothes and made quilts.
“I think about how much time it can take to make something as simple as a thread, spinning thread from wool,” he says.
Duran took a series of photos of the women to use as the basis for his painting. Back at his home studio in Austin, Duran redrew the image on a canvas using a grid.
After drawing, he started filling in the colors and forms.
“I usually prefer to start with the lighter tones, with the idea that if you start with a lighter values and colors and tonalities, it’s much easier to cover that with a darker tone,” he says as he paints. “The image has a lot of nice light and dark interplay, but it has to be planned out, and you really have to layer it, gradually, gradually.”
He explains how black isn’t just black and why he wants his blacks to have some warmth.
“Even though this is going to be a shadow, I’m going to go ahead and give it some color first, so that it’s going to be shaded over the color, and it’ll be richer,” he says. “It’ll have a deeper sense of color and more of a visual presence.”
His painstaking process reflects the things he values in the LBJ scene and his own family upbringing — the importance and dignity of work, of craftsmanship, of patience.
The resulting artwork doesn’t look like the others in the centennial art series. There are no trees or animals. But there is history. And, if you look closely, there is warmth in the shadows.
“I hope that when people read the book, they’ll see variety of landscapes, from the marshlands of the coastal plains to the pine forests of East Texas, the canyons of the Panhandle and West Texas and the deserts and rivers of South Texas,” Duran says. “It just lends itself to exploration. I hope it inspires them to explore the state and to appreciate all the people who have made it what it is today.”
100 YEARS OF PARKS
THIS COLLECTION of paintings provides an unmatched look at Texas State Parks as the park system celebrates 100 years.
The state parks, with their rivers, trees, rocks, buildings and wildlife, find expression in acrylic, oil, watercolor, light, composition, color and painterly vision.
“With styles as diverse as the state parks they have sought to capture, they vary in terms of their approaches to their park assignments,” William and Linda Reaves write in the book. “Despite their wonderful variations, all share commonly in a genuine appreciation of the flora, fauna, and built environments of their home state, and above all, each holds a deep regard for the state’s public park system as emblematic of the Texas character writ large.”
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