Longtime Arizona artist Merrill Mahaffey is showcasing his latest solo exhibit, The Art of Merrill Mahaffey: Upstream Downstream, through December 15 at Desert Caballeros Western Museum, in Wickenburg. We talked to Mahaffey about this show, and below, in his own words, are his thoughts about the exhibit, his love of the West and what inspires him.
Tell me about your upcoming exhibit. What is Upstream Downstream? And how did this collection come to be?
Upstream Downstream is a metaphor for my life and my journey/adventure to find my road as an artist. My work is so often about water and erosion and the forms we see upstream and downstream. The collection is an evolving narrative of my work for the past three decades.
You’re clearly in love with the West — why the fascination with the American West? What draws you to the area?
When I was 8 years old, on a government field trip to what is now Dinosaur National Monument, I recall sitting on a rock around the campfire with my dad and four biologists. One was a herpetologist and collected gray desert lizards with an eight-shot Iver Johnson revolver (out to about 10 feet, he seldom missed). He filled formaldehyde liter containers with the remains of the poor reptiles. (It’s OK; there are still plenty who are descended from the survivors.) That particular night we sat around the campfire discussing the “Wild Bunch,” who might have used this very same camp, and we talked about Tom Horn and his guilt or innocence, surrounded by the Zane Grey-style ponderosa pines. The West is where I was, where I grew up, where I live. I am fascinated by other places as well, but this is where I am.
Is there a favorite area in the West that you love to paint?
Marble Canyon. A Grand Canyon river trip starts at Lees Ferry, Arizona. From there every mile is surveyed downstream to Lake Mead. Downstream from the ferry 50 miles is deep in the walls of Marble Canyon. At that point the river is also 3,000 feet below the South Rim. It is a section of pure rock formations and river water. Sandy beaches are campsites, no campfires.
Talk to me about your style. How would you describe it, how has it evolved and what makes a “Merrill Mahaffey” a “Merrill Mahaffey?”
My work is firstly representational. It is my view of nature. As one can see in the Desert Caballeros exhibit, it has an evolving narrative. The subjects I choose, I hope to be truthful and evocative. When a middle-aged, intoxicated mining engineer saw my Morenci mine painting in a Santa Fe gallery, he became tearful. I had exceeded my goal. My work claims to be realistic, but is multi-faceted, layered with symbolic gestures. It is based on simple geometric composition. Elemental forms combine with gestural forms to describe often-majestic subjects. The big message is erosion, water runs downstream. This journey is my artwork. I use heavy textures to refer to earth, then overlay with transparent colors, which define the colors of light. Time of day is a signature of my realist work. You can see, it’s all very simple.
What are you most excited about in terms of this upcoming exhibit?
Before this exhibit, I was able to visit the Freeport-McMoran mine, in Bagdad. I am learning about Northwestern Arizona, and I loved seeing the inside of the pit. Gravity (fluids) engineering is the essence of all landscapes. Mining is a form of erosion. I came back really inspired to paint the terraces within the pit; you will see this in the show.
Do you have a favorite piece that you’re especially proud of?
“Marble Canyon.” This is the classic descriptive view of the deep part of Marble Canyon. It is the most recent in a long series of renditions of morning-evening depictions. The geologic layers are mirrored in the river, and the dramatic colors suggest that at this place one can experience an ultimate view of nature. This is what might be termed a formal painting.
What’s next after this exhibit?
In January 2014, there will be Water Journey With Water Media, at the Trinity Gallery in downtown Phoenix. I will feature mostly large works on paper with some sketchbook-sized imagery. I start my watercolors with big tools and finish them with little tools — real little.
Fore more information about Desert Caballeros Museum, call 928-684-2272 or visit http://www.westernmuseum.org.