Don Ward

Visual Impressions by Sara Eyestone for the Taos Art Museum at Fechin House

As we headed north from Santa Fe to Taos on that perfect summer Saturday, it was as if we were driving into a Don Ward painting.  The cool morning air, gorgeous sky, and the enchanted land, with views of the Jemez and the Sangre de Christos, changed from pinions to valley farms along the Rio, before our climb to the Taos plateau. 

We arrived at the studio well before noon, wind-blown from the unruly ride in our convertible.  Anticipation had been building since we first set the date to preview the artist’s newest series that is slated for exhibition at the Taos Art Museum at Fechin House.  After almost two years of painting long days into nights, Don Ward was in the finishing stages of the collection he titled Visual Impressions.      

He must have been watching for us to arrive, as he came out of his studio to welcome us with open arms before we were even out of the car. My husband immediately pulled out his camera and recorded the moment for posterity. 

Don Ward’s story is actually quite simple.  He was born creative, knew from childhood that he was an artist, and he has spent his life developing and refining his incredible talents.  The famous Disney illustrator, Ray Vinella, discovered Ward in the 1960’s and encouraged him to attend the prestigious Art Center College of Design in California. Vinella left shortly thereafter for his life in New Mexico where he became one of the founders of the “Taos Six”. 

After graduation and a decade spent as a commercial artist in Los Angeles, Don Ward followed Vinella to Taos where he found his own way. Today his art is in demand.

His studio is in a huge industrial space next door to his home, a few miles out of town on the high Taos desert. It is flooded with northern light. The ceiling is more than two stories tall, and I notice a loft near the space above the entrance with a self-portrait done on a tremendous canvas during Ward’s student years.  Art supplies are everywhere.  My husband photographs the gorgeous paint mixed on his pallets. 

Enormous canvases, in various stages of completion, lean against the south and west walls, while multiple, heavy-duty easels, placed in no particular pattern, hold other large paintings that are luminous and appear complete.  The subjects are luscious Taos landscapes, so the studio is full of incredible views.  I am unaware of how long it takes me to discover the shelves on the east wall that hold several dozen small paintings.  More landscapes.  Each one is a jewel.

I feast my eyes.  None of us speak.  Don Ward has out-done himself.

I think back to a snowy day in Santa Fe, over lunch by the fire at La Posada, when we discussed his plans to create a series dominated by landscapes rather than the New Mexican skies he is so famous for.  It was easy for me to encourage him since I believe artists should give into inspiration, follow their instincts, and paint from their hearts, regardless of the public demand for particular subjects.

The soft shutter noise of the camera transports me back to the moment.  It is beyond glorious to see so much amazing art behind the scenes. We are there for an hour before the three of us leave the studio with Don Ward in the lead.  First stop is the art museum where we discuss the upcoming installation and his plans to paint in Fechin’s studio during the course of the exhibition, and then we are off to a shaded patio near the church for conversation over lunch before taking The High Road back to Santa Fe.

Over a delicious meal of fajitas and cold beer, this brilliant artist reflects on the process of creating this important exhibition.  He is such a modest man and yet his enthusiasm is infectious when telling us favorite stories about his family, his painting buddies, Richard Nichols and Salvatore Giglio, and some of the memorable experiences he shares with the Taos artists in his figurative drawing group. Today these artists are all lifelong friends, mentors, and icons in the American art scene.

I find myself taking notes since Don Ward has no interest in writing his own story.  He is a man with a dedicated vision and a desire to paint for the rest of his life.    

Sara Eyestone is an artist and a writer.  She is also the art curator at The Art Hotel of New Mexico, La Posada de Santa Fe, and at the exclusive new Hotel Madeline in Telluride, Colorado.