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Artist of the Month - October 2003

Chad Niehaus: In the Land of Rapture
by Sydney Francis

Birds Eye of Bitter Creek

Chad Niehaus, like many artists, has been doing artwork his whole life. He studied for career in graphic design at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, CO, but switched his major to National Resource Management (of which he also did his graduate work) when he became burnt out in graphic design. While in college, Niehaus came to live in Moab seasonally and he continued to nurture his artistic passions through pastel landscape drawing. Niehaus, now a permanent resident of Moab, works for the Bureau of Land Management here in Moab, as a resource manager. Although Resource Management and fine pastel drawing appear unrelated, his professional work and his artwork are truly complimentary.

 

I originally went to interview Niehaus under the pretense that he did drawings, even though he was primarily a writer. But this is a shallow view of what is really there.

Long

Niehaus makes large-scale soft pastel images (as well as paintings) of landscapes or images that evoke memory, emotion and his experience of the land. His writing officially takes the form a novel called Living for the Epic published this year. Similar to his imagery, the novel recounts Ian’s, the main character’s, adventures of world travel seeking (and finding) ecstatic and intimate experiences with the land.

Sensing that there was more content to Niehaus’ images than beautiful landscape imagery, I probed him for further illumination. Niehaus described his drawings as snapshots of experience, collections of memory, or as records of significant moments in his life. Like the photos in a family album, a person who was witness to the event in the photograph would recall or relive details of the event, like its sights, sounds, smells, and emotions, when provoked by the image. For outsiders, who did not witness the event captured in the image, the viewing contains feeling and emotion, but the feeling is not attached to specific memory and experience of the event. Rather, like looking at some stranger’s family album, one experiences a vicarious intimacy with the experience that is being represented. Niehaus admits that his images were made for personal satisfaction: a compilation of memories for his recollection.

Nevertheless, I find his imagery both visually and emotionally compelling, while exhibiting a universal appeal in terms of their formal qualities. For example,

Nepalese Traffic

Long, one of his most recent pastel drawings, is immediately emotionally engaging. Standing at five and a half feet tall and approximately three feet wide this pastel on raw canvas is overwhelming, like the land it represents. The vibrant colors and simplified shapes exemplify the psychical presence of the scene. The color contrast created between the sky and the rock formations further heightens the emotional force in this image. Through the bold use of contour lines and solid areas of exaggerated color, Niehaus achieves the affect of abstracting the landscape, while making it his own.

The appeal of abstraction and simplicity continues throughout his imagery. In Lured by Coyotes, the viewer experiences an intimate encounter with a single tree on a gently sloping hill. The day— expressed by enchanted clouds, a pale blue sky, and golden grasses swaving to the illusion of a slight. warm breeze— could not be more lovelv and peaceful. Generally, a single figure in a composition, like the lone tree in Lured by Coyotes, signifies isolation and possibly loneliness. In addition, the simplicity of form in this composition generally implies starkness. In contrast to the general reading, however, what is illustrated in this image is the intimacy of the encounter with this particular tree on this particular day. Rather than isolation, the viewer feels solitude; rather than starkness the viewer experiences the friendly presence of something larger than himself.

The quality of emotion expressed by Niehaus’ abstraction of the landscape in his pastel drawings enticed me into questioning him even further, regarding his intimate

Lured By Coyotes

relationship with the landscape. I asked him more or less point blank whether the experiences recorded in these drawings were spiritual experiences. I defined for him spirituality, in my own words, as the self-conscious relationship to and participation with a force larger than oneself. He agreed that under this definition his images (and the adventures recounted in his novel) could be considered records spiritual experience. Niehaus, however, more aptly defined the emotional content of his drawings as records of his experience of rapture, implying full physical, mental, emotional and spiritual engrossment in an experience.

I must concede that rapture is the most appropriate term for what is being conveyed in Niehaus’ pastel drawings. Furthermore, the experience of rapture with the land is the central axis to which the passions of his life revolve: be it stewardship of the land through resource management, wildness adventuring, or the pastel illustration of his experience.

 

 

 

Ghosts of Tropic

 

 
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