The Maynard Dixon sky

The California artist painted the American West more beautifully than anyone ever painted it before ― or since

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Maynard Dixon cover

September 1934 cover of Sunset magazine

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It's not that the log house and studio aren't handsome. They're just hard to notice against a landscape that conks you on the head with its glory: the narrow valley of the Virgin River, the castellated cliffs with names like Diana's Throne and Sugar Knoll, the infinite denim blue sky.

The view was why Maynard Dixon came to Mt. Carmel, Utah. "He had painted around here before," says Paul Bingham, an art dealer who with his wife, Susan, purchased and restored Dixon's cabin and studio and opened them to visitors. "In 1938 he bought 20 acres for $200."

Maynard Dixon helped create the American West. You may have seen his magazine covers ― he did them for Sunset, among others, for 30 years ― or his paintings. You may have seen works by all the later artists who take after him. Like his mesas and mountains, Dixon casts a long shadow.

"Dixon never idealized the West," Paul likes to say. That may be because ― unlike Georgia O'Keeffe or Frederic Remington ― he wasn't an eastern import. He was from here: born in Fresno, California, in 1875, trained in San Francisco. "He painted what he saw."

He saw a lot. He needed to "go east to see the West," Dixon once said. So, at age 25, he abandoned the hubbub of San Francisco's commercial art scene to travel the interior West: Montana, Oregon, Nevada goldfields, but above all the desert Southwest. Here, residents did not always understand the man who showed up with his pencils and paints. "In those days in Arizona, being an artist was something you had to endure," Dixon recalled later. "I was regarded as a wandering lunatic."

Still, out of the lunatic wanderings came a long career's worth of art. Study a Dixon canvas with the Binghams and you learn a lot about his technique. The halos around his mountains that make them glow with life, the balance between cubist abstraction and precise observation of the natural world. "He knew his desert plants," Paul says. "You can tell the difference between his rabbitbrush and sagebrush."

Not being an art expert myself, I notice something strange. You don't just see a Dixon painting, you hear it. Every cottonwood (he loved cottonwoods) rustles in an unseen breeze. Every cloud (he loved clouds even more) carries an echo of distant thunder. Look at the cover of the September 1934 Sunset. There's the horse and rider descending Zion Canyon. There, too, in your mind's ear, is the clop of hooves on trail, the wind polishing the canyon walls.

Dixon suffered some ― unhappy marriages, poor health ― but he was never a starving artist. He made a decent living; he could afford his Utah studio. Today some of his canvases can fetch a million dollars. Still, Paul Bingham feels Dixon doesn't quite get his due in museums or art-history books. It's the elitist, East Coast thing: "For a long time, academic critics thought that anything that had sagebrush and desert was unimportant."

Well, never mind. We have him. When an artist is good, he changes not just art but also the world. Which is why, in the end, the log studio is as important as the landscape in which it resides. Diana's Throne and Sugar Knoll, the walls of Zion Canyon: Without Dixon showing us how to see them, we might not love them as much as we do.

"It's funny," says Susan Bingham. "I was from Utah ― I was aware of the big sky. But I was never enamored of the desert. It was a big, dry place you had to drive across to get somewhere. Dixon gives you an appreciation of the landscape you didn't have before. He tells you about the American West. Now I look out and say, 'That's a Maynard Dixon sky.'"

INFO: Maynard Dixon's studio in Mt. Carmel, Utah, is open through Oct; on Aug 25-27 it hosts the annual Maynard Dixon Country festival. www.maynarddixon.com or 877/348-2473.

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