Priscilla, queen of the high desert
Priscilla Wiggins has spent the last 33 years painting en plein air, in gorgeous wilderness settings. She has some fun bear stories.
“The scariest time was one time my friends had packed me up into the Weminuche Wilderness up the Pine River, north of Bayfield, Colorado,” the artist said in late May. “I was camped there, and I’d caught and cleaned and cooked a fish, and the next day I went down to get water at the stream, and when I came back on the trail, there were great big bear tracks over mine.
“I was painting, and the flies were incredible that morning, so I was in my tent taking a break and eating raisins, and all of a sudden there was a bear coming right to my tent, which is pretty unusual, so I knew there might be a problem.”
Black bears usually avoid human beings. Sometimes they’re less careful when they’re inebriated from eating lots of autumn berries that ferment in their stomachs.
“I started banging on a pot with a spoon and yelling at the top of my lungs, but he just came and sat down right in front of the tent and started scratching himself. So I started visualizing seeing the bear’s face in the tree trunks way in the distance. I was shaking like a leaf, but I kept holding that thought, and pretty soon he got up and walked way over there, and I could see him just like I was visualizing him.”
Wiggins’ beautiful landscape paintings show at Eli Levin Studio from Friday, June 4, through June 17. Some are in oils, and some are watercolors. She does the oils when she’s car-camping and will be in one place for a while. Other times, when she is just doing a day hike or painting during winter sojourns on St. John in the Virgin Islands, watercolors are more practical.
“A couple weeks ago, I was on Comb Ridge in Utah, and it was beautiful, but the weather was so blustery, so I didn’t set up my easel,” she said. “But every day I hiked up and did watercolors.”
Those are full paintings. Wiggins doesn’t do studies, and she doesn’t paint based on photographs. It’s not that she’s a purist or anything. “That’s the only way I can do it, really, to tell you the truth,” she said. “I have to be there. I have to smell the smells and feel the wind and hear the sounds, because I’m not really painting realism. I’m painting something about — I don’t know how to put it in words, but I have to be there.”
When she was a little girl, Wiggins learned to paint in a program sponsored by Columbia University. She grew up in New York, New Jersey, and New Hampshire and then studied art for two years at Bennington College in Vermont.
“They don’t have grades, and you create your own program,” she said of Bennington. “I took what was called Four Workshops, which included semester studies on color, form, base, things like that. That was my grounding in art, and I think it’s partly because of Bennington that I feel I can do what I want to do. They taught us to be brave.”
Thus the livelihood of living year-round out of a car-camper, painting ocotillo and prickly pear cactus, mountains and