Priscilla, queen of the high desert

Pasatiempo - - Pasa Tempos - Paul Wei­de­man The New Mex­i­can

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

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