Plein air painter Jack McGowan
Plein air painter Jack McGowan

By Jack McGowan

In light of the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon fire — and as a Santa Fe plein air painter — I contacted Renee Buchanan, New Mexico Highlands University (NMHU) Foundation art curator and archivist, with an idea to contribute to fire relief funds from the sale of art donated and auctioned. I donated “A Welcome Relief at Hermits Peak Fire,” which the NMHU Foundation is using for its Fire Relief Art Auction logo. The painting was done partly en plein air and from a photograph taken by Nedret Gurler of Santa Fe.

The Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon fire started on April 6 and has significantly impacted the area surrounding NMHU, located in Las Vegas, New Mexico. When painters descended on the Plein Air Convention & Expo in early May, smoke from these tragic wildfires had already reached Santa Fe. By the end of the month, almost 800,000 acres had burned statewide, nearly half in Northern New Mexico. Up to 3,000 hotshot firefighters joined those fires with heroic efforts to contain the blazes, an effort for which all New Mexicans are grateful. Artists are also wanted to help address the human suffering caused by these fires by raising up to $25,000 for fire relief in this art auction.

Jack McGowan, “A Welcome Relief at Hermits Peak Fire,” oil on linen, 18 x 24 in.
Jack McGowan, “A Welcome Relief at Hermits Peak Fire,” oil on linen, 18 x 24 in.

My goal with this composition was to capture an evocative image that brings home the tragedy of loss from this fire. This includes the Sangre de Cristo mountain range and Montezuma Castle in the golden triangle of the painting foreground. The castle was originally built as a Santa Fe Railroad hotel, operated by Fred Harvey, and visitors during that time ranged from Theodore Roosevelt to Billy The Kid. Today it is home to the United World College, from which students were evacuated in early May.

The historic City of Las Vegas is, as noted above, home to New Mexico Highlands University, with Hermits Peak, for which the fire is named, as a background. Using aerial perspective, I worked to reflect the depth of the Sangres, with the smoke plume prominently impacting mountain forests. I hope that the fire bomber winging past the setting moon, from Nedret Gurler’s photo, will cause the viewer to catch their breath just a bit as they consider the dramatic impact this fire has had on the community. This plane would indeed be a welcome relief, as the water it drops will help to contain the fire.

For more information about the Fire Relief Fund, please visit:

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