– Bob Bahr reporting, Editor PleinAir Today –
California artist Davis Perkins has a work history that holds more than a little bit of excitement and stress. Maybe that’s why he has always enjoyed plein air painting.
Lead Image: One of Davis Perkins’ paintings was featured on the poster for an exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution on smokejumpers.
Perkins was in the 82nd Airborne in the Army, then he switched over to special forces. After his honorable discharge, he became a smokejumper — a firefighter who parachutes out of planes to fight forest fires in areas too remote to reach any other way. Perkins was a smokejumper for 13 years, then he joined the fire department in San Francisco. After retiring from there, he volunteered as a paramedic. Perkins still volunteers as a paramedic, flying to hotspots to help in relief efforts. He was in Nepal after the devastating earthquake in 2015. He worked in Liberia during the worst of the Ebola outbreak. And he continues to fly to Greece to help with the refugee crisis involving Turkey and Syria.
But ever since he was a smokejumper, Perkins has also painted and sketched. In the early days, it meant sketching scenes and portraits at night while the firefighters relaxed around the campfire. “That job didn’t pay much, but those guys were my brothers,” Perkins says. “They encouraged me, told me, ‘You have to pursue this — you have this talent.’ As a young smokejumper, my friends gave me the confidence to pursue being an artist.”
Perkins has done some pieces depicting smokejumpers, but mostly he depicts beautiful scenes. As he prepared for a new exhibition at the Dominican University of California in San Rafael, some of the students posed questions to him. “One woman said, ‘Look at your life over here [smokejumper and paramedic] and your life here [plein air artist].’ It sparked me to think about maybe it is all a balancing act in my life. Painting keeps me kind of grounded. I think it is a delicate balancing act that I’m not really aware of.”
Perkins is definitely aware of many other things, such as the wind, the clouds, the terrain, the timber, and the geology of the scenes he’s depicting. In the past, his life depended on it. “When you are out there fighting a fire with very limited resources, you have to be aware of all the risks and have a constant vigilance about what’s happening around you,” says Perkins. “You are thinking of your own and your crew’s safety. So still, when I am perched on the hillside painting, I am thinking about clouds and the winds associated with them. I note the terrain, and I have a natural tendency to think of the fuel types there and possible escape routes — which are kind of an enormous thing when you are fighting forest fires. As a painter, I am trying to be aware of the changing weather patterns and how that is going to affect my light and how long I can be out there. There’s more of an awareness of what’s going on around me.”
Forest fires are often caused by lightning, and the fires are usually part of a natural cycle, as devastating as they can be. But Perkins deals with a lot of catastrophes that are made or exacerbated by humans. Does this get him down? He laughs ruefully at the question. “Forest fires have a lot to be said for them, compared to seeing what humans will do to other humans.” But Perkins puts himself back into the fray, repeatedly. He can’t seem to precisely explain why, but it almost seems to be executed by him as a sort of apology, for what Americans have done or not done, or what humans have done or not done. Perkins wants to help. He feels compelled to help.
But these days, his mind is on his upcoming show. “A Life of Purpose: Paintings by Davis Perkins” opens at Dominican University on November 4 and runs through December 16, and features more than 50 pieces. “The exhibition is a nice break,” Perkins says. “It gave me time to commit to painting and concentrate on that part of my life.”