The Landscape Come to Life

A retrospective of the work of artist Joellyn Duesberry ’66 illustrates why she is considered one of the best American landscape artists today

by Christina Barber-Just

Above Taos

Above Taos Valley, New Mexico by Joellyn Duesberry

Joellyn (Joly) Duesberry ’66’s 1995 oil painting Above Taos Valley, New Mexico couldn’t have found a better home than at Smith College, where Duesberry began developing her signature style by humbly copying the works of great masters. The painting, part of the Museum of Art’s permanent collection, is a subtle landscape showcasing the artist’s ability to bridge realism and abstract painting, with bold brushstrokes and geometric forms to reflect her bird’s-eye view of the valley below. It represents what she has now come to master herself–the art of the landscape.

The painting was a gift of members of the class of ’66 on the occasion of their thirtieth Reunion. “Joellyn Duesberry is one of Smith’s most accomplished alumnae artists, and we’re delighted to have a work in our collection that’s so perfectly emblematic of her style,” Smith College Museum of Art Director Jessica Nicoll ’83 says.

Above Taos Valley recently returned to Smith from the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, where it was featured in a major retrospective titled “Elevated Perspective: The Paintings of Joellyn Duesberry.” A hefty hardcover book of the same name, distributed by the University of New Mexico Press, was published in conjunction with the exhibition. In it, J. Paul Getty Museum Director Emeritus John Walsh calls Duesberry “one of the best and most interesting landscape painters in this country,” and says she “has long deserved a wider audience.”

The book, which has more than 200 pages and weighs almost four and a half pounds, is a fifty-year survey of Duesberry’s work. Her long career got started at Smith, where she majored in painting and art history and where she honed her skills by making countless copies of masterworks. She went on to get a graduate degree from New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts but is nevertheless considered to be self-taught—a point of pride, for the most part. “Because I wasn’t perpetrating some teacher’s values whom I would have encountered at Yale or Rhode Island School of Design or something, because I wasn’t encouraged in any one direction, I can go in any of thousands of directions,” she says.

Joly Duesberry

“I stalk a picture like a good hunter,” says Duesberry. Photo credit: Ira Kowal

Even with all those possibilities, Duesberry chose landscapes. She’s a plein-air painter who begins her canvases outdoors on an easel and finishes them in the studio, frequently making monotypes in between. (She has studios in Millbrook, New York, and Greenwood Village, Colorado.) “Outdoors is very, very important to me,” she says. “To start outdoors means to be exposed to temperature, bird songs, distractions, moods, and of course the geometry that will galvanize me and make me choose a particular square footage on which to set my easel.”

The 2004 documentary film Joellyn Duesberry: Dialogue with the Artist, which aired on PBS, shows Duesberry in her element, which is to say, the elements. “You see me walking across this field like a huge canvas on legs, and it must be amusing to see what lengths I go to,” she says. “I’ve fallen in rivers, I’ve fallen in the ocean, I’ve done things from the top of water towers. … I stalk a picture like a good hunter.”

It was Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center Museum Director Blake Milteer who coined the phrase “elevated perspective” to describe Duesberry’s penchant for painting from a high vantage point. It’s a preference that yields unique and often stunning perspectives, but one that carries an element of risk. For example, as she told Milteer in an interview published in Elevated Perspective, when she painted Above Taos Valley, the sense of geometry that she wanted to capture “could only be had from above, on top of a very dangerous rock, which I was warned not to climb—yet I did it three times.”

Perhaps Duesberry can afford to be bold because she’s such a survivor. She’s beaten four cancers in four decades—two melanomas, two breast cancers—and survived the events of 9/11 as well. She completed an artist residency on the ninety-first floor of the North Tower not long before the attack, and was in Lower Manhattan near the World Trade Center on that day. The attack claimed the life of an artist in residence who came after Duesberry in the same grant-funded program, called World Views. (A painting Duesberry made in the aftermath of the disaster, titled Memory Time-Lapse, is currently on view at the New York State Museum in Albany.)

“I’ve turned all of these trials and tribulations into triumphs,” says Duesberry, who doesn’t wish to be pitied. Having enjoyed a successful mid-career, the artist, at age 67, is now embarking on her last chapter. “I want it to be my richest chapter, if I am permitted the health and strength to keep on,” she says. “I still think there’s a lot of beauty in the world, and, damn it, I’m gonna find it.”

Christina Barber-Just is a writer in western Massachusetts and is a frequent contributor to the SAQ and the AASC website.