FREMONT F. ELLIS
Last of Los Cinco Pintores of Santa Fe
by Tom Lea
I think I was set up for believing Santa Fe was something special. It is probable that I was “predisposed,” as they say, to believe Santa Fe was for a fact a Capitol of a Land of Enchantment. Of course, I saw it first at a wonderful time. It was a flavorous old town of about ten thousand permanent residents with none of them seeming to be in much of a hurry. There were no crowds of tourists, no traffic lights, no gasoline engine stinks, few paved streets, only an occasional Indian in sight, and motels hadn’t even been invented yet. I’ll swear the old Plaza was not only a venerable but a quiet kind of place.
In the summer of 1922, I was fifteen years old, and going to be a junior at El Paso High that fall. I was also the earnest owner and blundering operator of a box of oil paints, and I was possessed of a desire deeply dyed, oh a serious desire, to become an artist. The real thing. Someday a painter of note.
There was, I realized, a lot I didn’t know about it. In all my life, for instance, I had never yet set foot in a museum of art. Where I lived there was no such thing. Moreover, I had never yet had the privilege of meeting, or talking to, or being able to see inside the studio of a real artist—a pro—a working pro. With a north light, and a big daub-marked steady easel, and a palette set with a rainbow of bright colors, and a whole bunch of hog bristle brushes sticking up out of a jar on a work table, and canvases stacked, face to the wall.
Santa Fe was my chance!
I was on a motor trip with my folks, and we were staying at the DeVargas Hotel for a couple of days while my dad took care of some legal business for New Mexico clients. For me, it turned out to be a memorable time! I did set foot in a museum of art. And the next day I met, and I talked to, and I saw the studio of, a real artist, a working pro—a painter by the name of Fremont Ellis.
Thinking back, three score and seven years later, I can remember that I was excited, and also uncertain inside myself about myself, walking alone under the long portal in front of the Palace of the Governors, headed for the Museum of Art on the next block down the street. I can remember some hollyhocks in the sun by an adobe-colored wall, and walking in the Museum’s wood-carved door, and feeling all of a sudden what a lot I had to learn; and I wished, how I wished, I could paint like that! Seeing the originals—not just reproductions in a book or magazine—of oil paintings, watercolors, pastels, framed drawings, wood blocks, matted etchings, I stayed looking, from way back, and from as close as my eyes could get, till long after noon. In one of the galleries, I eavesdropped. Two fellows stood arguing; at least they were both trying to make a point, in front of what seemed to me to be a modernistic-looking water color, a landscape. One fellow had a yellowish beard (in those days there weren’t many beards around), and looked like he had on an old ratty pair of pink bedroom slippers. No socks. I kept hearing the words, “significant form.” The loud-voiced fellow had on what was called a Windsor flowing tie, emerald green, and looked kind of like a seedy city dude in a big cowboy hat. Artists, for sure—maybe even famous ones.
There was a very nice lady at the desk where I bought some postcards of paintings before I left. I asked her if she could tell me where I could go to see an artist’s studio. She must have been amused. She said I ought to go up the Camino del Monte Sol: there were some new adobe studios up there built by some very interesting young artists. They were a group calling themselves Los Cinco Pintores—the Five Painters, she translated, not knowing I was a border town Texan from El Paso. I was embarrassed to ask her how to get to the Camino del Monte Sol, but it stayed in my mind—Road of the Sun Mount. In a town named Holy Faith. At the foot of the Blood of Christ Mountains. Whew!
That evening we had dinner with Dad’s friend, Federal Judge Colin Neblitt, and he told me how to go if I wanted to get from the DeVargas to the Camino del Monte Sol up on the edge of town.
“Santa Fe, bless its old haht, is changing,” I heard the Judge tell my dad. “We now have ah-teests all aboot us” (he was from Virginia). “Some very good, I unduhstand. And some—but I know not a dahmed thing aboot aht.” And I head my dad say, “Young Tom seems crazy about it.”
Next morning I did find the place where you turned right and began heading uphill along the pair of wheel ruts that a man said, “Yup it’s the Cumeenah Monty Sole awright; used to be called Telephone Road.” The houses strung up the road were most all of them built on the right hand side, and I walked clear up to where there were no more houses just open ground speckled with pinon and cedar sloping east up to the pine timbered Sangre de Cristos.
I’ve gone past Los Cinco Pintores, I thought. And what a view! I stood across the road from the last house for a long time, up there in the quiet, looking around.
There was a shine, a silvery sort of radiance, in air scented faintly with wood smoke and pinon and cedar boughs warm in the sun. A man without a hat came from around the back of the last house up there on the Camino. I can’t remember now exactly what was said, but it went very much like this:
“Looking for someone?”
“Oh, no sir. I was just looking.”
He was wearing a flannel shirt and khaki riding pants and scuffed lace-up boots. His belt was real long and the end hung down, dangling from the buckle. He was built slight and spry looking, flat-bellied, and hardly any taller than I was.
“It’s sure keen up here,” I said, a little apologetic.
His face was clean shaven, but his brownish blonde hair was noticeably long, combed in a pompadour straight back over the top of his head, clear down to the collar at the back of his neck.
“What brought you?” he asked. He looked good humored asking.
“The lady at the Museum told me about Los Cinco Pintores and—I believe he must have noticed how I pronounced the Spanish and used ‘Los’ instead of ‘The.’”
“Where you from?”
“I lived down there for a while. You paint?”
“I wish I could paint.”
“What’s your name?”
I told him, and he said, “I’m Fremont Ellis. I live here.” He indicated it with his thumb.
“You’re one of the five painters?”
“Right. We exhibit together.”
“Well,” he said, “would you like to come in? See what I’m doing?”
“Would I? Oh, man!”
We walked into a room maybe not as big and more cluttered, but absolutely like I had figured a real studio: the north light, easel with painting on it, great big thumb-hole palette all spread with color, work table cluttered, wadded up paint rags, brushes all sizes, canvasses face to the wall—and something I hadn’t imagined so much: the aromatic scent of spirits of turpentine with cold pressed linseed oil and damar varnish. It seemed like incense to me, standing there.
The painting on the easel was contrasty darks and lights: stormy sky with a shaft of sunlight hitting a hillside beyond a row of dark cottonwoods, and the shadowy shape of a long wall and adobe house with a dark door in the foreground. Moody. All with big brush strokes and thick paint.
I didn’t know what to say about it without showing ignorance, so I said, “It’s really swell.”
“Needs work. The foreground,” Fremont Ellis said. “You paint in oils?” He had gray-blue eyes looking straight in my face.
“I try.” I said. It gave me my chance to say something. “But oil paint doesn’t handle like I want, hardly ever. It gets sort of muddled. The lights get darkened, and the darks get lightened some way.”
“I bet you’re putting on the paint too thick and then fussing with it on the canvas. Lots of beginners are afraid to use the paint. They thin it and then use it like they’re scared they’ll run out. Then they see it on the canvas weak—and often in the wrong place, too—and they try to correct it by piling on more thin paint until the tone gets lost, and you have to scrape the whole thing off and start over—the main thing, handling oil paint, you got to keep it decisive! Crisp, see? You think what you’re gonna do before you do it. You mix exactly the color you want, and plenty of it, on the palette and only then do you load the brush and stroke it on the canvas exactly where you have already decided it has to go. Crisp, see? Like that raw sienna and white on that hillside area here. And then leave it! Don't start monkeying with it! Crisp, see? Did you bring any of your work here with you?”
“Next time you come, you let me see something, will you?”
It was about noon when I went walking down the Sun Mount Road from Mr. Fremont F. Ellis’ studio, headed toward town and the DeVargas Hotel, and El Paso tomorrow—and my paint box. The elixir and the enchantment in the Santa Fe air that day blended CHRISP, see, with the incense and the magic of painting pictures, and it all gripped my soul.
I managed brief returns to Santa Fe during the next two summers, and of course, I went up to see Fremont Ellis. I never got the nerve to show him one of my paintings, but I did show him drawings in my sketch book and some prints of linoleum blocks I made. He treated me like an adult. He even made me feel like a fellow artist as I looked at the landscapes he took the time and trouble to put on the easel to show me.
It was a deeply felt experience for me, knowing this painter in Santa Fe, seeing how he studied, how he struggled to show with the pigments on his palette how he loved the light and the look of the grand world he lived in.
Santa Fe stayed special, with a grip on my soul, during the eight years I lived away from my native Southwest.
One winter’s day in Chicago, in a steam-heated studio on North Clark Street, three snow-crusted gray city blocks from an iced-over gray river, I whittled shavings, sharpening a drawing pencil into an empty tin watercolor pan. I put a match to the little pile of cedar wood shavings and it burned there in the quiet, a thin poignant whiff to remember: faraway wood smoke, tinged faintly with pinon and cedar warmed in the sun.
Early in 1933, in the very depths of the Great Depression, my wife, Nancy—she was an unpublished writer—and I decided it was about time for us to leave Chicago and head west. We had nearly a thousand dollars in savings from my work as an assistant in John Norton’s mural studio, and we used it—we thought very carefully—to grub stake a home and an entirely new way of living, in Santa Fe, New Mexico, a place we had dreamed of for a long time.
Fremont Ellis no longer lived in his house on the Camino. He had moved to the new more spacious studio home he had built about ten miles south of Santa Fe, on a property he had acquired and named Rancho San Sebastian, some three hundred acres of hilly pinon and cedar country on the Vegas Road close by the Lamy cut-off.
There at the Rancho, upon a four-acre site Nancy and I chose and which Fremont provided—on credit—we built what we could barely afford, a one-room adobe house-studio, up on the ridge of a thickly wooded hill about a half mile of rocky road from where Fremont lived with his beautiful Latin wife, Lencha, and his two endearing children, Bambi and Freddy.
Our new home boasted no utilities. Not a single pipe or wire connected it with ‘civilization.’ But it had a view, a sublime view, looking out upon a hundred leagues of unpeopled and untroubled mountain and plain and blue distance under a majestic dome of sky. There were stars in our eyes, brushes and pens and notebooks in our hands, and great hopes in our hearts then, living in our house on the hill.
There was the matter of having to make a living. Shortly after arrival in Santa Fe, I had the luck of landing a part time job as an artist-draftsman on the staff of the Laboratory of Anthropology in town. Though it kept me from total devotion to my own sketchbooks and paint box, it and a few other providential odd jobs put enough chow on our lean hilltop table to keep us going and growing.
In town, times were tough. For most artists those days, selling a picture was practically out of the question. Fremont Ellis was an exception. Even in Depression Days, we saw him manage to provide for his family and himself the kind of life he wanted to live, by selling or trading his paintings—without deviating from his own intent course as a dedicated artist. Art circles in town were heard using the term ‘pot boiler’ referring to the often repeated theme of golden aspens or fall-time cottonwoods in many Ellis paintings. In our view from the hill, we found some aesthetic snobbery and a grain of covert envy involved in this disdain expressed for a man who painted pictures people often liked so well they bought them.
We shared happy times on the Rancho San Sebastian with the Ellis family, all four of them. We became close friends. The wives, Lencha and Nancy, liked each other, and this strengthened the friendship between Fremont and me. We were often at each other’s tables and in each other’s studios. We watched each other’s work, and we listened to what each other had to say about things in general and things in particular.
Up there on our hill with a view in a land we believed enchanted, Nancy and I felt that we had found the right place, that we were now doing the right thing with our lives and with the work that enthralled us—until Nancy fell ill, and at the hospital in Santa Fe underwent surgery for acute appendicitis, and never recovered. After more than a year of illness, she died in an El Paso hospital on the first of April in 1930.
Three weeks after her death, I went up the hill to the house, loaded some things I wanted on a pickup truck, left the house key in the lock on the door and drove away. I never went back. I never saw Fremont Ellis again. In May of 1936, I began life and work again in El Paso where I was born.
In all the years of my life, I think I never met a man so in love with painting, the physical act of painting, as Fremont Ellis. He loved the very pigments he squeezed from tubes to his palette. He was deeply enamored of the very exercise of painting, of the heft and feel of a loaded brush touching in just the right place upon the textured surface of taut, inviting canvas. The whole magic of the act of painting he loved with hand and heart, the magic of making colors and tomes into depths of space and illusions of light upon the blank flatness of a surface merely two dimensional.
In love with paint, he was also in love with the land where he lived. He was not a portraitist, not a figure painter; he was a landscapist. His grand subject was Earth outdoors, under the light of the open sky; for him, a particular piece of Earth, under the light of a particular sky, the mountains and plains, the hills and valleys, the mesas and gulches, the settlements with their adobe walls under the trees by running water, the cornfields and horse pastures, the aspens and the pines, and small mankind under the light of heaven. Northern New Mexico. In daylight and dark, in storm or shine in summer, winter spring or fall, for sixty-seven painting years he felt the land’s enchantment. He put his skill as a painter with his love for the looks and the moods of the land he lived in, and left us some superb pictures of it.
I believe that Fremont Ellis addressed his deepest feelings about the Almighty and His handiwork—with a paint brush in his hand.