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Landscape Totems

A painter conjures mytho-poetic incarnations to make peace between people and nature

Paintings by Sam Scott, text by Peter Nabokov

Published in the July/August 2008 issue of Orion magazine



Canyon Walker (Song of the Canyon Wren), 2004
Noon Blue Boy Wind, 2004
Yellow House Walking, 2004
Standing Figure in a Field of Sunflowers, 2004
Owl/Acorn, 2004
Seed Sower, 2004

WITH A NATION still exhibiting symptoms of post-traumatic stress over 9/11, the global ecosphere in a toxic tailspin, and witless leaders fear-mongering while the Earth burns, to what or whom can the imagination turn for succor and defense? For sixty-eight-year-old Sam Scott, a Santa Fe painter who has spent a lifetime offering visual praise to the landscapes of North Vietnam, Southern France, and especially his home turf of Arizona and New Mexico, the only commensurate answer has lain in new incarnations born of those selfsame ecologies.

And so Scott has found himself summoning forth a company of chthonic megacreatures that might prove equal to this planetary challenge. Their gestation first took form as 10 x 7–inch pencil and watercolor sketches that astonished Scott himself with their insistent presence. Over time, these somehow mournful homunculi swelled into a veritable troupe of Earth protectors—huge entities that seemed like walking landscapes in their own right, their bodies composites of the very mesas, rain clouds, sunbursts, sheer cliffs, green growths, lightning strikes, tree stumps, rivers, and canyons for which it was their charge to suffer but also to safeguard.

Beginning with Seed Sower, which was completed in March 2004, they have issued wet and full-blown as the boldest 80 x 54–inch oils Scott has ever channeled. Into this series of mytho-poetic portraits Scott poured everything he had learned about color, balance, and controlling the viewer’s eye. At the same time, he flaunted cardinal rules, as these primordial giants, fairly bursting with nature’s vitalities, strode into the very center of the picture plane: “solitary figures in a transcendental landscape,” as Scott put it.

Over the last four years, new beings have joined their noble band, returning as if in a time of approaching ecological meltdown to restore their dominion. Scott’s mission is to envision them presiding over this world not simply for us, but as much on behalf of the stricken land itself—or, more accurately, for the wounded relationship between the two. It is for the ultimate “reconciliations between human beings and nature,” Scott has said, that these entities seem to be enduring their agonies and summoning their defiance. 

These fecund imageries have risen out of Scott’s southwestern homeland as if they had incubated at the Earth’s core. And indeed some of the mysterious dolmens bear striking resemblance to the ghostly pictographs of sentinel-like vertical figures that glow the color of dried blood off the sandstone walls of Utah’s Horseshoe Canyon. Nor is it hard to imagine their kinship to those native spirit intermediaries of the Pueblo Indian cosmos, otherwise known as masked kachinas, but whom the early regional writer Charles Lummis once dubbed “the true.”

Scott’s figures also evoke Native American guardians of equitable human-environmental relations from farther afield, such as the ancient Woge, or “immortals,” of northwestern California Indian mythology, whose guidance is still invoked during the great World Renewal ritual cycle of dances, when they emerge from the cedar forest to sway and leap as towering shadows behind fire-lit human dancers. Or they hearken to the stone-clad Algonquian giants of northern New England, especially the trickster-protector Gluskabe, who still awaits the day when white men have abandoned his lairs and haunts, gone back where they belong, and native values hold sway once more.

But much as today’s overriding threat of climate change has thrust local issues into globally fateful contexts, so have Scott’s artist-activist instincts caused him to knead this Earth-saving pantheon from the mud of wider archetypes and worldly lore. Within these pillars of pulsating energy are echoes of the fabled powers of such cultural forerunners as the Golem of Prague, that monstrous bodyguard, supernatural visionary, and heaven-sent avenger of wrongs against Jews; or Fudo Myo-o, that ferocious supernatural of Tendai Buddhism, who burns evil and saves the world; or the looming characters in Diego Rivera’s 1932 mural in the Detroit Institute of the Arts, which essayist Rebecca Solnit recently interpreted as “deities waiting to reclaim the world, insistent on sensual contact with the land and confident of their triumph.”

Positioned against startlingly blue skies, so intimately close that we seem to be standing on their feet (which fall beneath the frame), this band of saviors offers tough reminders of the stakes and urgencies at hand. However we construe them, they symbolize our last best hopes in a world tumbling down. Call them “messengers,” as Scott now does, call them guardians or prophets or talismanic geomorphs summoned to some court of last resort. Today they number seventeen. Scott is not sure whether there will be any more. May they be sufficient to the task.

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Sam Scott has been a professional painter for forty-five years. He is represented by the LewAllen Contemporary art gallery in Santa Fe.

Peter Nabokov is professor of American Indian Studies at University of California, Los Angeles. His several books include Where the Lightning Strikes, A Forest of Time, and Native American Testimony.

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