Clifford Brycelea had set his mind on a master s degree in commercial art
... or so he thought in 1976. That was before his mystical paintings of
southwestern Indian culture began selling like hotcakes. Before he met
up with western novelist Louis L Amour. Before, in short, Brycelea realized
he already had a career in art.
Today, Brycelea s subject
matter is as varied as the many media he uses. Yet a mystical thread remains
strong in his work, especially in his landscapes. Executed in deep browns,
eerie ochres or slightly surreal greens, they seem to repeat an ancient
ceremonial chant: "It all returns and ends in the land." Remote hogans,
solitary tipis, bare trees and shadowy birds ostensibly hearken back to
the old days. In fact, however, they carry an urgent message for the present.
"If you study my paintings,
you ll see they relate to our Mother Earth," says Brycelea [pronounced
Brice-lee]. "The environment s like anything else. You have to read the
instructions or you ll break the thing." Brycelea (Az 1953—LIVING NM) learned
his ecology among the pinons and junipers of the Lukachukai Mountains on
the Navajo Reservation near Cove, AZ. His traditional upbringing included
a boarding school education that began when he was 5 years old. In second
grade he remembers doing two drawings on the opposite sides of a sheet
of paper: One he liked and one his teacher liked. The latter drawing won
first place at the Northern Navajo Fair in Shiprock, NM, and from
the experience, Brycelea absorbed an invaluable lesson: Artists aren't
the best judges of their own work.
Brycelea forgot about art
until high school at Fort Wingate where he took a class in oil painting
... which he almost flunked. "I couldn't do anything with oil, I was a
total wreck," he chuckles. But his drafting skills were popular with his
classmates, who pestered him for pencil and pen-and-ink drawings for the
yearbook. Then, while leafing through Arizona Highways, Brycelea discovered
another level of illustration in the works of Robert Draper, Jimmie
Abeyta and Harrison Begay [SWA JUN 821. Begay s work especially intrigued
the young high-school student. "His images were strong, like dreaming something
and making it real." Another source of inspiration was his uncle Harry
Walters, an artist, art instructor and past director of the Navajo Ceremonial
Museum (now the Wheelwright Museum, Santa Fe, NM).
Nonetheless, Brycelea was
leaning towards trade school rather than college when he met with his high-school
guidance counselor to map out his future. She discouraged Brycelea from
pursuing higher education, telling him that athletes might make it through
college, but he wouldn't. That s when Brycelea resolved to prove her wrong.
Enrolling at Fort Lewis College
in Durango, CO, Brycelea was exposed to a
bewildering variety of art
classes. One of his principal instructors was Mick Reber, who specialized
in commercial art. "I still use that commercial approach today," explains
Brycelea. Strong horizon lines and perpendiculars predominate in his work,
as do eye-directing curves and diagonals. These, combined with his compositional
economy, make his paintings easily adapted for use as illustrations.
While in college, Brycelea
s subject matter reflected other-worldly concerns of a type that might
surprise his present collectors: spaceships and aliens, for example. It
was only after graduating from Fort Lewis in 1975 that he tried his hand
at Indian images. Finishing a group of watercolors, he took them to the
Jackson David Trading Company in Durango, CO. Owner Jackson Clark specialized
in Indian jewelry and rugs and was just beginning to expand into the visual
arts. In a sense, the two men learned the art business together. Clark
took Brycelea s paintings on the road with his other inventory and when
he found he couldn't field questions about them, he invited Brycelea to
"We taught each other," observes
the painter."We talked to other artists, picked up marketing tips and went
from there." Clark encouraged Brycelea to enter his work in competitive
shows and within a year he started turning up ribbons and purchase awards.
Still planning to return to school for a master s degree, Brycelea was
sidetracked by western writer Louis L Amour, who purchased his first Brycelea
painting in 1977.
L Amour was living in Beverly
Hills, CA, at the time but he d come to Durango and stay at Tamarron ski
resort while researching his novels. When he went downtown he d stop at
the Trading Company. Recalls Brycelea, "Jackson Clark introduced us and
we just evolved into close friends."
The painting that caught
L Amour s attention was of a kneeling man in a kachina mask, above whose
head floated an ancient-looking design. That design— remote yet challenging,
seemingly capable of good or evil—would be perfect for his yet-unfinished
novel titled Haunted Mesa. The subject of the novel was the mysterious
Anasazi who vanished from the Four Corners region sometime around the thirteenth
century. Brycelea, who was similarly fascinated with the Ancient Ones,
often depicted their vacant cliff dwellings in his art. When L Amour learned
that Brycelea planned to stop painting and return to school, he invited
the young artist to dinner. "He saw something in my work and in me," recalls
Brycelea. "He thought I should continue in art."
The novelist backed his encouragement
with action, arranging a private showing for the artist at his Beverly
Hills home in 1981. L Amour would subsequently use Brycelea images to illustrate
two short stories as well as the novel Haunted Mesa, published in 1988.
Brycelea contributed more to the novel than its book jacket, however. He
shared with the writer some of the Navajo beliefs that inform its plot
and served as a model for one of the book s characters.
Although Brycelea left Durango
for Cove, and then Dulce, NM, he and L Amour remained close friends till
the author s death in 1988. L Amour collected Brycelea s watercolor landscapes.
Their bare-bones scenery and idyllic remoteness seemed, like L Amour s
novels, to praise the untrammeled spaces of the West.
"With the world as crowded
as it is today, I try to use a lot of space in my work," Brycelea explains.
"I want to create the kind of place where you feel you could go to relax
and no one would bother you."
SUMMER RAIN is a good example.
Though a bit more elaborate in composition than most of his landscapes,
the tranquility of the land and the inviting shapes of the sienna-colored
hogans convey the mystery and intensity of a sudden desert cloudburst.
Brycelea s landscapes are above all private places where the mind and eye
can rest free from sensory overload. At the same time there is a poignant
quality to these paintings, a warning that the physical equivalents of
these landscapes may soon go the way of the dinosaurs. Notes the artist,
"You might see a pine tree in my work—it will be halfway green but the
rest of the way to the top it s dried up." Indeed, all these images are
colored by a certain ambivalence. Birds generally evoke associations of
freedom for Brycelea but their dark silhouettes, few in number, foreshadow
another concern. "You hear on the news how people are killing eagles and
other birds. Someday all that ll be left will be scavengers."
The small scale of the landscapes
arose partly out of necessity. "I started doing miniatures in 1985 when
I was traveling from one show to another," he says. With but three weeks
in between these weekend stands, Brycelea found he could create miniatures
despite road distractions. And, as it turned out, the small size strengthened
the impression of intimacy he sought to create.
Brycelea still avoids oil
paints, preferring watercolors and acrylics for his landscapes and southwestern
Indian subjects and pen-and-ink for whatever strikes his fancy. The success
of this approach may be gauged, among other things, by the four gold medals
he has earned thus far from the American Indian and Cowboy Artists group
with whom he shows in their annual April exhibition. And by the title Brycelea
won in 1987 of "Indian Artist of the Year" from the Indian Arts and Crafts
Association. In fact, 1987 was a banner year for Brycelea—in addition to
the Haunted Mesa book jacket, his illustrations also appeared in Pieces
of White Shell by Terry Tempest which was named the Southwest Book of the
In 1988, after a three-year
hiatus, Brycelea experimented with returning to his mythic painting theme
in Putting Up The Stars. The response was overwhelming. "Customers called
me and came by, saying that they remembered me for that style." Approaching
his ceremonial subjects with care, Brycelea places sand painting figures,
for example, anywhere in the image except on the ground. That might offend
his Navajo viewers. On the other hand, he feels free to exercise his creative
imagination by combining Navajo stories with myths or motifs from other
It was the Anasazi
he thought of when painting PUTTING UP THE STARS.
"At one time, the sky was
completely dark," relates Brycelea. "People wanted something to light it
up, just a little bit, so they asked the spirit people to help them." Brycelea
depicts his Shooting Star Kachinas atop a kiva located in thin air. Their
elaborate masks and glowing body paint emphasize their supernatural powers.
The kachinas hold black bowls from which the stars shoot in all directions
like fireworks, while one kneeling spirit records their placement in the
sky. The dazzling paths of the stars, the mysterious grandeur of the kiva
and the aerial view of the river all enhance the ethereal effect of the
It was this range of subject
matter that won Brycelea his IACA title, presented, appropriately enough,
by Jackson Clark II. In 1981, the Durango trading company evolved into
Toh-Atin Gallery and a second generation of Clarks now handle Brycelea
s art. His gallery connections have proven crucial in another area too.
He met his wife, Edie, in 1987 while dealing with her mother, a Georgia
gallery and gift-shop owner.
The couple and their three
children live in Santa Fe, where Brycelea had a booth at the annual August
Indian Market since 1980. In 1991 Brycelea scored a coup when his acrylic
painting won the mayor s poster contest in Santa Fe. GOLDEN REELECTION
shows the familiar St. Francis Cathedral reflected in melting snow puddles
viewed from the Terraza Restaurant—an unusual twist on a beloved landmark
that won him 830 out of 900 possible voting points. Such overwhelming approval
has given Brycelea the confidence to continue in fine art ... a career
he gave himself a mere five to seven years to establish himself in. He
s beaten his self imposed deadline, but should he decide to pursue his
master s degree, he takes a tongue-in-cheek comfort in the fact that his
transcript is registered at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena,
CA. "To this day," Clifford Brycelea says with a laugh, "all I have to
do is show up and register." SWA