By Andrew Stuart
Daunting in its vistas, its haggard peaks, Far West Texas strikes some as barren, unwelcoming – certainly no place to linger. Others, however, are entranced by that very starkness. But even for those seized by the beauty of the Trans-Pecos, explaining it, communicating it to others, can be a challenge.
Mary Baxter has been painting in Far West Texas for more than two decades. When it comes to capturing the elusive essence of the arid desert-mountain country, she has few peers. Her impressionistic paintings transmit the landscape’s haunting allure, its intoxicating loneliness.
Far West Texans not native to the place often recall when they first felt its magic. Baxter was born in Lubbock, raised in San Antonio, but her affinity with the region began young. Her father took the family on annual trips to Big Bend National Park.
“You get to a place, and the smells and the dirt and the sound of the gravel – even as a little kid, I remember thinking, ‘I like this,’” Baxter said. “So maybe that’s when it started.”
Baxter moved to West Texas in 1994. She and her then-partner ran cattle, and trained horses, on a ranch near Casa Piedra, in Presidio County.
It was here that Baxter began to paint the landscape. Checking the water or cattle, she felt compelled to render the country she saw.
In this pre-digital age, Baxter tried working from photos she took in the field. But the region had just one film processor, in Alpine, and it took two weeks to get prints back. In that time, the intuition that had moved Baxter to paint a scene could vanish.
“So I started in the meantime relying more on sketches and notes,” Baxter said, “and I really think that was a lucky break, because if you’re looking at a photograph, there’s too much information, and you become too full of words and literal. So the ones with less information, for my purposes, work better.”
It was born of necessity. But painting quick studies in the field, working “en plein air,” remains a cornerstone of Baxter’s practice.
The owner of Alpine’s Kiowa Gallery, Keri Blackman, offered to show Baxter’s paintings.
Her paintings were quiet, rooted in very private, sometimes eccentric perceptions. Baxter was skeptical they’d find an audience. She remembered one early painting – “nothing but blue sky, golden grass and three black cows.”
“I thought, ‘This is so trippy, nobody will ever want to buy something like this,’” Baxter said, “’but I’m going to paint it anyways,’ because I liked it. And it turned out other people liked it also, which was a surprise.”
From Presidio County, Baxter moved to Marathon. Though she had studied print-making at UT-San Antonio and considered a painting teacher there a mentor, making a living in fine art had never seemed realistic. In her decade-long stay in Marathon, Baxter became an established artist.
San Antonio’s Hunt Gallery, and the Reaves Gallery in Houston, began to show her work. Her Marathon studio became a destination for Big Bend visitors.
Six years ago, Baxter moved her studio from Marathon to Marfa. She does most of her painting on private ranches. Granted access to a property, she’ll spend days in exploration.
“So the longer I stay on a place,” she said, “and see things in different light – morning, evening and different times a day – and go further into the ranch, there’s always something to paint.”
After 20 years, Baxter is finding a new fluency in her painting. She’s learning to “get out of her own way.”
“Every painter says too much – you just want to say one more thing and one more thing,” Baxter said. “I’m finally, after this many years, trying to be disciplined enough to say, ‘Just walk away: It’s done. I’ve said what I need to say.’ And when I can do that, it’s usually a better painting.”
In 2016, Baxter was an artist-in-residence at Guadalupe Mountains National Park. The paintings she made there are powerful evocations of Texas’ only federally protected wilderness.
Baxter now plans to shift her focus to sculpture – particularly sculpting the region’s wildlife.
Far West Texas has its spectacular scenery. But much of its beauty is subtle, rewarding the patient observer. When it comes to seeing and rendering that beauty, Mary Baxter is one of the region’s standout artists.
To see more of Baxter’s work, visit baxtergallery.com.