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Mountains of Color

Lyvonne Sylte comes to New Mexico to live among and paint the rich hues of the West.

Donna Clayton Lawder

 

In a room chock-full of her most recent oil paintings, Lyvonne Sylte angles a spotlight on a work called "Canyon del Muerto," a representational yet impressionistic depiction of a breathtaking gorge in Canyon de Chelly. The golden leaves of the trees in the foreground seem to glow; patches of scarlet almost leap out from the canyon's deep orange sides, accenting the crags and ledges in the formidable yet welcoming faces of stone.

Artist Lyvonne Sylte with some of her paintings.

"It has to glow," she says animatedly, her fingers stroking the air, seeming to follow the brushstrokes of gold and red. "The colors just have to sing!"

This month's cover artist, Sylte says she got her affinity for color and light from her teacher and mentor, Bill Kennedy, the late Sedona, Ariz., artist. "Bill was passionate about color. He was all about the color," she says. "I shared that love with him and it's why his teaching meant so much to me. That sense of color has benefited me all through my life, in many ways."

Although Sylte says she discovered in her early 20s that art, specifically painting, "was what I was supposed to be doing," she could not devote herself to it until fairly recently. "I had to make a living and raise my family," she says.

As a young newlywed 30-odd years ago, she managed to entice her husband to move from Florida to Colorado, with its magnificent mountains and sunlight.

"I've always loved the West. I was an army brat, and fell in love with the landscape of the West when I was about four years old. We were traveling through on our way to my father's next station, which was in California," she recalls. "I literally wanted to move to the West ever since, and was making my way back here, well, all my life!"

She spent the next 34 years in the Rocky Mountain State, where she not only applied her art training to the occasional canvas–her paintings have been featured in Colorado Homes and Lifestyles magazine–but also earning her allied certification as an interior designer. Her passion and keen eye for color helped her build a successful and satisfying career.

But eventually, for her, Denver lost its luster. "It's so sad," Sylte says. "Colorado has gotten so concreted over, so congested." So she began to look for a new place to call home. Articles on "Best Small Towns" started catching her eye, she says, bringing her to scope out Silver City.

"I visited and had dinner at Diane's (Restaurant) and that cemented it," she says with a laugh. After a bit more exploration, she moved to Silver City in April 2004–finally a woman on her own with time to paint.

 

While she makes good use of her interior-design skills working part-time at Furniture Gallery in Silver City–"semi-retirement," she says with a smile–Sylte now spends more time filling rooms, private collections and galleries with her artwork. She's joined the San Vicente Artists' Guild and shows her work at the Silver Spirit Gallery on Bullard Street in downtown Silver City.

Sylte calls herself "one of the lucky ones who's made for Silver City," and says she's here for both the small-town friendliness and the tremendous sunlight and colors in the landscape that feed her artistry and inspire her. Her home studio is on the north side of the house, she points out, giving it "marvelous light and a fantastic view."

She adds, "It's all about the light and the color. I have windows on absolutely every side, do you see?" She stands in her living room, turning to the four directions with arms outstretched, gesturing to windows on every side of the house. Golden light from the day's deep-orange sunset streams in through windows on the west side of the house.

In addition to Silver Spirit Gallery, Sylte says she hopes to get her work into galleries in Sedona and in Jackson Hole, Wyo. It seems she has enough paintings currently hanging throughout her home to supply at least a few galleries with a fair representation of her work. She strides through the house, pointing out paintings on various walls, pausing to note an antique Persian carpet she purchased recently. The interior designer in her comes out as she indicates the unusual colors in this rug. She's an expert in and has lectured on oriental carpets. She gives the probable history and journey of the one beneath her feet. It must have traveled to the US before the ban, she says, and is noteworthy due to its distinctive purple dyes.

"Some are (made from) vegetable and some are the later chromium dyes, you see," she says. "A Muslim would never make you a carpet with black or green. Black is tragic and green is sacred. The Chinese, on the other hand, would have no trouble with that. And designs tell you a lot. The designs changed as situations changed. If you know oriental rugs, you pretty much know the history of the world."

 

The rug mini-lecture over, she continues through the boudoir, sweeping down a hallway to her art-crowded studio. Here paintings sit on several easels or are propped up against walls. She runs a fluttering finger over rich-hued details–mountains, rivers, trees, canyon walls. She's been to every place she paints, she says, and so each painting holds special memories.

"Ephemeral Brilliance" depicts the north rim of the Grand Canyon at sunset. "It's a moment in time. The light shifts and changes so quickly, and so I'm there, drinking it in, taking picture after picture, just trying to catch that moment, that light."

"Sunrise on Mount Hayden" captures the iridescent pink hues of the peak in early-morning light, "a brief and beautiful moment," Sylte says, her far-off gaze seeming to search for the memory in her mind as much as examining the reality on the canvas before her.

The light changes so rapidly, she says, making it necessary to work from her photos–so many photos–rather than trying to catch the image en plein air. Besides, her oil-painting process involves many steps and each painting takes days and days to complete.

"You'd run out of daylight before you could capture it, and even if you came back, day after day, you'd never catch the same quality of light twice," she explains.

While most of her work is landscapes, Sylte also has painted examples of Spanish Mission architecture. She leads the way into another room and points out a painting of San Xavier del Bac Mission, the so-called "White Dove of the Desert" in Tucson. Propped up nearby is a still-life painting of a crystal vase with flowers.

"Oh, it was the heaviest, most wonderful crystal," she says. "The way it caught the light, can you see it? Thank goodness I painted it, because the cats broke it right after that, so this is all I have to remember it," she says with a laugh and shake of her head.

She walks back into her studio and shuffles paintings from the floor up onto the easels, adjusting the spotlights. Not quite touching the paintings, she runs her fingers over the blazes of light and deep shadows.

She pauses over a painting titled "Canyon Reflections." Obviously the Grand Canyon is one of her favorite subjects. Again with her fluttering fingers, she traces the sunlight at the top of the painting and then its reflection in the Colorado River, flowing below.

"I try to achieve a sense of 'there-ness,'" Sylte says of her work, "to put the viewer into that place, so they can feel it and have that experience of being in that breathtaking place."

She falls silent, looking intently at the painting. " I want to be there, in that place, having that experience," she says. "And when I am painting it, that's where I am. Looking at it now, even, I feel it. It takes me there."

 

Lyvonne Sylte's work is on display at the Silver Spirit Gallery, 109 N. Bullard St. in Silver City, 590-2079.

 

Donna Clayton Lawder is senior editor of Desert Exposure.

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