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Urban Landscapes

Plein-air oil painter Sandy Urban works her life out on canvas, under the Southwest sun and stormy skies.

By Donna Clayton Lawder


Sandy Urban leans across the table in a downtown Silver City coffee shop. "What was the most important thing to you when you were 10 years old, the one thing you were happiest doing?" she asks. Her blue eyes are wide, intensely focused; her kind face waits patiently for a genuine, thoughtful answer.

San Simon artist Sandy Urban, whose work hangs in Azurite Gallery in Silver City, with a couple of recent paintings from her "Summer Series." (Photo by Donna Clayton Lawder.)

That magic number — 10 years of age — is when we begin to separate from our parents and their wants, their desires placed upon our little lives, she says. It's when we begin to figure out for ourselves what's important to us.

For Urban, it was the outdoors. That love of the outdoors has gone on to serve as the bedrock of her life and her art. This month's cover artist, Urban makes her home and paints in the rural lands near San Simon, just across the Arizona border. Though she does some large collage work, her main art medium is oil paint, and she paints en plein air, in the great outdoors, under a scorching summer sun or in the swirling pre-monsoonal winds in the mountains around her home.

"I want to feel some sweat on my brow. I want to be a little cold," she says. "I want to feel something!"

She pulls onto the table some of the paintings she has brought with her. One piece features a profusely blooming yucca; another, a mountaintop glowing red from the brilliant sunlight at high noon. Still another focuses on a hillside, yellow grasses flashing in the light of a bright day. Asked for the paintings' titles, she moans with comical exasperation, "Oh, what are the titles?! Actually, I don't know. Sometimes I don't title them until the whole series is done." These latest works are a summer series, she says, and since there's more summer to come, there are more paintings to do, too.

Urban was born in White Mountain, Ariz., was adopted and grew up in Southern California. She moved permanently to the Southwest in 1971. She holds three bachelor's degrees — in anthropology, comparative religions and fine art/painting.

"So, yes, I have three degrees, all in the same thing — since Man's expression is through religion and art," she says with a smile.


She talks about her own inspirations and influences, and how they combine to help her express herself through her art. "I need to express how I was struck by something," she says. "Light on the landscape is a big one. That really impacts me." This is something that she gets to enjoy quite a lot in the brilliant Southwest, Urban says. She adds that she particularly loves the drama of the area's stormy summer skies.

Themes in her work often repeat, she says, coming from things in her life that she has had to work out. She describes her paintings as "diary pages, with visual references rather than words to tell my story."

Urban's plein-air painting process, she says, is aided by meditation, and is a meditation in itself.

"I paint with a half-inch brush. I seat myself (in the outdoors). Then I focus on one thing," she begins, then pauses. A bright smile creeps across her face. "It's hard to focus on just one thing out there! Nature's big!" she says with an explosive laugh. "I mean, it's hard sometimes to see just one thing."

Having chosen a focal point for her work, she then paints "the darkest darks and the lightest lights" that she sees in her subject ground. She most frequently paints with her friend and fellow artist Crystal Foreman Brown, the two often arriving at a chosen site by 5:30 a.m.


Urban's work has appeared in dozens of juried shows and exhibits throughout the Southwest. Her paintings are represented in more than a half-dozen prestigious private collections, including the Governor's Gallery in Santa Fe and the Wrigley Foundation Permanent Collection on Catalina Island.

She lived in Silver City from 1989 to 2000, during which time she owned a frame shop in the downtown After Image Gallery. She has participated with her long-time local artist friends — like Diana Ingalls-Leyba, Dorothy McCray, Marilyn Howard — in special shows and projects over the years. Half-Apache by birth (Urban's blue eyes come from her Swedish side), she's had her work in the Chiracahua Gallery in Rodeo continually since 1984. In Silver City, Urban's work is shown at the Azurite Gallery on Broadway.

Urban participated in the Mimbres Region Arts Council's (MRAC) Silver City Print Project — one work requiring 25 "pulls" for its 25 colors — and her Southwest landscapes were exhibited in the Silver City Museum. She's had entries in the Purchase Prize Show in Pinos Altos for five years running and always participates in and comes to town for the MRAC's Weekend at the Galleries (WAG).

"Oh, I love WAG! I always come out for WAG!" she exclaims. "Last year at WAG I sold all nine of my paintings here in an hour and a half. It was my sunflower series," she adds, her own face sunny from the happy memory.

She describes the sunflower paintings, casting her eye out the window, ticking off on her fingers the works' titles, recalling when and where they were painted. "They were all different," she says, painted at different times, for different reasons, the flowers each associated with a different loved one and different outdoor places.

Internal emotional shifts, Urban says, bring just as much energy to the canvas as a field of brilliant sunflowers, those towering thunderheads at monsoon time, and the mountains, which she refers to as "sky islands."

She points to another painting she has brought along. Dark clouds come from both sides, meeting ominously in the middle — over Urban's head, it is easy to imagine.

"That's the point, right there. That's the day when the wind shifts," she says.

She recounts some of the more powerful afternoons she's spent painting, a storm brewing, her wonder at feeling so alive under a stormy sky, perhaps weathering her own emotional peaks and valleys.

"Nature is not benign," she says with seriousness. Then a smile breaks out over her face as she adds, "but I do believe it is compassionate." The effect is like sunshine, itself, returning after an afternoon storm.


Sandy Urban's work can be seen at Azurite Gallery, 110 W. Broadway in Silver City, 538-9048, Wed.-Sat. 10 a.m.-5 p.m.


Donna Clayton Lawder is senior editor of Desert Exposure.


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