Dave Stirling—Painter of the Rockies

Probably he's getting close to the shady side of fifty now--not that you'd guess it--for despite the unruly shock, of white hair, the eyes that meet yours are young and wicked and gay. If you've ever been lucky enough to visit that fabulous country around Estes Park  the chances are that you've also had the great adventure of meeting Dave Stirling its own particular painter-poet.  I say this because Dave loves people to visit his country and if they find it good, Dave’ll find them.

That, “painter-poet” , title will kill Dave if he ever reads it. He'll bellow: “Gawd A'mighty, I trusted that gal--figgered she was 0. K.” Well, I 've heard that expression and have used it myself to describe an artist now and then, but Dave is it! For thirty-five years he has painted the majestic mountains and glaciers, trees and lakes of Colorado. He's painted them in the first shy tones of spring, in the voluptuous fulfillment of autumn. He's painted them at dawn, at dusk, through calm and storm. He has stood there during' a gale, his easel anchored with rocks and ropes. Like a possesive lover of those haze-wreathed peaks, those aspens that go golden in an October frenzy, he paints them furiously, untiringly, again and again.

The critics of Modern Art might damn (and with reason) some of Dave's painting's. Sometimes they are too pretty and there are so many of them. A bewildering array that Dave himself calls mass production, and he wouldn't give “two hoots” for any adverse opinion. He has to paint them his way and thirty-five years hasn't taken the edge off his tremendous soul-satisfying and religious love for that country--his desire to penetrate its every mood and capture it on canvas.  Best of all, Dave's pictures sell. His particular kind of creation is beauty for home decoration. He says: “Any one of my pictures is your slice of Colorado to take home.”

I've watched him when a potential customer saunters into his studio. The potential customer enters a fine, clean, spacious room--there are aspen boughs in great vases and a few comfortable chairs--the walls are hung with Dave's painting" and at the far end of the room a “selling platform”, which across the top bears the legend  “Big Sale Now Going On.” “Just a come-on,” says Dave wickedly. Dave will ask the potential customer what color schemes he likes. If his home is formal, furnished in traditional style, Dave will suggest paintings that are done in the rich subdued tones of the Old Masters. If his home is modern, Dave will drag out the clear light tones. Literally he drag's them out, one after another to the accompaniment of the most rib-tickling sales talk. When the pictures pile up too heavily and collapse on the floor, Dave shoves them aside with his good leg and starts with a new batch of paintings. (Dave was in an automobile accident a few years back and it left him with a slight limp, almost a swagger, that, together with the red and black checked blazer and the wicked gleam in his eye, give him quite a reckless air.) If you really like a picture and you really can't afford it, chances are he will see that you get to own it. If you go elegant, "Well," as Dave would say, “Gawd A'mighty”, I can be snooty, too.

David Stirling was born in 1889 in Corydon, Wayne County, Iowa. His father ran the small country newspaper of the town and Dave was literally brought up on it. He worked on the paper during his early years and later was editor.  Dave always liked to draw. In Primary School one time the teacher made a sketch on the blackboard of a butterfly and a bunch of lilacs. She asked her pupils for comments and, “Davie” replied that a butterfly “didn't fly that way--it fluttered ...also, the li1acs didn't look real. The teacher asked him if he could do better, and when he answered in the affirmative, she told him to draw the two objects. His black- board drawing was very successful and it established his reputation in the school and in the community as an artist.

No one could understand him because of his artistic leanings. He says that it was terrible to 1ike art ad be an outcast of the county. All that most people could understand of art was Sears Roebuck calendars, and they seemed ever to poke fun at him.  According to him, he was one of the most hated boys in southern Iowa because he could “pick people out and read them like a book.”  He admits that even his friends used to state in no uncertain terms, “Davie, you think you are so darn smart”, to which he readily assented because, in his own words, I “knew I was.”

After finishing Primary School and High School he used the little money he had saved to get started in an art School in Des Moines. That school is now the Art Department of the Iowa State University. He came into Chicago several winters on the “hog train” and remained three months each season to study at the academy of Fine Arts. This and his Des Moines training were all the formal art instruction that Mr. Stirling ever had.

He had always wanted to go to Colorado. He had an older brother out there who worked on the Denver Post. When Dave was ten years old he had received from that brother in Denver a print of the most beautiful valley he had ever seen. The valley was encircled by mountains, and deep in their sides was a little red house. Dave had hung this picture in his room as symbolic of his life dream. One day he would own that little house, live in those mountains, and paint! Members of his family' during those early years always referred to the house in the picture as “Davie’s house.”

When he suddenly set out for Colorado, the print that was guiding his destiny was under his arm. In Denver he was told that the little red house was in Estes Park. He went up to Estes in the early spring and after walking twelve miles found the house on the north slope of High Drive Road, Horseshoe Park. It was the old homestead cabin of what was then Horseshoe Inn. His attempts to buy or rent it were, unsuccessful. However, the owners graciously offered to let him use it because they thought that he looked like a “good kind.”  Shortly thereafter he bought the nearest ground to the red house that was available and established himself in another little house, on his own property, which was to become a famous studio, “up the road, six miles from Estes.” He has lived there ever since.

Because of the war he moved his work down into the village from the cabin in the mountains so that it would be accessible to visitors who were unable to drive to see him. He rents whatever store is vacant in Estes Park and moves into it hundreds of his paintings. The large front room of the store he used this past summer is full of his original oils. His workrooms, which he calls  The Latin Quarter,” are in the rear.  One is imaginatively labeled “L’Atelier,” with signs pointing “To the Left Bank and Seine”.

His permanent cabin-studio “Up the road,” has been visited by people from all over the world, including many celebrities. Among those who have worn an eight-inch deep path to his door are the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, six Governors, twenty members of Congress and the Senate, Metropolitan Opera stars, well-known doctors and scientists. This studio he affectionately calls a “Temple of Culture.” At his request certain “favored” great and not-so-great carve their autographs into the pine walls of the cabin, There are several thousand names all together.

Dave Stirling works, all the time. He says that he missed so much in the field of art creation when he was in Iowa as a youth that he must work incessantly now to catch up. He gets up in the morning when he is, “ready to,” usually around eight or nine o 'clock. During most of the morning he saunters around the village, “taking care of other people's business,” until lunchtime.  All afternoon he works at his easel. After dinner he has a nap and is then ready for more work until he is tired early in the morning. He loves to work. He states that he wake's up every morning and says, “Thank God here is another day to work in.” He never goes by the clock but by the sun, and his only deadline is the June deadline when he must have pictures ready to sell and show to the summer trade. As soon as the summer people leave in September, he takes a deep breath and goes on his "vacation"-- into the mountains to paint a supply of pictures, undisturbed for nine months.

A picture is worth nothing to him until someone has it and loves it. Having been a newspaper man at one time, he knows the value of advertising, and it is his opinion that those pictures already sold will sell many more for him. He states that his pictures are hung all over the world (some 5000 of them), advertising the beauty of Colorado. Above all, he wants his pictures to be loved. One of his slogans is, “Let whoever wants to be the world's greatest painter; I want to be its favorite painter.” Dave aims to paint for the people for whom Robert Burns wrote poetry, for whom Henry Ford makes cars, to whom Bing Crosby sings.

Mr. Stirling does not try to be intellectual or astounding. He paints BEAUTY.  To him, an Academician, modern art

Is “cock-eyed,” and a kind of a “beaver dam” in the ageless stream of art and beauty. He adds, “Any damn' fool can dlo ‘moderns’.  He work on fifty to one hundred pictures at one time.  It takes him about one half hour to sketch in a picture in the field, after which he drafts in color, completing it later in his studio. He does not like vivid colors and grays them all down. Each picture is made for home decoration, with color harmonies to fit some particular room. For that reason he frequently waits until pictures are ordered and then incorporates the desired colors.

His studio has always been an experimental laboratory for him. He tries new methods on each picture and changes daily the rules that he has laid down for himself. He comments that one must be absolutely inconsistent and “screwy” to be an artist. But it is his consistent purpose to put in his pictures the place, the time of day, the time of year, altitude, temperature, drift of air currents, and growth of vegetation. Painting landscapes, which he does exclusively, is like painting portraits, he says, in that there is always a central figure. More often than not his "central figure" is a mountain. Someone once pleaded with him to paint a picture of a horse. After much urging he reluctantly agreed, “I’ll paint the horse, but shore enough it will look just like a mountain.” While working on his many pictures almost simultaneously, he paints the object in each for which he happens to be in the mood: Some days mountains, other days, trees, etc.

Dave Stirling is a religious man; but then, he says he never knew a person who lived in the mountains who was not religious. He feels great empathy with the Pueblo Indians in their response to God and Nature, and one can easily imagine him greeting the sun in their manner each morning:  Mornin' Sun, here I am.”  “That's fine,” says the sun.  And at sunset I am sure he often repeats, “Goodbye, Sun, see you tomorrow.”  He states it very simply and sincerely when he says, “He who runs all Nature is the ‘Head Man’ and you can't help but be conscious of His presence every minute in the mountains.”

He believes that art is a divine spark given to some people. Have it you can work like the devil and make a success of it. Those who are not born with it cannot acquire it.”  If you do not have it you could study forever and never find it.  But he believes that art is food for the soul and there is surely some for everyone.

Dave Stirling's work is his great love. It is his fun, too. He wants others to love it--and incidentally, buy it--so that he can eat potatoes and go on working.   All of which adds up to the fact that Dave Stirling is one of those all too rare people who find God's world very satisfactory and over and over he will make His genuflections in pigment.  No matter the critics' decisions--when Dave goes riding' to the last roundup, I’m sure the "Head Man" Will be waiting at the gate to greet one human being who approved His work so wholeheartedly.


VISITING FIREMEN

Al Hall in Feb, 1945 Britannica Broadcaster,

Los Angeles Division,

The office was, honored (and we mean that in the most sincere sense of the word!) recently by a visit from none other than that fabulous character of the Rocky Mountains DAVE  STIRL1NG. We don't know about Art-the capital "A" was intentional!--might fill almost as many volumes as Britannica, but nevertheless, even we have heard of the magnificent mountain paintings for which MR. STIRLING is world-famous. He lives in Estes Park, Colorado, making frequent treks into the mountains, and paints like one possessed while the capricious lights and shadows create the desired effect.

Along with his artistry in oils, D. S. is possessed of an easy-going wit, which renders the most commonplace anecdote a gem of humor as related by him. He is himself, with no apologies to anyone and on him, such a complete lack of inhibition looks good, if we may lapse into the vernacular. To say that he has the courage of his convictions is to put it mildly, and his perception of any kind of pretense or sham is so acute as to be indecent! A word-picture of such a dynamic personality is bound to be stereotyped, but as far as we're concerned, it's the privilege of a lifetime to talk to such an intensely vital exponent of rugged individualism !


UNITED STATES

DEPARTMENT OF THE INTERIOR

NATIONAL PARK SERVICE

Rocky Mountain National Park

ESTES PARK, COLO.

June 14, 1946.

Mr, Dave Stirling,

Estes Park Colorado.

Dear Dave:

 

I wish to congratulate you on your twenty-five years of painting in Rocky Mountain National Park, the Estes Park region, and the mountains in general.  Your pictures hang in many fine homes of the nation where I am sure they are a continuing source of pleasure.

 

I hope that I will be able to congratulate you when your fiftieth anniversary arrives.

 

Sincerely yours,

DAVID H. CANFIELD,

Superintendent

 


The author, Grace Pagano, is Fine Arts Director of Encyclopaedia Britannica, and author of the recently published book, “Contemporary American Art,” and is considered as one of the nation’s leading authorities upon modern art and artists.

 

 

Original “PRINTED IN ESTES PARK, COLO. BY THE TRAIL