In 1968, fresh out of college, Stephen Quiller made a discovery that would shape his art and his career?he stumbled on the small town of Creede, Colorado, population 450. A mining town tucked away in the mountains at the headwaters of the Rio Grande, it seemed an unlikely spot for an artist to launch a career. But something about the area spoke to the young artist, and in 1970, while teaching high school art in Oregon, he opened Quiller Gallery as a summer operation in Colorado. In 1973, he made more money from his art than from his teaching career, so he began painting full-time. “When I first got here, I thought, ?Gee, after four or five years, what am I going to do? I?ll have painted everything,?” he says. “Now, I?m beginning to think that if I?m even going to come close to what I want to do, I?m going to have to really get hot and paint every day.”
Ice and Snow Shadows (acrylic, 24×34)
As he spent more time painting Creede, Quiller began to notice a difference in the way he saw and painted his environment. “When I first came here, I painted more of the obvious,” he says. “And the longer I live here, the more I paint things I never saw back in those days. For instance, when I first came here, I painted some of the old mines that are the historic landmarks of the area. The paintings sold very well, because that?s what the tourists were looking for. But today, I?m much more interested in the rhythm and the pattern and the beat of what this area?s about.”
The presence of the mountains and the trees has also had an impact on Quiller?s choice of formats. “When I was teaching in Oregon 95 percent of the works I did there were horizontal,” he says. “They were very muted, kind of foggy, misty or neutral atmospheric pieces. Here in Colorado, I?d say two-thirds of the paintings I do are verticals. You know, this is a very vertical country. Very seldom do I see a horizon in my paintings.”
Along with providing an artistic depth borne of familiarity, Quiller believes the relative isolation of Creede has helped him develop a style of his own?while other artists visit during the summer, he?s the only painter in town during the off-season. “I get a lot of people who say ?I can recognize your work,?” he says. “And I think a lot of that comes from putting myself in a place where I?m not surrounded by a bunch of other artists. I?m fortunate that I can get out and go to museums four or five times a year; I can do a workshop and meet lots of other artists; but then I can come back for two or three months and really get back into my work. That helps me focus on what I have to say, rather than constantly being bombarded with the way other people are painting and saying to myself, ?That?s really nice. Maybe I need to do that.”
Butch Krieger is a contributing editor to The Artist’s Magazine. He lives in Port Angeles, Washington, and teaches art at Penninsula College.