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Dixon's 1942 oil painting Shiprock Mesa captures the palette of the desert Southwest. (Image: Mark Sublette Medicine Man Gallery, Tucson, Ariz., and Santa Fe, N.M.)

‘His vision of the West is so true, we have come to see the region through the forms and colors of his paintings’

Few artists managed to capture the desert Southwest better than Maynard Dixon. His mentor may have been journalist Charles Lummis, who encouraged the California-born artist to “travel east to see the real West,” but Western artist Frederic Remington pushed Dixon in the right direction.

Born on a ranch near Fresno on January 24, 1875, Dixon was an asthmatic child who found only enough energy to draw. In 1891, at 16, he sent two sketchbooks to Remington, who wrote back: “You draw better at your age than I did at the same age. If you have the ‘sand’ to overcome difficulties, you could be an artist in time. No one’s opinion of what you can do is of any consequence—time and your character will develop that.”

Two years later Dixon was studying at the California School of Design in San Francisco but left after only three months, preferring to work in the open air rather than in a stuffy studio. By 1895 he was illustrating for The Morning Call. In 1900, following Lummis’ advice, he made the first of many trips to see the West—traveling east. A decade earlier Lummis himself had walked from Cincinnati, Ohio, to Los Angeles to take a job at the Los Angeles Times, documenting his adventures in his book A Tramp Across the Continent.

Dixon spent long stretches taking in much of the West. But his heart and soul belonged to Arizona, and though he moved briefly to New York City, he eventually made Tucson home.

“Dixon took his reputation very seriously and strove to always be accurate in his details, his compositions and his color choices,” says producer-director Jayne McKay, whose documentary Maynard Dixon: Art and Spirit won a 2008 Spur Award from Western Writers of America. “He chose to trek out to some pretty uncomfortable places in monsoon season to find the clouds and contrast he thought best represented the West as he understood it. He didn’t fake it. He lived with the Indians and he slept under the stars. He really saw himself as a cowboy when he was in the West. Back in his San Francisco studio he liked to dress flamboyantly and was quite a popular figure. Maynard Dixon had close friendships with many artists—Carl Russell, Ed Borein, Xavier Martinez and Ansel Adams—close friends who loved his ribald humor and enjoyed his company on painting trips and other adventures.”

Dixon was elected to the New York–based Society of Illustrators in 1911 and took a bronze medal at the Panama Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco in 1915. He painted colorful murals for the Southern Pacific Railroad and the Arizona Biltmore Hotel in Phoenix.

“His compositions are so instantly recognizable and bold and original,” McKay says. “There isn’t another artist who comes close, though many have tried.”

His last mural was of the Grand Canyon for the Los Angeles ticket office of the Santa Fe Railroad. The mural was installed on November 8, 1946. Days later Dixon died of a heart attack in Tucson.

“Maynard Dixon achieved something very significant in that he painted the deserts as arid and hot and realistically desolate as they really are,” McKay says. “He saw the beauty in the cloud shadows and the relationships between the sagebrush, the cactus and the hills, and he painted those relationships. The other painters weren’t doing that. They were embellishing and enriching their canvases to make the land look more appealing. Dixon’s background as an accomplished illustrator gave him the ability to paint the people of the West with this same incredible eye for detail and accuracy. I truly believe that Dixon’s work is a visual historical record of our beautiful country.”

Perhaps Los Angeles art critic Arthur Millier best summed up Dixon’s contributions: “Where many have looked, he is one of the few who have really seen. His vision of the West is so true, we have come to see the region through the forms and colors of his paintings. Thus, great artists teach us to see nature.”

Visit Maynard Dixon’s website. Jayne McKay’s documentary on Dixon is available to buy online.