Salida painter Joshua Been puts in some mileage on the carpet in front of his latest Impressionistic Realism work-in-progress. Been moves in with his brush, then backs up about 15 feet to receive the information.
Up close, his Colorado alpine landscapes appear unrefined, chaotic and bold, a bumpy road of textures. But stand back and the shapes, values, edges and colors play their parts, coming together for a majestic moment in nature. There’s a looseness in Been’s work, inviting the viewer to figure out something.
“I leave some of that open in the end,” said Been on that quality of allowing the viewer to “finish” the painting. “If something is wrong, you’ll get that. I want my paintings to read instantly. I don’t need to paint every pine needle of a tree.”
Dollops of pricey oil paint line up on his palette like brilliantly colored marshmallow creme. Brushwork and a palette knife together create his textures and paint quality. Been said he was influenced by Russian impressionists.
Guests can’t help but be welcomed into Been’s studio/gallery – it’s the lobby of the Palace Hotel, a renovated beauty with a stupendously high silver tin ceiling. It was originally a railroad hotel built in 1909.
This boutique hotel’s owners, Vicki and Fred Klein, had a vision of their lobby as a gallery space. Vicki Klein said she didn’t want her lobby to be “static.” “We liked the idea of sharing businesses and bringing art into the space,” she said.
Fred Klein was very taken with Been’s work and the painter was invited to set up his studio in November of 2011. “It really has turned out nice,” Vicki Klein said.
Been called the arrangement a “marriage of businesses.” He brings in collectors who stay at the hotel. Guests hang out, have a glass of wine and buy paintings. Customers make a personal connection with the artist and this is good business.
From the outside looking in, Been is illuminated as he paints into the night. People strolling to and from downtown restaurants, bars and other galleries pause to watch him work. Some step inside for a closer look.
“It’s a way to build community,” Been said. “A lot of people will see the benefit of it.”
Been feels at home at this hotel on F Street across from Riverside Park. On a recent evening, Been’s young daughter played while Vicki Klein decorated a Christmas tree. His wife, Laura, who shows her photos at the Palace, sat on a deep red antique sofa in the middle of the action. Been teased his daughter and chatted. And he painted.
Been had seen a few working studio/galleries that intrigued him, including those of painters he admired, Gerald Merfeld in Westcliffe and Stephen Quiller of Creede. He fantasized about having a gallery for years before it was manifested.
Josh got his start in the art gallery system with paintings in Denver and as far away as California, but the money just trickled in. He took a job teaching art at the prison in Buena Vista to supplement his family’s income.
Been painted continually and his work stacked up. Then his wife suggested Been do something he had only dreamed about, open his own gallery.
In September of 2007 he rented a space connected to Salida Mountain Sports on F Street. Been had his first real taste of success there, selling a painting a day in the busy months. By May of 2008, Been quit that day job at the prison.
Been’s path took him to a larger space on First Street before landing at the Palace Hotel, back on F Street, his preferred location. The hotel also accommodates his personal frame shop.
“It worked out so perfectly,” he said. “I need to pinch myself. I’ve got to give thanks all the time. I don’t ask the universe for favors. It’s been amazing to have things come into alignment.”
Been said: “The light is changing, the mood of the place is changing. Shadows creep across the ground. You need to learn to paint quickly. It’s like a poem of the moment rather than a four-chapter novel.”
Plein-air painting is “an endless source of teaching and inspiration, the way the universe puts this stuff together,” he said. The human eye sees it differently from the “separation of the truth of the camera’s eye.”
He also sees plein air as a discipline, ideally something to do three or four times a week. “It’s like staying fit at the gym,” said Been, who has won awards for his plein-air work.
Been calls himself a spiritual person and nature is his church. “I do find solace and healing and endless variety in nature,” he said. “This is a town of those types of people. They like to get in it, see it and feel it, get up on that rock.”
Been is getting ready for an upcoming show to benefit the Land Trust of the Upper Arkansas, an organization that impresses him with its quiet, effective behind-the-scenes work. Thirty percent of the evening’s sales will be donated to the land trust.
Been says the land trust is like an “unapplauded backstage person,” making the show happen. Maintaining scenic vistas, enhancing access to public lands, protecting ranch and farmland, and other land-trust work aligns with Been’s values on professional and deeply personal levels.
“You don’t necessarily know which ranches are in easement but you still see the views,” he said. “You don’t know what work the land trust has done but our valley continues to be beautiful.”
The inspiration that he draws from the diversity of ecosystems in Colorado and the West feeds his work and his soul. Every season, every time of day presents something new. “It’s a painter’s paradise,” he said.
There’s almost nothing he’d rather do than paint what he sees. “Things happen on the canvas that you could never predict,” he said.
Capturing the experience of a mountain view with a river foreground or cascades or wildlife or snow on canvas is sacred to Been.
“I couldn’t wear it out after a lifetime of painting,” he said.
The Land Trust of the Upper Arkansas will host a benefit on Sat., Dec. 15, 6 to 9 p.m., at the Virtuosity Gallery in the lobby of the Palace Hotel, 204 F St., featuring the work of local painter Joshua Been. Thirty percent of the proceeds of sold paintings will be donated to the land trust. The event will be catered by Michelle Gapp.