Dave Wachs is a wandering landscape painter who draws inspiration from communion with remote places.
Dave Wachs is a hard man to catch up with. When you do, he conveys a sense of life in constant motion, whether he’s ping-ponging between his homes in Peshastin, Washington and Bend, traveling internationally or putting paint on canvas in hurried brush strokes. The frantic pace is a contrast to Wachs’ art that captures seemingly eternal landscapes in quiet repose.
The landscape artist’s wandering impulse derives from his love of the outdoors and his love of painting the outdoors. As an artist, he says the deepest inspiration he gets is from nature and the environment. “I don’t go to cities, and I don’t have to add barns or roads to my work,” he said. His landscapes convey an impression of mountainsides, pear orchards and the countryside in vivid colors, often blues, white and splashes of orange.
Those parallel themes of art and being in nature have driven his life since college. While he was earning a degree in graphic design and fine arts painting from Montana State University in Bozeman, he was hitting the ski slopes at every opportunity. “He was part of a group of guys who would focus their binoculars on distant mountain peaks in the summer, looking for one chute that still had snow,” recalled Julie Berry, friend and fellow MSU art student. “Dave was a skiing maniac. He and his friends spent days in the backcountry, climbing up and skiing down.”
She said Wachs committed the same devotion to his art. “We’d show up at the school’s painting studio at ten at night, paint till morning and then go out to breakfast,” Berry said. After graduating in 1983, Wachs moved to Portland from Montana, which he says “was a gnarly transition for me as I didn’t want to leave Montana, but you couldn’t make a living there.” He eventually worked in advertising with Nike and then snagged a project with North Face called Steep Tech to design a collection of hard-working clothing for legendary extreme skier Scot Schmidt, with whom he collaborated.
In 1992, he moved to Bend from Taos, New Mexico, and bought a farm in Tumalo where he worked for twenty-two years. In the three years since he’s left the farm, he’s worked out of studios in Colorado, New Mexico, Montana, Washington and Oregon. “I don’t need a fancy place to work, but it can’t be freezing,” he said with a laugh. His primary residence is a pear orchard outside Peshastin, near Leavenworth, Washington, although he returns to Central Oregon for several months a year.
Wachs travels to remote and inspiring places in his Chevy pick-up and on dirt bikes, gathering imagery with a camera and sketch book. “I have a rule that I have to have been there to paint a landscape,” he said. “I’m trying to capture the image out of the corner of your eye,” he said.
The resulting landscape pieces could be mistaken for photographs from afar but reveal brush strokes upon closer examination.
“Dave’s paintings take me to those peaceful spots where it’s just air, wind and what’s beneath my feet,” said Berry, who worked in custom picture framing for years in Bozeman and framed dozens of her friend’s pieces for an exhibit in Bend. Before receiving the paintings for framing, she saw photos of them. “They were so expansive in feeling that I thought he was doing six-by-eight-foot paintings. When they arrived, they were small, and I was amazed at how he captured such an expansive feeling on such a tiny surface.”
The landscapes feel eternal, but Wachs’ painting process is fast. He starts a painting with a sketch and then works quickly to cover the canvas in acrylic paint that he mixes himself. “I don’t have patience for oil or the smell of oil paints,” he said. He paints with big brushes and finishes most canvases in two to three days, mostly at night when he says “the creative stuff comes out.” He adds that, “If it looks good at night, it will look good in the day.”
He strives for spontaneity, which ironically takes a lot of discipline. He compares his process to the art of Japanese Haiku poetry. “I have to think or meditate about a piece of work before starting,” he said. He draws inspiration from the 1920s-era Canadian “Group of Seven” artists who explored the countryside and documented their impressions through painting. But he’s clear that he doesn’t emulate them or anyone else. “I think my work looks like my work, and I’m proud of where I am now.”
Wachs has done commissioned work for individuals and businesses across the country. He is currently represented in Central Oregon by art consultant Billye Turner who will be hanging about twenty-five recent landscapes at Franklin Crossing in downtown Bend during June. His pieces sell for $500 to $10,000, with the larger canvases at the higher end.
“The quality of Dave’s work is worthy of collecting…because his genuineness and talent add up to paintings that you’ll love for decades and still be transported to another place,” said Berry.