For years, Nocona Burgess had been telling close friends and fellow artists that he might temporarily abandon his signature portrait paintings to focus on landscapes. When COVID-19 hit, Burgess and his family rented an RV for spring break, with a mission to check out the dirt roads, mountain passes and blue highways around Santa Fe and to see the state.
“I hadn’t painted landscapes in maybe ten to twelve years,” says Burgess. “I was taking photos of places, and [as I] spoke to my wife about the process, it finally dawned on me: I wanted to paint these landscapes like my portraits — straight on, a singular image, an individual, monumental approach that showed the character and personality of each location.”
After much searching, Burgess—with family in tow — found curious geographic locations around the state, such as Shiprock Mountain, the Isleta Hills, Comanche Gap, El Pedernal, Cochiti Lake, Gila National Forest and Titella Peak, for this new series. He would sketch on location and then take the paintings back to his studio for completion.
It was important for Burgess to paint only places he had visited. “I didn’t want to just paint images I found on the internet,” he says. “For me, it’s important that these places are relatable to my life. For example, when I first started painting animals, that [series] came from driving to my home in Cochiti Lake and painting the coyotes, buffalo, eagles and osprey that I saw on the journey.” He adds, “I wanted to do the same with the landscapes. I had to see them first.”
Burgess is a member of the Comanche Nation of Oklahoma, the son of a former tribal chief and the great-great-grandson of Chief Quanah Parker. It was only a matter of time that this noble heritage would influence his landscape painting.
“The Comanche Gap is a low area in the Sandias,” says Burgess. “You can see it on Highway 14 when you’re looking towards Galisteo. It’s how they [the Comanches] would enter this area from Oklahoma and Texas. Also, Tucumcari is a Comanche word meaning ‘night house’ or ‘shade house.’ The flat tops of the surrounding mountains served as a landmark to the Comanches coming this way as well.”
Burgess eventually made his way to the Texas town of Quanah, just south of the Red River on the Oklahoma–Texas state line. Just outside the town are the Medicine Mounds, a highly spiritual place to the Comanches.
“There’s a rancher there [who], if you tell him you’re a Comanche, . . . will let you on the ranch,” says Burgess. “We go in there for prayer and to do ceremonies, so it’s a very sacred place for us. I also wanted to paint the Wichita Mountains near my home in Lawton, Oklahoma, because that is a special spot for the Comanche people as well. I’m also looking to go to Palo Duro Canyon and Fort Sill.
Both Burgess’ landscape and his portraits are rendered in a process he learned in college and has since perfected. He describes it as “painting outward.” “I start with a dark canvas, then add the shadows of the mountain and then paint around that. I add the highlights and the middle tones, and then the lighter tones as the last part of the painting,” explains Burgess. “Everything is painted the same way, starting on the dark surface so they feel like the portraits,” he continues. “I didn’t want to start a whole different technique. The dark background really makes you put a lot of paint down. You have to build the image up. It adds weight to the painting.”
Cyndi Wodall-Hall is the Director of Manitou Galleries in Santa Fe. She sees collectors flock to Burgess’ work due to the historical significance of the pieces and his unusual yet highly accomplished painting style. “Nocona is one of those rare artists who takes the viewer on a journey through history,” says Wodall-Hall. “He is a virtual encyclopedia of the past, and he uses his heritage, his talents and his voice to bring the viewer of his works into modern-day Native America.”
Joshua Rose is currently a Senior Vice President at the Santa Fe Art Auction, responsible for Native Art and Fine Art. Previously, he spent the last 15 years as the editor of American Art Collector, Western Art Collector, Native American Art Magazine and American Fine Art Magazine. He currently resides in Santa Fe and Phoenix, Arizona.