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Scene Stealer

Author: Roberta Landman
Issue: October, 2010, Page 49
Photos by Christiaan Blok

Mark Hemleben takes a break in his studio/gallery.
Plein-air painter Mark Hemleben captures nature’s beauty on canvas

Drive up a steep incline to the one-time copper mining town of Jerome, Arizona, and you can’t help but notice the old high school, circa 1923, on the side of the road. You won’t find kids there anymore. They left sometime after the last of the mines shut down in the early 1950s, returned for a spell when local school districts were combined, and came no more when the school closed to students for good in 1972.

Today, the building is home to artists’ studios, and Jerome, once known as the “largest ghost town in America,” has earned National Historic Landmark status and a reputation as a tourist destination. It also has become a haven for artists and other creative folk.

Mark Hemleben has a studio/gallery in a former classroom of the vintage school building. But you won’t find him there very often. A lover of nature, he is a plein-air (French for “open air”) painter and usually is plying his trade somewhere in the great outdoors.

Roam around town, and you may see him at his portable easel, paintbrush on canvas, capturing in oils the image of some vintage building on a crooked, hilly street. Head out on a mountain road, and you could come across his old VW bus and find him creating his Impressionistic vision of Jerome clinging to Cleopatra Hill. Or attend the plein-air festival held in the red-rock beauty of Sedona each year, and see him and other artists setting up exhibits of their work and also painting the area’s natural wonders.

It was at such a Sedona festival two years ago that Robert Booker, executive director of the Arizona Commission on the Arts, saw a display of Hemleben’s work. “I was quite taken by his painting of Jerome, and purchased it for my own collection,” he recalls. “Anybody who has ever been to Jerome instantly knows that image,” he says of the colorful street scene, complete with the town’s landmark old Flatiron building. Admiring Hemleben’s “bright palette,” he comments, “He has an ability to bring people into the moment, into the painting.”

The sights of Jerome, Arizona, often become subjects for Mark Hemleben’s oil paintings. The Flatiron, oil on canvas, 10"H x 8"W, depicts a well-known building of the same name and its cafe.
That is exactly what the artist hopes to attain. “I want people to wander inside my paintings and become captivated by something that makes them more aware of their surroundings,” Hemleben says. The most wonderful of “surroundings” exist in and around Jerome, acknowledges the native of Louisiana and former U.S. Marine. Having lived in California previously, he moved to Jerome in 1996, after learning that some well-known plein-air painters had relocated there. “It’s like Mayberry. It’s so quiet,” he says. “And the town itself is so supportive of artists.”

Jerome has been a good home base for Hemleben, who has gained devoted collectors of his oil paintings of scenes in Jerome, Sedona, the Grand Canyon and thereabouts. Even irises, which grow wild outside the studio, become subjects for his paintbrush. “I sit out there in the irises, and I paint them,” he says. “They bloom for about three weeks twice a year up here.”

Fountain Hills, Arizona, resident Anne Gale, a retired interior designer, owns a Hemleben painting showing Jerome’s irises, and other works as well. Among them is a gift from her daughter of a painting Hemleben did of Jerome’s old Powderbox Church, which was turned into Gale’s and her husband’s vacation home. “Mark is a master of plein-air painting,” she says. “His work is highly collected by art connoisseurs who value the fresh and immediate impressions that result from plein-air work.”

Hemleben says he learned a lot about this genre of painting from nationally known artist William Scott Jennings, once a resident of Sedona and now living in Boulder, Colorado. “He took a couple of plein-air workshops from me,” recalls Jennings. “Mark always stuck out as a star pupil. He has a real understanding of color, light and how to make a painting work. There is a subtle knack to enhance a scene enough so it spurs emotion in people, and they identify with it.”

The one-time copper mining town, which artist Mark Hemleben adopted as home 14 years ago, is portrayed in vivid hues under puffs of clouds and a blue sky in Big Jerome, oil on canvas, 60"H x 96"W.
Marge Graziano, whose family owns the Jerome Winery, has acquired several paintings by Hemleben. One he painted during a trip to the Grand Canyon always strikes an emotional chord. When sunlight pours in from a nearby window, “It appears as if you are there,” she says. “The vegetation looks like it is rustling in the breeze, and the water looks like it is moving. It’s just an incredible painting.”

A work that Tempe, Arizona, resident Cathy Wochner had commissioned Hemleben to do triggers a similar emotion. Having owned a house in Sedona, she had asked the artist to paint its Oak Creek surroundings. “When I look at my painting, I know exactly where he was standing in the creek, right in front of our house. I can almost see the water move,” she recounts. “The colors take my breath away.”

Wochner had first seen Hemleben’s paintings at the home of Jan Lewis and her husband, developer Tom Lewis. The Paradise Valley, Arizona, couple, too, loved the artist’s use of color, as seen in pieces depicting irises, Oak Creek Canyon and “the sheer cliffs of the Grand Canyon reflected in the Colorado River.” All of the paintings are in the same appealing color palette of blues, purples, greens and oranges, Jan says.

Like Impressionists of old, Hemleben prefers “a limited palette,” mixing his own hues from the primary colors—red, yellow and blue—plus white. He readily admits to one exception. He likes to use purple paint straight from the tube because it gives him a more vibrant hue. And wherever his work takes him on a given day, he says, “I paint alla prima.” That means the painting is done with quick strokes—“speed is important”—and without “layers and layers of paint.”

Unless it is a mega piece, like the depiction of Jerome on his studio wall, a painting generally is done in one session, with perhaps some final touches applied in the studio. True to Impressionism, he does not paint copious details, such as every leaf on a tree, nor does he work from photographs, noting that the camera lens acts to flatten the light, shadows and highlights his eye can capture at a single moment in time or a change of season.

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