By Andi Pitcher Davis
THE LAST MAJOR work of Cy Twombly’s life was one of art’s most romantic projects—installing a massive mural on the ceiling of the Louvre. Three thousand five hundred square feet of pure, nearly uninterrupted blue, bright as the Virginia sky. “It’s a color not bought in a bottle or matched by a computer at the paint store,” says Doug Himes, fellow Virginia artist and full-time faculty member at Southern Virginia University. It drapes over all who pass through Salle des Bronzes in “Gay Paree”—or so I have read in fancy art books.
The mural’s distinctive blue, hand-mixed by Twombly, would not have come to pass without the aid of Mormonism’s own Barbara Crawford and Doug Himes. In 2009, Twombly came to the Tucson House, his painting studio of years ago, to prepare the canvas. The House happens to be located on the campus of Southern Virginia University, a private, Mormon-run college.
I made the two-hundred-mile trip from Washington DC to SVU in a rented Mustang with a V-8 hemi under the hood, cruising for three hours, fully absorbing the Southern Virginia sky—Twombly’s spot of blue in the flesh. It did not disappoint.
Perched in the top of SVU’s too tiny art space is Doug Himes’ studio. One day, Himes may take after Twombly and make an international name for himself as a great American artist, one who chose the Tucson House as a home for his work.
If Twombly’s blue is pure celestial glory—loyal, true, straight down from the heavens—fellow Virginian artist Himes’ work is, in contrast, earthy, grounded in Mormon symbolism, difficult to find the beginning and the end of. He skips with line and theme from the Tree of Life as symbol of a living cross to Coleridge hailing the Great and Spacious Building as a pleasure dome too pretty to dismiss as mere sin, to figments depicting portions of the sticks of Judah and Joseph we actually got.
My husband says we need a guide to navigate Himes’s work. And it’s true that his themes are full of dreams. He prints absurdities. But a guide would inevitably fall short of helping us apprehend them. The man can draw just about anything, real or cosmic. If we can’t understand it, we still just like it.
The only thing routine about Himes is his consistent output of pure independent utterances. He transposes one idea to the next in a variety of mediums—oil on canvas, watercolor and ink, intaglio, monotype transfer drawings. He collages evenly in any of his artistic languages. His work translates into the same poetry regardless of which language he chooses—brush, pen, or press. His mediums, his symbols, his visions are purely tonal—both in execution and theme. Lovely and nearly bashful; never amateur, never clunky, never gratuitous.
Admittedly, I have yet to understand every jot and tittle Himes makes, but as the years go by, I have enjoyed long conversations with the work that hangs in my house. He and I are on either side of a pair of gifts described in section 46 of the Doctrine & Covenants: “To some it is given to know, while to others it is given to believe on their words.” Himes seems to say that what we need is not the chill wind of reason, as many young artists insist, but the even balm of belief.