If you want to look behind the pages at the way one of America's great writers practices his craft, "A Writer's Eye: Field Notes and Watercolors," by Paul Horgan, will interest you. It offers, in a clean, well-produced book of modest size, views from the author's personal sketchbooks and quotations that reflect the literary-artistic process by which he transforms memories of tangible landscapes, feelings and dusty records of the past into vivid, written images. A revealing preface by the author and an informative introduction by writer/historian David McCullough precede 60 watercolors paired with comments from three of Horgan's best-known books: "Lamy of Santa Fe" (1975), "Conquistadors" (1963) and "Great River" (1954).
Many years ago, "Great River," Horgan's masterpiece, had a major influence on me as I began research for my book of photographs, "Rio Grande, Mountains to the Sea." Although I disagreed with his catholic assumptions about the value and purpose of the natural land and its oldest inhabitants, I nevertheless found his lucid descriptions rewarding. He was able to make the history of a land I know and love well come alive with words that painted bright pictures in the mind's eye. He helped draw my attention then to many things of significance in the Southwest, and it is now enjoyable to see in part how he evoked those images.
Horgan writes: "The point of the present selection, accompanied by supporting text, is to illustrate one of the means by which I have pursued my field studies in preparation for the writing of certain books," and continues: "My main concern was to have a graphic note which later on would not only show me what I saw but would remind me of how I felt when I saw it. It was in the revival of this feeling that the value of my preparatory drawings existed for me." Finally he confides, "Excitement attended the process and something of that excitement returned when I looked at the drawings later; and when I treated the same subjects in words, perhaps the words were more true and evocative as a result."
In the book's introduction, McCullough paints a colorful picture of Horgan: "An authentic sense of place is paramount for this writer. It is why the act of drawing has such value for him. He isn't just 'doing research,' he is entering heart and mind into the spirit of setting. Drawing demands that, and his swift, concentrated kind most of all." In a painterly comparison, McCullough further notes, "Light is a prevailing fascination. He works with light--with his 'writer's eye.' Again and again we encounter 'bright drops of light' . . . 'beads of light' . . . 'golden afternoon sunlight' . . . 'the delicate restrained light of Sunday afternoon' . . . 'furious sunlight' . . . lamplight in windows, lamplight spilling in pools over tables and chairs."
Throughout the book, Horgan's sketches of cities and landscapes and his quotations delightfully illuminate each other. One study I particularly like is "Rio Grande Near San Felipe, New Mexico." It is transparent and spacious in the way only this land can be and the caption has a clear photographic quality: "In the lenslike atmosphere the nearby northern face of the Sandia Mountains seemed to exhale a blue morning radiance over the sandy foothills and the earthen run of the foreground river. Empty of creature life, the landscape spoke to me of the scene in earlier centuries through which I sought my long narrative."
Another of the expressive paintings that stands out for me is "Mouth of Santa Elena Canyon, Big Bend, Texas." I have spent many weeks at a time living in and around this great desert cathedral of the Rio Grande--it has become one of the vast, mysterious, wild places I call home. The arid simplicity of Horgan's sketch in the creamy watercolors of weathered limestone evokes strong feelings of the place. The notes, handwritten on the margins, and the quotation printed alongside mirror each other. Again, light describes the feeling of the scene: "The very rock of Santa Elena seen from the desert downstream looked like a shimmering image of the heat. Sand, orange-colored foothills, blue haze in the canyon's mouth, all spoke of waste and heat, in immense proportions."
Although these lovely sketches first appeared in a traveling exhibit, they were never intended to be viewed as great art. They are, however, the raw material out of which great art was eventually made, and through "A Writer's Eye," we are able to see a unique facet of the complex process by which this artist arrives at his work. More important, perhaps, we see in it a love of this world, beautifully expressed, which is the real work of art.