Ron Arthaud is a plein air painter who lives in Tuscarora. He studied art at the University of Minnesota, Duluth, in an academic program that he said was a good environment for learning how to see and how to think—but what he really wanted to do was paint. Inspired by some small landscape paintings he saw Duluth’s Tweed Museum of Art, he decided to put the academic life behind him and spend his time outdoors, looking at the landscape and learning how to render it on canvas.
“It was 1987,” Arthaud said. “I was in Colorado. I fixed up a trashed condo that a brother in law owned. … I painted like 15 hours a day. I just became a hermit. I just got so into it.” In his 20s, he moved to Mendocino, on California’s North Coast, where he enjoyed teaching figure painting workshops and discovering the differences between Minnesota and California’s cultures. “I met musicians and artists and pot growers—everybody,” he said.
While working at a bed and breakfast, he learned that another artist had canceled a gallery show, leaving a sudden vacancy. He filled it with his paintings and sold over a dozen, each in the $200 range. That was the turning point. He quit his job, and he’s been a full-time painter ever since.
In Mendocino, Arthaud said, “It was wonderful, as a young person, to be invited to all these parties with these very eccentric people.” But he reasoned that a quieter life would serve his artwork better. He spent the next few years in the tiny town of Appelle, France, working in isolation, selling paintings at a market in nearby Toulouse and continuing to build his clientele in California. “I was in a nice little gallery in Mendocino,” he said. “And there were so many Francopholes there, I’d ship paintings back.”
He knew he wanted to settle permanently somewhere by age 35. “Somebody said move to New York, but I wasn’t that kind of person,” he said. A friend in Mendocino, Eleanor Adams, knew Dennis Parks, the potter who moved from Los Angeles to Elko County in 1966 to start the Tuscarora Pottery School. … “She’d never been there,” Arthaud said, yet she kept recommending that he settle there.
One day, on the way home from an art festival in Park City, Utah, Arthaud found himself passing through Elko, a mere 52 miles from the tiny, vintage mining town, still populated by a handful of retirees and artists.
“It was a hot, August day, and the wind’s blowing, and I go up Adobe Summit, and you kind of come out on the flats, and I thought, ‘I don’t know. This is pretty rough.’” The view from that spot is of distant mountains and endless sagebrush.
“I almost turned around,” he said. But he did make it to Tuscarora that day. He took a walk around town and was fascinated by a crumbling, century-old brick house. “I looked at that old building,” he recalled. “I said, ‘Wouldn’t that be cool if somebody bought that and restored it? … You’d have to be crazy. This house had been abandoned since 1940. It was a mess.”
He found out the asking price—$12,000. “I had eight,” he said. The seller agreed to $8,000 and two paintings. This was in 1994, and since then, Arthaud has refurbished and added to the house, where he still lives with his wife—jeweler Gail Rappa—and their two children.
All along, he’s been painting Tuscarora’s sagebrush, hills, and vistas—often placing his colors right on the brush, instead of pre-mixing them. The technique is called “loading the brush.”
“You’ll have four colors on a brush,” Arthaud explained. “Cezanne did it. It’s a visual mixing. Instead of mixing a green, you do a yellow and a blue and a little bit of red. You put it down, and you stand back, and it becomes green.”
Another trick of the trade for plein air painters, he said, is knowing when to call it a day: “Sometimes, it’s tempting to keep adding paint, but I have to say, ‘This is as good as it’s gonna get.’ I’ll wreck it. I’ll noodle it up.”
He likened this type of discipline with that of jazz great John Coltrane: “He wanted to play every note in the chord, and Miles Davis wanted to play two notes. But Coltrane wanted to pack it all in, and I’m wanting to pack it all in, and you need to get to that place where there’s space.”
Ron Arthaud’s exhibition Remains is on view at the Northwest Reno Library through Oct 26. A reception is scheduled for noon-1 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 26. His paintings are on display at the Western Folklife Center in Elko, where he’ll also be a guest artist at the Cowboy Poetry Gathering in January 2020.