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Dan Dempster paints water in chillier climes

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Chilly strokes: Bermudian artist Dan Dempster paints the San Juan River in Colorado, despite freezing temperatures (Photograph supplied)

In Pagosa Springs, Colorado, the temperature fell below freezing this month, snow fell and ice formed on the San Juan River flowing through town.

None of that stopped Bermudian artist Dan Dempster from clambering across rocks to stand in the middle of the river, painting.

“There is a little tiny sandbar off the riverbank that I am able to get to that gives me a great vantage point to the pools and river upstream,” Mr Dempster said. “Sometimes little wavelets lap at my boots. I try not to step in the water if I can help it, because it is freezing.”

River of light: One of Dan Dempster’s paintings of the San Juan River (Photograph supplied)

He uses oil paint and a solvent that does not freeze, so he can still work in the cold.

He started to paint the river, in March, a few months after moving to Pagosa Springs, with his wife, Sharon and two sons, Dylan, 15, and Miles, 11.

The mountain town of 1,600 people is located 90 minutes northwest of Santa Fe, New Mexico, and about five hours southwest of Denver, Colorado.

“I started painting the snow melt as it came down the river,” Mr Dempster said. “It was a torrent and was absolutely fabulous. I have painted water in its many forms in Bermuda from the ripples to the shallows and waves breaking on the beach, but I had never painted a river before. I got the San Juan in full spate, and continued through the spring as leaves were starting to fill in. Then, in the summer, as the river started to calm down and clear up, I started to see the fractal light in the shallows that I remembered from Bermuda.”

His first art show in the area, displaying 20 of his river paintings, opens in at the Springs Hotel & Resort in Pagosa Springs on Friday. He is now the artist in residence at the wellness retreat, and will have a rotating show there, permanently.

The show came about when the hotel manager, Tom Inman, noticed him painting the river on resort land. Instead of throwing Mr Dempster off the property, Mr Inman told him he was welcome to paint on the property at any time.

“Then one of the owners of the springs mentioned to my wife, Sharon, that it would be good if they could have my work on site,” Mr Dempster said.

The hotel saw it as another aesthetic experience to offer their guests.

They chose the main lodge of the hotel as a good place to exhibit his work. He will probably change the paintings three times a year.

For his second show he hopes to include a few paintings he did of water ripples in Bermuda, to act as a comparison to the waters of the San Juan.

His hope is that sales and more exposure comes out of the art show at the Springs Hotel & Resort.

He left Bermuda shortly after he got married. HIs wife is American. Since then the Dempsters have lived all over the United States. They were living in Los Angeles, California when the pandemic hit in 2020.

“My wife’s job as a spa director there disappeared,” he said. “The galleries and museums did not reopen right away, either. We started looking around. A friend of ours who was a consultant for this property, contacted us and said there was a good fit for us in this mountain community in Colorado.”

It just so happened that they were married in Pagosa Springs, so were keen to give living in the area a try.

Now, Mr Dempster is loving their new mountain home, 7,500ft above sea level.

“It is gorgeous here,” he said. “It is a completely different kind of beauty. We live on the edge of a national forest. We have four seasons. It is terrific.”

He lives out in the country where there are wild turkeys, mountain lions and bears. When they first moved to Pagosa Springs they had to take a course in how to deal with encounters with the toothier animals.

“I have seen a bear twice, both times while I was putting out, or taking in, the trash,” he said. “I had to shoo it away. It was big.”

Mr Dempster has always loved to paint water, because it is challenging.

“It is mentally gratifying when it works,” he said. “I love it when people say ‘when you stand back the water looks like it is moving’. Then I know I have got it right.”

He said many Bermudians have that fascination with water in the background of their consciousness.

“Living on an island like ours, in the middle of the ocean, it is part of our DNA,” he said.

He got his start as an artist working as a computer animator in Toronto, Canada back in the 1980s.

“I started to draw and paint in my spare time to keep my sanity while I worked long hours in the lab,” he said.

He returned to Bermuda in 1989.

“When the recession hit, I thought I would give myself one year to see what this art thing was all about.”

He was first invited to show his work at Bacardi International. Shows at Blucks on Front Street soon followed.

“I took part in a few solo shows there, and then we were off,” he said. “In Bermuda we have terrific exposure and opportunity because it is such a tiny community. It is easy to connect and build the momentum there as an artist.”

He has not always found that so easy in the United States where there is so much more competition.

In his last home in Los Angeles, California, his art career was only just beginning to click when the pandemic hit.

“The crisis was severe there,” he said. “Many people were getting sick and dying, so the only thing we could do was bike around the neighbourhood or walk.”

He did not particularly like living in Los Angeles, and said the most positive thing that came out of the pandemic was that they eventually left the metropolis.

“My wife lost her job in the spa in LA, and the galleries were closed,” he said. “We started to look around for something else.”

He said the arts community in Pagosa Springs is small, with very few people working as full-time artists, as he does.

“There are even fewer who are painting outdoors on a regular basis,” he said. “I am using that to my advantage.”

Painting plein air, he has found that people love to stop and look at his work, and chat.

“People here are very willing to share their connections and experiences,” he said. “Being based in a small mountain town has the same merit as coming from a small country in the middle of the ocean. It feels very familiar. It is not Bermuda, but this place is magical. If Bermudians came to visit they would understand.”

For more information about his work see dempstercontemporary.art

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Published December 16, 2022 at 1:47 pm (Updated December 16, 2022 at 1:47 pm)

Dan Dempster paints water in chillier climes

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