American West artist Nicholas Coleman’s brush with greatness.
Written by Jenn Thornton
It is not enough to say that Nicholas Coleman is an artist of the American West whose richly colored paintings of the region’s early explorers, pioneers and Native Americans has caught the attention of galleries, museums and collectors. He is, more accurately, a product of the environment he depicts—its landscapes, legends, and lore. It’s the very marrow of the man.
Born, raised and residing in Provo, Utah, Nicholas was, from the start, lost to the genre that continues to define his 21-year career. When his ocean-loving wife once suggested he consider seascapes, for example, Nicholas kindly reminded her, “I don’t live by the ocean. I live in the foothills of the Wasatch Front. I’ve hunted, fished trapped, rode horses through the hills and out in the sage brush.” In sum, he says, “I’ve painted what I’ve thought I’ve known,” clarifying that “every time I think I might know a thing, I discover dozens of things that I don’t know.” Constant curiosity is this painter’s M.O. “I want to see the world,” Nicholas adds. “Really the whole world. The West is huge and vast. It’s easy to think we’ve seen it all before. I don’t think I ever will!”
We have not seen the likes of Nicholas Coleman, either; he is, by nature and nurture, an explorer, and the son of artist Michael Coleman. Together these intrepid wanderers regularly ventured into the natural world, taking in its color and textures. “I always thought it was magical,” Nicholas says. “All the fantastic things I would see. Mainly, the sun rise up out of the canyon and shine its light through the trees and valleys. If I was really lucky, I would see mule deer and elk doing their thing. Steam rising up off their backs as the sun would warm them. Quietly watching a quiet world come to life.”
He brings this sense of magic—an ethereal Hudson River School quality—to his quiet yet vivid paintings of the American West, and of Canada, Europe and Africa beyond. Coleman thinks of his work in a broader way, as a preservationist of a regional culture unique to the country. “I love the history of the American West,” he says. “The good and even the bad. America is the only country in the world consistently refining itself.” Not unlike an artist refines his technique.
“I think what draws me to paint what I do is the idea of a strenuous life,” says Nicholas, sounding a lot like another pillar of American West sentiment, Theodore Roosevelt. “Even life on the edge, the struggle, whether it’s wildlife toiling the dusty trails or an early explorer in the American West. Especially the Native Americans living day to day—hunting, trapping, fishing. The way of life was survival and finding that balance. The adventures in between are some of the best histories. So many stories still to tell. I try and let my paintings do a bit of the storytelling.”
Nicholas is a reader, too. “I love to imagine what it would have been like to cross the plains into the West and see the Rocky Mountains looming in the distance,” he says. “I romanticize what it would have been like to trace a river to its source into the mountains. See the grand roving bands of bison, the pronghorn, the elk, deer, and moose. The West really is a wild and wooly place!” With quite a few characters, to boot, including one notorious rascal depicted on-screen by the Duke. “Whenever I think of John Wayne, I envision him with an eye patch playing the role of U.S. Marshall Rooster Cogburn,” Nicholas says. “I’d love to paint him on horseback riding and holding his Winchester Model 1892 .44-40.”
Having just wrapped up two museum shows in Wyoming, Nicholas has another show this month at the Manitou Gallery in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and a group show at the Maxwell Alexander Gallery in Los Angeles. “The hope,” he says, painting a pretty good picture of what’s to come, “is that there will always be a ‘what’s next?!’”
Photographs courtesy of Nicholas Coleman