Three Sisters | Oil on Canvas | 24 x 55 inches | 2020

Artist Spotlight: David Knowlton

David Knowlton’s latest oil paintings harmoniously and dramatically juxtapose the human-made and natural worlds by placing majestic red-and-gold locomotives of the Santa Fe Railway and other cars of other lines against the backdrop of the Southwest’s iconic mesas and other landforms. Often, in fact, from his perspective, the mighty giants dwarf the distant landscapes they power past. In Waiting, for example, two sleek steel beasts stand side by side on parallel tracks, the gleam of sunlight on their bodies suggesting speed, while a sandstone butte in muted tones of their same brilliant colors seems almost to cower in the distance. 

“I’ve just always loved the romance and mystery of the railroad,” says the artist. At times, he might even heighten that sense of mystery in more brooding and loosely painted scenes like Golden Rails, where a dark engine issuing billowing clouds of black smoke powers toward the viewer along gleaming tracks.

Waiting | Oil on Canvas | 31 x 48 inches | 2023

His love of trains and art goes back to Knowlton’s early childhood in Appleton, Wisconsin, where his kindergarten teacher first noted his talent. “She came up behind me, looked at a painting I had done, got all excited, and took it next door to show the other teacher.” By fifth grade, he had enrolled in Saturday oil painting classes for children taught at nearby Lawrence College, where his early work focused not just on locomotives but also on Midwestern farm scenes and landscapes, bridges, and architecture, among other subjects. “I’ve gone through cycles of subjects throughout my life,” he says. He went on to study fine art at the University of Wisconsin’s Milwaukee and Eau Claire campuses, where he was exposed to the works of artists who continue to inspire him, including the Romanticism of the Hudson River School and the Modernism and Precisionism of Georgia O’Keeffe, Edward Hopper, and Charles Demuth.

Golden Rails | Oil on Canvas | 35 x 33 inches | 202

In 1978, he moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he lived and painted for a decade and a half before returning to Wisconsin. Then, three years ago, he heeded the City Different’s call once again. “It’s a great place for an artist,” he says, “and I always wanted to come back and paint here.” 

In one recent work, Three Sisters, Knowlton artistically transplanted a gnarled old Utah juniper tree — which he’d spied some time ago in one of that state’s National Parks — against a backdrop of Monument Valley’s iconic Three Sisters and other rocky formations. In such ways, with or without iron horses, the Southwest continues to provide him with ever-revitalizing inspiration.

Knowlton’s work is represented by Sorrel Sky Gallery in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Durango, Colorado.

Based in San Rafael, California, Norman Kolpas is the author of more than 40 books and hundreds of articles. He also teaches nonfiction writing in The Writers’ Program at UCLA Extension.

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