If you’ve spent any time in Santa Fe, you’ve probably seen something John McHugh made. The young architect was passing through Santa Fe on a cross-country road trip in 1946 when his Ford broke down.
He took a job at a local architecture firm so he could earn enough to fix it. Ten years and several cars later, he started his own company with Van Dorn Hooker and won commissions for the first Santa Fe Opera House, the remodeling of the parish hall at St. Anne’s Church and the Kearny School, among many others.
While John’s largest works are still viewed by thousands of people each year (save the opera house, which burned down and was reconstructed), some of his most colorful creations have been hidden away since his death in 1995.
“Come in, come in,” says John’s widow Gillian when she opens the door to the home they shared. She points me past the living room where a Gustave Baumann painting hangs and down a hallway that leads to a sprawling room. Leaning against every vertical surface are dozens of canvases that will soon grace the walls of the Matthews Gallery.
“When we first moved here, he converted the garage into his studio right away,” Gillian says. There are still traces of the artist all around the room. Tins full of brushes sit on a tabletop, a near-empty cigar box is perched on the mantle and one painting is still on its easel. Hidden in a stack of dusty pictures next to the window is an old invitation to an exhibition of John’s work at St. John’s College, one of the only shows he ever had. Most of the paintings in our exhibition of his work, starting Friday, March 15, have never been seen by the public.
“I felt that it was extremely important to have a show,” Gillian says. “These paintings shouldn’t just be gathering dust.”
John’s path was always architecture, but art naturally came along with it. He was orphaned at 7 years old and spent the rest of his childhood under the care of his aunts in Springfield, Ohio. Though money was tight, he used his earnings as a paperboy to plant a garden in his yard. He graduated cum laude in architecture from the University of Notre Dame in the 1941, and took an apprenticeship in Ohio before serving in the Air Force.
When John returned, he taught in the art department at Notre Dame for two years before heading off on the fateful road trip that would land him in Santa Fe. Gillian and John met in 1953 and married a year later. She’s an acclaimed pianist who was born in Great Britain and traveled to Santa Fe with the International Scouting organization in the early 1950s. While Gillian practiced for hours at her piano, she remembers John spending every spare moment with brush or pencil in hand.
“He would come back from the office and go in the studio. It was very simple,” she says. “He loved painting. He would stand there the entire evening at his easel. He loved the shapes and patterns and colors.”
John’s oeuvre is captivating in its diversity. As I explore his studio, I find landscapes and abstract paintings, a work that was inspired by cubism and another that looks to have been done with Cezanne in mind. One dramatic landscape is signed Baumann-McHugh, and was started by the former and finished by the latter. The thread that ties it all together was John’s strong emphasis on the framework of whatever he was portraying. You can see the hand of an architect in the bold patterns he employed again and again.
“I think the architecture does enter into his paintings a good deal, because of the form and shape that he was always working with, and the fascination with that,” Gillian says. “It could be from anything. It could be something growing by the wayside or it could be a giant building.”
On drives around New Mexico, John would often park the car and pull out his sketchbook. “He’d stop in the middle of nowhere,” Gillian remembers. “If there was a telephone pole that he liked, he’d get out and say, ‘Do you mind if I just draw this?’ All of a sudden half an hour later… something really wonderful would come out of the shape or color.”
All of John’s creative endeavors came to an abrupt halt in 1985, when he suffered a severe left hemisphere stroke. “After the stroke, he was trying to come back to being whole again. He would work in very small ways,” says Gillian.
John could see Sandia Mountain from the windows of St. John’s Hospital, and he challenged himself to learn to draw it again. “Sandia was really his lifeline. The mountain called to him. He was eventually able to draw the whole thing, which took a long, long time. This was a lovely beginning to his route back to health.” Later on, John did a lecture series on art at St. John’s College that further built his confidence. He continued painting and sketching until the very end of his life.
Gillian folds up her walker and takes a seat in the living room next to her piano. One of John’s aspen paintings hangs above her head. She’s 89 years old, but when Gillian talks about John’s upcoming retrospective at our gallery, she seems full of energy. The works are close to her heart, as is the cause that the show will be supporting.
“When I heard about the wonderful work that the Bob Woodruff Foundation was doing for soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, I was fascinated,” she says. “My brother had been a prisoner of war under a different situation. I thought perhaps…. some of the paintings that John did could be used, and some of the proceeds could be given to this foundation.”
I ask Gillian something I’ve been wondering the whole time I’ve been there: how did John have the time and energy to accomplish all of this?
Gillian shakes her head and smiles. “It wasn’t really hard work, you see. It was total love,” she says. “Architecture and art were his life.”
The Matthews Gallery will present an exhibition of the art of John McHugh from March 15th through March 28, 2013. Gillian McHugh will be in attendance during the opening reception on Friday March 15th from 5-7 pm. A portion of the proceeds of the sales of the artwork will be donated to the Bob Woodruff Foundation. Click here for more information, and follow our Twitter and Facebook feeds for updates.