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Back Story: Chance Encounters One afternoon in 2010, Andoni Canela and I were doing exactly the same thing. Through icy snow in Southern Colorado, I trudged around my rural property looking for particular colors and textures to photograph. On that same day, Andoni and his son Unai were on a walk near their home in Banyoles, Spain with camera in hand. Andoni is an accomplished and widely published nature photographer who travels the globe to witness and record our planet’s most fascinating, wild events and remote geographical phenomena. As for myself, a diametric opposite, much of my work is the result of adventures and escapades that originate inside my own head. I am a nature lover, and consummate observer, but even so, the studio is my natural habitat.

Now, you might be able guess how this all comes together. ...from here, I must back up. This story actually has it’s beginnings twenty years earlier on a train in Southern France. My sketchbook caught the eye of fellow traveler, Xavier. This drawing sparked a fast friendship.

However, neither of us was aware of the other at the time our shutters clicked...

“A gorgeous pattern of colors and textures that might inspire a painting for me! I found your photos through Xavier and instantly I am a fan.” March 2, 2010 I know something special when I see it, and all of Andoni’s work has that special something. After a little research and many messages I invited the acclaimed photographer to experience the diverse, natural wonders of the San Luis Valley where I live. Before the month was out, Andoni and Unai arrived in Colorado to capture the scenes which created this book. Without any particular plan in mind, the inspiration behind these images was right outside my door and across the Atlantic.

On the day mentioned above, I had an illustration in mind for a story of pure fantasy, but I needed real-world, tactile surfaces to reference. Farm buildings and rusting machinery were perfect for the imaginary scene I wanted to paint convincingly. For the Spaniards, they were engaged in their now famous, dual photo / video project called, “Looking for Fochas”, a daily image which chronicles a year in their particular location. On that day, they also found a close up of color and texture.

I found Xavier’s comment about a post labeled “Looking for Fochas”. It was so similar to my own photo that same day, I had to comment:

Chance encounters and accidental adventures often bring the best results. I spent a few days with Xavier on the Costa Brava in Spain. Now, we still connect on Facebook. As a photography enthusiast, Xavier is also Andoni’s Facebook friend. You can see how both Andoni’s photo (top) and my own (bottom) informed my illustration (center, detail) and brought it to life.

Two Artists, Five Days Same Subject, Different Outcome The pictorial content of this book was gathered quickly. A shared goal of nature photography bridged all gaps, while offering quite a bit of fun and adventure. The experience of working alongside a photographer highlighted the divergent, but compatible ways in which we achieve our finished pieces. What materialized is both individual and universal. Andoni's text, like his photographs, are immediate, physical, and distinctive, yet there is more than just that singular moment. Each image exudes years of technical expertise. Every new photo builds upon the last and grows richer with depth and a sense of the unnamable spirit beyond just one instant. For a painter, the photo is a reference point; only the beginning. In the months required to organize and execute the artwork for this book, I had time to ponder the creative process itself. Going out on location was an essential element, but again, there is more to it. The brief stories that accompany my art works expand on my partner's observations and the original experience. The chapters evolve along the same path as any creation; from the shaky, early grounds of Uncertainty, all the way to Flow, with many stages in between. More than just a finished product, this book lights the path which led to its becoming. For anyone with the beginnings of a good idea, every step looms ahead and challenges await. You'll find in these pages that you're not the only one who finds the prospect daunting. Yet, there are also excitement and rewards, so the most important part of any creative endeavor is to jump in and get started. As we two artists repeated often during our five days together... "Let's go!"

Off Ranch Del Norte, Colorado


Cold. Very cold. The sun is rising and steam comes from the heat of the bisons bodies. The warm breath becomes fog in the cold air. All around the snow gives the landscape the touch of winter although spring has started a few weeks ago. The buffalo are shedding now and their winter coats will be falling off very soon.

chapter 1

Uncertainty And so we begin. We set out into the vast, unforgiving territory of a new collaboration between unfamiliar partners. Like spring in the high country, it could go either way. These bison who live at the base of the Southern San Juans know that nothing is guarenteed. Each day could bring the welcoming warmth of sunshine and beauty, or a beating by heavy winds and blowing dirt. So it is with the beginnings of any creative endeavor -- the very nature of a sprouting idea requires a period of uncertainty. Otherwise, there would be no innovation or originality. Inviting a total stranger to my home was hardly a sure bet, but Andoni's photographs told me that the San Luis Valley was a good place for him to absorb and create. I wanted to see what he could do with this rugged and remote location. Nowhere in my mind was there any notion of a book project...that came later. I could have followed my apprehensions. Instead, we both let inspiration take the lead. Our first maneuver is a wrong turn that steers us away from the herd. Then a menacing bull scares us just enough to change our approach. The sun and the stakes rise higher, but we stay with it and get in position...just in time for that perfect light. The outcome of each painting, story, or full project is equally unpredictable. Doubts arise. Mistakes must be fixed. We persist with faith and see where it leads. In this case, many images from our morning trek command our notice. We know only that we are on to something, although what exactly that something is, still remains uncertain.

Off Ranch Del Norte, Colorado Oil on Canvas

Zapata Ranch The Nature Conservancy Saguache County, Colorado


The blizzard is blowing and the snow passes, flying. In a few minutes the dark coats of the bison are covered in white. The primal look of the bison is astonishing. Its seem that the time has reversed by thousands of years.

chapter 2

Obstacles All creative projects begin with obstacles. At the early stages, success appears unlikely. Sometimes there are financial barriers, or logistical hurdles. Often it is a simple case of time management. Immediately the road blocks become as daunting as a face-off with any two-ton brute. Escape seems to be the only safe or reasonable option. However, obstacles are all artists' noble friends. They make us stronger, expand our experience, balance our brilliance and dare us to overcome them. In this case we are presented with a spring blizzard, a setting sun, and dropping temperatures. We could pack it up and go home, but we choose to make the most of it, just as the buffalo do. As an artist, I imagine myself as one of these ruminants and absorb through all my senses. For a few moments, their reality is also mine. There are huffs and stomps around me. I smell the gamey pungency of wet, wooly beasts and soon-to-flower brush. I can feel body warmth -- safety in numbers pressed against me. Make-believe limitations are dismantled and in my buffalo mind, this is all here for me. As human observer, I can make use of nearly anything life has to offer. Each of us can. This is where the paradox arrises: Choices become narrow, and simultaneously infinite, when we know what we're made for. The key is to act accordingly. For me, it resulted in this drawing of a classic American scene. The obstacles are those elements which have made it compelling.

Zapata Ranch The Nature Conservancy Saguache County, Colorado Charcoal on Paper

Highway 17 Alamosa County, Colorado

Te n a c i t y

Yellow grass, nude trees and a thunderstorm in the background are the signs of nature. In this case, however, the road also speaks of the weather. Extremely cold winters and the hot summers are written on the tar.

chapter 3

Te n a c i t y We've passed the mile-markers of uncertainty and obstacles. At his point in the project we arrive at the round-about called "tenacity". A free pass to turn around or veer off in any another direction that looks like an easier route or a quicker end. Today we have a guide, Aaron, from the Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust; an organization which funds land conservation along the river's corridor and surrounding valley. Aaron leads us down this road on King Ranch, among chico bush and endless valley to the East. Andoni and I look at each other, "Is this really worth it? Where could he possibly be taking us?" The road finally curves toward Mount Blanca and an incoming storm. We stayed with it and now I have a year's worth of paintings from all the photographic reference I shot there. A rare case in which staying on the road turned us right around. Weather rewarded us by filtering sunlight, and deepening form shadows. Who would expect to find beautiful illumination, mid-afternoon, on a road at the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains? And how could I have guessed this accomplished photographer would bring with him such easy energy and a cooperative spirit. The best option is to find out for sure what lies ahead. In the absence of any imminent threat greater than boredom or cynicism, we gather all information before we cut out early. Open for anything, we receive tremendous luck.

King Ranch Road Alamosa County Oil on Canvas

Homestead Entrance, King Ranch Alamosa County


It really looks old, a few centuries old, but it can only be decades. This ranch has the feeling of the wild west. From the old ranch the view is amazing: the sand dunes and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

chapter 4

Difficulty Just in case I expect things to get easy now, I am forced to think again. Another test must be passed to continue on the artist's journey. I've committed. I'm in and there's no going back...but there's always the option of giving up. Right about now, that looks pretty inviting, because guess what ... creating is hard. Like pioneer ranchers in unmapped lands, we artists weather the storms with faith and tenacity. Corral the herds, accept what is given, and cultivate a gain from every loss. This homestead has been abandoned like so many creations are each day. Perhaps prematurely, before the courageous trailblazers could see its full potential. Remember, whenever you open a book, what you see is the finished product after everything has been resolved. For this book, I had the privilege of seeing every aspect of its growth. Most of it I would not be proud to share. At this point in the process, before all the chapters have even been written, there still is no real direction for its completion. Discouraged one-third of the way through, this book starts to feel as long and brutal as a San Luis Valley winter. Heading south appears to be a perfectly reasonable action. Like any rancher, I know the value of a good, long, afternoon nap. I opt for that rather than packing it all in and hope my refreshed and rested muse will be more forthcoming when I awaken.

Homestead, King Ranch Alamosa County Oil on Canvas

Painting to come

Mount Blanca from the Alamosa Wildlife Refuge Alamosa County, Colorado


A great reservation for water and migratory birds, the Alamosa wildlife refuge has wide spaces where land and water melt together. Above, in the sky, storm clouds and the sun play together to make a big show.

chapter 5


Art cannot be forced anymore than we can coerce the sun to wait for us as drive to our location. No, art refuses man-handling, but does allow tenacious pursuit, courtship. She can be charmed into revealing herself. If we become lax in our attention we miss the show. This day of shooting is one of those days. Andoni and I planned to photograph sand hill cranes as they came in to roost. However, the East side of the valley had other designs for us. We linger too long as theatrics unfold in the sky, and quickly, we lose our light. And now, writing this an entire year later, it is not what I planned. I now have a beautiful, newly built studio and I wanted extraordinary visions to flow, without interruption or impediment. But here I sit, unable to bring my thoughts together in a way that's coherent or uplifting. The seasonal winds seem to be blowing all my words into a swirl. An attempt to sweep them from some dark alcove of my skull only sends them into a new flurry of debris. While I wish for better but do the best I can, Miss Lola, the cat, sniffs my much for profound insights. It's one of those days to just allow things to be. A dry well makes us that much more grateful for the rain. When inspiration flows again it will be as beautiful as shafts of light reaching a darkened landscape.

Rio Grande Alamosa Wildlife Refuge Alamosa County, Colorado Charcoal on Paper 18 x 24�

Chamisa Bush Sauguache County, Colorado


Many seasons pass in a single day between the ceiling and floor of the San Luis Valley.

chapter 6

Surrender The irony comes when I have gone through all these challenges. I've willed myself to stay with it through frustration, blaming unseen forces or loved ones for standing in my way. I've pushed past the obstacles, but still the end appears distant; unattainable. But, I haven't given up. And now it's time to surrender. What?! Concede? After I've come so far? Yes, it must be done. All the work up until this point may have just been a warm up. I have to be willing to let it all go if it is not the best story for my readers, or my viewers' most moving scene. Each day dissolves into night. The sun gives over the sky to moon and stars. One final nod of pinkish hues to be remembered on the clouds that twirl like square-dancers skirts above a giant dance floor. Alaman left and do si do, swing your partner and let it go. Looking for the light means also allowing the darkness, down time. Relax and blow off steam. Look back on the achievements so far and surrender to what comes next...even if it means rotating every moment into memories and starting over as nature does every day.

“Moon Rise� Alamosa Wildlife Refuge Alamosa County, Colorado Oil on Canvas 14 x 24�

Sand Hill Cranes Monte vista Wildlife Refuge Rio Grande County, Colorado

Tr u s t

The first rays of sun paint a group of young Sandhill Cranes on an icy morning. The have spent the night in this pond where they find a tranquil and peaceful place. The loud call of the cranes creates a magical and mysterious atmosphere.

chapter 7

Tr u s t

The morning sun peaks over the southern shoulder of Mount Blanca and triggers large groups of cranes to take flight. First, they must free their long, spindly legs from the crust of ice that has formed on the surface of their pond. Likewise, at this stage in the creation of a work of art, I must wriggle out from under a coating of preconceived notions. A little past half way is when the real story emerges or a painting reveals it true purpose. With trust, I stir the waters below to release a pristine vision that is hidden among scattered notes, bad ideas, and false starts. A new day dawns along with unique ideas. As with the sunrise, I must be present and awake to see it. The ancient calls of sand hill cranes scatter around us. If their song had physical form it would be like strands of confetti falling from high windows in a ticker tape parade. The sound is almost as loud and equally exciting. Sunrise activity, unchanged over the centuries of this specie's migrations still deserves recording and fanfare. In a similar fashion, the human spirit summons each of us to create in a continuing, predictable pattern. All we have to do is follow its migratory path and trust that each hatchling of inspiration will lead us toward its completion. Then, we start all over again, just as the cranes have done for millions of years. Monte Vista Wildlife Refuge Rio Grande County, Colorado

Painting to come

Sand Hill Cranes Monte vista Wildlife Refuge Rio Grande County, Colorado


The sound of the cranes is everywhere. Deep and loud. They are spending the last few days before taking off and flying thousand of kilometers to the north to find their breeding grounds. Like a group of friends a few cranes decide to stay a little longer this morning.

chapter 8


Every creation comes with a threshold, that moment when the artist can feel the rewards within reach. Believe it or not, this is sometimes the point where a stroke of self-sabotage ignites. Even with the end in sight I can find ways to derail my progress. Only courage can keep me anchored through all the rough spots of this process. It is a similar system with new habits, which are forms of creating. If I can stick with it long enough, hard parts get easier. The schedule of a nature photographer is not a natural rhythm for me. Up before dawn to experience wildlife activity again after a late dinner the night before. The cranes aren't going to wait for me and neither is Andoni. Just in case, I give him directions to the wildlife refuge. However, after a few days my body comes to anticipate arising in the wee hours. On this day, I am awake before he is and the hard parts become worth the trouble, if not easy. And so it is, at sunrise among the cranes. The rewards are many. Their exuberant chortle is surrounded by beautifully rich colors in the predawn light. It's their way of greeting fresh daylight with gratitude, thereby imparting yet another lesson for me. When my morning mood is less than cheery, I put myself back among the cranes -- their sound as they lift off -- and my day becomes more bountiful at any time of year. Monte Vista Wildlife Refuge Rio Grande County, Colorado

Painting to come

Great Sand Dunes National Park Saguache County, Colorado


Sand dunes, grass, forests and woodlands get together with the Sangre de Christo Mountains at the background. In the forests and woodlands live a great variety of large-sized wildlife such as elk, deer, bison, bighorn sheep, pronghorns and mountain lions.

chapter 9


We artists like to keep our work private until "it is ready" to show. What that means is that our vision must reach a level of clarity that others can finally see as well. I've sifted through sketches, tossed out first drafts, rearranged lines, words, and restructured paragraphs, compositions, and colors. Only now is it truly fortified to show to a non-artist, or anyone unfamiliar with the lengthy process that makes a book. Looking for praise prematurely is as unproductive as it would be to drag out the buds on a chico bush before the snow is melting. It needs sufficient warmth and watering to flourish. Pushing it out before it is ready would be an act of violence, sure to kill any chance of flower or growth. However, at the end of a clear, warm day, these buds are safe to show their yellow beauty and contrast with the cool shadows of a receding winter. And finally, just short of perfection, this project is finding its springtime; its Easter parade. We've made it through another hard season, waiting for the optimal moment to sprout. It's best to keep it undercover until all risk of a late frost are gone. Our creations, no matter what form they take, deserve to be protected until they can receive a sunny reception.

Great Sand Dunes National Park Saguache County, Colorado

Painting to come

Great Sand Dunes National Park Saguache County, Colorado


A dead tree is surrounded by the sand dunes of the amazing Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve. Situated near the southern end of the Rocky Mountains, this Park has the biggest and highest dunefield in North America.

chapter 10


I have a little secret on the subject of creative fluidity. This is pretty weird, I know, but all of these chapters began on notebook paper, written with my left hand, while lying down. I am not left-handed. It started as a cure for pain in my over worked right had...well no, not really. It started because I eat a LOT. I spend so much time with a fork in my right hand that I had to find a way to be productive...and ambidextrous. Later, my painting hand was begging for a break and that's when my penmanship as a part-time lefty improved. Lying down was injury related; relief for a misaligned spine. What I experience in that informal position, backward from logic, is flow. The side door of my imagination opens where linear associations take their leave and well-rounded mastery fills the space. Medano Creek surges effortlessly on its path of least resistance; horizontal and partially underground, just like my subconscious. So what if my inner psyche can barely spell, is hardly legible? Its output is far more brilliant. I don't take credit for what travels down from mountains of melting connection to a greater inspiration. I only marvel at the beauty, squint in reflecting delight...and say "thank you".

Painting to come Great Sand Dunes National Park Saguache County, Colorado



Chance Encounters  

Creative Landscapes of the San Luis Valley by Rita Roberts & Andoni Canela