When I was a little girl, I always wanted my parents to pull over on car trips so I could walk through the foggy swamps along the Indiana roads, maybe stand near a tree in the dank overcast. Mike Baum's painting "Trees of San Luis" makes me feel like they obliged.
The painting is of a telephone pole with no wires, and a tree against a gray sky. Baum, 56, says that having grown up in Ohio, where the same bruised overcast reigns, often inspires his work even though a painting like "Two Trees" is set in the San Luis Valley.
"There's something about cloudy, stormy days that really turns me on," Baum says. "I know that's from growing up in the Midwest."
His love for that moody landscape changed his earlier style. A decade ago, Baum tended to paint whimsical, bright landscapes: a red car driving down a sunny road, among orange mountains and swirling shrubbery, for example.
Baum says the bright palette of his previous work can't express the vastness and solitude of the West. So he's been painting in a hyper-realist style since 2001.
He hunts for lonely landscapes on road trips he and his wife take. They photograph haunted homesteads and vast skies over prairies just east of the Springs and throughout the San Luis Valley. He uses Photoshop to tweak elements of different photographs until he can best portray the landscape's emptiness.
But the painter hasn't completely abandoned whimsical work. In the West, a deep sense of place doesn't erase the pure joy of life.
"The whole Western experience," he says, "is an exercise in contrasts."
Where the Spirit Leads Us: Paintings by Michael Baum and Deb Komitor
Commonwheel Artists Co-op, 102 Cañon Ave., Manitou Springs
Runs June 15 through July 16; Opening reception, Friday, June 15, 5-8 p.m.
For more information, call 685-1008 or visit commonwheel.com.