Sitting in his drafty, paint-spattered “Warehome,” which doubles as a studio and living space, 35-year-old Sun Valley painter Aaron Pearson stared, legs crossed in jeans, and contemplated the question: “Why do you paint?”
“I just know I have to,” he said finally, smiling. With half-finished paintings scattered throughout the place, some still drying in the corner, others covered in dust, it’s obvious that there is some enigmatic force at work—an inward energy—that keeps Pearson swirling colors, scraping, erasing and washing.
“Ultimately, it’s the thing that actually makes me happy,” Aaron explained. “It makes me miserable, too. But this is how I process the world on some level.”
Of all the ways to “process” human existence, Pearson found oil paints and canvas as his way of confronting that reality. “It’s a dialogue with oneself and it’s a dialogue with what’s outside of oneself. It’s a dialogue with the world as well,” he said. For Pearson, that dialogue usually involves motifs of landscape, grounded in some figurative image and represented abstractly, through vivid colors and thin layers of paint.
“I’m not trying to be literal,” he said. “I can draw something as it appears, but the reason I want to make it different is the same reason poets write poetry.” Literal interpretations can fall somewhat flat, Pearson explained, particularly when expressing the deepest and most profound of human experiences “nonverbally.” Painting is to illustration, as poetry is to nonfiction prose, Pearson stated, clarifying that one is often more “right-brained, full of allusion and inference” and the other is “factual, illustrative, direct.”
After graduating with honors from Dartmouth College in 2001, where he studied studio art, Aaron moved to New York City to work for an architectural firm. Growing up in the Wood River Valley, he said he’d always wanted to return for a few winters to be closer to family and the ski mountain, so he left the city to head back out West.
Once back in Idaho, surrounded by familiar shapes and landscapes and skies, Pearson thought his work would regain the direction it had been lacking for nearly two-and-a-half years. “I expected my return would be an artistic renaissance, but it proved to be exactly the opposite,” he said. “I had lost the thread of my work.” It would turn out to be the longest break Pearson had ever taken from painting.
Then, one day, for reasons even he can’t explain, inspiration struck. “I started wanting to paint again,” Pearson said, somehow knowing it was the right time. “And it wasn’t just wanting to—I had an idea and I knew what the idea meant.” With these new thoughts and images taking shape and a deadline looming for a mid-October solo exhibition at Ochi Gallery in Ketchum, Pearson said he “went to work.”
“People have this very romanticized version of an artistic process,” he explained—one that involves little effort and a frenzy of “thunderstruck” activity. “And it isn’t that. It’s just hard work,” he said with a wry smile.
With a grandmother and mother who are both painters, and many other talented artists and writers in the family, Pearson said he grew up with art “as a part of life.” But he also understood it was a job. After working a full day as the information systems director at The Community Library, he often comes home to work another shift painting. “You have to allow yourself the time and space to really reflect and be present,” he said. “And that requires, for me, six to seven hours for a normal session.”
Thankfully, all of the hard work hasn’t gone unrewarded. At his fall show, “Truth Itself Is Made,” Pearson had nine new pieces of “some of the best work I’ve ever produced,” he said. As a theme, Pearson wanted to focus on the idea that the paintings could exist “unto themselves;” that his experience with a painting and that of the viewers would be “inherently different,” and of a unique, subjective construction.
“Anything we accept as common or absolute truth only exists in our minds,” he explained. “And that’s kind of the way I approach painting—that each one of these things is creating its own truth and we accept it as its finished self, even though everything that went into making it is what I know, and everything that you know is the other side.”
Pearson concluded, “Painting has been declared dead so many times, but it just refuses to die. There is a reason it was the first art form,” in reference to early cave-paintings. And sitting in his dimly lit studio with light flickering on the walls, surrounded by his hanging artwork, it is clear that painting is as alive as ever.