Over the decades, the details faded — the exact cartoon, the context of the moment. But what never left were the words, the message a boy made out as he was learning to read.
“Pikes Peak or bust,” Jack Denton recites from foggy memory. “It was one of those seeds.”
Call it manifest destiny.
In Chattanooga, Tenn., his home of 57 years, Denton could not have known that he would retire at the foot of America’s Mountain. But there he was one fall day in 2012, visiting Colorado Springs, his eyes fixed on that majesty. The artist late in his life found the perfect subject.
Seven years later, the result is a studio packed with 100 oil paintings, portraits of the peak from every direction and every season, from any hour of the day and night that Denton admired with brush in hand. Here at his home, one is transported by the panorama of canvases — sweeping from verdant slopes, to eastern fields, to piñon-, juniper- and sandstone-spotted flats, lower to the windswept openness of Pueblo, higher to the dense forests of Woodland Park and higher to the rocky slats near the summit.
It is an experience Denton will lend at his exhibition starting next week at the Garden of the Gods Resort and Club. The culmination is also displayed in the upcoming book, “Pikes Peak, America’s Mountain: 100 Oil Paintings by Jack Denton.”
The showcase will be his first since moving to the Springs, his 30th in a career spanning several regions around the world.
This one, though, feels most important.
“Pikes Peak has really changed my life,” Denton says. “It’s everything I’ve been looking for in terms of painting.”
What exactly was he seeking? Tough to say, as difficult as it is to explain some overwhelming view. But Tennessee was green, and “for an artist, green is the hardest color to work with typically,” Denton says. “It kind of takes over composition. I’m here for the warm hues.”
Take, for example, the alpenglow displayed on page 1 of his book — the granite dome flushed in pink. Early into his odyssey in 2013, Denton observed a snowy peak at dusk, the sky cast in sepia tones. Most dramatic is the orange wall at Garden of the Gods before the fog- and mist-cloaked foothills. It is captured on a 5-foot-by-8-foot canvas, among the biggest of the collection.
Comparatively, the 2½-foot-by-3-foot piece titled “Moonlit Summit” is average in size. Clouds swirl around a black and blue summit, streaked by the shimmering white of snow. “Limitless beautiful atmospherics abound,” Denton writes in the book.
He spectates from his home, which he picked for the window-paneled walls and deck perched on a west-facing hill.
“Pikes Peak to me is like a large motion picture,” Denton says — one he can’t watch enough, epic sequels occurring every time, caused by light and shadow.
While many pieces were inspired from home, many others originated abroad. Denton started in Parker, planting his easel in the ground beside his Jeep and painting folds of farmland beneath a hazy peak. He caught high-alpine scenes on trips to the summit and serene shows at tucked-away streams and reservoirs.
On site, he’d paint what he could and add layers and tones later, working until he was never satisfied. But to complete 100 paintings, he had to move on. “I like (Paul) Gauguin’s term: ‘Paint like a wolf.’”
That’s what he did for 40 years as an art instructor, teaching by day and painting by night. The last decade was at the McCallie School, the college-prep institution that counts Ted Turner as an alumni. His famous ranch in Montana was a highlight of landscapes Denton has painted; grants also paid for him to work in Russia, Africa and Mexico, to name a few.
As a boy, Denton seemed destined to stay in the South, working on the railroad like his father before him. But his parents supported his childhood ambition. The book of Pikes Peak paintings is dedicated to them.
Around the time he moved to the Springs, his mother had a stroke and died. His father followed in 2014.
“They say every painting is a self-portrait,” Denton says. And at the time, he noticed his paintings darkened, taking titles such as “Front Range Rain” and “Below Zero.”
But he kept his eyes on the mountain, looking for those warm hues to return. He just kept painting, he says, “and they lightened back up.”
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