By Zak Podmore
Published: April 6, 2019
In 1972, JR Lancaster was in the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport when he passed a bookstore display that would change his life: an Ansel Adams shot of Yosemite’s Half Dome. “I’d never seen a photograph like that,” Lancaster recalls.
He went home to Louisiana, immediately bought a 35mm camera and snapped his first artistic photographs in the bayou swamps. Back then art was a hobby, not a career, and Lancaster worked for a while as a chemical engineer in a plant in Baton Rouge. But he took his hobby seriously, and, in his own telling, “sought out the masters.”
In the early 1980s, he traveled to Yosemite National Park and took one of Adams’ final workshops. Making photos was more enticing than making chemicals, and Lancaster began spending more and more time behind a lens. He worked as an assistant to photographer Paul Caponigro who gained recognition for his series on Stonehenge and other ancient megaliths. The tie between art and prehistory was powerful for Lancaster as well, and he began taking trips to the Mayan ruins of Mexico and to the American Southwest. In 1989, Lancaster moved the Navajo Nation, where he worked for the Chinle Curriculum Center taking photographs for school textbooks. His speciality was large-format photography, which required lugging around 96 pounds of camera equipment and paying $48 to have a single negative made and shipped to Chinle.
“What that does is to teach you to get it right,” Lancaster says.
A flat tire on the Moki Dugway in the early ’90s led Lancaster to Bluff. Bob Boot, the town mechanic at the time, was not impressed by Lancaster’s car full of longhairs, and refused to fix the tire. While he was figuring out the next step, Lancaster struck up a conversation, and later a friendship, with Dakota Sioux artist Stormy RedDoor who was living just west of town. Lancaster settled in Bluff shortly afterwards, and began experimenting with mixed media collages using his photographs, found objects, and other art.
Lancaster and RedDoor toyed with opening a gallery in Mexican Hat before RedDoor moved to Germany where he’s since become a successful artist and musician.
Lancaster stayed in Bluff and taught himself to paint. Over the last twenty-plus years, he has produced 1,600 paintings. “You could say all the paintings I’ve done have been about the Bears Ears area,” Lancaster says. “One of the things about living in Bluff is right outside the door is inspiration.”
In December 2016, President Obama designated a 1.35-million-acre Bears Ears National Monument, and Lancaster began a numbered Bears Ears series. He’s currently up to 86.
Many of the paintings feature the Bears Ears Buttes, while others draw inspiration from the greater Bears Ears landscape, including its rich prehistory and culture.
“For some reason I started experimenting with Chinle clay from Comb Ridge,” he says. “I go out and collect it, sift it down, and put water and an acrylic binder in it. It makes fired ceramic quality [clay] on canvas.” Lancaster also adds juniper ash, juniper bark, sand, glass beads, and molding gel to develop the signature texture of his pieces. The natural cracking of the clay as it dries informs the look of much of his artwork.
The richness of the paintings are hard to capture in photographs because the texture does so much work in the design. “[Many pieces] are like a crow’s eye view, like you’re flying over the thing,” Lancaster says. “So it flattens the perspective, but the texture brings it out. It’s actually a two-dimensional viewpoint with three-dimensional texture. Some people can’t orient themselves when they look at it at first, which is good.”
“I don’t really see the [Bears Ears series] as a political thing,” he says, “but if I were to exhibit it, I would promote the protection of the monument, because a lot of people outside of this area really don’t know what cliff dwellings and rock art are. That’s why we have people coming in, taking pottery, doing graffiti — because they’re not educated.”
Around number 75 in the series, Lancaster says, “It took on its own voice. It’s hard to describe it, but that’s when I was like, ‘Now it’s talking.’ […] I’m trying to get the sky and the canyons to melt into one another.”
Lancaster has seen some changes in his thirty years in Bluff, namely an increase of traffic, which has led him to recently purchase some remote acreage an hour and a half away from town for a studio space. “We’re getting a lot of visitation,” he says. “I can tell tourist season by two ways: the first is by the Colorado green license plates, and the second is by the ambulances heading west through town to go rescue people.”
In addition to continuing the Bears Ears series, which Lancaster promises is not going to end anytime soon, he’s been working on a novel that has Vincent Van Gogh dropped into modern-day Utah canyons. “It’s like I’ve had Van Gogh over my shoulder every morning for ten years as I drink my coffee,” Lancaster says of writing the novel. The first chapter will be posted on his website soon.
Lancaster’s work can be seen in-person at the Comb Ridge Eat & Drink Bistro in Bluff, Utah, and he can be contacted through his Facebook page where he frequently posts new photographs and paintings.