Daphne Wynne Nixon
ARTIST’S STATEMENT: “If I can see it, I can paint it.”
I used to think that in order to paint the beauty around us, one would need to study how to draw every single subject…an overwhelming task. Since then, I learned that everything I see already has in it the information needed to draw or paint it. The key is to “see” it, observe how the light falls on it, and then, express this with a visual language. So, to encourage myself, I say, “If I can see it, I can paint it”. This phrase empowers me to express the world around me with a brush, color, and light. The goal I strive for is to share this splendor, and hopefully, one day, inspire others to see the world in a new light.
…about Old Town Cordelia, California:
My neighbors in town once referred to me as the “unofficial mayor of Old Cordelia”, which is odd, because I’m a painter and not a politician. Still — my town means as much to me as my art, and so to speak of either is to speak of both. I used to think I needed to travel far away to paint landscapes. However, I now try to bloom where I’m planted…so I paint where I live. I found out that the Solano Transportation Authority was going to run a highway thru my town, Cordelia, of 99 residents, so I helped stop that process. I discovered that Caltrans, in 1979, had put Cordelia’s 46 structures on the California Register of Historical Resources because it was one of the first towns in America to be built directly on a railroad when the Transcontinental Railroad ran thru it in 1868. So, I got busy painting the town.
In Cordelia, I painted these forgotten structures to raise awareness to save them. Though I also paint figures, and realistic still life studies, I decided to focus my art on helping my town. Since the village I lived in was run down, nobody paid attention to it and wanted to tear it down for a highway. The city government officials hid the fact it was on the Historical Register so no one would complain about its loss. They said Cordelia was ugly and no one cared if it was gone….they preferred a highway in its place to relieve traffic congestion at the junction of Hwy I80, 680 & 12. However, I complained at public town meetings…and, then, I painted it. No other artists painted there because it was not considered “scenic”. However, to me, it was beautiful.
What was considered an ugly half a ghost town, I used paint and color to make it appeal to viewers at my art shows. To create all the paintings, I stood at each building and painted it in plein aire as I saw it, even if it had a fallen roof, weeds, and broken windows with old Christmas lights on it. I even painted my neighbors old wagon that his grandfather, the Cordelia Blacksmith, built by hand for his wedding in 1881. It still stood in a neglected barn. I tried to use bright colors to make the dead town come alive. They said I made that ugly town look good.
Cordelia is the quintessential American, California town: it had Native American settlements in it; it was an old stage coach route to San Francisco; the Pony Express ran thru it; it had old ruins of a California Mission (Santa Eulalia Assistencia, the last mission built); and the transcontinental railroad ran thru it in 1868. Cordelia had real cowboys and indians. It was a railroad quarry town that transported, by barge, the stones to pave the streets of San Francisco. It was also the first big area of California, before Napa, to produce wine. After prohibition closed the Cordelia Wine Company, plus a massive fire in 1939, and when the railroad left town, many buildings lay forgotten. Cordelia used to have 5 saloons and 4 old Victorian Hotels.
The town came together and I organized, with a group of citizens, the Cordelia Day 150th Anniversary of Old Cordelia in 2003. We reenacted the Pony Express, a train robbery, and the old saloon was filled with cowboys and saloon girls. “Cordelia Waterman”, who the town was named after in 1881, appeared in Victorian dress to tell us how Old Town Cordelia got her name. That day, we even had our County Supervisor “arrested” and put into an old “jail” – as a fundraiser, we raised money, via an auction, to “bail” him out.
Next to my paintings at my art shows, I displayed old black and white photos of the original buildings, and the history I researched, collected from local residents and historical societies. For instance, I showed the one room school house with children dressed in pinafores, the railroad tunnel, livery stables, the slaughter house, the cowboys at the saloon, post office, the old Cordelia Winery, the harbor, train station, and the ladies with their parasols in front of the general store, and Victorian homes. Then, people understood what Cordelia was.
I put together a calendar of some of the paintings I made and sold it to raise money to preserve the old schoolhouse. I was going to have the structure moved and turned it into an art school for children. I had permission from the county to do it. Even so, in a tragic turn of events, the county tore it down illegally, in secret, without the historical society knowing about it because the historians wanted to preserve it…a terrible loss. One day I would like to rebuild a replica of the Cordelia Schoolhouse somewhere and make a children’s art school out of it.
Now, instead of a highway thru old town Cordelia, due to persistence, the help of fellow citizens, and my art shows, we managed to preserve Old Town Cordelia. Some people referred to me as the unofficial Mayor of Cordelia – I’ve never been sure if that was good or bad. However, if you visit old Cordelia today, there is now a big “Welcome to Old Town Cordelia “sign that we citizens helped erect, and instead of a highway there, you will see an historical walking path. I felt very happy when Solano County, in 2010, selected 3 of my paintings to etch onto granite markers on the Cordelia Historical Walking Path. They did that because there were no other historical photos nor drawings or paintings to represent the buildings I saved. So, they used my paintings to represent them. Long live Old Town Cordelia….saved by plein air paintings.
The objects and buildings that people who lived before us created, hold a unique story and style. Old buildings fascinate me because they are all that is left after people pass away. Once destroyed, it’s as though the memory of the people who lived, worked, and played there, are gone forever. Therefore, I try to preserve these environmental beauties thru my paintbrush. The challenge is always “how” to do this. I used to think that I needed to learn how to draw each object separately, with a long-studied technique, and apply that knowledge to what I see. However, I since learned that everything I see already has inherent in it all the information I need to draw or paint it. The key is to truly “see”, observe, and to express this with a visual language. So, now, to simplify things, I say to myself, “If I can see it, then I can paint it”. That phrase helps me feel empowered to express the world around me with a brush, color, and light. I hope to share this beauty, and hopefully, give others inspiration. I enjoy teaching children this principle, and aspire to create an art school for them. If I can teach others to appreciate, to see in a new light, and to preserve the amazing historical and natural resources in our precious environment that are disappearing, then, I would feel successful in my endeavor to pass on our collective humanity.
~Thank you very much to Anthony Dodd for editing this artist’s statement.~
To see more Cordelia paintings, please click on the sidebar menu entitled: Oil Paintings by D. Wynne Nixon – “Old Town Cordelia in a New Light”