Flint Hills’ simple beauty inspires Judith Mackey’s paintings for decades

04/25/2013 11:16 AM

08/08/2014 10:33 AM

After more than 40 years of painting the scenes and seasons of the Flint Hills, it’s probably safe to say that nobody has portrayed the area like Judith Mackey.

When she started, she said from her home there earlier this week, “a lot of my painter friends weren’t even born yet.”

Not that Mackey thinks she’s seen or done it all. She sounded as excited about painting today as when she first ventured into the rolling landscape with brush and canvas in hand during the 1960s.

Mackey’s works will be featured at Wichita’s Vintera Gallery as part of the Final Friday art crawl.

The 69-year-old grew up in Hutchinson and started to paint in 1965. She sold her first painting, of a cowboy, that same year for $15, “and thought I was rich.”

Not long after her husband’s job took them to Osage City, near Topeka, Mackey started to travel to the Flint Hills to paint. She would visit during burning season to paint prairie fires. Then she started following the seasons in her work.

“I fell in love with the Flint Hills,” she said.

In 1972, the Mackeys bought a tract of land, where they’d camp during weekends until building the house that became their home.

Mackey made friends with her neighbors, most of whom were cowboys or ranchers or otherwise engaged in working the land.

“They gave me information about what I want to paint,” she said.

And what Mackey wanted to paint mostly was nature in all its simple beauty.

Yes, she’s painted the famed Chase County Courthouse, usually at a buyer’s request, and other man-made landmarks. But, for the most part, her paintings are made up of redbuds, prairie flowers, grasses, creeks and other features of the landscape with mere hints of man’s mark on the area, in the form of a fence or a half-dozen head of cattle. The sky — purple, pink, blue or gray — often plays a prominent role.

“I like the untouched land that doesn’t reflect more than maybe a bridge or something man-made that’s very minor,” she said.

When she paints cowboys these days, they’re seen from a distance and unrecognizable as individuals — partly, she said, because she’s not sure the cowboys she knows actually want to be painted.

Some of the pieces she’ll show at Vintera Gallery include “Sundown Near Cedar Point” and “Ready for Rain.”

Mackey said that she’s completed 70 to 100 paintings most years. While her subjects haven’t changed, her approach to them has.

For 30 years, she was self-taught. At a time in her career when many artists would have considered themselves and their style established, Mackey started to take workshops from some of her favorite contemporaries.

“There was a lot of guessing and trial and error for 30 years,” she said. “When I took my first workshop, it was a real eye-opener, believe me.”

There were technical suggestions, but the big lesson she learned was “to be yourself.”

“We think the sky is blue, the grass is green. But if you think you’re seeing a pink sky, you’re seeing a pink sky. I learned to paint what I was seeing rather than what I knew.”

Mackey and her husband, Ken, also have been active in promoting tourism in the Flint Hills. They bought the Grand Central Hotel in Cottonwood Falls for $41 in 1991 and saved it from demolishment before selling it to another owner for redevelopment. A large oil painting she did in 1986 was used as the cover for the first paperback of “PrairyErth,” William Least Heat-Moon’s well-known book about Chase County.

Today, Mackey and her husband share gallery space a half-block from the courthouse in Cottonwood Falls, with Ken making wood carvings in his workshop and Judith painting upstairs.

Inspiration is everywhere around their home. From a bluff overlooking the Cottonwood River, Mackey can see her beloved Flint Hills for 20 miles in any direction.

“It’s a really beautiful place to be.”

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