There’s plenty that’s familiar in Peter Heller’s new novel, The Painter: Canyon Road art galleries, the Tesuque Village Market, a certain hotel on Don Gaspar, Pasqual’s, thunderstorms in the Sangre de Cristos. Heller’s character Jim Stegner travels — you might say flees — from Colorado to Santa Fe to paint a commission, a portrait of twin girls. The settings he moves through during his time in Santa Fe are as recognizable as if they were pulled from a postcard. “I never actually lived in Santa Fe,” Heller said from his home in Denver. “But I was in and out a lot after Outside magazine moved there [Heller is a contributing editor]. My dad lived there for 25 years, still does.”
Heller’s novel also paints a recognizable picture of the local art scene and the art world in general. Heller dedicates The Painter to “all the artists in my family.” “My dad’s wife, my stepmom, is a serious painter. My dad also paints. My mother is a brilliant sculptor, and her husband is a sculptor. Mom painted in Paris in her 20s. My cousin, Eric Aho, is a well-known artist. So I’ve been around a lot of artists. Me? I can’t even draw.” Jim Stegner, the painter of the novel, also seems familiar. He’s modeled after artist and former Taos resident Jim Wagner. Like Wagner, Stegner loves fishing, has a history of drinking and carousing, sports a white beard, and has a unique, much-copied style of painting that sometimes places people and animals in imaginative juxtapositions. Also like Wagner, Stegner has shot a man, spent time in prison, and lost a daughter in a drug deal gone bad. “That’s where the biography turns fictional,” said Heller. “Wagner hasn’t killed a man like Stegner does.” Haunted by memories of his dead daughter, Stegner wrestles with his own sense of control as he moves through life. Like Wagner, Stegner’s shooting involves a suspected pedophile. In the novel, a theater owner makes suggestive remarks to Stegner about his daughter, who’s then still alive. The painter reacts violently, almost without thinking. Luckily, his aim is off. The act gives him time behind bars to think about his lack of control. Years later, when he sees an outfitter beating a horse with a club, his anger on behalf of the innocent again comes into play.
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