Fifty-five years after abandoning painting, Robert Zumwalt returned to the craft two years ago. During a fateful trip to the Grand Canyon, he missed the mule ride back to his starting point and found himself, at the age of eighty-five, forced to begin a steep upward hike. “I had heat exhaustion,” he told Pasatiempo. “I tried to rent a mule, and I couldn’t. I thought, Well, I’ll just go as far as I can. I got halfway up, and I realized, I’m going to make it. He commemorated the moment in the simple landscape painting Leaving Indian Gardens, Grand Canyon: “I Know I Will Make It.”

There’s nothing complicated about the work of Zumwalt, but there is a freshness about his paintings, which are infused with tenderness and a bit of humor, whether they’re portraits, still lifes, or landscapes. Zumwalt takes great delight in his artwork, as is evidenced by his presence at the Santa Fe Public Library’s main branch, where a show of his works currently hangs and where he and his wife, Marilyn, meet with the public every Wednesday at 2 p.m. during the exhibit’s run to tell the stories behind each painting and talk about art.

Zumwalt, a retired physician, had a decades-long medical practice in Tecumseh, Oklahoma, and the demands of his career led him to stop painting. “I wasn’t really out in the wilderness, but I was the only doctor in a town of about 5,000,” he said. “I was really busy for a while. The other thing is, with oils, it takes forever for them to dry, and I’m kind of an impatient person.” He retired in his mid-seventies, when it became clear that he needed to slow down. “I was getting stupid and forgetful — not because of my age, but you can’t do that when you have a patient waiting. I went before the state licensing board; my brother was the director of the board for 25 years. I told him I wanted to retire, and he said, ‘Phew!’ ”

Before moving to the Southwest, Zumwalt had to make a decision. “We owned a houseboat,” he said. “Wives tend to get tired of toys faster than husbands do. She wanted to sell the houseboat. She said, ‘If we didn’t have this houseboat, we could have a home in Santa Fe.’ So we bought a little condo. When I retired in 2000, I totally retired. I didn’t continue to read medical journals or anything like that. I have opinions, but I don’t know anything anymore — not anything recent — so consequently, I have more time for other interests.”

Zumwalt isn’t painting solely independent of academic training. When he took up his brushes again, he enrolled in a class at Santa Fe Community College, under instructor Jakki Kouffman, to hone his craft. “Without the instruction and support of Jakki, I doubt if I would have had the pleasure of working in both the acrylic and oil painting the last couple of years.”

There’s a familiarity to the work of Zumwalt. His depictions of tennis players, several works in a series, are reminiscent of the paintings of David Hockney. In Tennis Series #3, two figures, friends of Zumwalt, stand on the court. “One of the women in the picture is much heavier than I painted her. I asked permission to include her in the painting, but she said, ‘Only on the condition that you make me thinner.’ ”

Zumwalt has an eye for moments that are undramatic but atypical, such as the woman in his High Style Woman in Hamburg, whose expression bears a trace of snooty attitude as she eyes a fashionable dress, and the whimsical Blue Whale, a painting of Zumwalt and his family visiting a whale-shaped roadside attraction in Catoosa, Oklahoma. In At the Barnes Museum, he captured an elderly woman off guard as she rested in a chair, her mouth agape. “It’s my all-time favorite art gallery,” the artist said. “She was sound asleep.” The image, like many of his paintings, is made from photographs. “I consider my camera my sketch pad. I don’t try to reproduce the picture, but I use the picture as a basis to work from.” He has a knack for capturing facial expressions and likenesses with minimal detail. A portrait of his father, one of two paintings included in the show that were done when Zumwalt was a young man, bears a strong enough resemblance to the artist that it could pass as a self-portrait. 

A diptych titled January/June depicts two views of the landscape in the Sangre de Cristos. One is a snow-covered forested vista with a skier in the middle distance. The other is the same scene as he encountered it six months later: a sunny day along a trail, only the skier is replaced by a hiker making his way through a field of wildflowers. The contrast, too, is an exercise in capturing seasonal views.

In other works, Zumwalt pays tribute to modernists. One on view at the library is an abstract composition derived in part from the designs of Frank Lloyd Wright and the grid-based paintings of Piet Mondrian. “I stole from two people at the same time,” he said. “Not stole, but used.” The painting, which is arched like a stained-glass window (reflecting Zumwalt’s interest in stained-glass work) is also the first one the artist has sold. “I ran a residency program for the University of Oklahoma. One of the residents I trained, who was there when I was in charge of the program, he and his wife come out to see us on occasion, and she sent me a check for it. Since they’re friends, I didn’t feel like I could charge them. So I had the check framed instead. But I can call myself a professional artist now because I sold a painting.” ◀

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