Text by Aaron Collins
rganic farmer. Musician. Teacher. Principal. Philosopher. Activist. Businessman. Family man. Renaissance man. Paul Buxman has worn all those hats and more over the years, often many at once, in addition to the one for which he is perhaps now best and most broadly known: Artist.
As painters go in Tulare County, Buxman is well-known locally and beyond. He is the exceptionally rare and erudite artist-farmer, practically a unicorn in these parts whose polymathic inclinations bring a multidimensional perspective to the artist’s work. But he’s no gentleman farmer Sunday painter; he earned a fine arts degree from Wheaton College, where he studied with Willard Karl Steele, a noted regionalist painter of rural genre landscapes and farm animal subjects, among others.
On view most recently in an Arts Visalia exhibition entitled California Farm and Foothill, Buxman’s paintings reveal the mature style and technical mastery expected of a painter who honed his craft over many decades while spending those years working the land, keenly observing the shifting light, indigenous colors and captivating geometries of the fertile fields whose yields sustained him and his family for 40 years.
That prolonged and intimately close study has enabled the artist to know his subject exceedingly well. Viewing his paintings that both vibrate with energy as they exude serenity, valley natives and outsiders alike will intuitively feel they’ve been to the artist’s vivid corner of the world in the rural south San Joaquin Valley.
Buxman’s palette — with icy deep cobalt shadows and tonalities that animate his chosen landscape subject matter — recalls that of another notable chronicler of the Central Valley: the great Pop Artist Wayne Thiebaud (Sacramento’s most famous art world habitué who just celebrated his first 100 years — undoubtedly with a slice of cake or pie for which his art is famous). He may not have Thiebaud-level fame but like that artist, Buxman is deft at wringing dazzling light, texture and form from his oils, rendering the most quotidian of agrarian scenes in paint that transubstantiates into fertile dirt and blazing San Joaquin skies, the product of both observation and a very fertile mind. Through both his art and farming, Buxman knows the varying atmospheric conditions, the quality of light, the soil — everything that makes both a great farmer and a fine artist.
But it is not the Pop Art of Thiebaud (although he notoriously distances himself from the label) that drives Buxman’s art but rather Impressionism, which as a contemporary movement may have breathed its last well more than 100 years ago. But Buxman keeps the style alive and vigorous, doing it more than justice. Monet and the Impressionists staked their artistic claim in Europe in the late 19th century when the valley was first occupied by European American farmers. Closer to home, the California Impressionists imported the style in the early 20th century. But they derived their inspiration from the easy allure of California’s breathtaking coastal terrain and misty atmospheres — not the valley, which was and remains California’s afterthought as artistic subject matter. That’s especially true for plein air painters, who can find the valley’s punishing summers and chilly winters to be a tough go out on location where Buxman often works.
Nonetheless, the prolific Buxman fills in retroactively where those perhaps less hardy souls left a void in the historical record (Maynard Dixon and a few others notwithstanding), providing a what-if retrospective view of the valley through an art historical lens in a region not generally known for having offered an extensive contribution to art history.
But clearly, when writer Gerald Haslam observed that California’s heartland “resisted poetry,” as he delicately put it, he did not have in mind Buxman’s skill, stamina nor loving vision of the land he knows and treats so well, like the artist-conservationist he is. Where the region may resist, Buxman’s poetry prevails.
“A little more than 1 percent of the earth’s surface is actually farmable. That’s it. Only that 1 percent enables us to survive. I don’t think people realize that,” the Reedley native says with a conviction that is equal parts professor and cautionary revivalist. “When you remove arable land and put it into something non-productive — at least in the way of producing food and fiber — to bring it back into some kind of agrarian use is a massive undertaking,” he said.
As distinct from conservationist, environmentalist is another bit of headwear that the Dinuba-area rancher can rightfully claim. That’s because Buxman founded California Clean, an organization dedicated to working with farmers to promote healthful agricultural practices. His ailing son’s bout with leukemia, after he was exposed to ag chemicals, was the inspiration for that one. The group of farmers is committed to sustainable, pesticide-free agriculture.
Of all his pursuits, Buxman’s art and environmentalism have yielded perhaps the most enduring legacy (along with establishing the permanent ag conservation easement). Buxman has appeared on CBS, 60 Minutes, Bill Moyers Journal, California’s Gold and NPR, among many other U.S., Canadia and Australian media outlets. In addition to his art hanging in numerous private collections, he has exhibited throughout California and the United States, in the chambers of the California State Senate and the U.S. Senate in Washington, D.C. His work has been exhibited at the Fresno Art Museum, the Hanford Art Center, the Haggin Museum in Stockton, Bakersfield Art Museum, the Modesto Art Museum and Sequoia Riverlands Trust’s Kaweah Land and Arts Festival, among many other venues.
All of those hats he has worn may seem like varied pursuits. But for Buxman, they are not so disparate at all. His art and farming resonate “like meditations on sustenance and sustainability,” highly consistent expressions of his value for “living well within nature’s constraints,” as he puts it. He and wife Ruth recently sold their certified organic Sweet Home Ranch, but their home and studio remain there while a new farmer continues on under the perpetual terms of the agricultural conservation easement that the Buxmans placed on the land years ago, utilizing the expertise of the Sequoia Riverlands Trust. So both his art and his legacy as a man whose stewardship left the land better off will continue on well beyond his time here.