by Tamra Testerman | September 2, 2021 Updated September 15, 2021
Walt Gonske at Chimayo Trading
In the early 1970s, Taos artist Walt Gonske was working on a lucrative career as a freelance men’s fashion illustrator in NYC. He was in demand and turning work around at a big city pace. This trajectory all changed after a serendipitous visit to Taos where his sister worked in the Taos Ski Valley.
Inspired by the land, Gonske painted from photographs and on a lark, sent a few watercolors to his sister who could get them into the Brandywine Gallery in Albuquerque owned by Louise Abrums, the grandmother of Taos gallery owner Gabriel Abrums, of Taos Chimayo Trading Del Norte.
To Gonske’s surprise, within days, a painting sold. A week later he got a check in the mail from Brandywine for “$60 dollars and 7” – his two-thirds share of a $100 dollar painting.
Six months later, with all his life savings, he bought a “screaming turquoise” van and beelined up to Taos. The year was 1972.
Against the odds, he rented his first house in Cañon from Mary Olguin. Mary didn’t much like the long-haired hippy deadbeat renters drifting through town and Gonske showed up with long hair.
“I wasn’t a hippie,” although he looked the part, Gonske offered to pay Olguin a year’s rent in advance. She refused, and let him move in with a month-by-month “understanding.” After two years, he knew he was in the clear when Mary said, “You can stay. The neighbors like you.”
Gonske lived in Cañon for seven years, working odd jobs, honing his painting skills, switching from watercolor to oil until he could afford to buy some land.
A few hundred canvases and brushstrokes later, Gonske now owns two acres north of Taos and rambles around in a custom-made paint-mobile stocked with everything he needs to encounter his muse. The mobile studio has every bell and whistle a plein-air artist could want, including a toilet. He can paint in the elements and be stealthy around tourist hotspots.
Gonske’s paintings are in galleries, museums and private collections all over the world. He won first prize from the Southwestern Watercolor Society, the gold and silver medals for oil painting from the National Academy of Western Art, and the bronze medal for drawing. His paintings are in the Eiteljorg Museum of the American Indian and Western Art, Thomas Gilcrease Institute of American History and Art, National Cowboy Hall of Fame and Western Heritage Center.
Full circle, decades later, as fate would have it, the owner of the Albuquerque gallery that inspired him to move west (Louise Abrums of Brandywine Gallery) is the grandmother of his Taos representative, Gabriel Abrums of Chimayo Trading Del Norte. Louise Abrums passed away in 2010.
Gabe Abrums said the road to representing Gonske started with conversations between gallery owner and painter when the artist stopped in to Chimayo Trading in Taos and saw his work from his days at Brandywine in Albuquerque.
A few years later, there was a large estate sale with a few of Gonske’s paintings in the inventory. Abrums invited the artist, and Walt showed up with many of his friends. “That’s when the serious dialogue began.”
Abrums said he’d always had in the back of his mind that Gonske was someone he wanted to represent and he is pleased that day has come. “He’s one artist who helped pave the way for this generation of artists. Walt has much talent, with a deliberate but loose style, and does the work in one sitting.”
Gonske was born in 1942 in Irvington, New Jersey. He graduated from the Newark School of Fine Arts, studied with Frank Reilly, and at the Art Students League in New York. Gonske began his work in fine art by painting watercolors from photographs. He changed to oils and working en plein air because of the intense light and color in New Mexico.
Gonske said his creative process involves losing all preconceived notions of how a piece should turn out.
“To allow the unknowable creative spirit to emerge.” Gonske said he “interprets nature through his paintings, but does not reproduce it.” Instead, he says he tries to “get the same emotional reaction I experience into the painting itself. The painting comprises one impulse after another. Expressive paint put down and left alone, a record of all those moments during the process.”