Tranquility. If there is a theme to Dave Petersen’s new oil and photography show at
the Montgomery Museum of Art and History (MMAH), it is tranquility.
Most of these tranquil places can be found within a 50-mile radius of Montgomery
County. If you have lived in that area for even a short time, you will find yourself
saying, “I know that place” or “I have seen that.” One recognizable place is the
previous location for the MMAH, which was originally the home for a Presbyterian
minister. But on closer look, Petersen’s work may show a place like Mabry Mill,
McAfee Knob, the Smokies, or the Outer Banks in a different light or covered with
snow or even the feathery hoar frost, which only forms under special cold
conditions, usually at high elevations.
In order to catch the scene at the right time, Petersen, often accompanied by his son
Paul, also a painter and photographer, sometimes endures harsh conditions and
waits for the just right moment. The pair often camp out and take a compass with
them to determine where the sun will be in the morning. Early Boy Scout training
comes in handy.
“Low Clouds Over the Smoky Mountains” required such persistence. The pair drove
up to Clingmans Dome in the Smokies to do some photography. Once up on
Clingmans Dome they were greeted with low clouds, heavy winds, and blowing rain.
After waiting over two hours and with the weather getting worse, they gave up and
started driving back down to the campsite. Just as they dropped below the clouds,
they saw the distant mountains. The wind and rain had stopped, and Petersen took
a picture that became the basis for the oil painting in this exhibit.
The upcoming show features both oil paintings and photography in equal numbers,
and half of the photographs are in black and white. Petersen has been compared to
Ansel Adams, although the techniques used are different, as digital photography has
changed the way artists work. Petersen’s photographs are often printed on stretch
canvas. Another influence is Richard Schmid, the impressionist or realist, depending
upon whom you ask, known for his paintings of the west and the Hudson River
About a quarter of the works depict scenes in the western United States, where the
scenery is decidedly different from that in Virginia. Art works depict tranquil places
out west such as Grand Canyon, Snowmass Wilderness Area, the San Juan Mountains
in Colorado, Yosemite, and Bryce Canyon.
Dave Petersen took art and technical drawing classes at Andrew Lewis High School
and private painting lessons from Heinz Huber. He attended Virginia Western
Community College and Madison College (now James Madison University), where he stayed on for a master’s degree, not in painting or photography, but in ceramics. He loved wheel thrown pottery but decided not to pursue a career in ceramics, in part because the expensive gas-fired kilns available in college are not usually accessible to the individual artist. Instead, Petersen taught himself photography. Three years of technical drawing still influence his work, but he likes to loosen up when painting and leave the viewers to find their own paths.
Petersen taught high school art for twenty years and was an assistant principal in
Blacksburg. At first he used photography only to capture subjects for his paintings,
but Mike Kaylor at Blacksburg High School, who taught photography, inspired him to
think of photography as an art form in itself. After retirement and the forced
isolation necessitated by COVID, Petersen has found more time to pursue his art,
more “growing time” as he puts it, or time to reevaluate where to go next. Half of his
studio is relegated to photography and the other half to painting, so he seems to be
going both directions.
“You can learn a lot about people by what they photograph,” said Petersen. So, Dave
Petersen must be a tranquil man. Dave Petersen’s exhibit will be at the Montgomery Museum of Art and History at 4 East Main Street in Christiansburg from January 3 to February 27. A public
reception will take place February 2 from 5:00 to 7:00 p.m.