A Fresco in the Chiricahuas?

In a little stone chapel in a lost canyon, Valer Austin re-creates the Creation.

The big white ranch house that Valer Austin calls home sits against a hill on the western slope of the Chiricahua Mountains. Inside it's full of high-ceilinged rooms, mahogany bookcases and a great stone fireplace.

Right now the house is silent, except for Valer's voice echoing in the cavernous kitchen.

"To be honest, nobody is after me to do another fresco," she says, in tones reminiscent of Lauren Bacall. "I don't even consider myself an artist."

A fresco? In the Chiricahuas?

Seven years ago, she hired Mexican stonemasons to build a simple chapel on the bank of Turkey Creek, a few hundred feet from her house. But halfway through the job, she decided that an interior made entirely of rock, with only one large window, would be way too dark. Someone suggested frescoes to lighten it.

Right away, a painter who was staying with Valer and husband Josiah at their rambling El Coronado ranch, and annoying everyone with his know-it-all attitude, puffed up and said, "Oh, you can't possibly do that. Its way too difficult."

Valer eyed him crossways. Yes, a fresco was just the thing.

After three years of worry, work and preparation, including studying under a fresco master in Italy, she painted the interior walls with the Creation story from the Book of Genesis.

At 62, small-boned, fast moving, with shoulder-length gray hair, Valer doesn't come across as the stubborn type. But she readily admits that she took on the project on a dare.

"You know what, it is being contrary," she says, her eyes lighting up as if the idea is just now occurring to her. "But if someone says I can't do something, that's what I want to do."

The green-roofed chapel straddles a dirt road that winds through a narrow canyon in this land once dominated by the Apache chief Cochise. A little bridge leads from there past two ponds up to the house, guarded by giant oaks and sprawling sycamores.

The monsoon rains have turned everything lush green, a nearby field glows with white poppies and blue and red morning glories, and the sound of Turkey Creek rushing across the landscape is a sweet music for desert dwellers. If there's a paradise in the Chiricahuas, this might be it, and it's a long way from New York City.

"I WAS NEVER SURE I could live out here," says Valer, a name given her in tribute to Swiss ancestors. "But I'm a great believer in throwing myself into life as it comes along. Now I'll go to a barn dance and look around and think, I like these people. Their concerns are mine, too."

Her roundabout trip to this country of rattlesnakes and pickup trucks began, roughly speaking, at 19. She traveled to Paris to spend the year studying abroad. It was her first real opportunity to break away from home life on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, which she describes as privileged and Presbyterian, conservative and constructive. Her father worked on Wall Street.

"I went to a private girls school," she says. "I was sort of a hothouse flower."

Her mother packed Valer's suitcase for the Paris trip, including letters of recommendation intended to smooth the way in meeting the right people. But she never opened it. She spent the year wearing blue jeans and looking at art--and following a trip to St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, feeling a powerful tug toward Catholicism. She eventually converted.

Valer later married and had two children: a son, now a public defender in California, and a daughter, who recently left a job with the Nature Conservancy in San Francisco.

But she couldn't escape the sense of belonging to a world not her own. After 16 years of marriage, she got a divorce, moved West and eventually married Josiah, who was working in Dallas at the time.

In 1981, the couple bought land and became ranchers outside tiny Pearce, Arizona, where neighborly conversation might revolve around getting a good deal on a load of hay.

For Josiah, lanky, affable, and noticeably balding without his Indiana Jones hat, the life change wasn't as huge. He was raised on a Maryland farm and can put to poetry how much he loves cows, their moon-eyed look, how they graze.

This morning he is cradling a coffee cup and shuffling around the house, waiting for the phone to ring. It won't be long. It jangles off the hook most of the day.

Josiah spends part of his time managing investments, and if pressed, he'll hole up in the kitchen long enough to share an opinion or two on his beloved El Coronado, and his goal of running the spread as an "environmentally correct cattle ranch." He well understands that some consider it impossible.

"It's harder in the short term, sure," Josiah says. "But if you let the land and the species tell you how to ranch, the better rancher you'll become, and the more likely the ranch is to survive in the long run.

"I want this to be a cattle ranch not just for my lifetime, but for multiple generations, whether it's in my family or not."

The Austins gave important support to the Malpais Borderlands Group, founded in 1993 by conservation-minded ranchers dedicated to keeping land out of development and to preserving the vanishing ranching life. But instead of fighting with environmental groups and federal land agencies, Malpais' members have tried to find what one described as "the radical center" between historic adversaries.

In keeping with those ideals, the couple has allowed El Coronado to become a headquarters for a number of environmental experiments, including the largest study ever done on the Sonoran Mud Turtle.

"The Austins have not only allowed us to work on the property, but they've given us a lab, equipment and other things," says teacher Dick van LobenSels, who has been tagging and tracking the turtles, with research ecologist Justin Congdon, for 14 years.

"Their support is part of their whole approach to keeping everything on the land healthy, and it is. El. Coronado is an ideal place to study wildlife."

And across their land, the Austins have built gabions, stacked-rock dams that slow the flow of mountain and creek water, letting it seep deeper into the ground.

This allows silt and other nutrients to spread, helping bring back native grasses. In 13 years, the Austins have installed a remarkable 20,000 gabions, ranging from a foot high to massive stone barriers.

After a short time, the phone pulls Josiah away. But before departing he tosses in a line about what it was like to accompany Valer to Italy for 10 days to attend a fresco class.

"I kept thinking, I don't ever want to see another virgin on a wall again," he says. "I wanted to go look at vineyards."

But the class was only a part of Valer's preparation. She also read books by other painters to understand more about this ancient art, and apprenticed in Charlotte, N.C., with fresco artist Ben Long, who'd been hired to paint a wall at NationsBank there.

She got up every day at 4 a.m. to watch the plasterer work, and at night she washed Long's brushes and prepared his paints. But she was the oldest of Long's assistants and never fit in.

"Here comes this matronly woman who's going to learn fresco in 10 days," says Valer. "From the vantage point of his other assistants, I was stupid, and they let me know that."

Valer's artist friend had a point when he said it was an extremely difficult art to learn, and somewhat hazardous. Take the process called slaking the lime, for example.

It requires dumping pure powdered lime into a trough and adding water, which throws out a steam vapor so hot the artist has to be completely covered to avoid getting scorched. Then the artist pours the potion into a hole in the ground where it remains until the whole mess thickens to the consistency of yogurt. In Valer's case, this took two years.

While waiting on her brew, she covered pieces of sheet rock with plaster and painted on them, hour after hour. She practiced that way for most of a summer. When the time comes, the plaster goes on in layers.

On the second to last layer, call the scenopia, the artist does a drawing of the image in sepia. Any final design changes the artist wishes to make must be done on the scenopia.

The last layer of plaster goes on especially thin. You begin painting when the plaster is still wet. But it's a tightrope walk--too wet and the brush picks up the plaster and you get a mud gray color. Too dry and the paint isn't absorbed into the wall.

"Every step is a huge commitment," says Valer, whose formal training consisted of a year at a Boston art school. "And I never knew how it was going to turn out."

As most artists do, Valer warms to the idea of talking about her work. But at the moment she is off in another room, hunting down drawings and notes she used to guide her through the long project.

Restless energy keeps her on the move. Also like most artists, she can't find what she's looking for. Dates and times escape her. Details give way to the abstract.

"I know they're here somewhere," she says, motoring back into the kitchen.

LATE MORNING, WE MAKE our way out to the little stone chapel across the bridge. It measures 20-feet-long by 15-feet-wide and contains a plain stone altar, a bench and a small lectern. A window, in the east wall, looks out over Turkey Creek and the mist-shrouded canyon behind it.

And the beautiful, brightly colored fresco is there, too, decorating the upper portion of the walls all around us, serving almost as an extra voice in the room.

"I started with the last day of Creation and I'm not sure why." says Valer, standing against the west wall. She runs her hand over the images of a family, a man working, and the transition between life and death, between sunset and spirits.

"I was nervous, but once I got going I felt very confident. I did this whole wall the first day."

Next, she painted Creation's first day, light bursting out of the void, and gases becoming liquids, then becoming solids. The images progress from the abstract to the more literal.

A ribbon of text appears beneath the painting. With the words running together, it reads: In the beginning the earth was without form and void darkness was upon the face of the deep God said let there be light and he divided the light from the darkness.

In the midst of her description, Valer notices a black lizard perched on the lectern. Except for rhythmic blinking, it is motionless, staring intently.

Spotting this good-sized beast hardly gives her pause.

"I didn't want the days marked off, day one, day two. I wanted continuous flow, from cool to warm colors," Valer says, animated now as she goes through the panels day by day.

"See this here?" She points. "This is a division point between the second and third day. You don't want the division points to be visible."

She painted the sun rising over the ocean, then birds appear, and there's an Arizona scene, with a rocky canyon, a mountain lion and a bear. She included her favorite bull from the ranch, a mud turtle, and a man wearing a belt buckle with the ranch's E-Bar-C brand on it.

But she made some mistakes. In painting the sun, some yellow dropped into the blue of the ocean.

"Instead of thinking, 'Oh, I messed up,' I went with the changes as they happened," says Valer. "I just kept going. My state of mind was that this was supposed to happen."

In a place like the Chiricahuas, a place of transcendent beauty, such a thought makes perfect sense.

"When I got stuck my subconscious took over. I really believe the painting was dictating to me, and it was important to let go. Maybe that's the difference between really painting and not painting."

She completed the work in eight days.

Before departing the chapel, Valer decides to gather up the lizard, still clinging to the lectern. A spirited chase ensues, Valer dropping to her knees and scrambling across the chapel floor in pursuit of this bold critter as it waddles beyond her grasp.

Finally she snares it, cups it in two hands and carries it to the safety of the creek bank.

BACK IN EL CORONADO'S great kitchen, lunch is over, and the talk turns to work Valer is doing on the Austins' property in Mexico. Most mornings she drives across the border to oversee the construction of more gabions and other projects.

She loves the work, loves getting dirty and living as close to the ground as she can get.

"This is what I've been doing for 20 years now," she says. "I went from glass and concrete buildings in New York and thinking man was so important, to getting here and thinking, well, maybe not. We fit in the last panel of creation. We're small compared to all the other forces of nature."

When she gets another block of time, Valer might do another fresco. She's considering painting the flood and Noah. She likes the idea of mankind falling apart, and everything starting again through the hope of one person.

"Renewal is a good theme for a fresco," she says. "If you think about it, it's the theme of the ranch, too."

The Austins hold informal services in the chapel on Christmas and other special days. Usually they have guests, simple readings, and someone might get up to speak.

Others probably use the chapel, too, but Valer can't say exactly who they are, or when they're there. The door is always unlocked, so anyone can walk in at any hour.

It could be a lonesome traveler, hiker or midnight straggler who stumbles upon this lost canyon and the work of art inside, and maybe finds reason to hope.

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