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Capturing the High Plains on canvas

By JUDY SHERARD

jsherard@dailynews.net

REXFORD -- David Ketchum didn't set out to be an artist.

After discovering teaching music wasn't his calling, he moved to Austin, Texas, in 1974 intending to learn about producing operas.

"I started working on building sets, and those type of things that go with production. Once I got into that really heavy, I realized that I had good facility in the visual arts. ... That's how it all began."

But it was praise of his early work that clinched the deal.

"I was quite compelled when an instructor told me, 'That's very good. We don't have anybody who can paint like that.' "

Opera production was forgotten, and Ketchum's career as an artist began.

A Rexford native, he moved back in 2008 after his parents died to the Spruce Street house where he grew up. He lives there with Hook, the cat he adopted from the Austin Humane Society.

Much of the house and furnishings are the same as when he grew up, except for a bedroom he converted into a studio.

"I like the space a lot," he said.

To be a successful artist while living in a small town depends on the artist's mind.

"I try to do things that are above the common," Ketchum said.

Though he occasionally works in other mediums, Ketchum primarily is a painter. He likes working on series of paintings.

He started a series of self portraits just before moving to Rexford -- painting one each year in April, his birth month. He takes care not to wear anything that might date the painting.

After finishing the first painting, he turned it around, and "I suddenly saw this shadow over my painting. Each painting is set up so the next painting will be turned 22.5 degrees. What I think is extremely interesting is that we're very used to the idea of negative space, which is this space outside the main figure, but in terms of it being perpendicular. It changes the whole relationship of what's here."

Though he hasn't been pleased with all of them, "Once I finished it, I just said you just live with it. It will keep you humble."

Ketchum's most recent series is a set of oil paintings of Colby community buildings he began a couple of years ago after joining the High Plains Arts Club in Colby. It includes the Thomas County Courthouse, Colby City Hall, Prairie Museum of Art, Sacred Heart Catholic Church and Citizens Medical Center, where Ketchum was born.

He starts out by taking photos of the building he wants to paint, then translates the image onto canvas. Each painting is the exact same size and takes about three weeks to complete.

"What I'm hoping to do is end up with a nice uniform-sized thing that might go into a space," he said. "I'm hoping somewhere down the line somebody will ask to buy it."

The series also will include a panorama of some Colby Community College buildings, and portraits of J. R. Colby and Maj. Gen. George H. Thomas, founders of the area.

"I want them to know exactly what I've done. If this is to be of value to anyone in this area, I want them to say, 'I've never seen that building that way. It looks good.' "