Saturday, June 13, 2015

Ken Riley: An Artist and Gentleman

Ceremonial Regalia

I have often said that one of the best things about spending the time that I have in the museum and Western American Art worlds has been the many friendships that I have been privileged to have with some rather remarkable people.  One of those remarkable people passed away this week and we are all going to miss him.  Ken Riley epitomized the word “gentleman.”  True, he was a uniquely talented and highly gifted artist who produced works of stunning quality over a long and illustrious career, but as much as I respect his artistic abilities, I will remember him most for his generosity, his good humor, his keen intellect, and his magnanimous spirit.

In the early 1990’s the Eiteljorg Museum in Indiana created a special award that was presented to a select few artists.  Known simply as the Eiteljorg Award, it was designed to honor an artist who had produced a distinguished body of work and who was at the time of the bestowal of the honor, still producing art at a very high level.  The first two recipients of that award were Wilson Hurley and Ken Riley.  I think it important to note that one of the panelists who selected Riley for the award was Wilson Hurley, which indicates the high regard that Ken’s fellow artists had for him.

For me, the highlight of presenting the award to Ken was that it precipitated the organization of a major retrospective of Ken’s work, entitled “West of Camelot.”  The exhibition was accompanied by a book published by the museum in cooperation with Stuart Johnson at Settler’s West Galleries and authored by Susan McGarry.  I was able to spend quite a bit of time with Ken in preparation of the exhibition and I learned much about art, artists, and the task of creating  and maintaining a long and successful career, through our many conversations.  I had long been an admirer of Ken’s work and being able to talk with him often and directly about a wide range of subjects was always a joy for me.

Split Horn Bonnett
One of those subjects was his former teacher and mentor, Harvey Dunn.  I had mentioned to Ken that I thought Dunn deserved greater recognition as both an artist and teacher and that one of my long term goals was to organize a major exhibition devoted to his work.(that is a goal, by the way, that I have yet to fulfill).  Ken agreed and he spoke passionately about Dunn as a teacher.  He had studied with him when he was a young artist in New York and Dunn taught regular classes at Grand Central Art School.  A few weeks after that conversation, I received a package from Ken. It contained a photocopied transcript of one of Dunn’s lectures complete with Ken’s margin notes and underlinings.  I was touched by his thoughtfulness in sending it on to me and I am still honored to have it—a direct reminder of the talent of two artists whom I greatly admire.

A decade after the Eitlejorg exhibition, the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City mounted another major exhibition of Ken’s works.  The catalog for the show was once again written by our mutual friend, Susan McGary, and Ken asked me to contribute a preface.  Naturally, I was happy to do so and in memory and honor of Ken, I am re-publishing it here:

A decade ago, I had the privilege of writing a preface for a book on Ken Riley.  At the same time, I had the great pleasure of helping organize a retrospective exhibition of his work.  Before I began working on both of those projects, I had great admiration and respect for Ken’s talents as an artist.  Afterward, I had an even greater sense of Riley’s position as one of the finest American artists working at that time.  While he is most often associated with paintings of the historic American West, particularly 19th-century Native American cultures, as Susan McGarry points out in the illuminating text for this catalog, Ken’s work transcends the somewhat narrow confines of the genre of traditional Western American Art.  His paintings use the history and symbolism of Native culture to connect us to a greater awareness of the human condition.  The themes, emotions, and stories conveyed in Ken’s work speak to us all in a universal language.

The Red Flute
On the most literal level, Ken’s paintings are grounded in a specific time period, but on a deeper level, they are timeless.  They reflect his own deep sense of humanity and, like all great art, they connect the viewer to the world at large.  They allow or even prompt each of us to step into another world and in doing so, we are able to contemplate our own nature and environment from a new perspective.  Riley’s paintings capture both a strong and dramatic narrative sense, but all have a symbolic presence as well.  His unique sense of design, use of color and choice of subject all combine to convey a whole world of meaning at once.

Ten years after that earlier book and exhibition, Ken Riley’s skills as an artist have not diminished in the least.  He still produces work at the highest level of contemporary American art.  Riley’s expression today is no less powerful that it was a decade earlier.  Also, it is important to note that his body of work, those paintings that he has produced over the course of several decades, seems as fresh today and worthy of our attention as it did a decade ago.  Not every artist can withstand a repeated critical analysis.  What seemed relevant and pertinent in one decade may seem tired and worn in another.  Such is not the case with Ken’s work.  His art is still compelling, still sought after by new generations of collectors, and still finding its way (deservedly so) into the permanent collections of major museums of American art.

Legends of the Mandan
The Warriors
Perhaps because he has been one of the most successful and honored members of the Cowboy Artists of America for such a long time, or perhaps because he has chosen to work almost exclusively with Native American subject, Riley is often characterized as a “Western” artist, which, after all, is worthy of praise in its own right.  True, much of Riley’s art is drawn from the history and culture of the American West, but that does not mean that his vision or talent is limited to any narrow field.  He is an important American artist, one who stands literally as a bridge between the great age of illustrators in the early 20th century and the artists of today whose careers have been built upon the foundation laid by those artists.  Riley trained with Harvey Dunn, a student of Howard Pyle.  Riley literally grew up in the art world alongside the likes of Harold Von Schmidt, John Clymer, and Donald Teague.  All of those artists were able to move from successful carers as illustrators to successful careers as artists who specialized in the American West.  They inspired countless others of Ken Riley’s generation.  Today, Ken is no doubt inspiring many younger artists who see in his paintings a master at work.

In the Lodge of Four Bears
In that earlier preface, I recounted a story about seeing one of Ken’s works at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum.  It was such a compelling image that I was drawn to it time and again throughout the course of an entire evening.  I remember that painting, even today, quite vividly.  It still moves me, even as a memory.  Recently, I had a similar experience while visiting the home of an active and astute collector.  The collection there had a number of wonderful painting, both contemporary and historic, but the ones that made the greatest impact on me were all by Ken Riley.  Some I had seen before, some were new to me, but each had a singular quality—each drew me into the particular world of the painting, each connected me to my own sense of humanity and each made me feel part of a bigger whole.  I certainly would not be surprised if the readers of this catalog and the viewers of the accompanying exhibition feel much the same way.

Preface to The Power of A Poetic Spirit by Susan Hallsten McGarry published by the
National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.

The Dandies

It has now been yet another decade since I wrote those words and Ken Riley has passed on, but his work has not.  It will endure, as will our memories.  We will remember him as a great artist and as a true gentleman.
Ken Riley, 1919-2015

Friday, April 3, 2015

The Sky's the Limit

Clearing Storm, Gillespie County Texas by James Fox, digital print, 16"x56" (print available at
I live in a long established neighborhood in a large city.  There are many things about our neighborhood that I love—it is close to the city center, I rarely find myself traveling on crowded highways, I have great neighbors, and our street is lined with mature trees which are just now beginning to leaf out.  In the middle of the summer, when temperatures in Dallas consistently top the 100 degree mark, I am even more thankful for the welcome shade those trees provide.  What they do not provide for much of the year, however, are unobstructed views of the Texas sky.  We are rarely afforded the grand sunsets and sunrises of the more wide open areas of the state.

Open Range by Maynard Dixon, oil on canvas, 36"x40", 1942, private collection
During this last winter which has been marked by long periods of gray and damp weather, our vistas have been even more limited, which is why I was particularly mesmerized by a beautiful and gloriously multi-colored sunrise a few morning ago.  The sight of pink, red, and orange glowing clouds literally stopped me in my tracks on my way to retrieve the morning paper.  I simply stood and watched as the colors began to fade and transform into blue sky and white clouds.  It was literally a sight to behold and it reminded me that the sky can be a endless source of artistic inspiration and exploration, just as dramatic and varied as the most evocative landscape.

Canyon Storm by Wilson Hurley, oil on canvas, 38"x60", 1970
I am a great fan of those artists who have the ability to capture the essence of the western sky, artists for whom the depiction of the sky is just as important as the depiction of land forms.  My appreciation for those abilities has not always been shared by some people that I have met along my journeys in the worlds of museums and western art.  One prominent collector once told me that he thought that “landscapes with lots of sky in them should be priced at a lower rate because painting the sky was not as difficult as painting the land.”  I wondered how Maynard Dixon, Victor Higgins, or Wilson Hurley would have reacted to that sentiment.  It never occurred to me to ask Wilson for a discount on a painting that featured more sky than land.

Evening Cumulus by Wilson Hurley, oil on canvas
On another occasion,  I found myself at an exhibition opening talking with a collector who hailed from the east and who asked me why Texas and the Southwest in general had never produced a really great artist.  The question turned out to be rhetorical because he answered it before I could respond.  He said there was a dearth of great artists in the region because there was nothing for them to look at, nothing to evoke their imagination, except the sky.  

I thought of that conversation the other morning as I stood transfixed by the beauty of that rare urban sunrise.  Nothing but the sky, indeed—I found plenty to look at in the colors and cloud shapes that changed in a matter of seconds.  I think that artists who can capture those sort of brief moments are exceptionally talented.  I possess none of their skill and certainly cannot say whether painting the sky is any more difficult or any easier than painting land formations, but my guess is that each subject presents its own unique challenge.  

I do know that the sky in West Texas or New Mexico can have a very different look and feel than the sky in upstate New York or the English countryside.  Different atmospheres, different lighting, different cloud formations will all combine to produce very different scenes.  When I was a young museum professional in Fort Worth, Texas, I frequently welcomed people from all parts of the globe to North Texas.  Many were visiting for the first time and one of the observations that many made was that the clarity, the enormity, and the color of the North Texas sky was mesmerizing.  That is the sort of observation artists and visitors alike often make when they first visit Northern New Mexico.  Artists have long said they were attracted to New Mexico due to the complex interrelationship of three distinct cultures and by the light. which illuminates both the land and sky in a way that was previously foreign to them.

New Moon and Red Twilight by Wilson Hurley.
oil on canvas, 30"x48", 1982
There are many artists who find in the sky a primary subject that captures their attention and inspires them  just as much as the most majestic mountain peak or glistening river.  My friend, Wilson Hurley, as accomplished a landscape painter as any artist of the twentieth century, produced many wonderful paintings that are skycapes, not landscapes.  Simply spend a few minutes studying some of those paintings and then ask yourself, if the sky does not offer an endless variety of challenges for an artist.

Lindy Severns uses pastels to capture both the land and sky of  the Big Bend region and Davis Mountains of far West Texas.  She freely moves the horizon line in her work, sometimes concentrating on the shapes and colors of the land and often focusing her attention on the dramatic blues, brilliant white clouds, and cascading colors of the evening and morning sky.  For Lindy, both land and sky are equally inspiring.

Daybreak Across the Top of Texas by Lindy Severns, pastel, 14"x17"

Sunset Bouquet for the Twin Sisters by Lindy Severns,
pastel, 16x20"
First Rain (Blue Mountain in Davis Mountains)
by Lindy Severns, pastel, 36"x24", 2010

East Texas artist, Tallie Moore paints the storm clouds of that region with skill and passion.  Her paintings of billowing gray clouds rapidly moving across the horizon or deeply colored by the setting sun evoke a true sense of place and remind us of the power of nature.

Smiley Meadow by Tallie Moore, oil on canvas, 33"x38"

Nancy Bush often paints the countryside surrounding her Hill Country home and captures the changing atmosphere of that area from the perspective of various times of the day.  Her tonalist impressions of these scenes often blend the land and sky into a single cohesive image, with the depictions of the sky and land working together to form a unified image.  Her treatments of the sky and land blend together seamlessly and enhance the emotional appeal of the painting.

A Summer Sunset by Nancy Bush, oil on canvas, 12"x9"
Westerly Storm by Nancy Bush, oil on canvas, 36"x40"

The Hand Warmer by Tom Lovell, oil on canvas, 30"21 5/8"

Even artists who are best known for figure paintings or for painting narratives of frontier life have utilized a dramatic rendition of the sky to give an extra dimension and impact to their paintings.  For example, Tom Lovell’s painting of two Native Americans warming their hands from the heat of a settler’s dugout home which has been carved out of an icy and snow-covered winter landscape uses the vast overcast sky to underscore the general feeling of the painting.  Here the snow of the foreground is enhanced by the gray, white, and blue cloudy sky to produce an overall image that neatly captures the isolation of the setting and conveys to the viewer a frigid sense of reality.

Many artists use the sky to add a sense of drama to their paintings even when most of the canvas is dedicated to the land.  Walter Ufer’s painting, “Where the Desert Meets the Mountains,” show a lonely covered wagon making its way across a vast high desert landscape.  The wagon is literally engulfed by the rough sage covered desert terrain that covers three quarters of the canvas.  In the distant background are dark mountains with in turn are topped with a drenching thunderstorm.  The rain, clouds, and patches of clear sky that complete the top third of the painting provide the primary drama and focus of the work. At first glance the subject of this painting appears to be the wagon and desert, but a closer examination reveals that it is the sky that has captivated Ufer and he has reproduced it in masterful detail.

Where the Desert Meets the Mountains by Walter Ufer, oil on canvas, 36 1/2"x40 1/4", Anschutz Collection, Denver, Colorado.
Silver Moon by Nancy Bush, oil on canvas, 18"x24"
Storm clouds with their ever changing roiling forms have also long appealed to photographers.  Often those storms change the appearance of the Spring sky in a matter of seconds. Capturing those moments is a matter of skill and perfect timing.  For many years, an exhibition print of Laura Gilpin’s “Storm from La Bajada Hill, New Mexico,” hung in my office at the Amon Carter Museum.  When the museum acquired the photographer’s estate collection, a full scale retrospective of her work was mounted and she was in attendance for the opening.  I was thrilled to meet her and told her that the image in my office was one of my favorites.  She told me that she took the shot in conjunction with her book,  “The Rio Grande: River of Destiny, an Interpretation of the River, the Land, and the People.”  It was not a planned shot.  She saw the storm approaching and knew from what vantage point she wanted to record it.  She raced to that exact spot and was in time to make one exposure.  

It is that combination of timing, talent, and luck that results in such impressive shots as James Fox’s “Clearing Storm, Gillespie County, Texas.”  Like Gilpin, Jim was in the right spot at the right time, but one has to have the talent and experience to know just what vantage point that will be and then the skill to produce an image that captures a moment in time.

I remember well an incident at the opening of that Laura Gilpin retrospective years ago.  She and I stood in the gallery looking out of the floor to ceiling windows of the museum as the clouds of a thunderstorm were building over the city.  She stood transfixed and said to no one in particular, “I wish I had my camera.”

I had neither camera nor brush in hand when I lingered to watch that recent sunrise from my Dallas front yard, which is just as well, since I do not have the talent with either to produce an image that even approaches the beauty of the actual sight.  Thankfully there are painters and photographers who do possess that skill.  I am glad to have seen many of their renditions, glad to have known many, and glad to be friends with many of them today.  I am particularly pleased that they continue to find in the sky just as much inspiration as they do in the landscape, just as many challenges as they do in painting other subjects, and an abiding love of the beauty of the natural world.  Contrary to the belief of that collector who thought that paintings with “lots of sky” should have lower prices, I am inclined to think that paintings and photographs with the sky as the chief subject may even deserve a higher price.

Storm from La Bajada Hill, New Mexico, 1942 by Laura Gilpin
from The Rio Grande: River of Destiny, An Interpretation of the River, the Land, and the People

Red Twilight on the Rio Grande by Wilson Hurley, oil on canvas, 24"x32",1985

Sunset by Nancy Bush, oil on canvas, 20"x20"

Sundown on Mount Taylor by Wilson Hurley,
oil on canvas, 36"x24", 1985

 A new website has recently been created to showcase the art and life of Wilson Hurley.  It contains a complete catalogue raissone of his work, informative video interviews, and a treasure trove of information about this great artist.  The website was created and is maintained by his widow, Roz.  Go to to learn more about Wilson.

More art by Lindy Severns, Nancy Bush, and Tallie Moore can be found at these websites:

Lindy will be a featured artist at Trappings of Texas, an annual exhibition and sale at the Museum of the Big Bend at Sul Ross University in Alpine, Texas.  Opening weekend is April 17-18.  The exhibition will remain on view until May 31.

The work of Lindy Severns, Nancy Bush, and Tallie Moore is also featured in Texas Traditions: Contemporary Artists of the Lone Star State, by Michael Duty and Susan Hallsten McGary, published by Fresco Fine Art Publications.  Available from the publisher and at

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Deep In the Art of Texas: A Century of Paintings and Drawings

Deep In the Art of Texas:  A Century of Paintings and Drawings

The following is excerpted from "Deep In the Art of Texas:  A Century of Paintings and Drawings", published by the TCU Press and featuring essays by J.P. Bryan, Michael Duty, and Dr. Ron C. Tyler.  The book was published in conjunction with an exhibition that will be on view at the Art Museum of South Texas until Jan.4, 2015.  The book and exhibition were a collaboration between the Bryan Museum in Galveston, Texas and the Center for Texas Studies at TCU. This excerpt is from my essay, "Frontier Images and Modern Views:  The Bryan Museum Collection of Texas Art." I was pleased to serve as guest curator for the exhibition and editor of the book.

Merritt Mauzey, A Church in Galveston (detail),1935
23"x29", oil on canvas
Few people would argue with the notion that Texas has had a particularly rich and colorful history.  One of only three states to have once been a Republic, Texas has emerged in the 21st century as one of the most populous states in the nation with three of the country’s largest cities within its borders, an economy that has been buoyed by new developments in oil and gas extraction technology and a burgeoning high tech sector. Its population has rapidly diversified in recent years to the point where there is no longer a majority ethnicity.  
Theodore Gentilz, "Corrida de la Sandia San Antonio (Dia de San Juan)"7"x9.5",
1848, oil on canvas
In many ways Texas’ blending of cultural groups, its reliance on a variety of economic forces and the direction of its population growth point toward the future of the United States as a whole.  Yet for many, not the least of which are Texans themselves, the image of the state is more deeply rooted in its history rather than in its present or future.  The Texas that is often conjured up in the popular imagination is a land of sparsely populated wide open spaces more closely akin to a scene from the movie, “Giant,” than bustling and cosmopolitan urban centers.

Such a persistent dichotomy between entrenched image and modern reality has not been lost on those folks charged with creating a less stereotypical portrait of the state.  The city of Houston, for example, has recently embarked on an ad campaign that cleverly points up the differences between what many people think Houston to be and what it, in fact, is.  In one television spot, Jim Parsons, the star of the popular series, “The Big Bang Theory,” and a Houston native tells viewers that he has lived in both New York City and Houston and saw more horses in New York and more art in Houston.  The ad which is aimed at people beyond both Houston’s and Texas’ borders works precisely because the prevailing image of the city and state is not one that conjures up fine art centers and a long history of artistic development.
Jose Arpa y Perea, A Laborer, San Antonio,
1903, 35"x20.75", oil on canvas

The idea that one can see an abundance of art in cities like Houston, Dallas, Fort Worth, and San Antonio, not to mention El Paso, Midland, Tyler, Corpus Christi, or even little, Albany is quite farfetched for those who still see the state through the lens of an increasingly distant past.  As is often the case, that lens did not lend itself to a particularly accurate view of the state’s history in the first place.  While the popular media often characterizes Texas as a land of cowboys, Comanches, and capitalists (the latter primarily falling into the “wheeler-dealer” category immortalized by the TV series, “Dallas”), the actual history of Texas is both more subtle and more grand.  And yes the state can boast an abundance of art scattered in cities large and small within its vast borders. And yes, art has been created in Texas even during the earliest days of statehood.

Reid Kendrick Crowell, Portrait of a Black Cowboy,
21.5"x17.5", oil on canvas

Surprising to some, perhaps, is the fact that the development of a thriving and dynamic art community in Texas is not a particularly recent phenomenon.  As the paintings in the current exhibition, Deep In the Art of Texas, Selections from the Bryan Museum Collection,  attest, Texas has long been home to talented artists who have created images of the state, its land, people, and culture, that present a multi-faceted, highly diverse, and stylistically varied history of the region.  The exhibition is currently on display at the Art Museum of South Texas in Corpus Christi, where it will remain until January 4, 2015.  The paintings in the exhibition and the larger collection assembled by the museum’s founder, JP Bryan reveal much about the state’s history and much about its artistic heritage.  All of the paintings in the current exhibition will be showcased in the Bryan Museum in Galveston, Texas, which is set to make its debut next spring.
William Lester, Yellow House, 19.5"x20.75", oil on panel
To be certain, there are numerous images in the exhibition and collection that fall within the parameters of what many people expect to see in Texas.  For example, Texas’ heritage as the home of the cowboy is well represented, which is highly appropriate given the fact that the figure of the cowboy is really a Texas creation.  Following the Civil War, thousands of hardy longhorn cattle roamed freely over the south Texas plains, a ready supply of beef for the burgeoning cities rapidly developing all across the country.  The problem was how to get the supply to the demand.  Enter the Texas cowhand who blended the traditions of the Mexican vaquero and the Southeastern cow herder.  The image of the cowboy quickly became a favorite subject of both artists and writers and the image of Texas as a land of sagebrush, cactus, and distant horizons was fixed in much of the popular imagination. 
Harry Anthony DeYoung, Pinnacle Rocks in Fort Davis,
1927, 29.5"x34.75", oil on canvas
Such images tell only part of the story. Texas was and is much more than cowboys and cattle. The Bryan Museum Collection offers a wide survey of the art of Texas over roughly a century, including images that speak more to the urban nature of Texas than its frontier roots. In terms of subjects, styles, and artistic techniques, the collection is as varied as the Texas landscape and as nuanced as the many cultures that make up the personality of the state.
Florence Elliot McClung, Preston Road Farm,1940,
17.5"x19", oil on canvas
The exhibition covers a lot of territory, both literally and figuratively. It ranges across several decades beginning with the earliest days of Texas’ statehood and ending with the state’s shift from a rural population to a largely urban one in the 1950s.  It is geographically diverse as well, with images of East Texas cotton fields, scenes painted along the Gulf Coast, early modernist interpretations of North Texas farms, landscapes from the Davis Mountains in West Texas, and of course, wild flower studies from Central Texas.  Stylistically, the exhibition moves from the realism of Captain Arthur T. Lee’s study of an adobe house in Fort Davis to William Lester’s surrealistic take on a farm house painted nearly one hundred years later.  In short, the exhibition, and the collection it is drawn from, constitutes a tour of Texas geography, Texas history, and Texas art.
While sheer variety is one hallmark of the Bryan collection, artistic excellence is another.  Bryan’s choice of the individual components of the collection reveals a sharp eye and highly developed aesthetic sense. Not only does the collection include works by most of the major figures in early Texas art, but paintings of a high caliber of quality as well.  Dawson Dawson-Watson’s Cotton Pickers, is arguably among the artist’s finest works, as is Florence McClung’s Preston Road Farm, and Merritt Mauzey’s A Church in Galveston. Bryan has built a collection that presents a broad overview of Texas art, but also narrow’s the focus to truly exceptional works of art.
Such a combination of the “big picture” view of the whole of early Texas art along with an emphasis on individual masterworks, allows one the opportunity of seeing the great panorama of Texas art unfold, while at the same time concentrating on the contributions of a number of unique artistic talents.
Robert Jenkins Onderdonk, Market Plaza, 1880,
23.5"x41.5", oil on canvas
Dawson Dawson-Watson, Cotton Pickers,
29.5"x39.5", oil on canvas
Much changed in Texas during the time frame covered by the exhibition and much changed in the world of American art during that same time period.  As Texas was poised to enter a new era at the midpoint of the twentieth century, one that would be marked by an increasingly urban population shift, its artists were searching for new ways to express themselves and the themes that had long been rooted in Texas history.  That search would naturally lead many away from the styles and techniques of Texas’s earliest artists. 

 Artists such as Otis Dozier, Everett Spruce,  William Lester and Merritt Mauzey refined their skills and developed distinctive styles while living in Dallas, which had surpassed San Antonio by the mid twentieth century as the leading art center in the state.  These artists brought new perspectives to many of the subjects and locales that earlier artists had explored.  One of the great advantages of the Bryan collection is that it offers dramatic comparisons between traditional and modernist viewpoints.  It offers a sweeping overview of early Texas art over a period of time that saw the state move from an era of budding villages and frontier towns to one with booming modern cities.  Along the way a complex identity was formed that mixes healthy doses of myth, romance, and reality.
Robert Julian Onderdonk, Noontime on a Clear Day, Southwest Texas, 1916
9.5"x13.5", oil on canvas mounted on board.

Everett Spruce, Big Bend, 1945, 23.25"x35.25", oil on board

Texas artists have played a key role in both reflecting and developing that identity.  Today the art of Texas is as multifaceted as the state itself.  Texas artists are a diverse group, hard to categorize, and difficult to pigeonhole.  Like their predecessors they contribute to an evolving state personality and offer cogent commentary on that personality.  Earlier Texas artists played much the same role.  We can see how the state developed through their eyes and their talent at presenting different viewpoints and visions.  Those visions are preserved and presented through the Bryan collection which offers a glimpse into a unique environment and history.  The Bryan Collection does indeed cover a lot of territory from mountain peaks to coastal towns.  It presents a dynamic picture of Texas over a critical period of time, a picture that is sometimes surprising and always fascinating.

Jose Arpa y Perea, Big Bend, West Texas, ca.1928, 13"x20.25", oil on canvas

(all photos are courtesy of the Bryan Museum, Galveston, TX and the Center for Texas Studies at TCU)

Sunday, April 27, 2014

A Sense of Place

Dawn Bloom, Texas Sage, Chisos Dawn by Lindy Severns; pastel, 18"x38"
I grew up in a part of North Texas not known for the beauty of its landscape.  In fact, just the opposite 
was true.  Whatever charms my hometown could boast of (and I have to admit a certain bias here based on my tendency over the years to argue that there were few charms indeed) grand and compelling vistas were not among them.  It occurred to me in my formative years that one could choose any point on the compass and travel fifty miles in that direction and find an appreciably more pleasant and appealing terrain.  There may be others who delighted in that North Texas landscape, but simply put, I was not one of them.  Although it was my home territory, I did not connect with it on an aesthetic level; it did not move me toward a deeper appreciation of the beauty of my natural surroundings.  

Gifts from Yesterday's Storm by Lindy Severns, pastel, 34"x26"
Fortunately at a relatively early age, I was introduced to the rugged beauty and grandeur (at least to me) of Northern New Mexico and I have been hooked ever since.  Each time that I return, I feel the same deep affinity for the place.  For whatever reason, I connect with this land in a way that I never did with my actual home.

While I can try to capture my feelings about this particular place and convey that emotion with words, I am envious of those artists who can impart to the viewer a deep, visceral feeling about their favorite places.  These artists are able to show us not only what a place looks like, but also how it feels to them.  When we look at their paintings, we stand in their shoes and we at least have a hint at what they were feeling when they first looked upon the scene painted.  Because their emotions were so touched by their connection to that special terrain, our emotions are engaged as well.  Many artists have told me that one of their goals in painting is to allow the viewer of their art to see the world as they do, and just as importantly, to feel the same emotions.

Castle Geyser, Upper Geyser Basin by Thomas Moran, chromolithograph
Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone by Thomas Moran, oil on canvas
One can readily see and feel the profound effect that Yellowstone had on Thomas Moran.  He traveled there for the first time in 1871 and returned many times afterward.  He produced a wide range of interpretations of one of America’s most beautiful places, from large, ambitious oils (two of which were purchased by the U.S. government) to small drawings and intricate watercolors.  Moran was so affected by Yellowstone that soon after his first visit, he began inserting a Y in his signature to indicate how much the area meant to him.  I have had the great privilege and pleasure of spending days looking over the Moran collections at the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa and the Cooper-Hewitt Museum in New York, and I can readily attest the power those works have to move one emotionally. You can actually feel his connection to and appreciation of the land.

Summer Morning, A Cloudy Morning, Southwest Texas by Robert Julian Onderdonk, oil on camas
A similar feeling is conveyed by Julian Onderdonck in his many interpretations of the Texas Hill Country around his San Antonio home.  Onderdonck trained with William Merritt Chase in New York, but he found his true artistic calling when he returned to Texas and began painting the craggy limestone cliffs, oak trees, and of course, the fields of bluebonnets of central Texas.  He was so adept at capturing the essence of a glorious carpet of wildflowers in the countryside, that he literally spawned a whole genre of Texas landscape painting.  Probably to his chagrin, he was primarily known for his bluebonnet scenes, but he painted the Hill Country throughout the year and was equally talented at depicting the Texas sky as he was at painting the land.  He obviously felt a great connection to the land he painted and he continually explored and refined those feelings to produce a body of work that gives us an equally deep appreciation for the subject.

Ancient Valley by Victor Higgins, oil on board
Like all of the members of the Taos Society of Artists, Victor Higgins was attracted to northern New Mexico because of the unique quality of the light there, the three distinct cultures that offered a wealth of artistic inspiration, and the land itself.  By the end of his life, Higgins had distilled his feelings about his adopted home down to the essence of the landscape.  His technique transitioned from realism and representationalism to abstraction, but his abiding interest was the land and sky of New Mexico.  Frequently at the end of his career, he drove his car out into the high desert around Taos, sat on a makeshift stool in the trunk of his car, which afforded him a little shelter from the bright sun and painted the land that had affected him so deeply for so many years.  He called those paintings, his “little gems,” an apt description. Each one is a lovingly rendered tribute to a special place.

Sparking the Desert's Inner Fire by Lindy Severns, pastel, 36"x24"
Such deep emotional attachments are often what drives an artist to return to a subject or location over the course of their entire careers.  They are connected to that land in a profound way and they are compelled, even driven, to paint it.  One can say that their goal is to capture the essence of a particular place, but their paintings also often offer an insight into their own essence.  Their paintings reflect both the land and themselves.  When the right combination of talent, emotion, and connection to place is present, the results can be spectacular and magical.
Several years ago when my friend, Larry Francell, then the Director of the Museum of the Big Bend at Sul Ross University in Alpine, Texas and now retired,  asked me to be the judge for the art submitted to the museum’s annual “Trappings of Texas” exhibition and sale, I did not expect to come across such a combination. While sometimes judging any art competition is something of a thankless task (after all much of it is subjective and distinctions between first place and the rest of the show can be pretty subtle), this year, I was highly rewarded with the discovery of a talented artist’s work.  I was immediately struck by the pastels of Lindy Severns and have been captivated by her work ever since. 

Lindy has the ability to depict the rugged beauty of Far West Texas like few other artists.  She is obviously at home in the mountains and high desert of the Davis Mountains and equally familiar with the grand sweep of the Big Bend.  Where others may think of this environment as harsh, Lindy finds it inspirational.  She and her husband Jim, both former pilots, have spent many hours trekking across this terrain; each visit reveals a new nuance of color, texture, and form.
The Very Edge of Texas by Lindy Severns, pastel, 24"x30"

Her paintings present the splendor of grand vistas, as well as the subtlety of close up observations.  Each season carries with it a new  panorama to paint, each time of day calls for its own distinct interpretation.  Change is ever present, light and colors shift and blend, clouds sweep across blue skies, and warm sunlit afternoons fade to cool, clear evenings.
Waking Desert by Lindy Severns, pastel, 20"30"
First Rain by Lindy Severns, pastel 36"x24"

LIndy embraces all of these permutations of the land and sky.  Working in a difficult medium, pastel, she displays an uncanny talent in vivid, realistic depictions of the natural environment of Far West Texas.  But there is something else evident in her paintings, something more difficult to explain and categorize.  Lindy imbues her paintings of this corner of Texas with her deep feelings for the place.  Many artists have staked claims on places that speak to them in a language that they feel in both their hearts and their heads. Like those artists,  Lindy has found her special place.  With her art, she celebrates its unique qualities and she lets us share the joy of roaming across a land that provides her with an infinite supply of ideas for future paintings. 

A Welcome Drenching by Lindy Severns, pastel, 16"x12"

I am glad that Moran discovered Yellowstone and that Onderdonk and Higgins developed such abiding affinities for their favored landscapes.  I can’t say whether my feelings about my home territory would be different if it had been interpreted by an artist with Lindy Severns’s skill and talent, but I suspect that had that come to pass, I would have an entirely different perspective today.

Old Texas Giant by Lindy Severns

Lindy Severns' work can be seen and purchased at the following:
Michael Duty Fine Art, LLC.
Old Spanish Trail Studio
Midland Gallery
The Open Range Fine Art
Paloma Gallery