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American Cowboy

To See More Clearly
Written by Susan Hallsten McGarry

May / June 2000


It’s attention to detail – and the way an artist leads us to those details -that gives some of the deeper meanings to great western art.


No doubt you’ve heard… or even uttered… something like: “That painting looks so real it could be a photograph.” It’s surprising how much photography has impacted the way we see the world. Oftentimes a photo seems more “real” than reality because it causes us to stop and reflect on a scene that we might otherwise overlook or that flew by so fast that we didn’t have time to visually or mentally register it.


From the invention of cameras in the early 19th century, the photograph has also intrigued artists. Many idiosyncrasies of the camera lens have become permanent aspects of how painters see the world, including the way it freezes a moment in time, providing details that have invaded the world of fine art are selecting a scene that casually “crops out” the rest of the world and flattens perspective so that even far-away objects seem nearby.


For artists working in the American West, the camera was immediately adopted as means of information gathering. Many of the best known western storytellers, including Frederic Remington, used photographic images the same way they used their sketchpads- as an aid in remembering details for future reference in their paintings.


So it comes as little surprise that today, with all our incredible photographic advances including video cameras- artist are still drawn to the photograph. Just as advanced, however, is our understanding of how the camera lens distorts visual reality and differs from the way we interpret what we feel about the person, place or thing being depicted.


Robert “Shoofly” Shufelt from New Mexico and Arizona Bill Owen are working cowboys who bring to their paintings and drawings firsthand information about the people they know and the work that they do. Both take a camera with them when they go out in the field.


“I take hundreds of photos when I’m working the range,” says Shufelt. “But the camera can’t get in the way… or they ask you to leave.” Shufelt uses his slides as the basic groundwork of his drawings, and, like Owen, he invariably combines details from a large number of photographs to convey how it feels to be out there, confronting the elements. The paintings and drawing thus go way beyond the material used to make them. In Owen’s painting, Cole Morehouse shivers as a new day breaks over the horizon, sending shafts of welcoming warm light onto his hat, hands and horse. He is humbled by a lifestyle that has taken the same toll on his body that it has on his hat. On the contrary, the cowhand in Shufelt’s drawing sits tall and comfortable amidst the dried grasses and inhospitable rocks that surround him.


In truth, what you see in Shufelt’s drawing is not an exact rendition of a photo, but an abstract interpretation of light and dark shapes, hard and soft edges and an endless variety of patterns that convey a mood. The same is true of Wyoming artist Carrie Ballantyne, whose colored pencil technique mimics the feel of weathered wood, denim, and flesh. In Lavender and Blues, the riot of textures leads us to the girl’s glance, which suggests there is a much deeper element to reality than what lies on the surface of the painting. We are drawn into her thoughts and are compelled to reflect on her youthfulness contrasted against well-worn clothing and the aged materials that surround her.


Arizonan George Molnar ( End of the Day ) is a master at bringing that kind of emotion into his paints. Unlike Shufelt and Owen, who often let the camera run on automatic when in action, Molnar formally poses models in photo shoots, selecting the location, lighting, clothing, and accouterments. Although he works methodically, Molnar say “I never get exactly what I want. In the painting, I turn cold facts into something warm with life.”


“Warm with life” definitely describes the paintings of Don Crowley, who ranks as one of the finest realists working in the West today. Like Molnar, Crowley sets up his scenes, often using his backyard in Tucson, Arizona, as the setting and as models, a group of sisters he has know and painted for years. In First Born ( see Jan/Feb issue, page 29, for this and two other images by Crowley), there is a wealth of information in every square inch of the painting, including a still life of wood, rocks, cradle board, and baskets in the lower half. Compare the arrangements of shapes, from curved horizontals of the wood to the blocky, irregular stones and sensual circles of the baskets. The presentation of the Madonna-like figure in the center with her first-born child nestled into pillows and holding her own little doll hearkens back to early religious paintings, while reminding us of universal nurturing relationships.


“I combine the abstract patterns of colors and shapes and record them in relationship to portraits of people I consider family,” says Crowley. “The paintings will probably be historical at some point, but my goal is simply to paint the best painting I can.”


And that’s precisely what William Acheff does as well, with one major exception. Even though his work looks incredibly photographic, Acheff does not use photographs at all. Rather, he sets up his still-life arrangements in his studio and paints them from life. In Germantown Red, he juxtaposes a number of material objects that take on a “super-reality” transcending typical vision: To see both the outer and the inner image more clearly.”


To see the outer and inner image more clearly is what takes a painting beyond a photograph. Through the artist’s interpretation of the details, we develop a bigger understanding of the person, place or thing depicted and through that understanding we learn more about our own response to the meaning of it all.


For 18 years Susan Hallsten McGarry wrote about the West as editor and chief of Southwest Art Magazine. Today, she curates shows and writes books and articles from her home in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

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