Right now I’m in-between the last painting and the next, so I’ve been working on my artist statement and that has led me to reflect on all the changes my art and I have undergone.
I grew up on a fodder of commercial art like most people, but having been blessed, or cursed, with a visual awareness beyond the intentions of the advertisement, these images shaped the way I viewed art and the world.
Unlike a lot of other artists I read about, I didn’t grow up surrounded by paintings, or have family, friends, or community members who talked about art, or even thought that art was something to talk about. I lived in towns so small that my family made up nearly a sixth of the population. In places like that you were lucky to find a single real painting, and you would only get to see it if you happened to be invited in to the owner’s house and stumbled across it. (I knew of exactly one oil painting in the entire area, it was in the front room of a friend of the family’s house. I touched it once when I was left alone in the room. I was amazed at the texture of the trees of the landscape. I was afraid that I would ruin it, so I never told anyone about it until now.)
So, when I started to make art of my own, I naturally started with what I knew. Bright colors, dynamic in-your-face visual calls to look at me, look at me, that made up the entire world of what I thought I liked and what I drew or painted.
I mostly drew what I now realize were illustrations of stories in my head. Fantasy vehicles and creatures usually involving guns, missiles, and fire made up the bulk of what I would do. A little later I remember my oldest brother got this print of an old cowboy sitting behind a table playing cards done in pencil. I don’t think he ever knew, but I would sneak into his room when he wasn’t there to go look at it and just try to figure out how someone could do that. I was also a very quiet boy, and I don’t remember if I mentioned to anyone what I was doing, and it never entered my world view that someone could actually teach you to make art like that.
I did have two things going for me, my oldest brother drew a bit here and there and I was always fascinated by what he did, but he was in the same situation I was, except he had a few more years experience. And the second thing was my mom.
My mom wrote, illustrated, typset, art directed, and did everything else except print and sell, my dad did those, a series of what she called children’s books, but were really family activity books that also included history lessons, quotes, games she made up, songs she composed, poems she wrote, puppet shows, audio recordings, display boards, and anything else that was humanly possible to stick in a book format during the 1980’s.
My mom had no training in art and as I see it now, also suffered from the same isolation that I did, but what she did provide was an intensely creative fountain that wordlessly influenced the way I thought and who I was.
After a while she quit making the books, and my family eventually moved to Salt Lake City. Nothing much changed for me artistically, except there was now a possibility that I might bump into something.
That something was the lucky encounter with the book The Art of Michael Whelan when I was fourteen at a book store. Michael Whelan is a living legend in the book illustration world, but at the time I didn’t know anything about him other than remembering a few of his paintings on the covers of books I had read.
The book was $70.00. It was the most expensive book I had ever seen up to that point. It was a lot of money for my family, there was no way they were going to spend that much on a book for me. I’m not sure if my mom suggested it or I did, but I ended up doing extra chores to earn some money. I would work all week and every weekend I would walk about a mile to the bookstore to look at the book and make sure that it was still there.
I don’t know how many weeks it took me but I eventually had enough to buy the book. That was a glorious day.
His art called to me with familiar bright colors, but there was also something more subtle working on my sense of art. Even in Michael Whelan’s most dynamic painting, there is a sense of calmness, or contemplation. The lonely spirit of his art was a match for my own. As a kid where the closest friend was miles away, I learned to become comfortable with being alone with my own thoughts, and the people in Michael Whelan’s art reflected that feeling back at me.
It’s still a theme that runs through my art, but maybe on a more subtle note.
The changes in my art have slowly moved me away from the bright colors and subject matter that commercial art demands into an area that I never thought I would visit.
The strange land of still life is where my current path lies, and I wonder how I got here, and how long the road will be.
Michael Whelan’s website