Talk by the Artist “Interpretations of Nature” May 19, 2000

Let me start by saying thanks to Fran Peppers for her encouragement and advice. She and the rest of the committee have produced some great exhibits here at the Williams School, and I am proud to be among them. Art has always been a part of my life. Like many artists I started drawing as a child and never stopped. I grew up in Clinton, North Carolina where art and music were encouraged in the public schools. For me there were always posters and cartoons to be drawn and always excuses to skip classes and hang out with friends. I had various art classes and instructors in high school and college, and while art has always been important, I balance it with several other interests. At Davidson I majored in economics, and I played a number of sports. In fact I visited Washington and Lee and VMI for the first time with Davidson’s swimming team. I remember walking around campus on a beautiful Sunday morning after a Saturday meet. All of a sudden I heard a march cadence. The cadets were marching down Letcher Avenue on the way to church. On their way a few empty beer cans were tossed at them from the brothers of the Beta House–who apparently were still awake from a night of partying. I felt like Gulliver washed ashore on a very strange land. Little did I know that later I would live I in a house very close to that spot. Barbara and I married just out of college and like most young couples back then we were poor; we would make occasional trips to the Goodwill Store for clothes and furniture. Now and then I would pick up an old frame and paint a picture for it. After my stint in the Army and computer work at Hanes Corporation in Winston Salem. I returned to academia: Duke University. I expected to go back into the “real world” equipped with a Ph.D. and high-powered skills in econometrics. But there at Duke a strange and unexpected thing happened-I turned into an insatiable scholar. So instead of being sensible and doing consulting with industry and making tons of money, I came to Washington and Lee to teach and study economics. As my colleagues will attest, I am a perpetual student and sit in on a wide variety of the courses they teach to include philosophy, politics, history, French, English, journalism, music, and, of course, art history and studio. Some people might just say I’m a very slow learner. The early 70s were an important period in my development as an artist. I took instruction from Ray Prohaska and Isabel McIllvain. Ray taught the basics of design in his popular studio course. His teaching approach was to use hundreds of exercises. His students turned out volumes of art in all sorts of media. These simple exercises allowed beginning students to turn out fairly respectable works of art almost instantly–while learning the fundamentals. By contrast, Isabel McIllvain was very meticulous but just as effective, especially with the serious artist. Like many of Ray’s former students I have a houseful of monoprints and pastels from his studio classes. And I have some sculptures I owe to Isabel’s tutelage.

This year I’ve been back in the W&L art studio doing the large oil paintings featured in this exhibit. Kathleen OlsonJanjic has generously given me criticism and encouragement. Although I didn’t take her studio course I have noticed that she is a great teacher. Like Ray Prohaska, Kathleen believes in challenging students with a large number of projects, each focusing on special perspectives and skills. We both share a love for the French impressionists and especially Bonnard. I’m sure his art and Kathleen’s will have an influence on mine in the years to come, I also receive encouragement from other artists here in Lexington. I was very active in the Rockbridge Arts Guild in its early days, and I am once again taking a leadership role. There is also an art group in Staunton called the Beverly Street Studio that has many Lexington connections. Barbara and I are joining some of them for a painting trip to Provence this summer. Now let’s look at a few slides that represent the periods I’ve talked about. Although they cover a wide range of styles, you will see certain themes running through them:

1 . One of my first watercolors–circa 1950. 1 don’t have any art from my nursery school days, but this is one of my early watercolors. It reminds me that I have painted birds from the beginning. One of my projects every year is to paint a bird for my granddaughter’s birthday; she now has six.

2. At Davidson I studied under Doug Houchens, working primarily in oils. Most of my paintings were influenced by the impressionists, especially Cezanne. But in this one I was simply experimenting with colors and forms. (1956)

3. This painting of the White Cliffs of Dover was done when Barbara and I were just married and settling into home life. Remember I said we would go to the Goodwill Store for clothes and furniture and sometimes an old frame. Then I would stretch a canvas to fit the frame. Here we see some familiar themes emerging: rocky cliffs–ocean–clouds

4. This monoprint of flowers was one of the many exercises from the art studio class with Ray Prohaska. My brother complained that I still hadn’t learned to color within the lines.

5. Here we have another monoprint from Prohaska’s studio class, This one is clearly an exercise in bold strokes playing off each other–and of course–the white spaces are an equally important part of the design.

6. Farm in France Whenever we travel I take along a sketchbook. Sometimes I’ll make a sketch with permanent ink and fill in with a few simple watercolors. This is a quick sketch and watercolor of a farm in France.

7. I was intrigued with this old picture of an elderly French farm woman in her kitchen and did several studies. In this one I tried for simplicity, using only black and brown.

8. This familiar Parisian scene is Pont Neuf in the early morning fight. This is the portion of the bridge that connects the Ille de Cite with the right bank.

9. Still Life with Irises In some years I would only paint in a week-long spurt two or three times. The theme for several of these occasions has been still-lifes of flowers. Irises and peonies lend themselves to watercolor because of their iridescent quality, particularly when the light source comes from the background. This scene was done when we lived on campus in the Hollow–it shows light coming through the old, wrinkled window panes.

10. Fall Shadows Another theme in recent years has been landscapes in Rockbridge County. Often I make these very simple and use only a few colors. This one is limited to tans and blues.

11. The next one is a winter scene with tans and grey–I allow the white to suggest a light covering of snow. The winter sky is grey with rain clouds.

12. Low country with Canadian Geese This water color of geese flying across the coastal marshes is of more recent vintage–it contains almost all of my favorite subjects–water, fishing villages, birds, and one of the major themes of this show, clouds.

13. Farm near the Cliffs. This is another recent watercolor. This scene is from Augusta County just north of us. There are similar rock formations near here–for example, Maury Cliffs.

14. The Green Mountain This painting and several in the exhibit were inspired by a New York artist and teacher, Bill Crosby. I like his blend of nature and abstract expression. Actually my paintings look nothing like Crosby’s but the goal is the same, starting with nature and moving towards abstract expression. My series on Lake Lugano shows different degrees of abstraction. In this painting I try to show some of the contrasts and dynamic tensions I see in nature. Notice the contrasts between the dark blue and the light green mountains. I started with the contrast between the horizontal lines of the lake and the vertical angles of the mountains. At that point I assumed the mountains would all be various shades of blue. But I decided that a green would contrast beautifully with the blues–and since the sun was coming from the left it seemed natural that it would bring out the green in the mountains in the center while the others remained in shadow. I also like to contrast the ethereal quality of sky and clouds with the solidity of the mountains–And here the water gives us yet another degree of density. And within the clouds themselves there is a dialogue between those being thinned out by the updrafts and the thick cumulus clouds below.

When I am painting landscapes, practically every time I step outside I encounter more possibilities for painting and a raised awareness of my surroundings. An important theme for this exhibit is clouds and the abstract patterns they form, No matter how abstract I paint clouds are equally abstract. Many of the artists I admire are able to portray nature in ways that give us new insight. The French impressionist certainly changed the way we think about light. By viewing things through the eyes of the artist we usually see things a little differently. Sometimes this adds a new appreciation of our surroundings. This exhibit shows some of my new impressions of nature–and the dynamic relationships I see in them. Of course not every attempt to interpret nature is successful, but when it happens it is a joyous experience. All of us go through the day without really noticing the beauty around us. But now and then we see things as an artist-and that is what I like to share with others, Thank you–and thank you for coming-I am really overwhelmed that you came, and I hope you enjoy the exhibit.