A Baker’s Dozen Paintings, 2 Sculptures, and a New Master, to Boot!
My 2019 Favorites from Birds in Art
Finally, a bit of time between having just completed a work on the drawing board and starting a new one, and after a busy September travel month and a week of the man flu! . . . it’s time for my fairly annual review of my favorite works from the 2019 edition of the Woodson Art Museum’s Internationally respected annual exhibition, Birds in Art.
As I preface this essay each time it appears, I could easily, given enough time and fortifying pots of tea, express my admiration for each and every work included in the exhibition but time won’t allow. So, I have selected 15 works as those that embody some of the strongest characteristics of the kind of fine art that appeals to me as both a fellow artist and somewhat of a collector. That does not diminish the remaining works included in the exhibition in any way and I have to say, as is generally the case each year, the three person panel of jurors who made the selection of this year’s Birds in Art works made some outstanding choices.
I’m often asked what I feel makes for a jury-worthy work of art and I’ve talked about those characteristics that I believe are the sorts of things that one should keep in mind when producing a work for jury consideration, especially for an exhibition of the caliber of Birds in Art where one knows that the level of competition is substantial and many, many fine works do not make the cut each year due to space and hanging limitations. With that thought in mind, I’m dividing up my comments this year into several categories, headlined by what I feel are some of the important characteristics that would seem, to me at any rate, to be the sorts of elements that a juror will be looking for when considering a work of art for inclusion in an exhibition. Those categories, I believe, not only represent a more thoughtful approach to attempting a work for jury but also feature into the sorts of design and compositional approaches that, without fail, tend to capture my attention, draw me into them, and separate those works from all the rest.
A Challenging Viewpoint
This first work by British artist Jeremy Paul, Preening Penguins, epitomizes what I often talk about as being a work that takes a unique viewpoint, perhaps of a rather common subject, and that challenges the viewer of the work to devise just what is going on, to unravel the puzzle. I love the yin and yang effect that Paul has brushed in the work, giving the swirling pair of penguins an interesting compositional structure. It’s not a very large work, at just about 12” square, but because of the interesting arrangement of the subjects, the relatively non-traditional overhead depiction, and the beautifully rendered anatomy and coloring of the penguins, it very quickly captured my attention in the gallery and held its own with the larger works hung nearby.
I’ve always felt that a good, creative, attention-grabbing work of art should relate a story; the story that the artist might have had in mind when producing the work may or may not be the same story that any one particular viewer may key into, but that is the joy of Telling Tales - leaving the “story” open to individual interpretation. With that in mind, the two works below, Canadian, Michael Dumas’ Noon-Day Sun (Left), and Massachusetts resident, Karie O’Donnell’s In Her Element, both conjured up very relatable stories in my mind, and I bet in the minds of the three jurors for the exhibition as well. Over and above the mastery of each artist with their chosen medium of oil paint and the variation in technical approach to their individual paintings, both works embodied relatability to experiences and sensations of memorable events that anyone could be privy to. The specifics of those memories would become individual depending upon the perspective of each viewer and my conjured up memories while viewing each work, as strong and direct as they may have been, would most certainly differ from the next person who walked into that gallery and stood before each. Storytelling reminds us of smells and sounds, places and people, experiences both positive and negative, and the mastery of a fine work of art can induce that connection almost instantaneously as those two examples did for me. Perhaps they touched off certain memories in the jurors as well?
If you look up the definition of the word ethereal in the dictionary – “extremely delicate and light in a way that seems too perfect for this world” - you’ll also find a host of synonyms - exquisite, elegant, graceful, beautiful and the like - that perfectly describe the next two spotlighted works by artists who have both been honored by the Woodson Art Museum with the Master Wildlife Artist medal in recent years. Vermonter, Nancy Howe (named Master in 2005), in her work Sacred and Slow (Left below), referenced personal experience and feelings in her oil, as she noted in the accompanying catalog text, as a reminder to slow down, be quiet, “and accept how life manages to flow on in fine fashion without fuss.” Standing before the painting on my first visit to the galleries and having not yet read her personal notations in the catalog, I too, felt a sense of needing to slow down, stand a while and dwell within the subtle luxuries of the scene before me – it was almost a spiritual sensation. Even though honored Masters no longer have to go through the jury process each year, it was quite apparent that Howe had not allowed herself to slip or offer up a work that might not have met the standards she had previously set for herself, but to offer up an emotionally charged, thoughtful rendering of personal quiet and acceptance.
Jim Coe, named Master in 2011, in his Woodcock Sky (Right below) drew out quite a similar feeling within me as I stood before it. Whether it was the time of day depicted in both works or the subdued atmosphere or mastery of brushwork in their contrasting technical approaches with oil paint, the two artists were able to force me to pause, take note, reflect, and breathe in their ethereal mastery.
Due to the small image posted here, it may be difficult to spot the bird in Coe’s masterwork, but it is there flying left to right about mid left center and that brings up another point of constant query by many artists – “does the bird need to be front and center since it is Birds in Art?” Well, obviously not. If you leaf through the pages of past catalogs from the exhibition, you can easily see that, quite often, the bird is teeny tiny or sometimes even a secondary subject. The key word in the title of the exhibition Birds in Art, for me and from the viewpoint of the museum as well it seems to me, will always be “Art.”
Water, Water . . . Everywhere
Contrary to the accepted understanding of Coleridge’s lines from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, in which the beached and beleaguered sailor finds himself in a situation in the midst of plenty (salt water) but cannot partake of it, as I walked the galleries – “in the midst of plenty” – I did, indeed, find plenty of watery depiction to take in and partake of. Two of the works that stood out and really spoke to me were the two shown below, on the left Maryland resident, Matthew Hillier’s Odd One Out and Coloradoan, Scott Yablonski’s Floating Through a Daffodil Sky. In Hillier’s oil, the beauty of the work, and its most attractive character to me, was in the way in which he was able to capture the translucent quality of light piercing through the clear water to the rocks below without detracting from the primary bird subjects and thus his ability to form a pleasing, harmonious unity between main subjects and supporting elements. Yablonski’s oil established a rich undulating pattern of reflection in his more opaque watery field yet I could still feel as if I reached my hand out, it would easily pass through those reflections and disappear beneath the water’s surface; his mastery of medium and compelling offset placement of his bird subjects also unified his compositional design in a perfect marriage which, obviously, appealed to the juror’s eyes.
Simplicity Can Be Deceiving
So, the question often arises . . . does the artist need to show every feather, every nuance of anatomy, every slight color variation to prove they are a bird artist and know that of which they paint? I say, “not necessarily” and to prove that opinion, these next two works are perfect examples of what might be referred to as deceptively “simple” works as they may come across as simplified versions of reality, yet both embody mastery of medium, mastery of technique, mastery of composition and design, and an understanding that each artist knew the way in which to capture immediate attention. Obviously, the three member jury for Birds in Art felt the same.
Seattle resident, Sueellen Ross, in Desert Dove on the left below, and Mainer, Sherrie York, in her lovely reduction linocut, Four On the Fence, both approached their works with minimalism and pared-down structure in their compositions yet each work showed equal strength and appeal as any of their larger, more intricate, bolder companions on the gallery walls. I was especially drawn to the close-in crop of Ross’ composition in which she took a more horizontal read on the cactus supporting element, which could easily have been given more weight and importance had she decided to devise more of a square or vertical compositional field as did York, but because she turned the focus of the work onto the more horizontal branch of the cactus where the dove’s nest sat, the composition’s design became a bit more unusual and thoughtful, in my estimation. York, on the other hand, decided to play up the square design field by putting emphasis on the strong vertical elements of the fence and yet, her placement of the sparrows across the horizontal line of the fence top was a perfect counter to the thrust of the upward fence pickets. Both works might have secured equal compositional interest had they been reversed in the sense of their overall, outer compositional fields (Ross’s becoming more square with more emphasis on the verticals of the cactus and York’s becoming more horizontal with emphasis on the upper part of the work and cutting off much of the lower upward movement of the fence pickets), but my reading of each work was that both artists knew exactly what they wanted to accomplish with their designs and did so with great mastery.
It Can Also Be . . . All in the Details
Having just talked about simplification, now I’ll reverse course and give detail its due. Simplification/Detail, neither is mutually exclusive but knowing when to simplify and when to add detail and when to mix it up a bit is, in my estimation, key to producing an appealing work of art. If an artist understands what elements need to show more detail than others, that is half the battle of being able to establish depth and modeling in a two dimensional work of art. The two examples shown below, both unique in their compositional designs, show a mastery, I feel, in knowing just how far to go depicting strong detail. Netherlander, Elwin van der Kolk brushed a beautiful rendering of winter’s chill in Great Egrets in Winter (Left) and Michigan resident, Catherine McClung’s watercolor and silver leaf Seekers sparkled with exuberant floral detail. In the one, van der Kolk’s, his approach was to cover the canvas with sharp detail, crisp rendering of ice laden branches and a bit less emphasis on the feathering details of the birds, though his rendering of the birds was defining enough to unify the entire painting and give it a common strength across the entire work. McClung’s work, though not as fully developed in the sense of background and environment as a supporting element to the composition, embodied just enough detail in the rendering of the flower heads and birds to unify all the elements. The added attraction of the sparkle brought into play by the use of silver leaf added sufficient weight to the overall composition to equal it in weight, in my estimation, to that of van der Kolk’s work which was almost three times the size of Seekers.
Whimsy in Three Dimension
I have not often spotlighted works of sculpture as, since I am not a sculptor, I often don’t feel knowledgeable enough to talk about three dimensional work, though I know what I like and was quite attracted to these two pieces of sculpture, one a glorious piece of carved wood and the other a whimsical bronze work. In Louisianan Jett Brunet’s second appearance in Birds in Art, he captivated me with Musical Guest (Left below), all carved out of a single hunk of a hackberry stump. He talked about the impetus for the work in his catalog text, a dream he had several years ago and how the work began to take form with what turned out to be, for me, one of the most appealing aspects of the design - his depiction of the bottom of a billowing curtain length which just ever so slightly falls across the side panel of the piano keyboard. His beautiful and sharply detailed carving of the piano keys and bird subject notwithstanding, the aspect of the work that drew me right in was that graceful depiction of the sweep of the curtain.
Coloradoan, Parker McDonald’s Take Note II brought a chuckle and a smile to my face as I approached. I really liked the combination of the old flute and additions of the cast bronze birds. Whimsy is good!
David vs. Goliath
Is big necessarily better? Does small equate to disappearance? Does an artist have to produce a large work of art to have a better chance of surviving a jury process? Should an artist avoid attempting to jury a relatively small-scale work for an exhibition where the competition is already high? Well, I don’t know the absolute answer to those questions, but I have my own opinions . . . for sure. Take a look at the first image below, in which you can see an actual shot photographed in the main gallery at the Woodson Art Museum of the two works that tied for my very, very favorite work in the exhibition - one a three foot square canvas, the other a canvas not even 10” x 6”. Obviously it was no mere coincidence that the museum hung both of these works side by side in the center of one long gallery wall, when each could have been placed in so many other situations. I had to chuckle at first when I walked through the entry into that gallery, and then had to marvel at the joy of seeing David and Goliath hanging side by side! “David” being Nondescript by Michigan’s Justin Kellner in his second appearance in a Birds in Art exhibition. “Goliath” was represented by Denver resident, William Alther’s fabulous oil painting, Winter Arches (which, I understand the museum has subsequently purchased for their permanent collection, but it was my tie for Top Place in my mind long before word came down of the museum’s acquisition, but nevertheless I’m thrilled to hear of its addition to the Woodson Art Museum’s collection). Both works had completely different feels to them - their technical approaches differed, the brush work of each artist was individual and mediums varied – one oil, the other acrylic – yet both struck me as holding some similarities as well. Nondescript was the perfect title for Kellner’s little gem as its background was, indeed, rather nondescript and expressive in its subtle splashes of color. Alther’s background, if that open soft appearance of sky could be thought of as background, also acted as a nondescript support to the importance of the snow-encrusted branches and focus upon the lone, dark shape of the perched bird. Who won the “battle” between David and Goliath? I believe it was a fair and equitable draw, both works retaining their strong appeal, their mastery of medium, their individuality of character, and their flat-out beauty.
And . . . A New Master, To Boot!
With a few final words, I was quite honored to have been asked to introduce and present the medal to this year’s honoree as Master Wildlife Artist, England’s Alan Woollett. His pencil work, all of the colored variety in his Master’s exhibition, surely not only depicted his mastery and knowledge of the medium but also showed his complete understanding of Telling Tales and Simplifying or Detailing as needed, using Challenging Viewpoints in his compositions, and other aspects of what makes for appealing, attention-grabbing works of art.