Born in Germany but raised in Texas, Esther Pearl Watson holds an MA from the California Institute of the Arts and teaches at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. Her monumental canvas Pasture Cows Crossing Indian Creek is on view in the museum’s Atrium through May 30, 2016. Watson combines memory and imagination in her paintings to tell stories from her childhood. While in Fort Worth for the installation of Pasture Cows, she took time to sit down with us.
Your father spent his life building all manner of spacecraft in the many front yards of your youth, and much of your work includes flying saucers and rockets and other hovering space forms. What compels you to make this aspect of your past such an integral part of your work? Memory painters often paint their memories as ideal. I think it is interesting to disrupt that trope by showing less-than-perfect memories.
The artist speaking with members of the museum inside her studio in L.A.; the painting behind her is Pasture Cows in process
Is your work partly a means for processing through your personal set of childhood memories? No. I’m a skilled painter imitating a de-skilled visual language. I’m more interested in what this painting is doing and not doing. Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills resemble a range of photos from B movies but are completely fictitious. While Sherman is in every image, portraying female characters in film, the work is not about her but about the viewer and what we project onto her image. We never really get to know Cindy Sherman, but hopefully we better understand ourselves.
Pasture Cows may feel emotionally real, but it’s a careful construction. It’s true that elements of my biography are found in the painting; my granddad is from Comanche, for example, and my dad built half-finished flying saucers in his garage. But I have no memory of a pink flying saucer sighting, and I never hunted specifically for the Old Civilian Fort. So why does this painting feel real? Whose childhood memories are we processing when we look at Pasture Cows?
My work looks like outsider art, with its blobby figures and pencil smudges; but I’m not an outsider artist. I’m not trying to be mistaken for one, just as Cindy Sherman is not trying to pass as a Hollywood star. I’m more interested in the terms and definitions we use in the art world. What is this painting exactly? Insider art? Faux folk art?
In addition to painting you write and illustrate graphic novels. Where did the idea for your series Unlovable come from? It’s based on a diary I found in a gas station bathroom. I like that the main character makes the same mistakes we all do, but it’s in hindsight that we can laugh about it.
What’s the biggest risk you’ve taken in your career? Becoming an artist!
Both your husband and daughter are artists. Do you collaborate? Yes. More often, we work side by side. Our home often feels like and artists’ residency.
You often use glitter in your work, including in Pasture Cows. Does it have significance other than an aesthetic one? When my daughter was young she wore a lot of glittery clothing. I use glitter as a reference to her.
Esther in front of her painting shortly after it was installed in the museum's Atrium
Picasso once said, “Learn the rules like a pro so you can break them like an artist.” Some visitors might look at your painting and think it appears raw or amateurish. What would you say to them? I agree with Picasso. I can paint realistic, but those paintings simply imitate. I’m not interested in reproducing imagery I can capture with my camera. Some people feel a sense of accomplishment when they can render realistic. Some people give up painting when they cannot paint realistic. What I’m doing is purposely making my work look like I can’t paint. It’s not easy to do because if it’s done wrong, then my work will feel insincere. I do leave hints that my work comes from an educated place. You can tell by the content and can see that I’m using balanced compositions and complex color harmonies.
There are several narratives occurring in Pasture Cows. Can you speak to the more significant ones? My granddad working with the fence taught me about the payoff of hard work. The saucer is based on my dad’s dreams of returning to Italy. The pink glitter is a reference to my daughter.
What is the one work of art that everyone should see in person? I’m too humble to assume everyone’s taste is similar to my own. For me, I was wondering around Turin, Italy, with my dad and husband. We walked into the Santuario Basilica La Consolata and found floor-to-ceiling ex-votos [a votive offering to a saint]. They were crudely drawn, life-changing moments in people’s lives: when a mother was hit by a train or a son was shot in war. These were moments when miracles happened. Moments when people felt blessed and watched over.
There’s a dollop of paint in the sky above the flying buzzard in Pasture Cows. It’s intentional, but why? I like what people project onto it. There are lots of blobs in the painting, but when they’re out of place we give them special meaning. That blob shows us that we’re all projecting stories in everything we see.
Summertime means Storytime at the Amon Carter. There are two more opportunities for you and your family to join us as we read stories and make art! Storytime is held every Wednesday through July 29, from 10:30 a.m. to noon.
While the museum is under renovation paid parking is available at Will Rogers Memorial Center located on West Lancaster Avenue and Gendy Street. The museum is unable to validate parking fees. Additional parking information may be found here.
Storytime is sponsored in part by Galderma Laboratories, LP. and Terra Foundation for American Art. Snacks provided by GoGo squeeZ.
As I spend time with our distinguished visiting painting Gallery of the Louvre, painted in 1833 by Samuel F. B. Morse and on loan to us from the Terra Foundation, the mean name-calling taunt of “copycat” from the school playground keeps running through my mind. Faced with one of American art’s most celebrated works of copying, Gallery of the Louvre, which includes Morse’s miniaturized replicas of some of the most influential works of European art, I muse about how copying has become something worthy of disdain instead of an homage to the greats, a method of art instruction, or a way of disseminating information across oceans and boundaries.
Bear in mind, I’m not advocating plagiarism here, but it was common practice in days of yore to spend time studying form, color, and composition by replicating illustrious art—whether an original painting or a plaster cast of a notable Roman marble copy of a Greek bronze original. And printed versions of painted artworks were often the only means of exposure to art for many people before the advent of American museums.
We recently acquired a marvelous original painting by Henry Inman (1801–1846) of Shawnee leader Payta-kootha, or “Flying Clouds” as he was commonly known, that is a translation of an oil portrait by the artist Charles Bird King (1785–1862). (The work will be featured in the next issue of the members’ magazine and will go on view in the Main Gallery this fall.) In the 1820s, Thomas L. McKenney, soon to be Director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, aspired to create a painting gallery of American Indian leaders for the nation. He enlisted King to paint them, but when it came time to produce lithographic copies of the works, McKenney selected Inman to create oil paintings based on King’s portraits that featured sophisticated rendering of light, shadow, and dimension. Inman’s work became the basis for a three-volume portfolio of hand-colored lithographs, The Indian Tribes of North America, published between 1837–44, considered one of the finest accomplishments of American printing. The Inman commission was a fortunate one, as the majority of King’s portraits were lost in a fire in 1865.
Henry Inman, Payta-kootha (Flying Clouds), 1832-3 and the lithograph based on Inman's painting.
Other examples of copying are numerous. Asher B. Durand (1796–1886) painted a copy of John Vanderlyn’s famously controversial nude Ariadne (1809–14) that he then translated into an exquisite engraving that is one of the highlights of our works-on-paper collection.
Durand's engraving and etching Ariadne, 1835 after his painted copy of Vanderlyn's original.
In copying, Durand did put his own spin on the Vanderlyn original. Other artists, such as Rembrandt Peale and Gilbert Stuart, made a cottage industry of painting and repainting their own portraits of George Washington.
Many works in our collection have chromolithographic doppelgangers. Color prints of Bierstadt’s painted views of Yosemite contributed to his great fame, and Martin Johnson Heade’s hummingbird paintings have exquisite printed counterparts.
Martin Johnson Heade's painting Two Hummingbirds Above a White Orchid, ca. 1875-90 and one of the many printed versions in our collection of Heade's Brazillian hummingbirds .
Artists even copied themselves—working on one idea throughout multiple media. A work by Remington could find expression in drawing, painted sketch, and wood engraving—all of which he would have had a hand in creating.
Of course, there’s still such a thing as bad copying in the form of forgery or peeking at someone’s test answers or claiming someone else’s ingenuity as your own innovation. But, as it pertains to the long history of art, it is worth noting that “copycat” is not a dirty word.
Maggie Adler, Assistant Curator
By Esther Pearl Watson
I first realized that the flying saucers my dad built during my childhood were an art form when I came across Douglas Curran’s book In Advance of the Landing: Folk Concepts of Outer Space, which exposed me to a wide range of individuals from the United States and Canada who built spaceships that looked like my father’s constructions. Curran’s photographs documented all shapes and sizes of the metal ships and their builders. My father saw his flying saucers as working prototypes for the future of transportation, but to me they were a creative vision. Folk art has always felt like the language of my heritage.
I began working in the vernacular of memory paintings in 2003. My family kept few photos of the saucers my dad built, as we moved often. Painting from memory is challenging because memory is fallible. I would paint the same house in Sachse, Texas, over and over again, using different tints of pink or depicting different arrangements of windows. There was no reference to correct my own distorted memory because that house was torn down to make room for tract homes. My own painting practice helped me understand how the childhood farm paintings by Velox Ward, for example, became idealized versions of a less-than-ideal upbringing.
My paintings are often the opposite of idealistic childhoods found in the memory paintings of artists like Fannie Lou Spelce. Spelce was a retired cardiovascular nurse. Her themes included country fairs, children playing games, and local harvest festivals. Like the demands of her job, her paintings required her to pay careful attention to the smallest details—objects are laid out in an organized fashion at the farm stand, and the viewer can see each figure engaged in specific activities at the country fair.
Not long after I became interested in Spelce’s work, I learned about Texas memory painters through the Webb Gallery in Waxahatchie. I loved looking at the melted taffy Texas landscapes of Reverend Jonnie Swearingen’s oil paintings of farm work. Eddie Arning's oil pastels remind me of quilt appliques. His blocky figures stand on a street corner or work with animals on the farm. Someone once told me my paintings looked like they could be quilted. My great-grandmother and namesake, Pearl, was an accomplished quilter. Inspired by her handiwork, I enlarged a drawing and quilted a scene of my dad’s flying saucer on fire in the cow pasture. When I was done, I didn’t know what to do with the quilt. It felt odd to sit on the couch covered with a quilted memory.
My grandparents and I drove through Blanket, Texas, many times on our way to the roller-skating rink in Brownwood. I recognized the land and the people in H. O. Kelly’s painting of the area. Years later, I would see similar stories in folk art found in Cecilia Steinfeldt’s book, Texas Folk Art: One Hundred Fifty Years of the Southwestern Tradition. There is something electrifying in learning about memory painters from my home state who captured the gray bark of pecan trees and the dried summer grass that is so rooted in my own memory.
My work has always been about telling stories, transporting the viewer through the patchwork fields and neglected small towns of my Texas childhood. Growing up with an eccentric father, whose obsession with building spaceships out of scrap metal in the backyard often led to disastrous results, forced our family to move again and again. We were always one step ahead of trouble—setting the field on fire with the careless use of an acetylene torch or finding that our TV had been pawned for a sheet of aluminum were not uncommon experiences for us. I paint these difficult memories because life is not ideal. The Texas memory painters didn’t always have simple or easy lives, which can be seen if you pay careful attention to the details of their dusty farm scenes and simple gatherings. Memory painters capture more than personal memories—together their work becomes a shared history, a story of Texas and its people.
The Amon Carter is fortunate to have some great volunteers who enthusiastically share our mission: to connect people to great American art. Hundreds of hours are spent each year by library volunteers and members of our docent corps on preparing and providing information that benefits all of our visitors. It was a pleasure to honor our most recent Docent Emeritus, Vivian Spraberry, for 25 years of service to the museum.
Come to the museum and share in the fun! Tours featuring highlights from the permanent collection take place Thursday through Sunday at 2 p.m. and begin at the Information Desk. No reservations are required.
Complementing the museum’s art collection, the research library offers an extensive range of materials on American art, photography, and history from the early nineteenth century to the present. The library is open to the public Wednesday through Friday from 11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. and from 11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. on Saturdays through May.
Admission to the museum and library is always free.
Last week, I found myself challenged with the task of speaking to our astute docents on the subject of American landscape. The prospect of saying anything overarching was daunting, as the story of landscape and the American painting tradition is as broad and vast as the mountain vistas depicted by American artists.
I had just finished writing and speaking about contemporary artist Jenny Holzer and the aphorisms, or truisms as she calls them, that she broadcasts via giant walls of light on the surfaces of great buildings, carves indelibly into granite, or silk-screens onto large canvases. Perhaps I was influenced by my study of Holzer to share with the docents short, digestible truths of my own invention that seem to reasonably summarize the American landscape artist’s approach.
I began the formulation of my truism list by revisiting William Cullen Bryant’s poetic advice to his buddy Thomas Cole, the symbolic forefather of the Hudson River School of American landscape painting. In his 1829 sonnet To Cole, the Painter, Departing for Europe, Bryant characterizes Europe as having “everywhere the trace of men.” He directs Cole’s attention to the American landscape, our untouched wilderness, as the defining characteristic of our fledgling nation, reminding the artist to revel in European scenes while keeping “that earlier, wilder image bright.” Put another way: Unspoiled nature was an expression of cultural and national identity.
Thomas Cole (1801-1848), The Hunter's Return, 1845, oil on canvas
What America had to offer in those days that seemed unique was the sublimity of pristine nature, and landscape painting provided one manner of expressing that identity. And so, a little bit inspired by Holzer’s truisms, I showed the docents a slide of my own proclamations based on aspects of the landscape works in our collection:
OUR LANDSCAPE DEFINES US
CAPTURE IT BEFORE IT’S GONE—or if there have been intrusions, eliminate the traces of human intervention.
ART LEADS TO PRESERVATION
WHEN CIVILIZATION INTRUDES, GO FARTHER AFIELD—WITHIN AND BEYOND THE CONTINENT
If you are a landscape artist and your subject matter is disappearing to industry and the march of civilization, show it as it was, with a foreboding sense of what’s to come. Go farther west to find the limits of so-called progress. If technology and tourism have already gotten there, paint them out. See if you can aid in preservation by alluding to the future destruction. Capture it all before it disappears. And, when you have run out of American exotic locales, travel abroad.
This week, when I move forward chronologically, my plan is to add the following to the truism list:
SEEK REFUGE FROM THE STRAINS OF MODERN LIFE. GO TO THE SHORE. HAVE A PICNIC. SEEK ARTIST COLONIES. GO WEST.
A LANDSCAPE PAINTING CAN BE ABOUT MORE THAN NATURAL SPLENDOR, IT CAN BE AN URBAN LANDSCAPE OR AN INDUSTRIAL ONE. THERE’S BEAUTY IN THOSE, TOO.
TURN TO ABSTRACTION
CHRONICLE OUR OWN DESTRUCTION
Skeet McAuley (b. 1951), Untitled, from the Native America Series, 1984-86, dye destruction print
Though the proclamations may not prove accurate in all cases, putting them in front of our docents seems as good a way as any to connect to the rich holdings of American views we have here at the Amon Carter.
Maggie Adler, Assistant Curator
The Amon Carter is fortunate to have a wonderful corps of docents who work with visitors to the museum by giving regularly scheduled tours, sharing information at the Art Carts, and facilitating special tours. Several of our docents were in fine form Friday night as the museum celebrated the first day of spring with our members at the Spring Fling.
Come on by and take a tour of our permanent collection. Public tours take place at 2:00 p.m. Thursday through Sunday and begin at the Information Desk. No reservations are required; admission is free.
Our pre-school friends from Holy Trinity Catholic School in Grapevine came to visit today. It's hard to tell who has the most fun on these tours - the kids or the gallery teachers. Tours are available for students of all ages, and all of them are free.
People of all ages are always welcome. Are you bringing young people? Pick up an Art Activity Kit at the desk and have some fun in the galleries. Most afternoons you can find an Art Cart with a knowledgeable volunteer ready to talk to you about what's on the walls. Or just sit on a bench and enjoy the view!
The museum recently celebrated its first anniversary as part of the Google Art Project. We commemorated the occasion with our first online exhibition featuring Parson Weems' Fable by Grant Wood, plus other artists who captured this famous couple in their works. We will be posting more of these projects in the coming months.
You can find our Google Art Project page by clicking here or by using the menu bar and clicking on our Collections page. It’s your opportunity to browse our collection at your pace in your space.
It’s time for a confession: The thought of being without my various technological devices when something new and exciting happens sends a shiver down my spine. If a great event occurs and someone does not snap a shot for group consumption on social media, did it really happen at all? If an occasion of worldwide significance transpires, photographs proliferate, memes flourish, and we can all see the images in an instant.
I’ve been thinking about the inevitability of images in today’s society in relation to the periodical illustrations of Frederic Remington (1861–1909)—a leading visual recorder of the newsworthy events of his time. If Remington wanted to share with a wide audience a scene of cowboys on the range, a nasty skirmish between warring factions, or even a bicyclist passing a stagecoach on a dusty road, he had to engage in several modes of creation to ready his rendering for mass dissemination.
Frederic Remington, The Right of the Road-- A Hazardous Encounter on a Rocky Mountain Trail, 1900, 1961.246
He often captured what he witnessed in a one-of-a-kind grisaille (or, as we’d call it today, grayscale) oil painting, intentionally created without color so that it could be translated into print media. Imagine going to all that trouble! To take advantage of modes of reproduction, he might also do a drawing of the scene. The drawing would then be transferred by any number of skilled wood engravers in reverse onto the end grain of multiple wooden blocks, which were then inked and used to reproduce the image in magazines such as Harper’s Weekly, Scribners, or Collier’s.
Printing block and special conservation housing
Jodie Utter, the museum’s conservator of works on paper, recently collaborated with me on an installation of wood blocks used by periodical publishers to make several of Remington’s illustrations. Such blocks were typically destroyed after printing or were sanded down and reused to make other newsworthy images, so it is rare to see them intact. We invite you to take a look in the special drawers in our Mezzanine Galleries to see them and better appreciate the labor-intensive process of yesteryear image making.
When you take your next selfie and post it to Instagram, think of the road Remington’s images needed to travel for anyone to see them. Of course, this begs the question, “Were we better off when it was more difficult to spread an image far and wide?” After all, if my friends had to carve their photos of me into wood blocks in order to share them, I bet many an unflattering image would be lost in thin air!
Maggie Adler, Assistant Curator
And now this from Jodie Utter:
What's In Our Drawers?
The Amon Carter has a varied and vast collection of masterworks; our largest collections, works on paper and photographs, are also the most sensitive to light. As the museum’s paper conservator, I spend a lot of my time documenting light-exposure histories for each paper object before it goes on display. Besides controlling temperature, air quality, and relative humidity, light gets most of my management attention. That said, the drawers in our Mezzanine Galleries are a paper conservator’s dream.
Why? Most of our art on paper collection is kept in dark storage with a fraction put on display each year. This is partly due to changing exhibitions, a finite display area, and most importantly to the history of display of individual objects—in other words, exposure to light. I will now put on my conservation hat –don’t leave—stay with me: Light damage is irreversible—and cumulative—therefore it’s of great importance to limit the display of light-sensitive works. This is why we keep close record of exactly how long a work has been on display since its arrival at the museum.
Inspecting the drawers in our Mezzanine Galleries
Okay, still with me? That’s why I love those drawers! If a work is displayed on the wall for four months (our typical length of exhibition) it would receive approximately 1000 hours of light exposure; however, in one of these drawers for one year, the work receives less than sixty hours (or approximately one week) of exposure. I love it. Of course, not everything can be displayed in a drawer, nor would I suggest such craziness. But it’s pretty great that when a work on paper is not being viewed, it’s in the dark! See why I love these drawers?
Jodie Utter, Conservator of Works of Art on Paper