Laura Wilson’s photographs have appeared in numerous journals and newspapers, including The New Yorker, GQ, and Vanity Fair. Her work has been the subject of four books, the latest titled Avedon at Work (2003), which documents one of the twentieth century’s great photographers, Richard Avedon, at work on one of the same century’s great projects, In the American West (1985). Her latest exhibition, That Day: Laura Wilson, was organized by John Rohrbach, senior curator of photographs at the museum, and opens September 5 at the Amon Carter. Wilson recently spoke with us...
How did being such a close student of Avedon’s process and work inform your own? I‘m naturally inclined, as Dick was, to be extremely interested in people and being responsive to their condition, their plight, their wonder. I also think I have an almost unreasonable desire to record what is before me. Dick’s creative process was an enormous influence. It wasn’t that we ever spoke of f-stops or shutter speeds, but we constantly talked about the emotion expressed on a person’s face and the way in which they stood or held themselves. A portrait is a collaboration. A strong portrait, a memorable portrait, isn’t necessarily about an individual’s beauty or handsomeness; it is accomplished when the photographer and subject work together, often without words or direction, to make an image that reveals something truthful about the human condition.
Is it possible to photograph in the American West outside its entrenched and overpowering sense of myth? The challenge is to take this entrenched myth and not be overpowered by it, but to be inspired and to expand upon it. Certainly the photographs of the men on the Y-6 Ranch reinforce the myth, but it is my hope that the portrait of the women and my recollection of their conversations expand the conventional view of ranch life. On another subject, perhaps an attempt to expand the myth is what drew me to fighter pilots in Fallon, Nevada. Are they the contemporary extension of the lone hero, the moral gunfighter? Or I may be working to counter the myth, as in the photographs along the Frontera. Dog fighting and cockfighting certainly rebut the myth of frontier righteousness. It seems critical to me for anyone working in the West to have this most American of myths always in your eye line, to constantly work to counter or extend it.
So often a viewer wonders about a subject in a photograph. This is the case for me with your beautiful image Emma. What can you tell us about her and “that day” you photographed her? Emma was a spirited, beautiful girl with a strong personality who lived, and still does live, in the Montana Hutterite colony in which she was born. She was 16 or 17 the summer afternoon this photograph was taken. I had known her for several years. She stood out among all the other young women in the colony because she was so pretty and lively and humorous. She had finished school by then, as Hutterites do after they complete the eighth grade. The evening I photographed her, she had worked during the day along with the other unmarried girls in the colony vegetable garden and helped prepare meals for the seventy or so colony members. After her chores were completed, the evening was cool and we walked up on a hill above the colony. She stood facing the waning light as the wind caught her dress in the breeze. Emma is married now with children of her own, older than she was when I took this photograph. I haven't seen her for fifteen years.
What is the biggest challenge for the documentary photographer? There is, of course, the question of subject matter. What is fresh? That is the challenge. Have you been astute or lucky enough to find something that's never been photographed before? Or can you bring new insight to a more familiar subject? Then, there is the body of work of the greatest of documentary photographers, Henri Cartier-Bresson. His photographs stand like a beacon of accomplishment to all photographers. He spent his life walking and looking and photographing with a little Leica camera and made the most brilliant observations of the geometry and the emotion and the wonder of life. It is his work that we must all measure ourselves against.
Can you tell us about a shot you still regret missing? I was in Kansas City seventeen years ago in a small, dingy room off the main waiting area of the Greyhound Bus Station. A middle-aged woman, neatly dressed, sat at the desk of the station manager. She told him she had no more money for the next leg of her journey. She quietly spoke of her need to get home. Her mother was dying, alone with no one to help. I knew the woman was about to cry. I had to turn away. I couldn't bear to hear the click of the shutter against the profound grief of her voice.
What kind of camera do you use? Until two years ago, I shot everything with film. I used Tri-X rated at 320. I used my Hasselblad for portraits and my Nikon F-5 for reportage. Now, I use a Nikon D-800 with a 24, 35, 85, and 105 lens and then 2 zoom lenses: 14-24 and 24-70. This Nikon is a great camera. It's so smart I could stay home in bed, send the camera out on its own, and it would come back to the studio with great photographs.
What is a “salon hang,” and what is its relevance in our art culture today? These are questions raised by our current one-gallery installation of Samuel F. B. Morse’s Gallery of the Louvre (1831–33). On the opposite wall from Morse’s painting, which measures seven by nine feet, Maggie Adler, the curator of the space, has displayed a number of related works from our collection in a salon-style hang.
Amon Carter curator Maggie Adler did a salon hang from the collection to coincide with the display of Morse’s painting in the same gallery
A salon-style hang places pictures in groups of different sizes where the works are placed alongside, above, and below each other. The historical narrative is that during the late nineteenth century in France, the idea of hanging art differently became the fashion. The salon hang became the established pattern at the annual Paris Salon, and it suggested a hierarchy. Works by artists of importance were hung lower on the wall, while those by less important artists were hung higher.
While the artists known as the Impressionists recognized the importance of being shown in the annual Salon in order to be validated, they chose a different way to display their art. For them, art was not about “reputation” but rather about “seeing,” and so rather than stacking the art to the ceiling, they hung their works along the same linear line, all on the same level, giving each work ample space to be seen and understood.
Many art historians believe that this action and others by Cassatt, Degas, Pissarro, and the rest of the Impressionists changed the modern art world across the globe. It certainly changed the way art is hung institutionally. Still today, rarely do we see works of art hung in a museum as they are displayed in Morse’s painting. But there seems to be a discernible shift taking place; an Internet search of “salon style hang” offers up plenty of evidence of a trend toward salon hanging, which allows individuals and collectors to maximize their wall space for the display of art. I have also noticed a similar shift in the galleries of living artists, particularly those working outside the art world’s heavily networked centers.
Salon-style hanging allows individuals and collectors to maximize their wall space for the display of art
Does the salon-style hang in this day actually invert the historical sense of hierarchy present in the nineteenth century? Where artists in a community might come from multiple backgrounds, trained and untrained, the salon style captures a consciousness that is open and inviting. As an artist friend of mine shared recently: “Stand close to just one piece; step back, and with the works around it, the piece becomes part of a collection; one more step back reveals the collective consciousness of the artists of our times and how they are expressing themselves! The entire wall becomes a piece of art.”
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!