"When dawn spreads its paintbrush on the plain, spilling purple... ," Sons of the Pioneers theme for TV show "Wagon Train." Dawn on the mythic Santa Fe Trail, New Mexico, looking toward Raton from Cimarron. -- Clarkphoto. A curmudgeon artist's musings melding metaphors and journalism, for readers in more than 150 countries.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Don't miss this Western journey

Poster outside the exhibit
If you are a Westerner, or love the West, or wildlife, or great art, there's an exhibit at the Sam Noble Museum of Natural History that you don't want to miss, and it ends April 26.
"Harmless Hunter, The Wildlife Work of Charles M. Russell" brings 18 paintings, 10 small sculptures and 13 other sketches and work from several famous museums around the country to the OU campus in Norman.
Go see it to be inspired.
You can't take photographs inside the exhibit, but I've downloaded a couple from the Internet to give you a taste.
The show is curated by OU's Dr. Byron Price, Charles Marion Russell Memorial Chair, and Director of Charles M. Russell Center for the Study of Art of the American West at OU.
I was particularly taken by some of the watercolors I'd never seen before, and some of the oils took my breath away. It's like studying art from a master.
It was a day when I needed a boost, and worth the hassle of driving to Norman, because for two hours of watching, studying, taking notes, I forgot about the rest of the world and was transported back to the last days of the Old West.
The West was and is a place of conflict, between nature, humans and wildlife, and nobody caught this more than Russell. I'll admit, I've been around his work all my life because my Dad was an artist who loved Russell and who found inspiration there. 
The exhibit gets its title from Russell, who hunted wildlife with his paintbrush as a "Harmless Hunter," and he had an unsurpassed talent to capture the soul of animals, four- and two-legged alike, in action. 
His favorite subject was probably the buffalo, and out of more than 2,000 works, his portrayal of this wild animal helped make it the icon of the West. His signature on every painting of a buffalo skull is an icon in its own right. 
Other wildlife that he painted include numerous grizzly in conflict, wolves, deer, mountain lions, pronghorn, birds, bighorn sheep, foxes and coyotes.
All of his work tells stories, stories of the West, and most of them leave the conclusions in doubt, as one panel terms them "predicaments," where humans and wildlife face each other. Such is the case with exhibit poster, a detail  of one of the paintings, "Crippled but Still Coming."
"Crippled but Still Coming"--opening painting of the exhibit
The rugged landscapes are as dramatic as the action, and Russell excelled in subjects late in the day, when the light is dramatic with shadows and sunlight  or passing, just as the Wild West was passing while he lived, 1864-1926. My favorite, which I sat in front of for a long time, as the day fades and the full moon rises, is "To the Victor Belong the Spoils," of Grizz taking the kill, while wolves circle at a distance.

My favorite, "To the Victor Belong the Spoils"
I could write much more, but here are some of the main things I noticed as an art student, who was particularly interested in his eight watercolors. The vivid colors and landscapes of the oils are almost the opposite of the watercolors. In the watercolors, the central subjects have brighter colors and the backgrounds fade in the dusty distance. You can almost taste the dust.
But in all his paintings, his meticulous and accurate attention to detail is amazing, whether it is Indian garb, cowboy dress, firearms, gun belts, or more.
And don't miss his humor, as a sketch of a fox and skunk smoking a peace pipe, or his illustrated letters to friends, including one of him up a tree in Florida with a crocodile underneath, or a sculptured wolf sniffing a discarded whiskey bottle.
Another favorite was a five-inch square watercolor on birchbark with a poem to some recently married friends, with the owl and other birds discussing the newlyweds. There are also illustrations for magazine articles, sketches for his paintings, and more. I came back trying to find a couple of favorite large watercolors on the Internet, having never seen them before, and couldn't, including one of Teddy Roosevelt hunting a grizzly with dogs. So worth the trip. But here is one watercolor, of Russell on a horse in a actual buffalo roundup, "Pablo's Buffalo Hunt,"  in his beloved Montana.

"Pablo's Buffalo Hunt"--a watercolor
This is a treasure. Don't miss it.

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