Easel Does It 

Are the oil painters of America ready for Missoula? (Probably not)\nIs Missoula ready for the oil painters of America? (You are now)

This month’s First Friday Art Walk is going to be a little different from most. Starting at 5 p.m., the doors of the Dana Gallery will open on one of the most elite art shows in the country, the Oil Painters of America’s national juried exhibition. The Dana’s walls will be filled with more than 225 paintings (chosen from more than 1,000 entries) and the audience will be crowded with some of the nation’s most decorated contemporary oil painters, influential collectors and respected art historians.

And the evening’s First Friday reception is only part of the festivities—daytime Friday and all day Saturday offer interactive demonstrations with master painters, lectures by collectors and critiques from art historians open to the public, either free or for nominal fees. Collectively, it’s being billed as the largest art exhibition in Montana history.

And it isn’t just a rare opportunity to see a show of such caliber; it’s an event that’s inherently different from the standard laid-back Missoula artistic gathering. How so?

Two years ago, OPA held the event in the affluent Seattle suburb of Kirkland, Wash., at the Howard/Manville Gallery. The gallery held a special private reception prior to the exhibit opening and charged $300 just to walk through the door. The Dana Gallery had the option of hosting a similar reception Friday night and declined.

“Can you imagine?” wonders Dudley Dana, artist and owner of the local gallery. “I had to explain what Missoula is like, and the nature of a First Friday. I mean, we get college students, bankers, lawyers, families, everyone—it’s not an exclusive thing. I had to explain that it’s a little different here.”

Different is part of what appealed to OPA, and why they chose to take their show off the comparatively beaten path in Missoula, opposed to past sites like Santa Fe, Taos, Santa Barbara, Chicago and New York City. The organization, which boasts a membership of more than 2,400 painters in the United States, Canada and Mexico, is dedicated to preserving and promoting traditional representative oil painting, which, despite generations of neglect in comparison to abstract and modern styles, has seen a recent resurgence in popularity, particularly in the West. A large part of why has to do with the West’s landscapes.

“Most of our members want to take advantage of the plein air opportunities,” says OPA Executive Director Kathryn Beligratis, referring to the popular style of landscape painting accomplished outdoors in natural lighting. “We wanted to come and paint Montana.”

OPA expects more than 100 registered attendees from out-of-state—and potentially hundreds more unregistered—for the weekend’s festivities. In Missoula, the gathering provides a rare opportunity for the city to gain national art world exposure to an audience far broader than that which supports the area’s regional reputation as a thriving artistic community.

“I’ve really felt for a long time that Missoula is ready to host a major arts festival,” says Dana. “There’s no reason a quality juried arts festival, like the annual one in Jackson Hole [in its 21st year], couldn’t or shouldn’t happen in Missoula. I think there’s a void there that just doesn’t make sense. This could be a springboard to that happening.”

Dana’s comment brings up an interesting fact: Missoula is currently home to the International Wildlife Film Festival; the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival; numerous annual music festivals, including the Buddy DeFranco Jazz Festival; The Colony annual theater festival; and The Festival of the Book, which taps the area’s literary tradition. But despite a bevy of local studios and galleries and the ongoing success of First Friday Art Walks, there’s no established art festival.

“I’m hoping this show could change that,” says Dana. “I think Missoula is ready.”

So to help get Missoula ready, and to help you get the most out of the weekend’s events, the following pages cover the spectrum of what’s available, from our selected list of outstanding must-sees among the 225 on display (“Seven not to miss”) to a profile of one of America’s more influential—and controversial—art collectors (“A rallying cry for Realism”) to the low-down on the how-to sessions, which may help smear some of the imported talent onto your own palette (“This ain’t no Bob Ross”). For those new to these parts or perhaps just newly inspired to dip their brushes in our artistic offerings, we’ve even added a special Indy-style paint-by-numbers Montana landscape. This First Friday will be different, for sure, but with this package we’re doing our best to guide you through.

THE BASICS

WHO: The Oil Painters of America and the Dana Gallery

WHAT: OPA’s national juried exhibition, with more than 225 artists on display

WHEN: Opening reception Friday, May 5, 5 PM; additional events Friday afternoon and Saturday morning

WHERE: The Dana Gallery, 246 N. Higgins Ave.

HOW MUCH: Opening reception is freeA rallying cry for Realism:
Confrontational collector Fred Ross picks a fight with Modernism

During the course of a 60-minute interview, art collector Fred Ross gives exactly one concise answer in the midst of his tirade against Modernism and rallying cry for Realism. Asked whether he thinks of his general discourse on the topic as confrontational, provoking or controversial, Ross says with a laugh: “You’ll come to understand, I don’t beat around the bush.”

That’s an understatement. Ross pulverizes the bush, chewing it up and spitting it back as mulch in hopes of burying any credibility the modern art movement has gained over the course of the last 100 years. In a recent speech at New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, Ross claimed “three-quarters of the 20th century will go down in art history as a great wasteland of insanity—a nightmarish blip in the long road of the development of human logic and reason and art, from which we are just starting to awake.” He called Modernism and Post-Modernism, the broad artistic genres launched by Impressionism and rooted in abstract, nontraditional representation, “nihilistic and anti-human.” He referred to Picasso’s “Woman With a Blue Hat” as “utterly awful” and “beneath the capabilities of a talented 12-year-old.” And he spun his point back to Realism, the classically unembellished rendering of natural forms, arguing, “You had to be taught to love Picasso because nobody would love him otherwise. But people don’t need to be taught to love Rembrandt, Michelangelo, Bouguereau…”

At the heart of Ross’ point is a defensiveness and deep desire to tilt the scales of historical recognition back in favor of the great 19th-century academic artistic masters. His approach is to attack Modernism because that movement rose to prominence by discrediting Realism, so he figures eye-for-an-eye logic applies. And Ross believes he’s winning the argument.

“Modernists don’t want to have to debate because most don’t know how to,” says Ross, who owns more than 500 paintings and was named three years ago by Arts and Antiques magazine among the country’s top 100 collectors. “It’s so rarely contradicted—for generations it’s been influenced by powerful art dealers and ingrained in our minds through the brainwashing of museums and higher-education art departments and accommodating journalists that Modernism is so important, so great. But when these same people are forced to defend it, they’re usually unable to argue for it…It becomes an argument for dead dogma as opposed to living truth.”

The numbers would seem to show that Ross’ argument for a resurgence of Realism is gaining traction. For instance, Ross is particularly fond of the French academic painter William Bouguereau, who first sparked Ross’ interest in 19th century masters; he owns 11 original Bouguereau works. In 1969, Ross points out, the record for a Bouguereau sale was $2,000. By 1979, it was $68,000. By 1986, it was approximately $400,000. And the new world record, set three years ago for the artist’s “Charity,” was $3.5 million.

“His value has been growing geometrically, and it’s not just Bouguereau, it’s most of the major names,” says Ross, who received his Masters in art education from Columbia University. “Any artist from the period has gone up 3-to-5,000 percent, and the top names and top paintings by the those names have gone up 10,000 percent.”

In addition to cultivating his increasingly valuable collection, Ross founded the Art Renewal Center in November 2000 to help further education about Realism and provide resources for students and artists looking for more information on the style. The staggeringly dense online museum (artrenewal.org) includes more than 61,000 images—all available in high resolution for close study—by more than 5,100 artists, as well as an “ARChives” with catalogs of educational writings, including technical essays and entire textbooks. The site is considered one of the world’s largest online collections and, according to Ross, receives more than 5.3 million visitors per year.

“On the one hand, the Art Renewal Center is helping to re-recognize the great traditional artists of the 19th century who were unfairly denigrated,” he says, “and at the same time trying to help the art world recapture the methods and techniques and training that existed back then that was on the verge of being lost for all time.”

It’s been suggested to Ross that maybe he spread his version of the artistic gospel by focusing on what’s good and avoiding all the criticism of Modernism, but Ross isn’t having it. He told his audience in New York: “If somebody doesn’t explain to everybody why [modernists are] not really any good, and why they’re not really even artists, and how the whole thing is a hoax, then they will continue their propaganda and continue brainwashing our children and intimidating them into feeling stupid if they don’t go along to get along.”

So, is someone who appreciates modern art as well as Realism an idiot? Can’t someone respect both forms?

“I certainly wouldn’t want to say all modern art is worthless,” he says, seemingly contradicting most of what he’s already said. “But I believe most ideas, concepts, beliefs and values are best expressed by traditional Realism. There are some ideas expressed by Modernism, but they’re pretty much of the type of destruction and rejection of that which has come before or the most primitive ideas possible, like big versus little or few versus many. It’s all very simple. Complex ideas need a more complex language.”

For Ross, Realism’s inherent complexity needn’t be dumbed down by abstraction and conceptual art. He sees the precise execution of the natural form as beautiful in that—much like his own manner of speaking—it never beats around the bush.

Fred Ross is the keynote speaker at the OPA Luncheon Friday, May 5, from noon to 2 PM at the Hilton Garden Inn. $25.

This ain’t no Bob Ross:
Understanding painting demo etiquette

Since the early 1980s, the bushy afro and soothing Zen wisdom of television artist Bob Ross—he of “happy little trees” and the belief that “we don’t make mistakes, we just have happy accidents”—has been the closest many budding artists ever come to having a personal art teacher. During each 30-minute episode of PBS’s “The Joy of Painting,” Ross would gently coax the inherent artistic talent out of anyone watching, quickly painting and calmly talking his way through the completion of a boardwalk-quality landscape or portrait.

Saturday morning’s OPA Painting Demonstration could be called a Bob Ross episode on steroids—an interactive, two-and-a-half-hour question-and-answer session with three working Master Signature artists (an elite group of 43 artists, appointed by committee, whose work is considered the pinnacle of the art form) and one Signature artist (the penultimate level, requiring acceptance of at least three works to national OPA shows) each displaying different styles and approaches. The artists—OPA president and internationally renowned oil painter Zhiwei Tu (see “Seven Not to Miss”), still life painter Jeff Legg (ditto), plein air painter Roger Dale Brown and portrait artist Nancy Seamons Crookston—will set up their easels, break out their paints and take to the canvas in front of an audience, offering running commentary on their creative process or taking occasional breaks to discuss the work in progress.

“It’s actually quite informal,” says OPA Executive Director Kathryn Beligratis. “Depending on the artist, you can usually have a conversation with them the whole time. A lot of people will sit right down on the floor and not want to miss a thing.”

There are no hard-and-fast rules of etiquette at a painting demonstration, other than basic respectfulness (i.e., if an artist prefers to hold questions until a certain time). The main challenge is determining what questions to ask, and in the interest of contributing to a dynamic atmosphere we’ve surveyed in-the-know artists (demo vets), queried aspiring hacks who think “Master Signature” refers to Tony Hawk’s skateboarding moves, and brushed up on a few old episodes of “The Joy of Painting” to offer some starting points.

“Most people just fire away questions,” says Missoula artist and OPA member Ben Haggett. “I’d say, when in doubt, just ask about their equipment.”

Haggett is referring to questions about why the artist has chosen to use a particular easel/palette/canvas size/brush/etc. For instance, you’d sound intelligent asking: “Do you prefer sable brushes or bristle brushes?”

When Haggett mentions “equipment” he is not, however, referring to another suggestion we received, but don’t recommend asking, of portrait artists: Do you ever get aroused by your nude models? That would be uncouth. It would be more appropriate to ask a portrait artist how to strike a balance between painting an exact likeness and improving upon the subject’s appearance, especially with commissioned works.

“I really don’t think there are any bad questions,” says Crookston, who, along with Zhiwei, will be painting with a live model during the demonstration. “You can usually tell if the questions are coming from an artist or a non-artist, but that doesn’t make one better or worse. The artists usually want to know about the technical things, whereas a non-artist asks more about my model than anything else.”

Another popular topic is choice of paint. One simple insider question: Do you use black? This query packs controversy because some painters purchase tubes of “Ivory Black” paint while purists (and cheapskates) mix their own by combining veridian green and alizarin crimson. Another insider question: Have you ever used water-based oil paints? This relatively new—and seemingly contradictory—invention is easier to clean and less pungent than true oil paints, but a blasphemous choice to traditionalists.

When in doubt, it’s always good to fall back on the basics: ask about inspiration, influences and teachers, and don’t hesitate to drop a Bob Ross reference. Famous plein air landscape painter Kevin Macpherson was once asked in a demonstration who his greatest teacher was and he responded, “I’m a student of the John Gnagy School of Art.” Gnagy was Bob Ross circa the 1940s and ’50s.

Then again, it’s not imperative to ask questions. Some demonstrations are silent, as the audience simply watches highly skilled painters paint. For instance, Haggett doesn’t usually speak up much when he attends a demo.

“If they’re really good—and most who do demos are—then it’s scary how consistent they can be and how quick they work, and I just watch ’em do their thing,” he says. “After awhile, I’m usually just thinking about where I’m getting a beer afterwards.”

The OPA Painting Demonstrations take place Saturday, May 6, from 9 to 11:30 AM at the Dana Gallery.

Seven not to miss:
With 225 paintings to take in, don’t miss these artists’ work

Zhiwei Tu

His story sounds almost too impossible to believe: born to peasant parents in a remote rural village of Guangdong Province, China, in 1951, Zhiwei got his start in oil painting when the Beijing government sent an “official” artist to his village to create a public portrait of Chairman Mao Zedong. Then a teenager, Zhiwei watched the artist work for an entire day, then asked to borrow samples of his paints and returned the next day to set up alongside the professional and prepare his own oil portrait of Mao. As the story goes, the villagers were so impressed by Zhiwei’s finished work that they chose it over the government artist’s portrait for display.

“It’s a long time gone now, almost 40 years,” Zhiwei says in a recent phone interview from his current home in Chicago, Ill. “But they did choose it, and it was on the second floor of the school building in my village, facing outside, for many years.”

After achieving widespread recognition and acclaim in China, and studying at the Guangzhou Institute of Fine Arts, Zhiwei traveled to the United States in 1987 to study at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. He was named president of OPA in 2004 and still travels back to China every year for exhibits and to collect his preferred painting supplies; last year he visited when his hometown opened a museum in his honor.

“I like impressionists—the color, the light,” Zhiwei says of his painting style. As to content, he says, “I’m very interested in Chinese history and the old stuff, and [more recently] the American traditions. American Indians, pioneers and mountain men—the look on their face, their beards, they are stone shaped and so strong.”

Zhiwei’s submission to the national juried exhibition reflects the latter influence. “Pioneer—A Builder” is a large-scale (48-by-24 inches) impressionistic portrait. Price: $17,000, the second-most expensive piece in the exhibit.

Calvin Liang
Liang also was born in China, in 1960, but he followed a much different path to success than Zhiwei—one that included cartoons.

In China, Liang started out painting sets for the Canton Opera and later completed his art education at the Shanghai Academy of Fine Arts. In 1987 he immigrated to San Francisco and initially earned money for art supplies doing menial odd jobs, including sidewalk portraitist and drawer of cartoons for Marine World. The latter eventually led Liang to land full-time work in the animation industry, illustrating most notably for Walt Disney and Nickelodeon. His work with Nickelodeon includes the painting of Patches the Pirate seen during the opening theme song of every “SpongeBob Squarepants” episode.

Aside from his commercial résumé, Liang has developed a reputation as one of the best contemporary plein air landscape painters, typically of marina scenes. His work is on display in the National Museum of Beijing and China’s Museum of the Guangzhou Institute of Fine Arts, where he was a professor prior to coming to the United States. In 2001, he was honored with OPA’s Award of Excellence.

“Modern Chinese painting tends to be very representational,” Liang says in his artist statement. “People seem to expect that style from me. I enjoy realism, of course, but my favorite style is what might be classed as impressionism.”

Bryan Schweyen
In some ways, Schweyen is the OPA’s ultimate success story. In 2002 the Missoula resident and self-taught artist—he first picked up a brush just eight years ago—joined the national organization as a way to more seriously explore his interests in landscape painting. The following year he was accepted into OPA’s regional “miniatures” show and in 2004 his large-scale submission was accepted into the national juried exhibition.

“That gave me the confidence to move on and keep at it,” says Schweyen, who also coaches track and field at UM. “Any time you get selected into a show where 1,500 or so other artists are also submitting, you feel lucky to get in. It made me feel like I had a chance.”

Last August, he and fellow local artist Mark Gibson opened the Gibson & Schweyen Gallery and Studio in the Florence Building, across the lobby from the Missoula Art Museum’s Temporary Contemporary gallery. The new gallery has been a success for Schweyen, and he and Gibson have begun to represent a few additional artists in the small space.

Most recently, Schweyen has again been accepted to the OPA’s national juried exhibit, and while his submission is on display at the Dana Gallery, his gallery will host its own special First Friday reception in the Florence lobby.

“I’d only completed maybe 150 paintings total up to this point,” Schweyen says, “and this year alone I’ve probably already done that many. It’s been amazing to see things take off, really, just within the last year.”

R. David Wilson
The distinctly impressionistic quality of Wilson’s work is not unfamiliar to locals—his thick brushstrokes and dramatic early-morning lighting have recently been captured in images of the old Champ-ion sawmill site and the Kim Williams trail.

“My artwork centers around questions of color and texture: turning up the color and promoting texture,” says Wilson. “…I want the viewer to be tempted to touch the artwork—so that it invites the hand and the eye in unison.”

Wilson joined OPA one year ago and his work is shown frequently throughout Missoula, but, true to the city’s predominant artistic subculture, it’s primarily been seen in secondary venues like Bernice’s Bakery, Butterfly Herbs and the Catalyst Bistro. Wilson sees his exhibition at such social gathering places as helping expand the local artistic environment, in a tradition reminiscent of the artist’s experience living in Mexico for parts of 2001 and 2002.

“If you are familiar with Latin American culture, then you are probably familiar with the tradition of el paseo: the slow and enjoyable stroll through a town with others from the community,” Wilson writes of his embrace of Missoula’s art scene. “The paseo brings the experience of rubbing shoulders, hearing chat and noise while passing by common points of interest and feeling a certain electricity that comes from the shared enthusiasm of the crowd. Missoula, I think, has discovered its own version of the paseo.”

In addition to his submission to the OPA exhibit, an 18-by-24-inch landscape titled “Hot Springs Clouds,” Wilson’s work is also being featured in a solo show opening at Bernice’s Bakery on Friday, May 5.

Ben Haggett
Haggett is a fourth-generation Montanan, and talking with the former Dillon and current Missoula resident, it’s hard to distinguish whether the laid-back artist is an outdoorsman who picked up painting or a painter who just happens to relish the outdoors.

“I’ve always just carried my paint box around whenever I’ve traveled,” says Haggett, who turned a vacation in New Zealand into a two-year extended stay a few years ago. “Doing plein air painting, you work smaller, but you get the wind, sun, bugs and rain—the whole nine yards. I like being in it, and experiencing what I’m painting.”

Haggett graduated from UM in 1994, studying both English and art. The art program was then, as it is now, geared toward conceptual and abstract methods more rooted in Modernism than traditional landscapes. It wasn’t until Haggett graduated that he connected his natural enthusiasm for the outdoors to landscape painting. He joined OPA only late last year, submitting his application for membership at the same time he entered “Colorado High Country” for consideration in the juried exhibit.

“There’s been this sort of evangelical revival of representational art recently, which has made it that much more popular and accepted,” says Haggett. “I’ve always found myself drawn to more representational art and veered toward that and being in the outdoors. It’s not boring to me. For me, it’s impossible to see the end of it.”

Peter Adams
The California Art Club’s history dates back to 1909 and includes such founding members as Franz Bischoff and William Wendt. Based on the prestige of its membership, the organization thrived throughout the early parts of the century until World War II and, even more so, the meteoric rise in Modernism’s popularity, severely crippled the organization’s membership and influence.

In 1993, Adams was invited by one of the remaining patrons of the CAC to help revive the organization. Already an accomplished classically trained painter, Adams helped raise the club’s membership from less than 80 to more than 3,000 during his tenure, putting the CAC—and Adams—at the forefront of the traditional art movement.

“A major tenet of the California Art Club is to look to our heritage for inspiration and guidance brought through the knowledge of artistic techniques nearly forgotten,” says Adams in CAC’s mission statement. “Traditional art is now the new avant-garde.”

Adams’ painting, “Two Lohan and Twin Yin,” is part of the juried exhibit, and he will also speak at a reservation-required demonstration Friday morning (alas, the demo’s registration deadline expired before press time).

Jeff Legg
One of grade school art class’s first assignments is to draw a bowl of fruit or a vase with flowers on a patterned tablecloth. This was so exciting, most of us ate glue.

Not Jeff Legg.

Beginning at age 12, the Missouri-born artist was mentored by a local art professor and regional artist who stressed traditional painting techniques. After studying at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, Legg began painting full-time at age 30, developing a reputation for still life paintings with exceptional lighting and unusual subject matter.

“He’s one of the painters who I would say is in demand,” says OPA Executive Director Kathryn Beligratis. “He’s someone we get calls about well before a show.”

Legg’s 24-by-30-inch still life, “Homage To The Soldier,” which features a conquistador helmet and single apple, is on display at this weekend’s national juried exhibit and, at $18,500, is the most expensive piece included in the competition.

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