Written by 3:27 pm Essay, First Person, Visual Art

Stop and Stare

A painting takes a boy beyond his own experience and into his family’s history.

Growing up, I was not interested in art. Although my parents exposed me to it throughout childhood, no piece spoke to my child’s mind. I had seen art since I was a baby, as my mother had hung a copy of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers in my parents’ bedroom, and I would always look at it when I went inside. Though the painting did not appeal to me then, I understood my mother loved it, and when I was a young boy that was enough. As my parents were teachers, they wanted my brother and me to appreciate art as a study of culture, and because of that we often came to Fort Worth to the Kimbell Art Museum. There, my brother and I saw exhibitions by great painters such as Matisse and Picasso. But I would merely pass by the paintings and sculptures, recognizing that they were great because my parents said they were great, without appreciating their beauty. Sometimes I wanted to be as impressed with the artwork as were my mother and father, but nothing caught my fancy. I was just ten, and my understanding of the world was limited by my child’s experience. This did not deter my Mom and Dad, who kept exposing us to artwork as the years passed by, thinking that I would develop an appreciation as I grew older.

But one time after we saw an exhibition of a European master at the Kimbell, my parents took my brother and me across the museum campus to the Amon Carter Museum of American Art. As we walked around the museum, I scanned the paintings as I typically did in other museums, none of them registering, just following along because I had no choice. But as I started looking more closely at the paintings, the Western-influenced pieces by Frederic Remington and Charles Russell began to come into focus. It was as though I hadn’t been able to see through the fog of ignorance veiling my child’s mind, but as I looked at the Russell and Remington pieces, my vision started to narrow and concentrate, my eyes taking in more details with each view. As we walked amongst the works, several themes stood out, of cowboys and rugged landscapes, scenes from my childhood — notably those of watching John Wayne movies — and trips to visit my grandparents in Arizona on summer vacation. Looking at the cowboys and rough, wild terrain, I immediately felt nostalgic. The artwork made me see the beauty of the West, something I had not realized until that moment.

Charles M. Russell (1864-1926); Loops and Swift Horses are Surer than Lead; 1916; Oil on canvas; Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas; 1961.180

The more I looked at the paintings in the Amon Carter Museum, the more I began to see, until I came to a painting that stood out from the rest. It wasn’t that it had a special display, but something in it caught my eye and made me stop in my pre-adolescence and stare, which no other painting had ever made me do. It was Charles Russell’s 1916 Loops and Swift Horses are Surer than Lead, which depicts two cowboys lassoing a grizzly bear in a rough, mountainous terrain. What drew me first was the grizzly bear; I always liked bears, even as a child. I had never seen one painted in such a way, ferocious and unbalanced at the same time. Not only did the figure of the bear mesmerize me, but the narrative that the piece showed made me take it in deeply. I tried to make the story out. The cowboys lassoing the grizzly: how did all this begin? Were they rounding up cattle when they happened on the beast? What made them use their lassos instead of shooting the bear with their guns, which would be the most predictable response on the wild frontier? Looking at the painting, the figures of the grizzly bear and the cowboys, I felt as if I were seeing a story that my great uncles would tell from family lore, since my grandpa had been a real cowboy who had worked on a cattle ranch in Arizona. At that moment, I was able to visualize the stories about him, about his skill with the lasso and riding, how he had gone on cattle drives in a time when the land was still untamed. Seeing the figures of the grizzly and the cowboys in such a dramatic scene was profound because it spoke of a time when the frontier was still wild, a time there would be no going back to. I might visit a place that looked like that, but it would not be the same. I would never be a witness to such an event, but I knew the stories the painting told were the legends our country was built on, the mythology that made America unique. Out all of the museums I had gone to, and all the artwork I had seen, Charles Russell’s painting was the one that finally caught my attention. From then on, whenever I went to a museum I looked at the paintings and saw the images, really saw them for what they were.

Detail from Charles M. Russell; Loops and Swift Horses are Surer than Lead; 1916; oil on canvas; Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas; 1961.180

Living and working in Fort Worth, as I drive past the old stockyards and feel the dryness of the seasons, I know that I am now a part of the West that was alluded to in the art I have seen.  Sometimes as I drive, my mind tries to go back in time and visualize this place when it was still frontier, when there were no skyscrapers, no roads, no cars, just miles and miles of dry plain, scrub brush, and mesquite tree. I try to imagine it the way Charles Russell would have seen the American West when he painted. It is in those moments of reflection, when my mind envisions a place in a time I will never witness, that I begin to notice the remnants of what once was the West and still remains today. The flood plain that my subdivision is built upon. The arid prairie land expanding west to eventual desert. For that reflection I am grateful, both to the painting and the artist. That is how I view artwork now; each piece has the potential to bring me back to a place and time, to observe different time periods and cultures. With that knowledge I continue with life, hoping that I can share this insight with my sons. I know that I will take them to see the painting when they are old enough to share in my memory. And I hope I can share with them my love of art, something I will have for the rest of my life.

With that, I will have hope.

Carl Wade Thompson is a writer and the graduate writing tutor at Texas Wesleyan University. His work has appeared in The Concho River Review, The Mayo Review, The Blue Collar Review, The Sheepshead Review, GFT Press-One in Four, Cenizo, Nebo, Work Literary Magazine, and Labor: Studies in Working-Class History of the Americas.

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