by Bob Bahr
The Colorado artist was set up on Wagon Box Ranch, down the hill from the barns, with a twisting view by the curve in Warm Springs Creek, a few miles west of Dubois, Wyoming. He was an accomplished sculptor, house builder, and draftsman, but on that day, he was a bit exasperated with his work. “I don’t know if a year from now, this painting is going to disintegrate,” he said with a slight chuckle. Rudy Rodriguez was mixing watercolor and acrylic in his painting, and he was struggling a bit. “I was able to paint today,” he said. “I got one done in a couple of hours.” He paused. “There was a lot to know and a lot to learn.”
The Susan Kathleen Black Foundation means different things to different people. For some kids in New Mexico, SKB is a generous donor of time and money for arts education. For some of the top museums in the United States, it is a partner that competently curates big exhibitions. For Dubois residents, it’s the organization that fills the town up with artists for a week in September, boosting sales in restaurants, shops, and motels, sprinkling painters with easels along the roads and streams and ranches in the northern reaches of the Wind River Valley. For many participants, it represents a second family—the family that fully understands their artistic brains. For developing artists and scholarship participants, SKB signifies a tremendous learning opportunity, a chance for serious growth.
And the accomplished, veteran artists who return to Dubois year after year, offering free instruction in the field and advice over dinners and lunches? They come for the landscape, the camaraderie of painting with peers…and for the safe environment for stretching, artistically.
John Phelps, an acclaimed national artist known in part for his monumental sculptures, takes the chance while with his SKB family to explore watercolor painting. Tom Lucas, master of many artistic styles and media, sculpted in clay for possibly the first time in his 70+ years during last Fall’s workshop. Even featured instructors who are new to SKB pick up on the accepting vibe and branch out—when Soon Y. Warren was a featured instructor in 2010, she gamely went into the field to try plein air painting toward the end of the workshop.
“This is the primary place where people will take the leap and try a new medium,” states Sally Maxwell. Maxwell is known for her work with scratchboard, but a couple of years ago in Dubois, she spent a decent chunk of her days in the sculpture room with Christine Knapp. “It’s possible because we are in our comfort zone with other artists who understand the value of experimentation.” Maxwell goes further to say that the workshop format and the relative isolation of Dubois allows something of a closed environment that fosters risk-taking. “If there were people who were not artists here, it would stifle the artists’ willingness to experiment,” she asserts. In other words, even the veteran artists feel free to venture out of their comfort zone in terms of style or media because they are, for one week at least, IN their comfort zone due to the atmosphere at SKB workshops. How’s that for a riddle?
Phelps echoes the importance of colleagues in fostering artistic experimentation at SKB. “There is a such a variety of artists at the SKB workshop, so you see what they are doing, and you want to try everything,” he says. “When you see someone like James Gurney working in a different medium such as gouache, you say, ‘Wow! I want to do that.” We’re all in the same boat. You can fail or not fail, but it’s all just sharing among peers.”
Knapp, who is often the instructor who gets the experimenters in her sculpture class, says some of the credit needs to go to the workshop organizers. “It’s due to Pam and Lee [Cable, the executive director of SKB and her husband, a co-founder of the organization],” says Knapp. “They set the tone for a lot of things around here. Then you see the camaraderie that the Rose Award winners have. There’s a familiar, joking around, family feel that has developed at SKB. In the beginning we had crits, and some didn’t understand how that works and felt threatened. The crits were dropped, but the idea that we learn from each other continues. Then you have people coming around like Heiner [Hertling], and Chris Rowlands—a new addition who fits into that tradition of making it fun and non-threatening and supportive. Something happens when you become part of this artist family.”
The Susan Kathleen Black Foundation Artist Rendezvous & Workshop in Dubois has a number of things going for it. It’s affordable. It’s held in a gorgeous location with unforgettably rugged beauty. It’s popular through word of mouth, so the participants come from various places and work in different styles yet share a common vibe or set of values. Among those values are an allergy to drama, a generosity of spirit, a strong interest in improving skills, and a deep love for art. There is the X factor that the original and continuing leaders of SKB bring to the mission of the foundation. And there is the feeling of safety that allows artists to grow in the hothouse environment of a workshop.
“It is a safe environment at SKB; everyone is very giving,” says Knapp. “The artists at other workshops and events, such as Pixar and ComicCon, are willing to share, but not like it is here. The artists at those events were in their comfort zone, but they were only willing to share so much. Here everyone is wide open. I have three students who won awards in 2D media last night during the awards ceremony, and I’m very proud to be in their company.”
Maxwell, who beautifully refers to the SKB workshop as “free-range learning,” throws some of the credit back at Knapp, along with the reminder that these experiments don’t always lead to ongoing involvement in a new medium. These ventures are just … an experiment.
“Christine understands what I do, and as an instructor, she is able to adapt what she does to what I am used to doing,” says Maxwell. “She can make analogies that make sense to me. But this is totally hands-on. Artists are visual, but you can’t watch it and pick it up. You have to do it, you have to try it and see if you like it or not. This is the primary place where people will take the leap and try a new medium. That is because we are in our comfort zone with other artists who understand the value of experimentation, so we can go out of our comfort zone in terms of media. The artists experimenting might love it but would not pursue it later. The experiment settled their curiosity. I think most places are structured classes with instructors. But here, you can step out of one class and go to another if you want. It’s not like high school. That, too, allows for more experimentation.”
It’s hard to imagine an SKB artist both more likely to try a new medium and less likely to have never tried any of the media presented at the SKB workshops, than Tom Lucas. He paints on old saddle stirrups, does beadwork so accomplished that local tribes commission him for sacred objects, builds drums out of giant tree trunks, makes bows from the sinew and horns of bighorn sheep, paints Western still lifes that sell like hotcakes, builds houses, makes headdresses, and crafts knives and tomahawks out of steel, horn and antler. He says he’s carved wood, but working in clay was new for him. Lucas was a regular in Knapp’s class last Fall.
“My wife has been on my case for years saying I needed to get into this medium,” says Lucas. “I didn’t think I had anything to say in sculpture. But then Christine informed me—and she’s absolutely right—I paint in 360 degrees. She said, ‘You won’t have any difficulty sculpting because you are already in that mode. When you are painting you are taking a flat surface and creating the illusion of 360 degrees.'”
Lucas adds that it’s not terribly hard to transfer some art skills across media. “When you get accomplished in one, I’m finding out that it carries over to the other,” says the Dubois artist. “You just have to get comfortable with another medium. It’s a pretty easy fit. If you do it as long as I have, creating a 360-degree sculpture just kind of goes with the program.”
Are the experiments any good?
“Surprisingly, it turned out way better than I expected,” Lucas said of his clay sculpture of an eagle head done in Knapp’s class. “I never thought I would really enjoy sculpting. I do like to carve when I’m in the mood. But this is much more forgiving than carving. If you make a mistake in carving you pretty well ruin a piece of horn or stone that you are working on. If you make a mistake in clay you can put it back on or take it off. It’s challenging—any time you are trying to create something it’s a challenge, but I don’t have to be concerned about making a mistake. Who knows? It might turn out to be something that I continue to do. I’m finding it rewarding. I’ve been wanting to carve a bear head in a horn so I might have to give myself a little more familiarity of what a bear’s head looks like. Maybe work it out in clay before I tackle the horn so I have less of a chance of screwing up the horn. This might be another avenue for revenue for me.”
Lucas sees opportunities. He also values learning. This isn’t a new thing for him—he often recounts the workshop he took from Sherrie McGraw and David Leffel in Arizona that gave him the instruction and confidence to make a living as an artist in the first place. “I was like a little dry sponge sitting on a puddle of water,” he says about that experience.
Maxwell sees the possibility of some mixed-media pieces in her future. “I will be very anxious to see how it will affect my scratchboard work,” she says. “I came in here just wanting to do one piece, and I’m already planning my second sculpture. I plan on doing them as a pair, with a scratchboard piece to accompany the sculpture. I am finding that a lot of what you know in 2D transfers to sculpting.
“We all have to grow if we are going to stay a live person and not a zombie,” says Maxwell. Ω