Garth

About Garth

Cartoonist and rock musician. Passionate about wildlife and representations of it. Lives Down Under!

What is “Western Art”?

When I set off on a nine week, ten and a half thousand mile road trip across the American West in March this year I knew of the works of Frederic RemingtonCharles Marion Russell and NC Wyeth. They painted and sculpted in bronze the exciting people and times of the American frontier around the end of the 19th century. Also, I thought that ‘Western Art’ only referred to the art of western Europe. In conversations with other Europeans it seems that ‘Western Art’, of which Remington and Russell were the progenitors, is barely appreciated if even recognised in Europe. If you are not familiar with it then may I present it to you?

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NC Wyeth – one of the biggest names associated with “Western Art.”

Whilst in Santa Fe, New Mexico I recognised that North American ‘Western Art’ is a distinct art genre. Over the rest of my trip I sought out and found a huge amount of it. It astounded me with the technical skills exhibited by its practitioners; skills that, for me, border on the superhuman. It has other qualities too: its sheer beauty, its link to and perpetuation of the culture of The West and the staggering amount of creative people involved. Magazines, galleries and museums are dedicated to it. It is now my favourite art genre; particularly as I have a deep interest in its subject matter and admire realistic paintings of animals.

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Robert Bateman – High realism, light, mist and dust adds extra dimensions to Bateman’s paintings.

As I became more familiar with ‘Western Art’ I attempted to define the genre. I discussed my definition with museum staff and gallery directors whom I met. Maybe this one sentence  is satisfactory? ‘Western Art’ is the portrayal, in two or three dimensions, of the history, people, landscape and wildlife of the area confined to the western regions of North America, in a highly realistic or realistic impressionist style and is inextricably linked to the culture of the American West.

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Carl Rungius – Specialising in portraying the big game mammals of North America, Rungius is one of the greatest names in Western Art.

In terms of that culture I particularly liked the way that ‘Western Art’ bronzes were displayed in public places. There was no obvious concern that they might be stolen and were remarkably undamaged. Best of all, they informed the viewer exactly where he or she was both in place and culture – the Great American West!

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Georgia Bunn – This guy was leaning there, across the street from my motel. Just wonderful!

One gallery director I spoke with said that he first found the genre ‘corny’ until he understood the skill and research put into the works. I felt the same about Country & Western music until I saw and heard it played on its own territory and realised how important it is to the westerner’s sense of identity. ‘Western Art’ proclaims to the world a pride in the American pioneer spirit, an understanding of and sorrow for the wrongs committed against the Native Americans, a deep respect for the wildlife of the region and a confident expression of the fact that there are no landscapes on Earth to surpass that of The West. It is also one of the few serious art genres that entertains an almost comic book style of action with dynamic perspectives as men fight, hooves kick up dust and wild animals butt, gouge, bite and kill.

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Roadside Bronze, Santa Fe – I did not discover the artist for this portrait of Native Americans.

I am sure that one can find this wonderful art all across America but my own limited experience of venues allows me only to recommend the galleries of Santa Fe, New Mexico and Jackson, Wyoming. In addition, for allowing me to take photographs shown here, I am indebted to the superb Buffalo Bill Center of The West in Cody and The National Museum of Wildlife Art of The United States in Jackson.

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Buffalo Bill Center of The West – 5 museums in one. For me, possibly the best museum I’ve ever visited.

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National Museum of Wildlife Art – Based on a Scottish castle it is built into the mountainside.

I can but mention a few others whose works left me breathless and added a superb and unexpected dimension to my road trip. Thank you Charles Schreyvogel, Al Agnew, Daniel Smith, Mian Situ, James Bama, Ken Carlson, John Fawcett, Chris Owen, Z S Liang, Martin Grelle and Bonnie Marris.

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Richard Loffler – This lifesize herd of bronze Bison roams wild outside the National Museum of Wildlife Art.

One of the greatest characteristics of ‘Western Art’ is that it polices its own quality. In other words, it has managed to create and maintain the highest, most exacting standards, equal to any found anywhere or at any time in history. It also speaks of the best in the spirit of the American people and is a wonderful and truly American phenomenon.

Discovering Phillip Payne of Santa Fe, New Mexico

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Phillip Payne: Visions of an Iron Horse

For a man in love with the Old West I astound myself sometimes with what I don’t know about it! I was completely unaware of ‘Western Art’ until, by happy accident, I was funnelled off Interstate 25 into the heart of New Mexico’s capital, Santa Fe, during a nine week, solo road trip across The West earlier this year. But for this, I would have driven past the World’s second largest art market after NYC and missed discovering this genre. As I intend to write more about it in Talking Beautiful Stuff, I will concentrate here on the man who introduced me to it.

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Phillip Payne at work on: Quanah Parker, the Battle of Blanco Canyon.

For two days I explored the downtown streets of this small, attractive, unusual and classy city lying in the heart of one of America’s most remote, arid and empty regions. Native American pottery and turquoise jewellery of the highest quality filled exquisite emporiums. Galleries by the hundred purveyed every kind of art imaginable and with this sophistication and wealth came comparable coffee houses, restaurants and gift shops. However, having this lifelong fascination for The Old West, I was drawn to the galleries that displayed bronzes and paintings of cowboys, Indians, buffalo and horses and awe-inspiring western landscapes. In one of these I met the gallery director Phillip Payne. His welcome to a road-weary scruff, who clearly couldn’t afford any of the wonders offered in his extremely classy gallery, was a delight that many gallery directors could take a lesson from. We fell into good conversation. At this point I had no idea who I was talking to. I soon discovered that Phillip is also a sculptor, creating powerful bronzes of many subjects including those with a ‘western’ theme. As an extra attraction to the gallery for browsing visitors, he works on an on-going piece using an oily clay.

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Phillip Payne: Beethoven: Feeling the Music

He showed me his bronze: “Beethoven: Feeling the Music.” He read out the words of Beethoven engraved into the piano lid: “Had I not read somewhere that a man should not quit this life so long as he can still perform a good deed, I would have left this Earth long ago and by my own hand at that. I can’t imagine leaving this World without taking the art God has placed in my soul and putting it to pen for others to hear.” This clearly echoed his own feelings as I saw him gulp with emotion. Here was a man who appeared profoundly involved with his creations and it was at this point that I decided that the readers of Talking Beautiful Stuff should know of him. I was privileged to be allowed an interview. In the half hour or so that we talked we both found ourselves close to tears as we discussed the influence of our deceased fathers upon us. It was a moving experience for me. I found Phillip to be completely without pretension and very sincere about the reason for and the philosophy surrounding his creative talent.

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Phillip Payne: Breaking Camp

If you visit Phillip’s website you are greeted with his words: ‘To create art is to bare your soul in the hopes that you will find a kindred spirit in the hearts of others’. This declaration is close to his answer to my question, “Why do you create?” He told me something along the lines of his desire to share with others the things that move him and better his life but unfortunately, over my travels, I lost my notes of our interview where I recorded his words verbatim. However, I well remember how unusually selfless his personal philosophy was and also my scepticism about this as it doesn’t fit with my ideas about creative people! By the end of the interview though, I was convinced that here was an extremely rare being – a truly altruistic artist.

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Phillip Payne: Canyon Sanctuary

I was now aware that Phillip’s father was Ken Payne, sadly deceased, but not yet aware of Ken’s stature in America as a sculptor. Phillip spoke fondly, with some emotion, of his tutelage under the kind and patient eye of his father and showed me his influence upon him as a sculptor. Phillip likes to create moments from western history that have importance to him and to bring awareness to others of the greatness of some of the leaders in the Native American struggle against white Manifest Destiny such as Quanah Parker of the Comanche Nation.

Having said farewell to Phillip I visited other galleries and discovered that I had fallen upon the mother lode of creators in bronze, a veritable ‘ant nest’ of brilliance. Ken Payne, his sons Vic and Phillip Payne and Vic’s son Dustin are all celebrated and tremendous sculptors within the genre of what I now recognised as ‘Western Art’. Vic’s daughter Jordyn is a painter of the most vibrant and gorgeous, western  landscapes. What a family! The artistic gene proves its existence!

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Phillip Payne: If it ain’t got that swing

As I journeyed on I saw many ‘Paynes’ creating wonderful moments as they graced the streets, parks, museums and galleries of The West’s towns and cities. I confess to relishing the change in attitude displayed by ‘Western Art’ gallery directors when I mentioned that I had interviewed Phillip Payne! The Payne family commands enormous respect in America.

Phillip Payne is a very young man and is already an accomplished and acclaimed sculptor. I believe that he has a glittering career ahead of him that can only blossom when fuelled by such a kind and unselfish philosophy towards his creative nature.

Discovering David Stacey’s natural world

I spent Christmas with my daughter who lives in Kuranda, a tourist destination in Tropical North Queensland, Australia. This small, unique village sits atop a mountain range cloaked with ancient rainforest and is accessed from the coastal plain below by a colonial style railway, a winding, mountain road and a cable car. In the 1960s its famous Hippie Market established it for tourism; hence its art galleries, souvenir shops, small zoos and various eateries.

In his small, walkthrough gallery in Kuranda’s centre, David Stacey sat working on a pencil drawing in the corner as I walked through to get coffee in the square beyond. I never got beyond. I was stopped in my tracks by the unusual and amazingly colourful, original paintings and reproductions by Mr Stacey.

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David Stacey 2

David Stacey 3

My first impression was that his work lay somewhere between graphic design and picture painting and that the colourful renditions of his rainforest subject matter would appeal to the tourist market and that he would do good business selling his professionally presented greetings cards, prints etc. But there was an element about every work that appealed to something deep within me that kept me looking and kept me very interested. Mr Stacey was botanical artist, landscape painter, scientific illustrator and graphic designer all rolled into one.

Some of his paintings were conglomerations of maps, landscapes and the creatures and features contained within. I felt that each painting was conveying ideas, feelings, incidents and stories. I was convinced that he was telling of and expressing, in an holistic way, his affinity with, his understanding and appreciation of and respect and love for the surrounding country; particularly the rainforest. I was not therefore surprised that when I eventually spoke to him and asked him what his favourite work was he told me it was the Flaggy Creek Triptych above.

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David Stacey 8

I realised why Mr Stacey’s work was reaching me. Although he does not paint in a strictly realistic style I noted the accuracy of his drawing in his portrayals of different species of flora and fauna; from forest fruits to birds and frogs. I applaud accuracy and this level of it only comes from an intimate familiarity, born of respect and love, for these denizens of the forest. As a student and illustrator of Natural History and familiar with many of his subjects, including some of the landscapes, I believed myself qualified to make such judgements but nonetheless was eager to test my ideas by asking the artist himself.

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David, from Sydney, came to Kuranda already a lover of Nature in the 1980s. He confirmed to me that he spends much time in the bush and rainforest walking the tracks and studying the species. He uses a headtorch, like me, to find and encounter the nocturnal species such as the wonderful Waterfall Frog – Litoria nannotis in this painting which coincidentally I went on to photograph at Davies Creek that night after speaking with him! It is no wonder he loves this landscape. Davies Creek is the most gorgeous of places and the habitat of this endangered and beautiful Frog is so well portrayed in his painting.

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David agreed that his style was not unlike Aboriginal art in the way that it expresses his world in an holistic way rather than concentrating on a single subject. However he stated that his style had evolved from his personality rather than having been influenced by Aboriginal art. I thought convergent evolution manifests itself in more ways than we think! The Aboriginal and David Stacey both expressing their world by painting it in their own individual way but in a way that displays much similarity.

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David Stacey 13

When I asked David “why do you paint?” he thought for a while then said “what else can you do?” We discussed what he meant by this and agreed that, like me again, he is driven to recreate that which he finds aesthetic; only in his case it is a whole ecology that he has to recreate and thus his conglomerate paintings reflect this. He says that in this modern world he believes that “people are losing their sense of aesthetic and beauty.”

He is a thoughtful man; never answering a question without pause for consideration and whilst reflecting on our interview I later wondered if David Stacey was in his gallery in body but his mind was wandering the rainforest where he was most happy?

David is creating a book with a publisher already very interested. It is an illustrative narrative about the journey of water in a certain creek from source to sea. I was very privileged to be shown some of the plates for the book. It will be unique and quite stunning. It will be for young and old and filled with all the plants, animals, geology, stories and ideas provoked by a long love affair with the natural history of the rainforests of Tropical North Queensland. I shall certainly buy a copy.

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David Stacey sells well to the tourists. His limited prints are extremely well produced. This does not devalue his work but I believe that it was not created for this reason. His are works of passion; expressing his world of the rainforest. I think it sells well because it is simply very beautiful stuff about very beautiful stuff.

“Evicted” by Blandford Fletcher

"Evicted" by Blandford Fletcher, Oil on canvas. Photo taken thanks to Brisbane Art Gallery, South Bank, Brisbane, Queensland.

“Evicted” by Blandford Fletcher, 1887 Oil on canvas. Photo taken thanks to Queensland Art Gallery, South Bank, Brisbane, Queensland.

Each visit to the Queensland Art Gallery sees me inexorably drawn to “Evicted” by Blandford Fletcher (1858 -1936). I question why this should be. Is it that this painting from 1887 reminds me of my past life living in English villages, thus stirring emotive memories? Is it that it brings me closer to my ancestors who lived in Britain and would have dressed like this and known the world that it portrays?

Detail of "Evicted"

Detail of “Evicted”

What I have no need to question is that it attracts me because it is Beautiful Stuff, masterfully executed by a man who could draw, who understood composition, use of colour and whose immense skill with his chosen medium is undeniable. The subject matter does not attract me as it shows a sad widow and her daughter being evicted from their home in Steventon in Berkshire by the Bailiff with villagers looking on. I wondered why I should like the painting so much when the subject was so tragic. I also wondered why every face had such blandness of expression under the circumstances but concluded that this must be a reflection of the times when to portray high emotion may have appeared almost “cartoony”. Perhaps the artist wished to give the victims dignity and also to not point the finger of blame at the others. In a cruel system all are ultimately victims I suppose. But that is conjecture. On my last visit to the painting I was unconvinced by the above conclusions as I felt that the full reason for its fascination  still eluded me. I read the information plaque again and I then understood. ‘….Fletcher’s interests lay less in landscapes than in the human stories associated with English village life. His paintings typified late Victorian works that appealed to the social conscience in an age of rapid industrialisation, reform and economic hardship.’

Detail of "Evicted"

Detail of “Evicted”

The words ‘appealed to the social conscience’ were the key. This was the missing layer, the hidden extra, the further dimension that this painting offered. It was painted for a reason above and beyond the artist’s need to recreate that which appealed to his aesthetic senses. It was a statement designed to initiate change and I saw parallels with the songs of John Lennon, the writings of Harriet Beecher Stowe and all the works of ‘artists’ throughout the ages who have highlighted the suffering and injustices in society and on occasions offered solutions. This made me further think about the ‘artist’s’ role in initiating social change. I feel that simply because of what artists do their views in this arena are seen and heard most readily, stridently and often in extraordinarily attractive and powerful ways. This, I think, has resulted in society giving an unjustified importance to artists’ opinions and therefore granting them a licence, bordering on a monopoly, over the regulation of the social conscience. If this is true then it is a complete fallacy. We all must be and can be guardians of the social conscience and initiate social change by using whatever medium we are skilled at using.

Talking “Really Ugly” Stuff!

Anything – an object, a melody, an odour, taste or texture has the ability to create within us an emotional response. This is particularly true of “stuff” created to do just that, such as the works we talk about here on Talking Beautiful Stuff. I think what happens is that somewhere, between our minds and the “stuff”, we meet with and acknowledge the story that it tells us. Often the intensity of our emotional response is greatly increased if we have some invested knowledge or particular interest in its story. For me, this is why some of us are driven to Talking Beautiful Stuff. We share the stories and our reactions because I believe it is important to do so.  But what if “stuff” has been deliberately created to be ugly? What if its story were uglier still? I think that in these cases all that remains and will always be “beautiful” is the acknowledgement and subsequent understanding of the story. It was thinking about these issues that brought back a most peculiar and powerful memory of a visit to the Museum of Ethnography in Geneva during May 2008.

I was with Jenny as I entered a small, darkened gallery in the Museum. We were alone. Dim spotlights shone down vertically from the low ceiling illuminating what I can say with utter certainty were the most extraordinary objects that I have ever seen – and possibly the “ugliest.” My immediate reaction was revulsion, leaving me feeling strangely unclean by being near these objects. I would not dream to speak of another’s emotional reaction but I can say that Jenny, unsurprisingly, did not care to join me for a second look at this gallery! I, however, was being powerfully drawn back.

Bizango 1

Copyright: Johnathan Watts / Musee d’ethnographie de Geneve

Bizango 2

Copyright: Johnathan Watts / Musee d’ethnographie de Geneve

This time I stood alone amongst the objects – ranks of life-sized figures like an army of corpses staring blankly from mirror eyes. I felt almost claustrophobic and close to panic which surprised me as in my former occupation I’ve policed, alone at night, mean city streets, but this was beyond my experience. I needed to understand what these awful things were and their story. I saw clever artistry at work creating what I felt were deliberately ugly and horror-invoking faces with pure malice sneering from their mouths. Each face was built around a human skull but it seemed that the medium used to create these creatures was dictated by other forces rather than the creators’ choice. My invested knowledge told me that this force was devastating poverty. The bodies of the figures were made of old clothes, stuffed like a child’s Guy Fawkes with stuffed gloves for hands. They were crudely painted in red and black and were dirty, old, malevolent, horribly creepy and profoundly mysterious.

Bizango 3

Copyright: Johnathan Watts / Musee d’ethnographie de Geneve

Bizango 4

Copyright: Johnathan Watts / Musee d’ethnographie de Geneve

This was a small army of “Bizango” from Haiti and were part of the first ever exhibition of Haitian artifacts associated with the Voodoo religion. The exhibition was titled – Le Vodou, un art de vivre. Truly, it remains the most extraordinary exhibition I have ever had the privilege to witness, particularly as all the exhibits were of a deeply religious, ritualistic, superstitious and personal significance to their creators. Invested knowledge, from years of reading about Voodoo, made me feel uncomfortably like a peeping Tom. In fact, I learned from an Haitian guide at the museum that objects were only given up because of poverty and the fact that collectors would pay for them.

The true and full meaning of the “Bizango” figures may never be known except to those who created them in secret places in the Haitian countryside, after dark. Serious researchers meet with real fear, secrecy, misinformation and even threats of violence when trying to probe this subject. What I tell you now is what my researches have revealed but it could be off the mark. Bizango are secret organisations who operate an unofficial justice system working on secret, social levels in this most enigmatic and unusual society. Voodoo, as a religion, has little to do with Bizango except that the two are part of and mingle within the one social structure. The figures represent the dead fighters of the Haitian revolution of 1791 – 1804.  This amazing revolution in the richest slave economy on Earth, strengthened by the cohesive power of Voodoo, beat Napoleon’s powerful French Empire and created the first Black Democracy in the New World. I think that the figures represent the idea of a spiritual judge with ancient credibilty and act as the physical focus of that idea at trials. Wrongdoers are tried by the Bizango court and if found guilty, sentenced. Zombification is the worst sentence. This is a fate worse than the death penalty as it involves being killed by poisoning, being buried then dug up and resurrected to a mindless half-life of slavery to another. Please suspend forever your disbelief on this – we are talking about Haiti. I admit that I have never been there but the more I learn about Haiti the more questions I need to ask and the answers are rarely easy on the mind or the heart.

Bizango 5

Copyright: Johnathan Watts / Musee d’ethnographie de Geneve

Here I am talking undeniably and deliberately ugly stuff. Its story too is ugly, being born from the ugliness of slavery, the ugliness of a war of revolution, the ugliness of corrupt government and crippling poverty. From my research I cannot be sure that even the idea of justice meted out by the Bizango secret societies is altogether positive. So how do I justify posting this on Talking Beautiful Stuff

I looked at and considered the string holding these figures together, the old, stuffed clothes, the childish poses which the medium dictated, the skulls of forgotten Haitians but above all the need that drove the making of such hideous creations. I added what I saw to my invested knowledge and this led me to meet with and acknowledge their story. My understanding of that story, I feel, is the “beautiful” thing. I believe this because I wept with pity and I still weep when I think about it.


  • Exhibition: Le Vodou un art de vivre – 5 December 2007 – 31 August 2008 – Musee d’ethnographie de Geneve, 65 Bd Carl Vogt, CH – 1205 Geneve
  • Book/Catalogue: Le Vodou un art de vivre – Under the direction of Jacques Hainard and Philippe Mathez. Photographs by Johnathan Watts. ISBN 978-2-88474-074-6 Published by: Musee d’ethnographie de Geneve 2007
  • All photographs in the post are from this book.
  • Recommended further reading: The Serpent and The Rainbow by Wade Davis – William Collins Sons Co Ltd 1986