Saturday, December 08, 2007

Art Space Talk: Bo Bartlett

Self Portrait, oil on panel, copyright- Bo Bartlett

Bo Bartlett is an American realist with a modernist vision. His paintings are well within the tradition of American realism as defined by artists such as Thomas Eakins and Andrew Wyeth. Like these artists, Bartlett looks at America’s heart—its land and its people—and describes the beauty he finds in everyday life. His paintings celebrate the underlying epic nature of the commonplace and the personal significance of the extraordinary.

Bartlett was educated at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where realist principles must be grasped before modernist ventures are encouraged. He pushes the boundaries of the realist tradition with his multilayered imagery. Life, death, passage, memory, and confrontation coexist easily in his world. Family and friends are the cast of characters that appear in his dreamlike narrative works. Although the scenes are set around his childhood home in Georgia, his island summer home in Maine, his home in Pennsylvania or the surroundings of his studio and residence in Washington state, they represent a deeper, mythical concept of the archetypal, universal home.

--Tom Butler, excerpt from the book Bo Bartlett, Heartland.

Allegiance, oil on panel, copyright- Bo Bartlett

Brian Sherwin: Bo, your bio states that you look at "America's heart" and the beauty you find in "everyday life" within the context of your work. Can you go into further detail about that statement? Why do you focus on the American experience, so to speak? Do you find it difficult to capture the collective spirit of America?

Bo Bartlett: I don’t think there is a collective spirit of America. America to me seems fractured. Many people seem marginalized. I think the "America’s heart" concept is really just talking about a larger idea; a mythological spirit or soul of America which has to do with the concept of freedom, individual rights, and the adventurousness we associate with the frontier spirit. People are all longing. We’re all looking for something. On some level, my paintings tend to address this sense of desire. I paint people because I am a person. I paint America because I am American. I’d like to think that I’m a citizen of the world, but at the same time, I can’t deny my nationality. I am not necessarily proud of it.
Old Glory, oil on linen, copyright- Bo Bartlett

BS: Bo, as you know, every country has an underbelly in regards to social issues-- social injustice, racism, sexism... how do you deal with these issues in your art?

BB: The problem is that I’m a white male. You can’t cry "Oh, pity party," when you’re a white male. But as a figurative painter, it does raise obvious dilemmas. I’ve been hit pretty hard by Roberta Smith, Peter Schjeldahl and Michael Kimmelman for painting relatively heterosexual white male paintings. One must paint from their own experience, yet at the same time, try to see the big picture. I love the idea of a Norman Rockwell America. I was born in the fifties, and for a middle class white guy in Georgia in the fifties and early sixties, life was pretty idyllic. Do I have a nostalgia for this? One must address their own time. One’s work must, If it has any life at all, address the problems of one’s era. So certainly, having lived through the sixties, the race riots in the south, the Viet Nam war on television, and the cultural wars inherent in growing up in the conservative south, one must process the culture in which one lives. In representational painting, one tries to tap into a larger archetypal drama so that the whole human condition is addressed; all of history, not just the specific conflicts of a given decade.
History Lesson, oil on linen, copyright- Bo Bartlett

BS: Aside from painting, what other forms of expression do you enjoy? When you visit a gallery or museum what kind of art do you observe? How do you take that excitement-- that energy, into your own work?

BB: I love all art. As Robert Henri said, if you look at any piece of art long enough you will find some worth in it. My tastes are very varied and diverse. In museums I tend to gravitate toward Wyeths and Rothkos, Picassos and Cornells; Work that has directness and honesty, true to the artist’s experience, to their temperament. And I am just as likely to enjoy all art forms such as film, video, photography, installation, conceptual, performance pieces, concerts, plays, etc. Doug Aikens, Bill Viola, Robert Wilson, Antonio Lopez Garcia, and Sally Mann all excite me when I discover them in a museum setting.

BS: Let us discuss your educational background. In 1974 you had private studies with Benjamin F. Long IV. Mr. Long is a respected artist and grandson of noted artist McKendree Robbins Long. At the time he was an apprentice of internationally-renowned Maestro Pietro Annigoni. Can you recall your experience studying under the direction of Ben Long? How did he influence you as a painter?

BB: Ben may be the greatest draftsman I have ever encountered. He studied with Madam Simi and Annigoni, whose lineage goes back to Michelangelo. Ben taught me how to draw. He was patient and tough. I was only 18 when I studied with Ben, having come to Florence straight from Georgia. I had thought I would be an abstract painter. I didn’t think that being a representational painter was an option until I met Ben. I assisted Ben on some frescoes, but he wasn’t really my painting teacher.

The Babysitter, oil on linen, copyright- Bo Bartlett

BS: You apprenticed under Nelson Shanks-- another artist of note --can you tell our readers about that experience and the mark that Nelson made on your creative endeavors?

BB: I learned to paint from Nelson. He too had studied with Annigoni. Nelson, who had studied painting with Henry Hensche, painted optically, coloristically, and in the tradition of the Boston painters such as Paxton whose lineage went back to Sargent and the French academy. All of Nelsons private students, after studying with him for two years or so, would leave his studio painting almost exactly like he did. The goal in the words of Leonardo’s teacher Verrocchio was "For a student to be successful he must surpass his master." It was a bit like learning how to drive. Its one thing to know the mechanics of driving. Its another to know where you want to go on your journey. We all came out of there being able to paint exactly as we saw. The question became where we wanted to go with it.

BS: Bo, you also studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Who were your mentors at that time?

BB: I worked with Nelson at the same time I attended the Pennsylvania Academy. My favorite teacher at the academy was Morris Blackburn. He was one of the more modernist teachers. There was a divide in the seventies at the academy between the "realists" and the "abstractionists". Blackburn saw beyond this into the core of one’s endeavors. He used to say, "Art is like taking a journey. Where are you going to go and how are you going to get there?" One must have a map, a plan, which can be deduced from the attempts of every artist who preceded us. All previous art is a foundation on which to build.
The Way, oil on linen, copyright- Bo Bartlett

BS: Bo, when you view the paintings that you create today do you see traces of your former instructors within them? How have you branched away from their teaching?

BB: The other teachers at the academy who influenced me were Ben Kamihira, Arthur DeCosta and Sidney Goodman. I was also influenced by Harvey Dinnerstein from New York. I was searching for a contemporary context for large figurative painting. Some have referred to it as "history painting," but if so, it is a private history that is being portrayed, not a public history. Sidney Goodman’s large painting entitled Crowd Scene which depicts figures standing on cars watching an unseen tractor-pull in the distance opened my imagination to a way of depicting figures in a contemporary context involved in a group discovery which, for me, spoke to the mystery of contemporary man’s existence. Harvey Dinnerstein’s Parade surrealistically portrays a protest march from the sixties. I saw this painting in Harvey’s living room on a visit to Brooklyn and it profoundly affected me. I still think about these paintings and the work of all of my teachers and forbears everyday when I paint.

Every person (i.e. artist) has different experiences. A child growing up riding graffiti scrawled subways in the Bronx is going to have a very different visual history and language than a child growing up in the fields and country side of south Georgia. So, everyone’s experience is unique. Hopefully my art is true to my experience, and my path is my own, as all of our paths are our own.
Habeas Corpus, oil on linen, copyright- Bo Bartlett

BS: Bo, in 1986 you received a Certificate in Filmmaking from New York University. You then embarked on a five year collaborative film with Betsy Wyeth, the wife of Andrew Wyeth. The film, entitled Snow Hill, focused on the life and works of Andrew Wyeth. Can you tell us about those years?

BB: I had wanted to make films. I had several screenplays I was developing. At the same time, I had just begun showing in New York. I received a particularly harsh review for a show at PPOW in1991, and was back in Pennsylvania licking my wounds when Betsy Wyeth called and asked me to come out to Chadds Ford for a visit. She bought paintings and upon discovering that I was interested in film, asked me to assist her in making a biographical documentary about Andrew Wyeth. I spent three years every day with the Wyeths.

BS: Do you have any stories about Andrew that you would like to share with our readers? Can you briefly explain what you gained from his friendship and mentorship?

BB: Andy is the greatest living painter. He’s 90 years old, and he has gone out every day of his life and painted. He doesn’t try to impress anyone or play into what is fashionable. He is completely and totally true to his experience. He literally goes out into his own back yard, paints what is there, and makes it universal. No one else living can capture and encapsulate time or the meaning of the fleeting effects of sunlight as objectively or deeply as Wyeth. He completely and totally gets it. I feel blessed to have had a 15 plus year friendship with him. His encouragement has sustained me through many long afternoons in the studio when I’ve been able to put aside the words of some critic with an ax to grind. The bad reviews that I’ve received pale in comparison to some I’ve read about Wyeth. Andy says, in his high pitch shrill, "People only make you swerve. I won’t show anybody anything I’m working on. If they hate it, it’s a bad thing, and if they like it, it’s a bad thing. An artist has to be ingrown to be any good."
Sleeper Awake, oil on linen, copyright- Bo Bartlett

BS: Bo, have you ever instructed anyone in the art of painting? If not, is that something you plan to do in the future?

BB: I taught one year at the Pennsylvania academy. But for me, teaching works best in the private setting. I usually have had over the years one or two students at a time for a period of two or three years. I am very particular about who I’ll teach. They must already have a handle on their skills and have the potential to develop their very own unique voice. It’s not about just teaching a bunch of tricks, but it is a marriage of teaching the materials and techniques of the craftsmanship of painting and developing a larger more holistic approach to art making and living. I will teach several 2-4 day master classes in the coming year, including one at the New York Academy of Art and one at Columbus State University in Columbus, Georgia.
Car Crash, oil on panel, copyright- Bo Bartlett

BS: Finally, do you have any advice for emerging artists who are exploring realism?

BB: Other than "Breathe," "Be open," and "Look and Paint,"… I had a list of "10 dos" which I suggested that my students at the academy adhere to daily.

1. Hydrate (drink a gallon of pure water a day)
2. Eat Right (eat three well balanced meals)
3. Be Physical (exercise ,walk, or play a sport,regularly)
4. Study (learn all you can about your primary interests)
5. Make some money(work. be responsible,not greedy.
You have to eat and pay the rent)
6. Make Art (believe in it, develop it and enjoy it.)
7. Meditate or Pray.(find and practice a spiritual discipline)
8. Sleep (8 hours a night to recharge and dream)
9. Love (develop a few close honest friendships)
10. Know Thyself (Be clear. write. decide when an issue
is your own or when it is someone else's)
You can learn more about Bo Bartlett by visiting his website-- You can read more of my interviews by visiting the following page-- I'd like to thank Anelecia Hannah from the Bo Bartlett Studio for connecting me with Mr. Bartlett.
Take care, Stay true,
Brian Sherwin


Robin Pedrero said...

These pieces are really cool! I like how the portrait is taken to another level.

Unknown said...

Fantastic interview.. this is the first time I have read about Bo, and he has amazing work! Thanks for the inspiration!

Anonymous said...

Bo's paintings evoke a secret language of private sensual, intimate community at a personal level. His figures stir intuitive emotion that bring out a quiet, yet gigantic response in me. He is a master of sweet tender of the human story. I would love to own one someday.....

Bainbridge Island resident

JaySunStarr said...

Dearest Bo and Betsy:

With sadness to share, regards the death of your Great Mentor....


Let us celibrate his long and rich life of 91 years!

With affection from the midcoast of Maine,

JaySun Starr(your tallest admirer)