Book Reviews | Visual Arts

Final Light: The Life and Art of V. Douglas Snow

When Doug Snow discussed having a book written about his work while sitting around the dinner table with friends one chilly October evening in 2009 – just three days before his death in a one-car collision at the age of 82 — Frank McEntire says all eyes turned to him. Later, when Snow’s wife Susan suggested that McEntire seemed the person to do it, he immediately helped organize two memorial services and raised funds for an art scholarship, exhibition and book. A remarkable two-museum retrospective of the artist’s work was launched. It couldn’t have been handled by a better curator, a better art critic, a better friend. Now, some two years since those dual shows at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts and the then-Salt Lake Art Center (now UMOCA), there is, finally, a singular book, part of the same project, a collection of six essays commissioned and edited by McEntire that were written mainly by Snow’s friends and former students. Centered on a large and satisfying collection of brilliantly colored reproductions of paintings from the 1950s to the mid-2000s, Final Light: The Life and Art of V. Douglas Snow covers his childhood to his time at the University of Utah through his retirement years in his beloved Teasdale. It is arguably the most important and certainly the most anticipated art book to be published in Utah this year.

The most essential pages are, of course, the color images and these are largely excellent. McEntire reports that the well-known artist and University of Utah Professor Emeritus Tony Smith, “who knows Doug’s work better than anyone,” helped him with the color proofs. “We felt images on the final printed pages are as accurate as can be had, given many of the separations were made from slides taken by Doug.” Snow (and McEntire) had a terrific eye; only a very few reproductions seem merely photographic (e.g. Stone Mountain, 1977, Light Walk, 1984); the rest have a marvelous depth and texture that you can actually feel if you run your hand across a page.

It’s the perfect size for an art book, approximately 11″ x 10″, not too large to be unwieldy (it sits nicely on the lap) but large enough for images to reproduce satisfactorily and leave you wanting more than the 87 color photos it presents in its 192 pages.

I get up in the morning primed to do something important, something urgent. 
– V. Douglas Snow

In her brief, intelligent foreword Mary Francey writes that the essays on the man, the art and the land “not only clarify meanings in his work; they also establish a solid foundation for Doug Snow’s legacy, which rests at least partly in his reassurance that landscape is a timeless, enduring presence that effectively keeps pace with contemporary trends.” Perhaps with a nod toward controversy surrounding the piece in the Utah Supreme Court, which the justices insist be covered during sessions, she says:  “The murals, especially, are not benign backdrops but thought-provoking inhabitants of the spaces they occupy.“

In his introduction, McEntire tells us the original title of that mural, now called Capitol Reef, was “appropriately” Conflict and Resolution. “A thunderstorm caught Snow on one of his hikes in Capitol Reef National Park while he was thinking about what to paint for the mural. He saw the storm as ‘conflict.’ Afterward – when the sun came out and the moisture on the hot sandstone vaporized – he saw it as ‘resolution.’”

Most of Snow’s landscapes “draw their power” from the Cockscomb, says McEntire, “a huge, rugged serrated rock formation at the base of Wayne County’s Boulder Mountain. This singular prominent feature in the sage- and juniper-covered terrain is continually shape-shifting, with seasonally endowed shafts of light, shadow, and mystery.” Snow positioned his studio so he could see the formation: “‘I could spend the rest of my life painting the Cockscomb,’ he said. ‘It would be my Mont Sainte Victoire,’ a landmark that French impressionist Paul Cezanne repeatedly painted from his studio at the end of his life. . . .The Cockscomb motif is a key to understanding Snow’s expressionist vision and is reflected in almost everything he painted – a nude, still life, ancient Italian ruins . . .”

We learn much about the artist’s early life from McEntire, a fascinating exposition that tells us his mother was born not far from Capitol Reef but met and married a young soldier at the end of World War I, Vivian Douglas Snow, and moved to Salt Lake City with him. In the 1940s she would introduce her son and two daughters to southern Utah and they, Doug said, “flipped for the place.” Forty years later he built his studio and a home for his own family there.

Snow attended the University of Utah, the American Artists School in New York and Columbia University, receiving his MFA from Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan. He studied in Italy as a Fulbright Scholar and would teach, mostly at the U of U, for nearly 40 years while he continued to paint.

He was one of those rare people who seem to belong wherever they happen to be.  
– Edward Lueders

Author Ed Lueders tells us he first knew Snow in the mid-1960s when he joined the Department of English at the U. As department chairmen, he and Snow negotiated the student and faculty demonstrations of the Vietnam War era, a period the artist found quite wearing. Lueders, too, later built a home in Torrey and shared a number of the artist’s interests there: the Wednesday table-tennis group, the Thursday afternoon Wayne County Chess Club, the Torrey/Teasdale/Grover short-story-reading group on the first and third Tuesday evenings of each month. He says that Snow loved operatic tenors and Gustav Mahler and had been a “boy singer” with local big bands — he still knew all the pop tunes from the 1940s.

In the final analysis, all of us who come into contact with Doug’s art are his students. – Teresa Jordan

In a delightful and telling essay, artist and author Teresa Jordan says: “Almost everyone who talks about Doug describes him as a romantic who loved beauty in all things — art, opera, language, design, and nature . . . He dressed with flair.” She interviews noted artists who were once students of Snow and who recall revelatory things. “I probably wouldn’t be an artist at all if it hadn’t been for Doug,” says Tony Smith, “but I don’t think he ever taught me how to do anything.” Earl Jones adds: “He didn’t teach us to put paint on or how to glaze. He never systematically taught the art of painting. It was purely an emotional thing for him. He provided inspiration.” And Dave Dornan recalls: “He never talked about one of his own paintings as if he really knew what it was about. He wondered about it right along with you.”

That was evident when he was painting the mural in the Salt Lake City Library. Snow told filmmaker Claudia Sisemore for her 1977 documentary that a workman there asked him if he had submitted the low bid to get the job. He replied that he hadn’t. “But they were suspicious until they saw that it was one hell of a lot of work, he said.” Eventually, they began bringing their families in on weekends and explaining the mural to them, assuring them that it was getting better. “Well, it wasn’t really getting better; it was just that they were getting used to it. They were beginning to experience it,” Snow said.

“That’s it . . . that’s the one, Doug . . . that’s . . . the one . . . I want.” –Katie Lee

Environmentalist, folk artist and author Katie Lee offers an evocative essay about, among other things, how she came to possess a Doug Snow painting titled Final Light. (The artist was working on a different Final Light when he died.)  It’s a charming recollection about an honest, enviable decades-long friendship (with some behind-closed-doors insights into the artist) and a treatise on what really should motivate us to acquire a piece of art.

If Snow did not fully understand the implications of abstraction in the 1950s (and who did?) . . . he deduced one important thing: abstraction and realism were not inconsistent. This may seem an ideological commonplace now, but then it was not. – Will South

In “Seeing Snow,” artist and author Will South, chief curator for the Columbia Museum of Art in South Carolina, brings us an invaluable and very readable art historian’s perspective on the painter’s work. He begins with  artists Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran, in whose hands “the American West became like the East, only larger and vastly more dramatic,” then takes us to Utah where “seeing nature as evidence of a perfect but inscrutable divine plan was well established . . . through the capable paintings of H.L.A. Culmer and J.T. Harwood, among others.” The rise of tonalist and impressionist landscape painting gave us “the twentieth-century Utah artist who best represents a blend of romantic realism with a slightly impressionistic bent,” and “who squeezed poetry out of visions of the most modest, poplar-lined Utah town” — LeConte Stewart, who would teach young Doug Snow at the University of Utah. South explains that Snow understood earlier landscape painting well but did not “begin and end a painting with literal transcriptions of what he saw.” Influenced by abstract expressionism from very early in his career, Snow’s work, South says, “is a visual and visceral self-examination as much as a record of geological processes . . . His approach, from the 1950s forward, was not to make pictures of things, but rather to make his art an extension of himself into a world of things.”

Doug Snow’s physical studio . . . to paraphrase Bachelard’s words – sheltered his daydreaming. . . . allowed him to dream in peace. . . . But his sense of place, as potential, as religious, as surprising and mysterious and dangerous and a source of sudden beauty – was much larger.  —
David Kranes

Author and playwright David Kranes addresses the topic of place in the art of Doug Snow in a haunting and lyrical essay. Home, he says “only, finally becomes home if the blank sheet of paper bears words, if the empty stretch of canvas bears color, line, and shape.” He reminds us of the work of Gaston Bachelard, whose The Poetics of Space “stands toe-to-toe with such questions” as “Where is the ‘house’ of our best imaginings, our most possible art?” But for him, Kranes says, “the power and mystery of space have always been true. I feel space on my skin.” He tells us, interestingly, that Snow was both an actor, in his youth, and a playwright in his later years, and describes in detail the artist’s two-act play, Blind Sight, set in New York City, Utah’s Salt Flats and redrock country. And Kranes concludes that Snow, too, carried place on his skin. “You cannot hide; your art will find you. Place is weather and light; it’s the music of time and the voices of ghosts.”

For an artist who lived in and painted a desert landscape, the prevalence of storms in Snow’s work may appear incongruous, but it is precisely the desert dweller who pays the most attention to the weather. –Shawn Rossiter

In his essay, “Drama of the Land,” artist and arts magazine editor Shawn Rossiter writes familiarly and resonantly about “a landscape that must be lived to be believed” and tells us briefly how Snow brought the New York School of painting to Utah. In Snow’s early works, he says, “a band of painterly activity strides across the center of the canvas or comes rising up from the bottom to fill the painting. These spangled passages sit atop or are wedged in by more open bands of color . . . frequently created by masking a heavily worked substrate” (something he suggests Snow may have picked up by looking at Jackson Pollock’s She Wolf at the Museum of Modern Art).

While some bits of information in the essays overlap, it’s a thoughtfully and lovingly edited book, well worth making room for on your lap and on your shelf.

Categories: Book Reviews | Visual Arts

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