James Christensen . . . from page 1
The obvious parallel for James Christensen—a parallel that rewards reflection—is with Norman Rockwell, another standout figurative painter, and one whose success with the public delayed, but could not stop, his recognition by the art establishment. Rockwell painted during the later stages of an unparalleled, popular American literary and artistic renascence, enjoying a near-monopoly on one of the most conspicuous artistic showcases since the official portrait of the Roman emperor. No artist or illustrator in Christensen’s lifetime has enjoyed a pulpit comparable to Rockwell’s decades-long, weekly appearance on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post, and it is that opportunity, not talent, that primarily distinguishes them. Yet they each made choices, and the differences between them illuminate their intentions. Both share a gift for capturing not only emotional expressions and mental states, but a deep feeling for character. While neither demonstrates a strong grasp of tragedy, or concern with evil, that’s probably more a matter of disposition: these two born comedians prefer light-hearted, humorously instructive ways of telling a story.
Since the death of Isaiah Berlin, it’s become popular for critics to divide the world, as he did in writing about Tolstoy, into hedgehogs and foxes. Foxes, according to Berlin, know many things, while the hedgehog knows one big thing. Extending his metaphor, we might say that each Rockwell painting is a hedgehog. Consider how, in each iconic Post cover, an episode or anecdote takes form in a single action that organizes and drives the painting. Boys carrying their clothes, fleeing an unseen but vividly implied pursuer, run past a ‘No Swimming!’ sign. A grade school tomboy waiting in the principal’s office, her disheveled appearance and shiner evidence of her transgression, breaks out in an unrepentant grin of triumph. Each of these keenly observed, atmospherically complete vignettes gives us all we need to know to enjoy a universal human experience.
By comparison, Christensen’s paintings are foxes. "Michael the Archangel Battles the Dragon While Almost Nobody Pays Any Attention," like Brueghel’s well-known "Fall of Icarus," must show us the wide world full of mundane activity, each individual scene as fully meaningful, and as important to its participants, as the overlooked defeat of the dragon is to Michael. In fact, some aspects of Brueghel are useful keys to Christensen, who likewise fills each of these glimpses with indulgent visual commentary on the foibles of human nature. Both painters like to challenge the viewer, presenting crowds and multiple vignettes in a single canvas and inviting us to sort and identify them. Brueghel gave visual form to proverbs; Christensen gives us "Faery Tales" and "Superstitions." His familiar Elizabethan images, "Shakespeare’s Island" and "All the World’s a Stage," each presents not the emblematic moment of a single play, nor the image that distills the playwright’s overall genius, but exemplary moments from as many plays as possible, an unlikely, staged visual puzzle that turns isolated viewers into a community of enthusiasts.
Where Rockwell telegraphed his punchlines, which was probably necessary given his large and diverse audience, Christensen’s point is always more subtle, more like a wink, which makes his scenes feel poised, as if the action might just begin in earnest. Take, for example, "Tales From Timp," perhaps the piece de resistance of Curiouser & Curiouser. Here an entire encyclopedia of imaginary characters, drawn on illustrative sources from Botticelli to Burne-Jones, listen raptly to a story being told in a forest drawn from Shakespeare, each as much posing for our pleasure and identification as they are waiting for the next word from the storyteller. Spread out beneath a glimpse of the title peak, some blend into the foliage so well we can’t be sure how many there are. Only three look distracted. A cat—in context perhaps a Christensen family pet—retains its nature, ignoring everything but some potential prey. A child, perhaps likewise an actual grandchild, looks over a shoulder to see what the storyteller sees. And the central figure pauses, his finger raised to make a point, his distraction revealed by a glance to the edge of the clearing, to us: to those witnesses from another world who have stumbled, uninvited, upon this theatrical event. Suddenly, the reality of ‘audience’ is forced into the open. It is we who are the aliens here, we who must see how far we have removed ourselves from both the natural and narrative worlds.
Art is a place where individual strengths are often the flip side of personal limits. To the extent that he has devoted his considerable gifts to fantasy, to untrammeled imagination, Christensen has won an enthusiastic audience who view art as a vital supplement to reality. What any artist does best is made to look easy. In the seeming effortless way Christensen deploys dozens of figures, each a flawlessly created miniature with a unique face, dress, and manner of acting, he measures himself against one of his major influences: the Northern European masters he acknowledges in works like "Self-Portrait of the Artist Run Aground in a Flemish Landscape," "The Rhinoceros," and "Who T.P.’d the King?"
At this point, though, it might be more useful to compare him not to the Old Masters, but to one of his near-contemporaries, and another popular Utah artist: Brian Kershisnik, whose canvases also possess a dreamlike atmosphere, if not of unreality, at least of removal to a place somehow remote from the one the viewer dwells in. Interestingly, neither dwells in timelessness, nor in the kind of headlong action that illustration often calls for. Instead, both lend their visions the same quality: a feeling of calm before the event: that something significant is about to happen, or that the meaning of what is shown is about to become clear. This feeling of immanent epiphany may be due to their shared faith that revelation is not only possible, but available, in art as in life. Christensen’s method is invention. He displaces the moment from real life, where it feels uncanny, to the realm of fable, where ogres and angels share witness with forest sprites. Kershisnik draws more on his own domestic life. Neither process is absolute: each artist employs imagination, each brings his family and life experience into his work. Nor is it necessary for the viewer to choose between the two approaches, though on some level, virtually everyone does. This will come even more into focus when we turn to Christensen’s daughters, Cassandra Barney and Emily McPhie, and consider how each, as sons and daughters must, has staked a claim on a portion of their father’s legacy.
In Memoriam: Spring City
Osral Allred would make you rethink watercolor. Spend any time with his work and you were quickly convinced that watercolor was not simply the realm of broad washes and cheery, bright colors; nor that it was only for painting pretty flowers. For over forty years his dappled surfaces, and rich, earthy colors reveled in the the complicated planes and gritty textures of tractors and trains, giving the medium a serious dose of testosterone.
Allred passed away quietly in his home on January 21st this year, and the warmth of his personality and strength of his brush will be missed by the community.
Born in 1936 in Spring City, Utah, Allred started small. At 2 pounds 3 ounces, he was known as a ‘miracle baby’ and was kept in a shoe box in a warm oven in his first weeks. Except for a few brief interludes — for his schooling at Utah State University and two LDS missions to Norway — he spent his entire life in Spring City, serving as a talented and congenial bridge between the locals he knew from birth (as an Allred you couldn't be more local, since the family had settled the town in the 1850s) and the urban-bred artists who have been settling there in increasing numbers over the past several decades.
Allred studied with Everett Clark Thorpe and Gaell Lindstrom at Utah State University before returning to Spring City to take up a teaching position at Snow College. Though his preferred medium was watercolor, he also taught drawing, pottery, and jewelry, and he was influential in establishing the art program at the college. Because of his 35 years teaching there, and the numerous workshops he has taught throughout the state over four decades, Allred has influenced generations of artists. Salt Lake artist Sandi Olson calls him her first "art guru." "Even today, I adhere to his basic beliefs of where art comes from — within." Roland Lee in St. George has said, “Os is one of the first watercolorists who influenced me and I still think he is one of the best painters in the medium. His sense of design and use of white space are key elements in his work, which often features old tractors and train cars.”
I was struck by some of the same elements in Allred's work when I wrote about him for 15 Bytes in 2005. Commenting on a watercolor of a speedboat of his that I saw at Patrick Moore Gallery, I wrote: "With washes and dots of color, Allred had created a very still, very dark negative space that wrapped itself around the fairly simple forms of the back end of two motorboats. I like Allred best when he paints old farm machinery or an abandoned locomotive. The textures and colors he achieves makes one think he is painting with rust itself. He seems often to work from the center, detailing the prop on a speedboat or some other feature, and then fading into non-referential washes or negative white spaces towards the edges of his pieces. The effect is compelling and has an oriental feel to it. Allred has no problem letting the color spread out on the paper, filling a space without detail or description. He alternates this method with areas of detail and texture.”
Though he is best known for these dark and rich depictions of machinery, Allred's work over the years has demonstrated a deep quiver of techniques and moods and a firm command of his tools. When Sherry Meidell took a workshop from Allred in 2011, she commented that,
“Part of what I learned from Osral was learned by watching him paint. There is a thought process and then a confident laying down of the color with the brush. It’s a process that can’t be rushed. Even when he wiped out an unwanted area, he did it with confidence.”
Tom Howard, current president of the Utah Watercolor Society, recently wrote on their site, " I remember meeting [Allred] for the first time when I visited his studio in Spring City a few years ago. I had heard of his name, saw some of his impressive work and had a picture in my mind of a larger than life man. I discovered that he was a good genuine individual who loved the place in which he lived, loved his family, and cherished the talent he developed and honed over all the years of his life."
Indeed, with his passing Allred will be remembered as much for being a good neighbor as for being a talented artist. With his wife Linda he raised six children in the town, four of whom remain there (including Paul and Scott Allred, both artists). As Bishop for the LDS Spring City Ward for over seven years, he was instrumental in the renovation and addition to the town's historic wardhouse. He served in two LDS Stake Presidencies; directed local artists in painting backdrops for the Manti pageant; and served at the Manti LDS Temple for 9 years.
To the arts community he will be remembered for his engaging work. Besides numerous one-man shows, he exhibited in the National Academy of Design in New York, Watercolor U.S.A. in Springfield, Missouri, and many colleges and universities, and throughout Utah. Many of his paintings are represented in public and private collections. He was a member of the prestigious Watercolor Honor Society and the National Watercolor Society.
continued painting and teaching late into life, winning prizes and holding workshops as recently as 2013. His final exhibit was held at the Gallery at the Station at Union Station in Ogden this past summer — a fitting locale considering the proximity of the train cars and engines he loved to paint.