Alum Creek--A Clearing by Glenn Whitehead

While driving around the Alum Creek area of Bastrop County I saw a clearing and lone chimney. I parked my van and stared at it for a while, then walked to it as though it were a magnet and I were a sliver of iron.

When you stand in the clearing, you're standing in someone's private space, I feel it. The kids slept right about here. Take a few steps; this is where the family sat down to dinner. And the chimney, solitary as a totem pole, slightly tilted, useless, a monument to --what?

Another failed farm? An Indian raid? (Although it's not that old, I know.) The Great Depression? Or nothing more than boredom. People do move on.

Truth is, the clearing interests me more than the old chimney, but the chimney is a useful focal point. Whether deep in the woods or out on the open prairie, clearings, you see, are so very, very human. Humans need their clearings.

And here, just outside the cabin's perimeter, right where I'm setting up my easel, a man stood breathing in the night air, trying to get over another disappointing day or thanking God for a good one.

 

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Pondering Glenn by Glenn Whitehead

I met Glenn at night. We rode in the back seat of John Fincher’s car from the airport to a hotel. Glenn had come from Stanford to interview for a position teaching painting and drawing at Wichita State University, and I was surprised to learn that he had an exceptionally strong letter of recommendation from an art historian, Albert Elsen, who had been my professor at Indiana. Most studio artists steered clear of art historians. But Glenn was unusual in that way. He was unusual in many ways.

He and I were in the same generation of students, so we sometimes shared stories about our education. In the 1960s, studio training in all universities was rigidly cast in the modernist mode and directed narrowly by the serious art criticism of the time. If one intended to create “important” art, it had to be, by definition, non-objective and reductive. Glenn arrived in Wichita with a portfolio of large hard-edge abstract paintings, bold diagonal stripes curved at one end…what he referred to as his “peeler” motif. In those days, everyone had to have a “motif” to be distinguishable from everyone else. The struggle (and art was thought at that time to require great mental discipline and difficulty) was to be solely between oneself and the medium. The visual world out there did not intervene. But by the mid-1970s, we all had our tongues in cheek, and I detected a certain gleefulness in Glenn’s description of the “peelers.” He presented his “union card” for admission to our ranks, and we gladly accepted it.

Glenn reveled in mentoring his students. He was a fine teacher and a wonderful colleague. But like many artists who worked in universities, he longed for time for himself and his own art so, before long, he headed back south to Texas, to his homeland. Fully aware of the art-world scene of heavyweights on the Right and Left Coasts (weighted heavily to the Right), he nevertheless preferred the land of the free, where he could realize himself without the pressure of rigid schedules and equally-rigid critical structures. Like Paul Cézanne, who also went home to the south, he found his motifs in front of his eyes. 

While paintings in urban centers tried to shout each other down Babel-like, in ever-shifting, abstract languages, Glenn’s paintings became modest, quiet, contemplative…and realist. While learning to be a “real” non-objective artist, he had quietly absorbed the visual languages of art history, the techniques of the Old Masters, the sure drawing of Degas, the eye of Monet, the inner soul of van Gogh.

But we hardly ever talked about those art “heroes.” He studied and admired artists positioned on the side roads and up the backwaters of art history: Pierre Bonnard, John Singer Sargent, Albert Marquet, painters often relegated to footnotes in academic lectures.  These odd-man-out painters were the subjects of our conversations. And the world. Paint and the world. It was all visual luxury.

“See the light on Peggy’s hand? Sargent could paint that.”

“Marquet? He didn't work too hard (I mean that as a compliment), I mean he did not worry his paintings; there are no signs of a struggle.”

Joyfully eclectic in the land of art history, Glenn loved painters like Henri Fantin-Latour and Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, reveling in their “masterful ability to find equivalents between paint and things.”

It’s not that he forgot, or ignored, painting in New York, where he had once lived. In our sporadic correspondence he wrote to me, after a trip east:  “In recent years, and during visits to Big City museums, I was surprised how much I liked the Rothkos, they had held up, they were beautiful and poetic, and they interested me much more than the Pollocks and de Koonings and Barnett Newmans. They’re really very organic, and I noticed the Diebenkorn connection: beautiful surface without thick paint.” He saw those distinctions keenly, but it’s not what he painted.

    When Glenn moved to Texas he gravitated back to the Austin of his college days to see if one could really go home again, but even that was too much of a fast lane for undisturbed thought and close contemplation, so he sought out the slower streets and alleys of Smithville and the byways that wound through the landscapes of Bastrop, Fayette, Mason, and Lampasas counties. Hills, skies, creeks, roads, and trees became companions and models, lovingly rendered, always willing agents in seeking the equivalent between paint and things. In the larger scheme of frantic activity he left behind, this search was not even seen as an option. That kind of painting was “old stuff,” from the ‘30s and beyond. Perhaps even subversive.

Art dealers would probably classify Glenn as a landscape painter, for   people are made comfortable with classifications. But there are always exceptions that don’t easily fit into the pigeon hole: still life, figures, even fireworks. A night scene of people, a river, and pyrotechnic display in the sky…one might get a glimmer of an older art in this artificial and fleeting starry night, a reprise of van Gogh along the Rhone. Glenn might be amused by the irony of a comparison that linked France and Texas, but he would never hint at it in conversation. The beauty of the moment was enough. 

    Glenn would have bristled at the late nineteenth century French taunt “dumb as a painter,” which was launched at the Impressionists. But unlike Marcel Duchamp, his response wasn’t conceptual. He stubbornly painted his humble but beautiful surroundings and he filled them with compassion, imagination, and wit. We find this in his writings, which are sometimes notes, and sometimes one-paragraph essays. When he paints an old barn, he imagines the people who owned it, what they did with their lives, whether they were happy, and where they went…while wondering if he will have time at the easel to finish the painting before the fire ants find him.

    He found in nature something he sought in painting, and often in odd places.  Once he sent me a dried, mummified Texas blind snake, an underground creature rarely ever seen, embellished by his keen imagination and gracefully shaped, like the cursive dashes of his writing. 

“Look how elegantly the Texas blind snake shapes itself in death. a Celtic pin or, had there been two, pre-dynastic Egyptian earrings but it also reminds me of a bow Abyssinia? Crete? Well, anyway, this snake generously left itself on the planet in such a way that we may think of more than the snake itself. Why, in death, arrange oneself in artful symmetry!  I know, I know, the snake doesn’t really know about art and symmetry…so does it come down to this: Do our notions of beauty have to do with the patterns of life [and death]? Well of course they do. But I still like to think that the mummified shape of the blind snake was a last gasp effort at beauty.”

    Sometimes he would not write letters, but just send a practical joke, like the fake telescope black eye trick, or a whoopee cushion. Sometimes he would send a quotation he loved.

 

Wisdom is knowing what to overlook. William James

Seek simplicity, and distrust it. Alfred North Whitehead

Long only for what you have. André Gide

Extreme attention is the creative facility, and its condition is love.

                                                                       Carlos Fuentes

In some paintings he is fascinated by things that are difficult to capture, the transient, evanescent movement in nature, metaphors for arresting the fleeting moments of life. The play of shadows on trees, the glimpse of a wave as it crashes down onto a rocky beach. Many of his paintings have an uncanny familiarity, as if they are things one has seen, or sees every day. But when you look at familiar things through Glenn’s eyes, it is as if you are looking at them for the first time and seeing them through his slightly oblique awareness. A highway stretches into the dark night, into a valley and up a hill, and a brightly lit city appears in the distance. He is not on the highway. He stands beside the road, unseen, looking, a mute observer, and he invites you to join him, just to take a look. Although we met in the dark of night, Glenn always opens my mind to wonder and he turns my eyes to the light, to the sheer mystery and beauty of the world. 

 

                                        James Moore

                                        December, 2017

 

Jim Moore and Glenn as Winking Clown

Jim Moore and Glenn as Winking Clown