It may be cheating, but my favorite way to view an artist's work is with the artist himself standing beside me, offering a glance inside the work, sharing the inspiration, the emotion, the processes behind the work. I still get to make up my own mind about what I'm seeing, but, invariably, I'm left with a greater understanding and insight of the work than I would have had without that person whispering in my ear.
I recently visited Stanley Hess in his home for a preview of the work that he'll show starting Thursday at the Pierson Gallery, 1307 E. 15th St.
Hess is a native Oklahoman and a university professor who's spent the last 24 years, his retirement, in Tulsa. At 80-something years old, he's still a prolific painter with a style unmatched by any other local artist.
Hess is a self-named "regionalist who was born 50 years too late." He's inspired by painters of the Renaissance and muralists. He painted murals himself for 38 years, and most of those that still exist adorn various walls in the state of Iowa.
When he got too old to work the ladder, Hess turned to the canvas, but he sought to translate his style as a muralist to smaller-scale paintings. What resulted are double- and triple-image paintings that, when viewed at different angles and from different distances, display very different images.
"A mural is usually conditioned by the architecture," reads Hess' artist's statement. "It will be seen from a distance and close up, from wide angles and more than one elevation. Then, as well, there is the matter of pillars, counters, lighting fixtures, stairwells, balconies and others to contend with.
"I ask viewers to see many of (my paintings) from various distances, angles and even eye levels..."
For example, as I sat on Hess' couch and observed his "Father Knows Best" from about 10 feet away and at a 40-degree angle, I saw a man's shadowy face, eyes dark and lips prominent. Standing directly in front of the painting and much closer to it, I saw an image likened to Icarus of Greek mythology, a boy with wings who was grounded.
Another, more recent work, of Hess' involved a triple image. From about 40 feet away, which is farther than I could get in his home, the viewer will see a large feather. From about 10 feet away, the elongated and angular face of a Native American man comes into view. At a much closer distance, the features of the Indian's face become recognizable images of a buffalo and other Native American imagery.
What in nature is very small, in the painting is very large, and vice versa. And although Hess is not a Native American painter, he admits to being inspired by Native American culture and, through friendships, to having a working second-hand knowledge of that culture.
In speaking to Hess, he revealed that he doesn't enjoy painting anything "ugly," and that fact is evident in the subject matter he chooses--children playing, images inspired by Greek mythology and classical music, Tulsa's Mayfest--and the color palettes of his paintings, most of which are bright, bold and vibrant.
The painting that I felt best displayed who Hess is as an artist is one that will likely not be included in the show at Pierson. But, it was my favorite painting out of the 12 I saw.
It is called "Reign," and it is the artist's portrayal of the war in Iraq. Hess' treatment of what could be such a gruesome subject is testament to his avoidance of anything "ugly," but it also speaks to the artist's ability to very gently, but very effectively, get his point across.
The work is painted in skin tones, which also reflect Iraq's desert sand, and the background images resemble crumbling walls, broken bits of matter.
In the forefront is an image of Voltaire, inspired by his great satirical work Candide, but, when one looks closer, one sees that one of Voltaire's eyes is actually the image of an Iraqi woman, covering her face for the stench, and the other is the blue bird of hope in flight. On one side of Voltaire is a woman holding her child, and on the other, a solider, attempting to stand guard.
I love this painting because it speaks volumes without shouting and, surprisingly, without taking a political stance. It is one artist's rendering of what he sees happening in Iraq.
Hess said some people find his work off-putting or bothersome. They expect to see one image and, instead, are faced with another. He also suspects it has something to do with people's unwillingness to spend time with a work, trying to see it from all angles.
But, if you spend the time, what you get is worth seeing. And, if you head to the opening this Thursday from 5 to 8pm, you too can get a little insight from the artist himself. I highly recommend it.
I'm excited that I've been asked to speak at an OVAC A.S.K. (Artist Survival Kit) workshop titled "Stop the Press!," which aims to arm Oklahoma artists with knowledge they need about marketing themselves to the press. The event is Saturday, Feb. 21 from 11am to 3pm at Harwelden, 2210 S. Main, and is $25, including lunch ($20 for OVAC members).
Adrienne Nobles, director of communications for the University of Central Oklahoma, speaks on the basics of writing a press release, and Glenda Silvey, former News on 6 anchor and public affairs specialist for OU-Tulsa, and I will discuss tips for interviewing with the media.
Meanwhile, because I didn't feel like I have enough on my plate already, I've begun a second attempt at blogging about the arts in Tulsa.
If you're a regular reader of this column, you may remember that, in 2006, I started a blog called "Walleye" in an attempt to offer area arts organizations more coverage. Unfortunately, I'm limited on what I can do here by the monetary constraints of paper and ink.
My last attempt at blogging didn't go so well. I think I posted once. Well, I'm trying again. If you head to tulsaartblog.blogspot.com, you'll see I'm already doing better than I did on my last attempt, with reviews on three gallery openings posted.
I'll continue to post what I can't fit here. The blog may end up just being a few of us who care about local arts massaging our own egos by reading about ourselves. And while I don't mind a little stroking, I would like to attract some folks who don't normally take interest in local arts. If you have any ideas on how to do that, hit me up at email@example.com.
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