FOUR DIRECTIONS - COMMON PATHS:
Oberg, Smith, Whitcomb, Young
Friendship, Inspiration, and Craft - A Thirty Year Connection
Opening December 4, 2020
Great trios are the stuff of legend throughout history and literature, while foursomes are less celebrated, it seems. Perhaps the art world equivalent of the Fearsome Foursome: Skip Whitcomb, Ralph Oberg, Dan Young and Matt Smith can level that inequity. They are an impressive group of painters who travel, paint, hike and talk art together. Among the top tier of America’s landscape and wildlife artists, they produce exquisite “on the spotters” that capture the light, feeling and drama of a landscape that is rapidly changing before their eyes. More importantly, they use their trips outdoors with their painting gear as fact finding missions that will lead to the next great studio paintings.
Their talents will be on full display in their upcoming exhibition at the Steamboat Art Museum (SAM), running December 7, 2020 through April 10, 2021. The official title, perhaps vying for longest exhibit title of the decade, says it all, Four Directions-Common Paths: Whitcomb, Smith, Oberg, Young; Friendship, Inspiration, and Craft - A Thirty Year Connection. It’s their story of working together, including their influences and shared experiences, told through approximately 25 works by each in a range of sizes. Whitcomb, the elder statesman of the group, says it is a real honor for all of them. “We are thrilled with this opportunity, to be able to show at a wonderful, intimate venue where the community is so excited about art and their museum.”
In case you haven’t heard, Steamboat Springs, Colorado is now home to a top flight art museum, having completed a major renovation in 2017. And, this is not the first time our featured foursome has hung their work at SAM. All were included in the 2016 Plein Air Painters of America (PAPA) showcase, but this exhibition will shine the spotlight on their friendship and shared pursuit of excellence. Oberg describes the exhibition as the fulfillment of a 30 year dream. “Matt and I had discussed it a couple times, that it would be great to do a show, but when SAM offered the chance for all four of us to hang together, we knew it was an even better idea. It’s exciting for all of us.” Young calls the show “a retrospective of our friendship.”Ralph and Skip met in 1984 in a Bob Kuhn workshop populated by many artists who are well known today. Matt met Ralph in 1987, and all four were on their way to brotherhood by 1990. Since then, they have traveled thousands of miles together visiting great painting locations throughout the West. Many places they visited were only accessible by horseback, adding an adventure element to those trips. Spending quality time together painting during the days and talking art (with a little wine) around a campfire in the evenings, has forged a strong camaraderie among
the four men. Passing an art museum during their journeys provided the opportunity to stop and discuss art at an even deeper level. Thereby challenging themselves to grow and improve, always aiming to make the next painting their best.
While the popularity of plein air painting has risen tremendously, with hobbyists embracing it as “the new golf,” these artists don’t necessarily see that as the end game. Instead, they see it as a means to an end. Whitcomb says all four of them made their living out of their portable paint box in the early days. Eventually, they developed a desire to paint bigger and more complex works. This required a shift to more time in the studio and a greater reliance on information gained during their outdoor experiences. “To me it’s like planting a seed crop, where you eventually harvest concepts, ideas and other valuable information. Once I shifted to doing more studio pieces, the pressure to perform in the field and produce fully finished works was mostly lifted. That is when I began learning how to see and using what I saw in a more meaningful way.”
The three younger artists all came to the same conclusion in their own time. Smith says, “You develop a connection, or passion, for a location when you are out there painting, but when you get back to the studio, in a controlled environment, you combine that passion with a deeper level of intellect, and that’s when the best paintings result.” Oberg echoes those sentiments, “You do the hard work outdoors to learn how things look; you are always seeking the truth to take back to the studio. Your outdoor paintings show you where your photographs fall short – every time.” Young agrees, saying painting on location is like going to class, “It really is about going to the source, and taking notes to grab information.”
While all four artists have a certain similarity in their work, that would be natural for landscape artists working in the genre of realism, but they each have unique elements that make them quite different. This allows them to stand side by side by side by side on a ridgeline looking at the same mountain vista and by day’s end an astonishing variety of art will have been completed or sometimes abandoned. Looking over each other’s work, they may needle one another, telling one to “loosen up” or another that he better “get tighter.” Whitcomb confesses his favorite jab is to walk behind one of the others when they have a good painting in the works and ask, “Is that really how you see that?” Shifting to more serious reflection, Whitcomb testifies he loves watching how his peers solve problems. “We are always energized and appreciate new ways of seeing, whether in the field or in a museum. All are worthy topics for discussion around the proverbial campfire.”
Oberg chimes in, “We don’t allow big hats, no egos, we are all striving for greatness but we know that is an extremely high bar. We are all open to critiques and helping each other get better.” Like brothers, they may jostle each other good naturedly in private, but in public they are clearly proud of each other and readily celebrate any successes. Most recently, at the 2020 Prix de West, Smith walked away with the Lougheed Award voted on by the artists, while Oberg garnered the Hurley Award for best landscape painting.
Three of the four artists live in Colorado, taking advantage of their surroundings to explore varied terrain, abundant wildlife and tap into the natural Rocky Mountain High made famous in the vintage song. Matt Smith, the token artist “from away” lives in the Arizona desert but frequently visits his brothers in paint in the Centennial State for a literal change of scenery. The Colorado boys also just happen to find it convenient to visit Matt in the middle of winter, as they did in February this year. Each artist is fiercely loyal to “his country,” the area around his home base, and paints it with pride and reverence, but also embraces new challenges in less familiar locales.
All four see part of their mission as wildlife or landscape artists is to bring attention to the wild lands of America and the need to protect them. Oberg says, “You hope to get people to stop just for a few seconds and think about the beauty in nature and maybe you can get them to take the next few steps to caring about the environment and maybe even doing something about it.”
In the end, all agreed the elements of art are still the same, whether indoors or out. Students and hobbyists should not expect to paint a masterpiece every time out, just learning something about light that helps improve studio work can be a great plein air accomplishment. As all four might be heard to say, “If you are painting plein air work ready to hang in a gallery every time out, you are not pushing yourself hard enough.”
Friends for 30 years, these four amigos treasure their time together, whether it is in the field sharing a ridgeline, critiquing each other’s handiwork at the end of an outing, or catching up at a major art show somewhere around the country. All believe their friendship and sibling-like rivalry has made their work better and spurred them to continue to grow over time. Young says he hopes to, “die with a paintbrush in his hand,” perhaps on a paint trip with his three fellow artists when all are closing in on a hundred years of age. These four gentlemen also prove nice guys can finish first – in art, friendship and life. Do yourself a favor, make a trek to Steamboat Springs to see the proof on the wall.
Seth Hopkins, Executive Director – Booth Western Art Museum.