Ask award-winning artist George Carlson about a detail in one of his paintings — a tree, a rock, a bird, a cloud — and his answer is likely to be amazingly comprehensive.
Carlson is among the 114 artists who will participate in the 39th annual Prix de West Invitational Art Exhibition and Sale, which opens June 8 at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City.
For art lovers drawn to historically authentic depictions of the Old West, the Prix de West weekend will include seminars, artist demonstrations, a live auction, the unveiling of the artwork selected for the annual Prix de West Purchase Award and the eagerly awaited art sale and awards banquet.
Twice a recipient of the Prix de West Award, Carlson, 71, is the only artist to have won for both sculpture and painting — his bronze, “Courtship Flight,” was selected in 1975 and his oil painting, “Umatilla Rock,” won in 2011. Both works are now on permanent display at the museum.
During a Skype interview shortly after the announcement of his second Prix de West win last year, Carlson said he knew he had to paint Umatilla Rock because “looking down that spine of rock gave me goose bumps.”
Merely looking at the scene and painting the canvas were not his only efforts regarding this little known area of central Washington state. Before he even picked up his paintbrush, Carlson hiked the remote area at different seasons and times of day, photographed it, sketched it, made color charts of it, studied topographical maps and satellite photos, researched it geologically and took aerial views of it from a plane.
That immersion into the soul of his subjects — in the case of Umatilla Rock, an intense study of its unique and complex geologic history — has long been Carlson's artistic trademark.
“I always want to grow as an artist,” Carlson said during a recent telephone interview from his home in Harrison, Idaho. “I like to feel a landscape or subject deep in my core.”
Carlson said he is bringing three oil-on-linen paintings to this year's show. Two of the artworks feature scenes from the same savagely beautiful region of central Washington that Carlson depicted in “Umatilla Rock.”
Carlson calls the area “scab lands” because the terrain was continually cut and scraped by glaciers and floods over the eons, and never fully healed before the next onslaught. “I think I relate to that land because I'm also a sculptor — I like its texture as well as its look,” the artist explained.
“Stillness in Moonlight,” a 42-by-42-inch sky and landscape painting priced at $60,000, depicts a site located about 10 miles south of Umatilla Rock. “Doing that painting was a challenge,” Carlson said. “It took a lot of patience to get the clouds just right, to build up colors underneath. I also didn't want the land mass to compete with the sky. While I was working on the painting, a full moon came and it all just worked.”
For those interested, the clouds in Carlson's painting are cirrostratus and the rock is basalt.
In “Lone Pine,” a 32-by-36-inch landscape priced at $42,000, Carlson was fascinated by a solitary ponderosa pine standing like a lonely sentinel in a vast scab-land wilderness.
“I wondered how that tree came to be growing in that ancient floodplain,” Carlson said. “Seeing it, I was reminded of Walt Whitman's poem about seeing a live oak in Louisiana, ‘Without any companion it grew there, uttering joyous leaves of dark green.' I thought about that when I did this painting.”
The artist's third painting “Winter Season,” a 28-by-50-inch oil priced at $56,000, was inspired by a flock of California quail that gathered near the bird feeder outside his home in Idaho. “I couldn't resist painting that,” Carlson said. “The whole painting is about repetition of birds, their tail feathers and their colors.”
Carlson said the bird with the tight, smooth feathers in the far left of the painting is the flock's “lookout” — the one charged with watching out for predatory goshawks. “The quail in the center are more relaxed — their bodies look rounder and fatter because their feathers are fluffed out,” he said.
During this year's show, Carlson is slated to give a Saturday seminar on “Art as Experience.” The talk will feature slides of paintings, drawings, pastels and sculptures Carlson has created during his 50-year art career. “A lot of them were done long ago and very few people have seen them before,” the artist added.
Museum President Chuck Schroeder said this year's art show and sale, which has become the museum's most important annual fundraiser, will feature some 351 artworks from some of the nation's top contemporary Western painters and sculptors. Total value of artworks on display exceeds $5.7 million, with prices ranging from an $850 sculpture to an $85,000 oil painting.
Last year some 1,200 art lovers attended Prix de West opening-weekend events and more than $3.3 million in art changed hands. This year, a 3 percent buyer's premium will be added to the purchase price of each artwork sold, with a maximum fee set at $300 for any work selling for $10,000 or more.
Reservations are required to attend all opening-weekend activities. A premium package is available for $450, and includes all the show's events, the collector's bolo and an exhibition catalog. A seminars-only package, show catalog or tickets for specific events also can be purchased.
All of the show's artwork will stay on display through Aug. 5, and any unsold works will be available for purchase until then.
For more information about show tickets or to view the show's artworks online, go to nationalcowboymuseum.org.
I couldn't resist painting that. The whole painting is about repetition of birds, their tail feathers and their colors.”