Montana artist David Wharton finds inspiration in isolation
Ryan Summerlin July 17, 2014
A series of art-paper watercolors and three-dimensional altar pieces by Montana artist David Wharton is on display at the CMC ArtShare Gallery. The works, which employ techniques of book arts, printmaking, watercolor and digital media, invite viewers to stop and take a closer look to decipher meaning from the artist’s meticulous technique.
The son of a landscape painter, Wharton knew he was fated to be an artist from a young age. “If I’d known how miserable my life would be,” he joked, “I would have gone to business school.”
Wharton came of age in the ‘60s, and as a high-school senior, he earned a scholarship to attend the Kansas City Art Institute. Then, after a summer job setting type and running a printing press, he went on to the University of Oklahoma.
Once out of college, Wharton worked briefly as a Forest Service engineer. Always a fan of open, uninhabited spaces, he discovered his current home town of Lewistown, Montana, when a bus he was taking from Denver to the Bob Marshall Wilderness broke down.
Unable to deny his calling, Wharton soon left the Forest Service and applied to the three best art schools he could think of: Rhode Island School of Design, Cranbrook Academy of Art, and Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. Cranbrook, known as the cradle of American modernism, offered him a full-ride scholarship. He took it, and the decision changed the course of his artistic life.
CRANBROOK INSPIRED WHARTON TO CREATE BEST POSSIBLE WORK
Cranbrook, located in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, outside of Detroit, proved the perfect petri dish for Wharton’s talent. “It’s the home of Marcel Breuer and Herman Miller and Charles Eames,” he said. “Eero Saarinen, who designed the St. Louis Arch, was born there.”
The inspiration of the setting, the proximity to the works of modern masters, and the caliber of people he met positioned Wharton to pursue his personal artistic vision with meticulous fervor. “I always loved working with paper, for which I paid a great price in New York,” he said.
Despite encouragement from big-city dealers and critics to work in oil on canvas, Wharton stuck to his guns. “I love the idea of collage,” he said, “the constant motion of your mind — clipping, cutting, gluing.”
TEACHING SPARKED INTEREST IN MEDIEVAL ALTAR PIECES
After earning his master of fine arts degree, Wharton spent two decades as a printer and a visiting art instructor at five universities and colleges. In 1999, Whitman College in Washington state hired him to rejuvenate their book arts program. But first he had to organize all the type and repair the department’s aging printing presses.
Once he’d rebuilt the college print shop, Wharton taught a class covering the history of the codex, beginning with book arts from Coptic Egypt and ending with the invention of the printing press. While collaborating with a fellow scholar to create a text for the class, he outlined an altar piece project for students to create.
Years later, when a woman who’d borrowed his original textbook returned it, he revisited the idea. “I looked at an altar piece I’d done,” he said, “and I thought, ‘There’s more I can do with this.’” So when he was asked to prepare an exhibit for Colorado Mountain College, Wharton committed to making 10 new altar pieces for the installation.
“It was a way for me to round out the show with work I thought people could sink their teeth into,” he said.
LIVING IN THE MIDDLE OF NOWHERE FEEDS ARTIST’S SPIRIT OF INNOVATION
About 10 years ago, Wharton found his way back to Lewistown, the spot he’d scouted out 40 years earlier. “It’s beautiful and absolutely in the middle of nowhere,” he said.
“I’ve always had this theory about art,” he confided. “Only in the middle of nowhere can something incredibly creative come into being without the influence of the outside world. You’re relying on your own creativity, your own ingenuity, your own technique.”
Wharton’s current technique involves placing himself in his studio every day while listening to classical music on National Public Radio. “I don’t own a watch. I don’t own a cellphone. Time is irrelevant when you’re working,” he said.
“I also play guitar and piano, and I compose musical scores,” he added. “When you’re through painting, what are you gonna do? You have to have diversions; that’s how you stay sane when the snow is four feet deep, and it’s 45 degrees below zero, and you can’t go anywhere.”
YEARS AS MASTER PRINTER REFINED WHARTON’S ARTISTIC SENSIBILITIES
Because Wharton also spent time printing the works of other artists, he was well positioned to absorb the accumulated knowledge of a lot of very talented people. “I was a master printer for 15 years,” said Wharton. “After that, I felt I had a Ph.D. in imagery, color, size, form, everything.”
The informal doctorate paid off with habits of precision that made even his earliest efforts highly successful. It also taught him to invest in quality materials. “When you’re making prints for William Wiley, and they’re $7,000,” he said, “you don’t print them on naugahyde.”
Each of the altar pieces created for the ArtShare exhibit boasts a half-life of at least 350 years. “I adhere to the adage: If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well,” he said.
ArtShare will host an opening reception from 6-8 p.m. Friday, July 11. The event is free and open to the public, and the exhibit runs July 2 through Aug. 27.
CMC ArtShare Gallery is located at 802 Grand Ave. in downtown Glenwood. Gallery hours are weekdays 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Saturdays 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. For more information, call 947-8367 or visit cmcartshare.com.