By R.E.C. Thompson
A new book honors highly regarded wildlife painter Lanford Monroe (1950-2000)
She wears a cowboy hat, a red flannel shirt over a white t-shirt, pressed Wrangler jeans and the omnipresent boots, scuffed in all the right places. If she’s not a serious cowgirl in her own right, maybe her daddy or uncle or boyfriend has a plaque somewhere here in the Cowboy Hall of Fame. She’s come to visit, to look at the saddles and buckles and trophies, and she didn’t expect to meet up with all these suit-wearin’, high-falutin’ types and all this art. But she’s game to spin through the galleries, and she takes it all in coolly and without too much obvious interest. Then she gets to a painting by Lanford Monroe.
It’s a beautiful scene by a modern master: dawn, a moose in silhouette, standing in a mirror-still backwater of the Snake River. It is titled REVERIE. Our cowgirl stops, spellbound. She stares and stares, then finally pulls away and looks at Lanford’s other paintings in the show. She is interested, more interested than in any of the other objets d’arte she’s passed by. She returns to that original scene—the one that pulled her in to begin with—the one that’s almost as strong, almost as captivating as the nature that inspired it.
She pushes her hat back on her head, puts her hands in her hip pockets and leans close. Closer …she scans every square inch, and finds no falsehood. She stands up straight and steps back to take it in from a distance. It holds up, and she walks up nose-to-nose with it again, her fascination unsatiated. Then it happens.
She looks left and right, to make sure no one is watching. No guards are close. She reaches, hesitates. She pulls her hat down over her eyes. She looks left and right again, reaches … reaches. Gently, with one slender outstretched finger, she touches the still water on the canvas. She gasps a little and jerks her hand back like she’s been burned, then jams it back in her hip pocket. She lingers only a moment more, perhaps feeling guilty, perhaps worried that a camera or a guard saw her brief transgression. Then, shaking her head, she beelines out of the gallery, passing the other art without even looking at it—and is gone.
Lanford’s paintings so clearly reflected a love of land and creature. They were such a personal vision, thus so universal. But her attitude, and the fact that she had a deeply self-disciplined work ethic that didn’t seem like some creepy, Calvinist oppression—she genuinely enjoyed what she did every day—were equally important to the person I would become while spending the next eleven years with her.
There was something so gentle and joyous about the way Lanford went about her work. I never, right up until the day she died, ceased to marvel at the ease and unself-consciousness with which she mixed so-called work and pleasure. Make no mistake: sometimes work is simply work, sweaty drudgery for even the most inspired and graceful among us, and Lanford was no exception. I saw her scrape clean many promising canvasses when things weren’t going the way she wanted them to. But not only do her finished works seem effortless and unlabored-over when I look at them now, I know from experience that some of her finest paintings were indeed no more self-conscious for her than breathing. Lanford’s example made me realize that whatever I did in life, if I didn’t live it, breathe it, and love it, then maybe I’d better rethink my plans.
She never stopped learning. The only time she failed to take an offered opportunity—a chance to study with famed watercolorist John Pike—she regretted it for the rest of her life. “God, I was stupid,” she’d say. But the most telling example of this was in 1979. The Museum of Art in Huntsville, AL, brought in a show of Impressionists, and Lanford’s head was rearranged. “I had seen pictures by Impressionists before, but never whole rooms full. I nearly moved into the museum for the time the show was there … it changed my whole approach. By the end of the show I was totally in love with art.”
When she became “totally in love with art,” she had already been painting close to 25 years!
I once watched Lanford as she took in what she claimed, at least in the moment, to be the best painting she’d ever seen. It was in the Hispanic Society, New York City; a painting by Joaquin Sorolla of an old man and a little girl peeling chiles. I watched her marvel at his command and confidence, how he physically manipulated the paint on the surface; how he chose to light the scene; how he posed his subjects; his wild color; and most of all, how he’d deftly and dramatically painted a slashing ray of sunlight right across the canvas—with just one stroke.
“He did it in one stroke! He had to! It just had to be one stroke … my God … the nerve….” she kept repeating. And this from a seasoned professional, a veteran who supposedly knew how he did it, at least in theory.
Lanford was giddy all that day. Standing before maestro Sorolla’s work, she wept gently, broke into near-hysterical laughter, shook her head and paced, sighed and gasped, and never really managed to tear herself away from the piece. And all day she’d suddenly giggle or go all misty-eyed, and I’d know what was passing before her mind’s eye. This was a woman who had been greatly moved.
Lanford’s paintings and sculpture do that for me, and I think they do that for others, too. I’ve seen a woman break down and weep at the sight of one of Lanford’s mare-and-foal paintings, and I saw another artist literally collapse to the floor when Lanford presented them with a little sketch of their dogs. I saw a man, sad and world-weary and feeling old, spend thousands of dollars he could scarce afford because one of her paintings gave him so much hope after a close friend had died…
Featured in March 2008