Oil Painters of America 1997 Winners

Robert Kuester Still Life With Homemade Fruit Basket, oil, 32 x 22, 1996 Best of Show National Award of Excellence, OPA National. painting, southwest art.
Robert Kuester Still Life With Homemade Fruit Basket, oil, 32 x 22, 1996 Best of Show National Award of Excellence, OPA National.

By Susan Hallsten McGarry

In an essay written for the 1997 Singapore International Art Expo, Shirl Smithson, founder of the Oil Painters of America, sounded the death knell of traditional oil painting in the United States. Decrying the current dearth of interest in the basics of perspective, figure drawing, color theory and the history of art, Smithson pleaded:

Unless the world realizes the seriousness of the possible demise of representational art, we will again enter a “Dark Age” devoid of the drawing and painting of the beauty of the human form and the forms of the natural world…. It is my earnest hope that America will follow the lead of the older countries who still revere great classical art and endeavor to teach it in their schools. It is wonderful to observe the refreshing standard of excellence that is still being taught in the art academies of China and Europe, and we are hopeful, somehow, that this standard will once again return to the schools of America and to its art museums.

Given Smithson’s anxiety, it is no surprise that in 1992 this Park Ridge, IL, painter became the driv-ing force behind an organization designed to promote traditional standards in oil painting. “We don’t believe in the slapdash process of throwing oil paint at a canvas, calling it art and laughing your way to the bank,” Smithson was quoted in a local newspaper. “Much of what passes for modern art today is really a hidden lack of ability.”

Hui Han Liu A Rest Day, oil, 24 x 30, 1996 Grumbacher Gold Medallion Award of Excellence, OPA National. painting southwest art
Hui Han Liu A Rest Day, oil, 24 x 30, 1996 Grumbacher Gold Medallion Award of Excellence, OPA National.

Smithson vividly recalls the day she made the decision to unite thousands of artists in her national preservation movement. “I was listening to the television news when they announced the National Endowment for the Arts’ support of Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ. I slammed my fist on the table and said, ‘That’s it! I can’t take it anymore!’ I nearly scared my husband to death!”

Smithson made a list of the artists she believed to be the leading traditional oil painters of the 20th century (see sidebar) and started recruiting support at the top. “The first name on my list was Howard Terpning. He was very gracious when I called and agreed to support the organization from the start. With that kind of endorsement, the rest was simple.”

Well, maybe not simple. Oil Painters of America is a national nonprofit organization that survives on membership dues and the tireless energy of Smithson and a board of 13 directors. The organization helps sponsor national and regional exhibitions, though it receives none of the proceeds. To date it has published five 50-page catalogs, each with more than 100 black-and-white reproductions, from the national exhibitions. Galleries hosting the exhibitions receive a 40 percent commission on sales, with the remainder going to the artists. Award moneys are donated by corporations and other patrons. “The $10,000 awarded for Best of Show at the Greenhouse Gallery venue in San Antonio, TX, set a record for us,” says Smithson. “We hope to continue to find that kind of patronage.”

Romel de la Torre Doris, oil, 1993 Union League Civic and Arts Foundation Award, OPA National. painting, southwest art.
Romel de la Torre Doris, oil, 1993 Union League Civic and Arts Foundation Award, OPA National.

What kind of paintings are we talking about? Accompanying this article is a selection of winners from OPA national and regional competitions held from 1992-96. We also asked Smithson and several judges, most of whom are master signature members, to talk about the elements they look for when selecting a winner.

Drawing. “Representational art requires sound drawing skills—a critical element missing in most college courses these days,” Smithson says. “Man, always, instinctively relates to things … and it is inherent in his nature to picture things. But how can he continue to add to the rich pictorial history without the ability to draw?”

The judge in 1996, Ron Riddick [b1952, swa sep 90], best known for his figural and portrait paintings, also points to drawing as the critical foundation for any artwork. Drawing, or “the use of line as a basic unit of visual dimension,” writes Riddick, conveys “structural order and proportions, the foundation of compositional design, the delineation of contour, the measure of accuracy or exaggeration of the subject, the primary element of perspective and point of view, foreshortening, academic or expressive qualities and the variety of nature and texture.”

Knowledge and spirit. Charles Vickery [b1913], an internationally renowned marine artist living just outside Chicago, juried the 1992 exhibition. He judges art based on a combination of two critical factors: “The painting should radiate both knowledge and spirit. If it has knowledge but no spirit, or spirit but no knowledge, it is dead.” For Vickery, knowledge means not only technical skills but also the experience of having seen or been involved in the subject, notably recognizing how it responded to light. “For many years the ‘brown gravy’ school of art dominated. But the luminist goal of responding to the colors of the landscape has triumphed today,” he says. As to spirit, Vickery describes it further as “clear vision and poetic sensibility.”

Kevin Macpherson Celtic Brilliance, oil, 24 x 36, 1996 People s Choice, OPA National. painting, southwest art
Kevin Macpherson Celtic Brilliance, oil, 24 x 36, 1996 People’s Choice, OPA National.

Beauty in the simplest, most direct way. Ted Goerschner [b1935, swa jul 81], another juror of the 1992 show, has evolved over the years from an abstract painter to a realist to the loose impressionist he is today. A respected workshop leader, he looks for “pure abstraction” even in representational work. “Putting down as much as you can with as little as possible and simplifying nature by expressing it in shape, tone and color” are the hallmarks he looks for. As he writes in his book Oil Painting—The Workshop Experience [1996 North Light Books], “To my way of thinking, subject matter is irrelevant. Whether you’re facing a landscape, seascape, floral, still life or figure, the goal is to create paintings filled with light, color and great juicy brushstrokes.”

Harmony and unity. Dan Gerhartz [b1965] juried the 1993 show. Although a youngster compared with other judges, he was exposed to traditional standards at the American Academy of Art, Chicago, IL. “Each painting should be harmonious,” Gerhartz noted in a recent catalog for the Prix de West exhibition at the National Cowboy Hall of Fame, Oklahoma City, OK. “There must be a constant awareness of the temperature of the light and of the color. Movement, balance and unity are principles that should always be apparent .”

Louis Escobedo Song, oil, 24 x 30, 1994 Best of Show, OPA National. painting southwest art.
Louis Escobedo Song, oil, 24 x 30, 1994 Best of Show, OPA National.

Quality brushwork. A juror in 1995, Ken Carlson [b1937, swa nov 94] is a highly respected wildlife painter living in Kerrville, TX. He looks for quality brushwork. “Brush strokes should not be loose for the sake of looseness,” he says. “Many artists let the brushwork get in the way of the overall painting itself: From a distance it may look fine, but up close, the painting surface falls apart. Whether the work is painted thinly or thickly, detailed or loose, each stroke should be strategically placed to further the overall impression of a unified surface.”

That certain sensibility. Cyrus Afsary [b1940, swa jan 87], who juried the 1994 exhibition, was trained in the classical tradition but says that art must go beyond the technique of simply duplicating nature. “There must be a sense of beauty and originality. The artist sees things in a new way and presents them in a convincing manner for the enjoyment of the viewer. That sensibility or belief in the existence of what is depicted in the painting is an artistic gimmick—a gimmick that can in its own right be raised to an art form.”

Originality. “I know it seems to be a trite term, but originality is my measure of a great work,” concludes Ramon Kelley [b1939, swa may 82], who juried the 1993 show. “Originality must exist throughout the work—in the concept, subject matter and execution. By that I mean the idea should be unique to the individual, the subject something seen or experienced and the execution done directly, not from projection or photographs. Perfection in technique alone does not make a winner. Rather, the technical means should be used to convey emotion and feeling, which is originality.”

After reading the above and looking at the work reproduced here, you be the judge.

Kuester [b195x] was born and raised in Iowa. He studied at Drake University, Des Moines, IA, and earned a BFA (19xx) from Art Center College of Design, Los Angeles, CA. Following two years in the service, Kuester became a portrait painter and illustrator in Detroit, MI. In 1986 the Kuester family moved to Rio Rancho, NM. His works can be seen at Vanier & Roberts Ltd., Scottsdale, AZ; Wolfe Galleries, Tucson, AZ; Gateway Gallery, Albuquerque, NM; Michael Wigley Galleries, Santa Fe, NM; and Dearing Galleries, Taos, NM.

Hui Han Liu was born in 1952 in Guangzhou, China, and moved to the United States in 19xx. He currently resides in Concord, CA. He received a BA (1975) and MFA (1987) from Guangzhou Institute of Fine Arts and an MFA (1989) from the Academy of Art College, San Francisco, CA. He taught in China from 1979-87 and has been teaching at the Academy of Art College since 1993. He is a signature member of the OPA and a member of the National Art Association of China. His works can be seen at Quast Galleries, Taos, NM; Concetta D. Gallery, Albuquerque, NM; Classic Art Gallery, Carmel, CA; and Miller Gallery, Cincinnati, OH.

De la Torre [b19xx] was born in XXXXXX and studied at the American Academy of Art and with artists such as Richard Schmid, Irving Shapiro and Ted Smuskiewicz. He paints full-time in his home in Arlington Heights, IL, and teaches portraiture and painting at the Main St. Art Centre. His work can be seen at the centre’s Studio Gallery and Talisman Gallery, Bartlesville, OK.

Zhiwei Tu [b1951] received his BA (1975) and MA (1981) from Guangzhou Institute of Fine Arts, China, and his MFA (1990) from Drake University, Des Moines, IA. He taught at Guangzhou Institute of Fine Arts from 1981-89, at the College of South China Literature and Art, 1982-87, and at the Teaching College of Shiaoguan, China, 1975-78. He currently lives in Woodridge, IL, where he collaborated with Shirl Smithson on a large-format monograph on his work [1996 Arbor Hill Press]. His paintings can be seen at Vanier & Roberts Ltd., Scottsdale, AZ; Kornye Gallery, Dallas, TX; Gateway Gallery, Albuquerque, NM; and Mountain Trails Gallery, Santa Fe, NM.

Macpherson [b1956, swa nov 89] was born and reared in New Jersey until his family moved to Arizona when he was a teenager. He received his BFA from Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff, where his instructor Chris Magadini “drew really well and stressed discipline.” While illustrating for a career, Macpherson took workshops with artists such as John Asaro, Richard Schmid and Clyde Aspevig at the Scottsdale Artists School. Today he is president of the Plein Air Painters of America, with whom he shows his work in the annual October show. His work can also be found at Redfern Gallery, Laguna Beach, CA; Shriver Gallery, Taos, NM; Hamdy Fine Arts Gallery, Dallas, TX; and Greenhouse Gallery of Fine Art, San Antonio, TX.

Born in 1928, Zhang Wen Xin [SWA Apr 92] is a native of Tienjing, China, who came to the United States in 1987. He studied oil painting at North China University, Beijing, graduating with a BFA in 1949. He continued his studies at Beijing University and later became a member of the Beijing Fine Art Academy. In 1987 he visited Wyoming, where he had a one-man show at the Nicolaysen Art Museum, Casper, and the Wyoming State Museum, Cheyenne. In the summer of 1990 he relocated to the mountains near Albuquerque, NM. His work can be seen at Merrill Gallery of Fine Art, Denver, CO; Valhalla Gallery, Wichita, KS; Concetta D. Gallery, Albuquerque, NM; Quast Galleries, Taos, NM; and Wilcox Gallery, Jackson, WY.

Mian Situ was born in 1953 in Quangdong (Canton) Province, China. He studied at the Guangzhou Institute of Fine Arts, where he received his MFA (1981) and later taught oil painting, and was elected to the Council of the Guangdong Artists’ Association. In September 1987 he moved to Los Angeles, CA, as a foreign student and a year later moved to Canada. A signature member of the OPA, he currently resides in Toronto. His work can be seen at Greenhouse Gallery of Fine Art, San Antonio, TX.

Escobedo [b1952] earned his BFA from Sam Houston State University, TX, and worked in the field of illustration until 1984, when he became a full-time easel artist. He lives in Denver, CO, and has shown his work in the Top 100 of Arts for the Parks (1994), the Governor’s Invitational Art Show, Loveland, CO, and the Phippen Museum Show, Prescott, AZ (1995). His paintings can be seen at Sherry Clark Interiors, Fort Worth, TX; Greenhouse Gallery of Fine Art, San Antonio, TX; Linda C. Howell & Assoc., Oklahoma City, OK; Saks Galleries, Denver, CO; and Vanier & Roberts Ltd., Scottsdale, AZ.

Featured in May 1997