Clyde Aspevig & Steve Kestrel | Artistic Ecosystem

Clyde Aspevig, Johnson s Orchard, oil, 30 x 60. southwest art
Clyde Aspevig, Johnson’s Orchard, oil, 30 x 60.

By Gregg Piburn

A bobcat killed a deer less than 100 yards from Steve Kestrel’s living room. The killing occurred in the black canvas of night. Kestrel found the corpse and bobcat tracks the next morning. In this sculptor’s world, the killing was hardly headline news.

Painter Clyde Aspevig once spent 33 days alone in the Bearpaw Mountains of Montana. “I think everyone should go on a vision quest,” he says. “I began to investigate the land around me in a more profound way.”

Probe deep into Kestrel’s mind and heart and you’ll find rattlers, cougars, coyotes, a deer and canyon wrens fluttering above bears, among other things. Explore the mind and heart of Aspevig and you’ll see broad expanses of prairie and rolling hills that stretch beyond the horizons of his soul.

Jumpin Jack Flash, granite riverstone, 15 x 171⁄2 x 51⁄2. sculpture, southwest art
Jumpin’ Jack Flash, granite riverstone, 15 x 171⁄2 x 51⁄2.

Kestrel the Fort Collins, CO, direct-carving sculptor—celebrates the animal world in his stone and bronze pieces. Aspevig—a plein-air landscapist from Loveland, CO—celebrates the land, especially the terrain of the undeveloped western United States that provides the life-and-death setting for Kestrel’s subjects.

Lovers of art and nature can see an artistic ecosystem at this year’s Gilcrease Museum Rendezvous in Tulsa, OK, which features more than 20 recent canvases by Aspevig and 24 retrospective pieces (mostly stone carvings) and 18 to 20 new stone carvings and bronzes by Kestrel. The exhibition opens April 25 and remains on view through July 6.

Although their childhood homes were hundreds of miles of flatlands and mountains apart, both artists grew up children of the West. You might take these artists out of the West, but you’ll never take the West out of these artists.

Redstone, granite riverstone, 22 x 21 x 19.
Redstone, granite riverstone, 22 x 21 x 19.

Steve Kestrel
Canyon Carver

The bobcat attacked and killed the deer in a matter of seconds. Steve Kestrel immortalized the scene by carving it into granite. The 450-pound sculpture—titled Red-stone—might upset a few people.

“Some people see the bobcat piece as cruel, violent and sensationalistic,” Kestrel says. “They think it’s bad because the bobcat killed the poor deer. But our species needs to get away from labeling everything as good or evil. Yes, perhaps it was a bad day for the deer but it was a great day for the bobcat, who had a kitten to feed.”

Kestrel sits in the 2,800-square-foot home he helped build. The Southwest-style structure stands in the middle of 43 acres of land in Redstone Canyon, about 16 miles west of Fort Collins, CO. For a stone sculptor, it doesn’t get much better than this. Most of his pieces come from stones on or near his property.

Black Sand Monolith, black slate, 30 x 12 x 10. sculpture, southwest art
Black Sand Monolith, black slate, 30 x 12 x 10.

Sharing the home with Kestrel are his wife Cindi, two dogs and seven cats. Sharing his property are bears, cougars, bobcats, coyotes, deer, raccoons, rabbits and 55 species of birds, among other creatures. For an artist who focuses on the beauty and instinctual innocence of animals, the land is a gold mine of subjects waiting to be spied upon.

In Kestrel’s master bedroom stands a telescope sporting a 1,000-mm lens. “You can see the rings of Saturn and the moons of Jupiter with that thing,” Kestrel says proudly. But he uses his own eyes and spirit to probe the wonder of animals and the ethics of humans.

Not all of Kestrel’s work is as harsh as the bobcat-and-deer piece. “Some of my works focus on the abstract concepts of grace and beauty,” he says. “Those are easily digestible.” He believes people who see those sculptures would say that the artist celebrates nature and its beauty. However, he’s not aiming for precision in portraying nature. “I’m not creating anatomically perfect artwork. Almost anybody with good hand/ eye coordination can put every feather and detail into a figure. That’s no big deal … and rather pointless. I’m shooting for the celebration of the animal world and its ecosystems. I hope my pieces are icons of that celebration.”

Some of his pieces are smooth and elegant and many of them have been cast in bronze. Others are rough, carved directly from schist or granite stones. Rattle Me Naught, which depicts a rattlesnake you wouldn’t want to meet in a dark canyon, exemplifies Kestrel’s more coarsely finished artwork.

Whether smooth or rough, Kestrel’s works capture “thoughts and feelings, turning the sculptures into charged images that become symbolic of that animal,” he says. “The pieces exist on their own; they are not the animal.” Along the way Kestrel hopes to help redefine and broaden the term “western art.”

Monument for the Last Horned Lizard, bronze, 7 x 22 x 16, edition 15. sculpture, southwest art.
Monument for the Last Horned Lizard, bronze, 7 x 22 x 16, edition 15.

As a young man Kestrel considered a career as a veterinarian. He moved to Fort Collins, CO, to attend Colorado State University and study veterinary medicine. Mig-rating from his small hometown resulted in new mental vistas for Kestrel. After two years in pre-vet studies, he switched to an art major with a concentration in sculpture. “I discovered that I wanted to push my boundaries,” he recalls.

Kestrel dropped out of college 9.5 credits short of earning a deg-ree. “When I found out what portion of my tuition went to the art program, I left school,” he says with a smile. He fails to men- tion art professors when describing people who have influenced his career. Sculptors Boris Gilbertson, Jose de Creeft and John Flanagan continue to provide insight and inspiration. Kestrel is quick to add, however, that wife Cindi is his biggest supporter and source of inspiration. She “allows me the freedom to have this wonderful and crazy career.”

Rattle Me Naught, bronze, 6 x 91⁄2 x 61⁄4, edition 21. sculpture, southwest art
Rattle Me Naught, bronze, 6 x 91⁄2 x 61⁄4, edition 21.

That career, which began in 1982, got a boost when Kestrel was selected as a Gilcrease Rendezvous featured artist. “Gilcrease is important to my career,” he acknowledges. “Museum shows give an artist credibility.”

While appreciative of Gilcrease’s interest in his work, Kestrel sees a disturbing trend in art galleries and among art collectors. “Many galleries and collectors force artists to churn out the same images or styles over and over,” Kestrel says. “I abhor being in a box. I don’t think one way; I don’t live one way. Why would I want to pigeonhole myself and do only one kind of sculpture? Sometimes my work is smooth and refined. Sometimes it is coarse and rough. That variety represents aspects of my psyche and how I view the world.”

Javelina Stone, granite riverstone, 24 x 22 x 81⁄2.
Javelina Stone, granite riverstone, 24 x 22 x 81⁄2.

He finds in his art history books references to many artists who produced a broad range of work. Kestrel adds: “A lot of galleries don’t seem to appreciate the ability to work on many subjects and in a variety of styles. Galleries used to be at least partially educational; now they exist solely for sales.”

Kestrel walks out of the house and through the fence that separates his domestic animals from the wild ones that live all around him. He takes a walk up the part of his property he has dubbed “Little Canyon.” Once around the bend, you see nothing man-made. “The hand of man is almost everywhere on the globe,” he says, scanning the horizon shrunken by canyon walls. “I don’t agree with those who put people at the top of the evolutionary pyramid.” This comes from a person who admits to taking potshots at coyotes when he was young. Later in life, he swapped a case of beer for a sea turtle that was about to become supper for a Hawaiian beach party. He set the turtle free.

Kestrel tromps through the snow in a mini-environment that seems prehistoric. He points to a canyon where wrens sing love songs in the spring and to animal tracks of many shapes and sizes. He discovers the claw marks of a cougar on a fallen tree trunk.

Some of the stones he uses come from the tiny stream that gently flows through the box canyon. When he seeks rocks elsewhere, he carries a fishing pole so people don’t think he’s crazy.

Helicopter blades explode the silence. A copter, likely from Denver, circles the sky several times, a harsh reminder of the 1990s. “They must think we need rescuing,” Kestrel says. No, things are just fine in Redstone Canyon.

Lake Odessa, oil, 50 x 60.
Lake Odessa, oil, 50 x 60.

Clyde Aspevig
Shaped by the Land

Naturalist Terry Tempest Williams writes, “Landscape shapes a culture.” It also shapes a man. “Sitting on a tractor as a kid I could see five different mountain ranges,” recalls painter Clyde Aspevig. He grew up on a small farm near Rudyard, MT, 30 miles south of the Canadian border. “I have always had a sense of enormous space and the profoundness of the sky.”

Aspevig now sits in an enormous room that serves as living space and studio. He turned a Catholic church built in 1903 into a home and workplace filled with hundreds of art history books. Most people would kill for such a place. But frankly, Aspevig’s heart is in the West’s broad landscapes—places such as the Crazy Mountains of southern Montana. He intends to return to his Montana roots in a few years, after his daughters graduate from high school.

Ponte del Cristo Venice, oil, 30 x 40.  painting southwest art
Ponte del Cristo—Venice, oil, 30 x 40.

Near the entryway stands a shiny black Yamaha piano. After neglecting the piano for 20 years, Aspevig now spends time relaxing at the keyboard. For someone who grew up in the hardscrabble prairie of Montana, an easel and piano seem out of place. But Aspevig feels he was born an artist. If not a painter, he would have liked to become a concert pianist.

“I always needed to draw,” says Aspevig, whose oil landscapes capture atmospheric perspective better than any artist working today. However, don’t get the idea he spent most of his childhood on a piano bench or behind a canvas. He farmed hard and early.

“Dad died when I was 12, and my older brother and I did the farming,” Aspevig recalls. “I had to grow up quickly.” He also tried to farm quickly, finishing chores early so he could draw or go hiking or camping. Despite the demands, Aspevig considers his childhood idyllic. Those fond memories drive his desire to re-turn to Montana. And that drive explains the power behind his paintings.

Utah Desert, oil, 40 x 50. painting, southwest art
Utah Desert, oil, 40 x 50.

“I love broad vistas,” he says. “Working on a landscape is working with a sense of place. From the time we are born to the time we die everything happens in a certain time and space. A place gives you a sense of being or security or self-worth. Landscapes are powerful because they evoke emotions in everyone.”

Montana recollections evoke images of Aspevig’s father. “He was an energetic man, well known in the community,” says Aspevig. “He was a gregarious, hard worker who smoked two packs of Camels a day. He died of cancer at 36.” Before he died, Aspevig’s father bought his son’s painting of the Sweetgrass Hills for $10. Both of Aspevig’s parents strongly supported his dream of becoming
an artist.

Cottonwoods in Winter, oil, 36 x 48. painting, southwest art.
Cottonwoods in Winter, oil, 36 x 48.

“I grew up a lot during the year before his death,” Aspevig reflects. A major lesson was how to deal with extraordinary events, which resulted in greater self-reliance. “Learning that lesson gave me the strength and courage to pursue an art career.”

He attended Eastern Montana College in Billings, where he didn’t fit the image of a long-haired art student. Thankfully, a professor named Ben Steele—a grizzled World War II veteran—“saw through all the abstract-art nonsense and knew I wanted to paint representationally.” He got Aspevig started on watercolors and taught him the basics. Not long afterward, Aspevig sold 10 paintings (for $25 each) to various professors.

There is something you should know about Aspevig: He is prolific. One year he sold approximately 200 paintings. He can’t tell you the number of pieces he produced that year. “I don’t worry about numbers … I worry about producing,” he says. “Being prolific does not mean being shoddy. I don’t put out bad work.”

Aspevig typically has several paintings in the works, each at various stages of completion. Many of his paintings hang on the walls of his church house, while stacks of others lean against several walls, awaiting shipment to galleries or collectors. One storage room holds hundreds of his field studies—some as small as 10 by 12 inches. Some serve as precursors to major works (as large as 50 by 60 inches), while others live on as finished products. Aspevig also considers the studies a visual journal of his career and life. “I can look at a study and tell you that day’s weather, who I was with and what I did.”

Some of his field studies and large paintings document still lifes, people or city scenes, many of them from his trips to Europe. Aspevig and painter-wife Carol Guzman-Aspevig travel extensively, producing art along the way. But landscapes dominate Aspevig’s body of work. “When people see my western landscapes, I hope they appreciate what we have and are inspired to be good stewards of the land,” Aspevig says. “My art is more about the environment—clean water and open spaces—than anything else. I’m not a radical, but we have to be more careful about how or whether we develop the land. I know it’s dangerous to mix politics and art. I’m not trying to send a political message as much as a statement about my idyllic childhood. My goal is to reunite people with the land.”

Although he holds an art degree, Aspevig does not recommend it for people who truly want to become full-time artists. He learned more about the nuances of art in museums, examining the masters’ use of soft edges, perspective, rhythm and repetition. He realizes technique can easily overwhelm the painting’s content. “I try not to get too flashy with technique,” he says. He describes the magic of good art as a combination of intelligence, emotion and technique.

Winslow Homer is one of Aspevig’s artistic heroes. “He always did things his way, and his paintings reek of humanity with all its flaws.”

Aspevig believes that western American art is in a wonderful period of growth and rediscovery. It was not that long ago, relatively speaking, that settlers first came to the region. “They learned to survive, not to create art.” Therefore, western American art is an even more recent phenomenon. “They didn’t even teach art in my school,” he says. “I learned about art because of my passion.”

Standing in front of an Aspevig landscape, you wish you could step into the scene. His brush creates a chunk of visual earth that invites you to connect with the land.

“Twenty years from now I hope I’ll still be out there poking around in the hills, driving bumpy roads, hiking the trails and painting,” he says, adding, “and sitting on the porch of an inconspicuous little home in the Crazy Mountains.”

Poet Simon Ortiz wrote, “In continuance of the stories and songs, the earth shall continue.” In the continuance of his art, Aspevig hopes to maintain the connection between earth and humankind, between earth and a man.

Featured in May 1997