Theodore Waddell | At Home in the West

Silver Creek Horses, Oil/Encaustic 72 x 72
Silver Creek Horses, Oil/Encaustic 72 x 72

By John Villani

Many art voices strive to speak for the American West. Cowboy artists celebrate its frontier past and rural present. Native American artists create windows through which the West’s tribal customs and cultures are honored and explained. And landscape painters implore us to appreciate the natural beauty that surrounds us.

Other artists follow more individualistic paths. They use paint and clay the same way a gracious homeowner welcomes a visitor: “Come on inside,” says their art, “and take a look around. This is how I live.”

Theodore Waddell, a native Montana painter and sculptor whose resume also includes nearly two decades as the hands-on owner of working cattle ranches, falls into this latter category. His creative style runs decidedly toward the abstract and contemporary, yet his personal statement is a timeless one: “I live here, I’ve been through it all, and I know what it’s like.”

In Waddell’s world, man, animal, and landscape engage in a constant dialogue. His point of view doesn’t revise the myth of the West as much as open a window onto the heart and soul of the region’s daily currency. Through simplified and reduced imagery, he builds paintings that have engaged the imaginations of museum-goers and art collectors around the nation for more than 30 years.

Through all the acclaim—museum shows across the West, gallery shows across the country, and extensive catalogs focusing on his life and work—Waddell’s art rings true for one simple reason: It’s drawn from the places he calls home.

Mize Horses Dr. #2, oil/encaustic/graphite, 30 x 40
Mize Horses Dr. #2, oil/encaustic/graphite, 30 x 40

Waddell was born in the ranching town of Laurel, MT, near Billings. Studies at Eastern Montana College brought him into contact with painter Isabelle Johnson, which in turn led to his studying at the Brooklyn (NY) Museum Art School in the early 1960s. “It was a period,” he recalls, “when abstract expressionist influences were coming into my life at the same time as I was admiring Remington and Russell. I was painting every day, right in the middle of this wonderful mix of experiences.”

After serving in the Army, he completed his master of fine arts degree at Wayne State University in Detroit and then accepted a job teaching sculpture at the University of Montana in Missoula. In 1976, the same year he was granted tenure, Waddell left teaching and moved to a ranch outside of Molt, MT. Although he continued to paint and sculpt, ranching’s challenges became his priority.

Eleven years later, he traded the Molt ranch’s 4,000 acres, 200 cattle, and 150 sheep for a 700-acre spread in nearby Ryegate, where he maintained a 60-cattle operation until hanging up his branding irons in 1996. “I couldn’t stand the death loss that’s part of ranching,” he says in explaining his reasons for selling the Ryegate operation. “You work hard, you’re directly responsible for what happens, and you take each animal’s death very personally.”

During the course of his ranching years, Waddell steadily created art. “The early hours of each day were mine,” he says, “and almost every day I painted right up until the minute when my ranch work would start.” In 1983, after hanging some paintings at the livestock auction yard in Billings, MT, he was invited to participate in the second Western States Exhibition and the 38th Corcoran Biennial Exhibition of American Painting, a touring show organized by Washington, DC’s Corcoran Museum of Art.

It was the latter show that set Waddell apart from the art pack. Suddenly he was being sought out by gallery owners, museum curators, and art collectors across the nation. The rancher who spent his winter nights delivering calves in chilly barns now found his paintings being acquired by the likes of Robert Redford and Ringo Starr and gracing the corporate offices of Apple Computer, United Airlines, and Mobil.

Today, Waddell splits his time between homes in Manhattan, MT, and Hailey, ID. With studios in both places, he describes his life as “living the dream, and I know it. I continue to explore the variations in the western landscape, which is the most powerful source of inspiration there is.” A lifelong music enthusiast who still toys with the fluegelhorn, he sometimes interprets his art as “jazz with a melody line.”

Gallatin Angus #2, oil/encaustic, 66 x 132
Gallatin Angus #2, oil/encaustic, 66 x 132

Nearly two dozen times a year, Waddell and his wife, photographer Lynn Campion, cross the Idaho-Montana state line over Monida Pass, tending to the duties of their two house-holds. He enjoys the invigorating dynamic of creating art in different locations. “The starting and finishing points in my paintings shift depending on which studio I’m working in. In Idaho, I look out on an aspen grove. In Montana, I look out to the Bridger Mountains, so the paintings I do there have a broader view of the landscape,” he says.

While his Montana studio is an environment for painting, Waddell’s Idaho studio reflects the evolving diversity of his creative focus. There he has not only installed a printing press but also built a large sculpture studio. Lately he’s spent increasing amounts of time working on sculpture, a process he describes as “problem solving in a different medium.
“In my earlier years I’d find myself getting pretty philosophical about art, but with friends’ help and the influence of this place I love called Montana, I’ve learned about humanity, humility, and having the good sense to maintain some privacy,” Waddell says. “I guess that’s why I really don’t have much to say to people about specific themes in my art. I just want it to communicate an inclusive message about the world we all live in.”

Waddell is represented by Waddell Art Works, Man-hattan, MT, and Hailey, ID.

Featured in April 2002