Fruit & Flowers, oil, 9 x 12.
By Jo-Ann Swanson
Painter Carolyn Anderson lives in the Big Sky Country of Montana, 40 miles south of the Canadian border, on the vast, dusty Great Plains. Her home, in a quiet green coulee at the bottom of a hill, is at the end of a dead-end road. The artist seems geographically isolated on what Wallace Stegner called an “ocean of land.” Against this giant backdrop, where fields stretch for miles and trees seem esoteric, Anderson fills her frames with luminous faces, dancers in motion, and horse races.
Anderson has been here for more than 20 years. After growing up just north of Chicago, where she admits she sometimes stole away from school to admire Degas’ paintings of ballet dancers at the Art Institute of Chicago, she attended Illinois State University in Normal, IL. A trip organized by Volunteers in Service to America took her to Rocky Boys Indian Reservation for a year and a half in the late 1960s, and aside from one return to Illinois, she’s lived here since then.
Rachel’s Hat, oil, 16 x 12.
Montana, she’s found, is a far cry from the Midwest. “It’s taken awhile to get used to the landscape,” Anderson says. “I miss the water, for one thing, but the most disconcerting difference is the lack of shadows on the northern Great Plains. Other than the ones cast by telephone poles and fence posts, most of the shadows are huge and distant, like those cast by mountains and passing clouds. They’re not on a human scale.”
Anderson’s intimately sized works exist in almost direct contrast to the distant, boundless Montana landscape—her canvases rarely measure more than 16 by 20 inches. “I like the intimacy of small paintings,” she explains in her cheerful, sunlit studio. “I don’t paint novels. We’re not talking James Michener or grand adventures here. I think of my paintings more as essays. I try to stay focused as much as possible.”
Yet by “focused” Anderson does not mean that her paintings are tightly rendered. Far from it. “Often my painting technique is comparable to sketching, except that I do it directly in oil without drawing underneath,” she explains. “I prefer improvisation and not knowing the direction a painting will take. It’s never the likeness I’m after—I’m more concerned with what’s under the surface, with capturing the essence of someone or something.”
During the only workshop Anderson has ever taken, instructor and painter Charles Movalli questioned the focal point of one of her paintings. When she pointed out the play of light over the land, he asked why she had included a distracting pier in the foreground. “I took the pier out, and I’ve been taking things out ever since,” she says with a grin. “Sometimes I challenge myself: If I had to paint a particular subject in one brush stroke, how would I do it? Each brush stroke should have its own meaning.”
Girls Reading, oil, 12 x 16.
While Anderson is known for her portraits, she is drawn to form and movement as much as to individual faces. During summers she goes to the horse races at Expo Park in Great Falls, MT, as well as the annual powwow at Rocky Boys, with a goal: “to create one instant in time but make it look like an eternity.”
Drawn to the dance costumes of the Plains tribes, she paints all five types of dancers: shawl, grass, traditional, jingle dress, and fancy dancers. A big challenge is the Grand Entrance, where all the competitors dance at once. She must provide enough information that the viewer can identify the different types of dancers, yet not create too much distraction. In earlier paintings she tended toward dark backgrounds and lighter foregrounds, but lately she’s been using other figures as the background, creating more complexity of movement and interest. What-ever the composition, though, Anderson’s dancers move as fast as the grass that ripples along the edges of highways in the relentless Montana wind.
Shawl Dancer, oil, 16 x 12.
A member of the American Women Artists group, Anderson has been a special guest at the annual Northwest Rendezvous exhibition and shown her work at the Nita Stewart Haley Memorial Library Western Art Show in Midland, TX, and the Governor’s Mansion in Helena, MT. Among her awards are the Best of Show prize from the National Western Art Show, Ellensburg, WA. Every year she participates in several shows: the C.M. Russell Auction and the C.M. Russell Museum’s miniatures show in Great Falls, the National Western Art Show, and the Holter Museum Benefit in Helena.
If Anderson considers her paintings to be essays, they are wide-ranging in both subject and style—sometimes mysterious character sketches that leave viewers wanting to know more about the subjects’ lives, other times vivid descriptions of a moment of frenetic motion suspended in time. Excitement, drama, contemplation, pensiveness—each emotion is communicated, as Anderson puts it, “without spelling it out.”
Photos courtesy the artist and Total Arts Gallery, Taos, NM; Long Gallery, Scottsdale, AZ; and Huntsman Gallery, Aspen, CO.
Featured in November 1997