By James H. Nottage
George Carlson’s sculptures describe the essence of humanity
TO THE MEDICINE LODGE (1967), BRONZE. COURTESY OF THE EITELJORG MUSEUM OF AMERICAN INDIANS AND WESTERN ART, INDIANAPOLIS
An understanding and appreciation for George Carlson’s art can grow from listening to him and watching him create a sculpture. With one layer at a time, this complex philosopher, student, teacher, engineer, naturalist, painter, sculptor, husband, and father builds works of great strength. He has produced a remarkable body of work that is associated with the West because his subjects are often residents of the region. One of the things that distinguishes Carlson from many other western artists, however, is that his art is not about the past. It is also not obvious storytelling art. His subjects are living beings whom he has studied and presented in a way that reflects the essence of their lives.
The armature upon which Carlson himself was formed first took shape in Elmhurst, Illinois. Born on July 3, 1940, the son of a Swedish father working as a mechanic and a mother who was a pianist, Carlson grew up in a busy home where “work was a high ethic” and music, poetry, and literature were valued. As a child he began a lifelong devotion to studying and observing nature; he spent hours in the woods and kept notebooks about birds.
Carlson’s ability to draw was encouraged and nurtured by his elementary and high school teachers. Upon graduation, he had a portfolio ready, and in about 1958, he interviewed in Chicago for work in advertising art and illustration. Carlson found employment at Vogue Wright Studios, where he retouched photographs and worked on commercial catalogs and brochures. When the art director, Ralph Thompson, moved to Kranston Studios, Carlson followed.
Thompson became a mentor to the young artist. They would go to art shows together, study paintings, and in the evenings work on figure studies at a drawing club. Ralph Thompson’s guidance led him to the conclusion that sculpture was a means to understanding drawing better. “I got to thinking, when you sculpt … in a way it’s drawing all around that person’s head. That’s how I sort of got into sculpting, through the back door.”
While he thrilled at being paid good money to make art, Carlson quit his job and left Chicago in about 1964. “I just wanted to purge myself of illustration,” he later said. “I owe it a lot, but there is something bad about illustration. Sometimes it’s hard to jump and really be an artist.” He wanted to focus on the essentials of form and composition and to imbue his subjects with life. He left for the West and the carefree life of a ski bum. He hit the slopes of Taos, Vail, and Aspen, supporting himself by washing dishes, and all the while painting and seeking a place to settle down. Two years later, he landed at the University of Arizona, where he studied anthropology and worked with the Apache, Pima, Tohono O’odham, Hopi, Navajo, and other cultures. He wanted to learn how to look at and better understand a culture so that he could better succeed in giving life to his art.
OF ONE HEART (1978), BRONZE. DENVER ART MUSEUM; FUNDS FROM THE CONTEMPORARY REALISM GROUP.
Through the 1960s and early 1970s, Carlson struggled financially but grew artistically. Taos painter Bettina Steinke was a positive influence on him, as was western painter Robert Lougheed, who provided him with critical commentary about his work. Friendships with sculptor Boris Gilbertson and watercolorist Donald Teague also provided him with points of discussion about art and artistic technique. A general immersion in art and Carlson’s constant labor resulted in the production of many dozens of bronzes portraying native subjects from throughout the West…
Soon the western art world took notice of Carlson’s work. At the National Cowboy Hall of Fame’s National Academy of Western Art show in 1974, he won the gold medal for EAGLE CATCHER. The next year he won the Prix de West for COURTSHIP FLIGHT. He continued thereafter to win awards at many shows, exhibiting with well-known painters and sculptors in a field dominated by narrative art. His contribution was to present works that did not center on conflicts or battle and that avoided a preoccupation with the past to focus instead upon living inhabitants of the West…
Featured in February 2008