Clyde Aspevig | Driven by Nature


By Devon Jackson

Clyde Aspevig is an artist who paints with remarkable singularity of purpose. “I don’t want to be one of these benign people who doesn’t contribute anything to society,” says the 53-year-old Montana native, born in Havre near the Canadian border and now living on 250 acres near Livingston in southern Montana. “I’m searching for the ultimate landscape. I’m searching for a purity and a harmony. I’m fairly serious in my painting. I’m not whimsical.”

Whimsical, no. Wondrous and deep, definitely. Gorgeous and pleasing to the eye on one level, Aspevig’s landscapes—of mountains, of skies, of rivers—are also aesthetically and intellectually rigorous. His paintings, pretty as they are, don’t just hang there quietly over the mantel or on the gallery wall; they assert themselves. “My work is about the pristine environment,” avows Aspevig, who farmed dryland wheat as a boy. (After his father died of cancer at 36, Aspevig and his older brother managed the family’s farm till they left high school.) “I’m very interested, and concerned, with how water and land are used in the West. My job is, I’m painting—I’m hoping—to plant a seed for people to become far more awake. Painting should be a catalyst for people.”

Certainly, it drives Aspevig. But so have music and nature impelled him. Both his parents were musical (his dad, who farmed only reluctantly, sang in a barbershop quartet and yearned to be a musician), and Aspevig played the piano as a child and dreamed of becoming a concert pianist. His parents also loved the outdoors. Aspevig fondly recalls weekend trips to Glacier National Park and the Missouri River (and to this day, he and his mom still exchange letters marveling at nature’s wonders). “I have a natural connection to the land and to wildlife,” asserts Aspevig, whose ancestors emigrated from Norway. “The environment shaped me for life. I like being in big spaces—it’s why I live in Montana. The bulk of my work is about space.”


In 1976, while majoring in art education at Eastern Montana College (where he supported himself by selling his watercolors and working construction), Aspevig studied under Ben Steele, a no-nonsense art professor and survivor of World War II’s infamous Bataan Death March. “He’s a great cowboy, and he was a tremendous guy, and the only one who understood my desire for traditional landscape and not for all the contemporary garbage,” says Aspevig of his college mentor. “He had a great impact on my life, not only because he was a good instructor, but because of his moral and ethical behavior and courage.”

After graduating, Aspevig taught leatherwork at a Sandy, OR, high school—to the “troubled” kids. “They knew more about the subject than I did,” laughs Aspevig. “The first day of school I had to wrestle the biggest kid in class. Fortunately, I beat him, and we more or less got on with the curriculum.” Not wanting to wrestle delinquents for another term, Aspevig returned to Billings the next year, set up a studio in a spider-ridden root cellar, and never looked back. Thanks in no small part to his mom and dad. “One of the biggest gifts I’ve had,” Aspevig emphasizes, “was that my parents always encouraged me to go into art.”

Ever striving for that ultimate painting, and prolific as all get-out in his Arthurian quest for the One True Landscape (Aspevig has produced thousands of oils, watercolors, and smaller studies, and still has drawings he did in grade school), he regards such a calling as merely an accumulation of one’s experiences, and as life itself. “It’s all about the process—that’s far more important to me than the end result,” he says flatly. “Everything that happens in painting happens in life: failures, successes. As much as you try to control it and think about it, painting can also be serendipitous.” Only, though, by working at it. “I’m a craftsman. I’m not going to do a bad painting—not technically,” contends Aspevig, neither immodestly nor modestly. “But it’s more about taking the painting to the next level. Going deeper.”

One artist Aspevig cites as having gone deep is George Inness, the 19th-century American landscapist who aspired to “awaken an emotion” in viewers. “His paintings are nothing like mine,” observes Aspevig, “but they are spiritually deep.” Deep, and arranged—as are Aspevig’s works. “I’m not out there copying nature,” he says of his paintings. “I paint very representationally but realistically. I’m going to a different level on a representational basis. And plein-air painting only takes you to a certain level.”


He still paints outdoors, but spends more time nowadays in his studio, and in his head. “I create landscapes with a harmony that doesn’t exist in nature,” he asserts. “Nature is so overwhelming you can’t get it all. What I’m doing is studying how everything is related to one thing or another. It’s structural. How you layer the paint becomes symbolic about the layers of life. I’m exploring visuals, the smells, everything that’s out there. That’s what this whole thing is about, really: aesthetics.”

Or the ideology of his aesthetics, anyway. “What you choose and how you paint comes from your own ideologies,” opines Aspevig. “To ignore that is not living up to your potential as an artist; and if you don’t understand that, you’re not very aware of what’s around you.”

Aspevig is very aware, and hopes to spread that awareness through his work. For instance: He believes his trees look like human lungs, and not just visually or due to how he paints them, but because they’re living, breathing beings. “Nature is so profoundly beautiful, I need to do my part to make sure we don’t lose it,” he stresses. “If we don’t have the discipline to do this, does that give us the right to stand on our soapbox and denounce other people for not doing it? It creates controversy and raises hackles to say that, but why sacrifice those areas?”

So Aspevig invests his all into his paintings, while eschewing the pretty and the mainstream. “The thing I have to watch out for is that I’m so attracted to beauty and to beautiful objects, I can get too sweet about it,” he admits. (He also admits that he and his wife, painter Carol Guzman-Aspevig, “need to be surrounded by beautiful things. Even the shapes of our chairs is important to me. Our house uses recycled everything and is environmentally sound. I don’t want stuff from Wal-Mart in my house. I just fill my eyes every day with these things and that gives me the impetus to search for this ideal harmony. It’s our little sanctuary.”)


“If I paint something as bright as it is,” he continues, “it’s going to be gaudy.” He points out that people continually speak in awe of the vividness of Van Gogh’s colors, not realizing that the great Impressionist muted his blues and yellows with grays and other less shocking colors. Van Gogh downplayed nature—or at least how he saw it and then wanted it seen by others.

Similarly, Aspevig sees how he sees, and wants others to see and understand that vision, too, which partly explains both his aversion to being trendy and why he chooses to hoe his own road. “To paint like someone else is the biggest failure someone can do,” he declares. “It’s why I try to separate myself from the mainstream. So that those influences don’t seep into my work.” It’s not an attitude based in aloofness, then, or ego, it’s simply that Aspevig cherishes his alone time. Time outside. Time in his studio. Time with his books and records. “My greatest thrill now is reading,” he gushes. “Literature is what has given me ideas for my painting—literature and music. I’ve actually done trees to Rachmaninoff. I adjust things according to half-notes, to quarter-notes. You can take things down to a minimalistic level and then build them back up.”

He works in layers, blocking out this, scraping out that. Some of the elements show through, some are much harder to see. “That’s the fun thing about putting the painting together,” he marvels. “How to fuse music and literature into my art, it’s a challenge and a joy.”

The biggest mistake people make is saying that his painting is “loose.” “I paint less now but I think about it more,” he points out. “Always. I conceptualize how to solve things. I’ve thought about some paintings for two to three years before getting to them.”

Clearly, Aspevig wants to take people beyond the literal, beyond what they first see in his paintings. “The big struggle is not to be obvious and yet to still succeed in doing it,” he muses. “That’s what I’m learning from literature.”

So he continues, mostly alone, to pay attention to what he sees; and to read, to listen, to react. To feel. “It raises the content of a painting when you augment it with your emotion,” explains Aspevig, echoing Inness’ credo. “And landscape is the best way to express human emotion. Portraits personalize. But you bring to landscape whatever you have in you, and then you interact with it. Raw nature intermingled with human emotion, if it works right, it’s pretty profound. So if someone has one of these paintings hanging on their wall for any length of time, I think these ideas will sink in.”

Featured in June 2004