Glen Edwards | How The West Was Lived

Glen Edwards

By Virginia Campbell

Western painter Glen Edwards specializes in historical scenes from his Utah and Idaho surroundings

The first painting for which Utah artist Glen Edwards won a prize was the first oil painting he ever made. The prize was a gold wristwatch, and the painting was a western landscape of a mountain with an old house on it. Edwards was a high-school student at the time, in an Idaho town not more than 50 miles from where he now lives and paints, and he found this early artistic validation relatively uninteresting compared with the glories he hoped to achieve through athletic exertions.

Art eventually replaced sports as his top priority, but only through the intercession of an especially benevolent mentor. Knowing that Edwards was too small to make it in collegiate sports, but seeing also that the sports-crazy teen had artistic talent, his coach visited an art professor friend of his at Utah State University to pave Edwards’ way out of sports and into art studies.

Many decades later, that first prize-winning painting still hangs on the wall of Edwards’ home in Utah’s Cache Valley, and he still keeps up with the now-retired coach, who lives nearby. The coherence and consistency of life that these circumstances suggest are borne out in the rest of Edwards’ existence, too, from a commitment to mentoring he himself has maintained to his personal geography, which has only briefly included any landscape outside of Utah and Idaho. At the visible center of this focused life is Edwards’ painting, which features western images drawn from a way of life that preceded his on his home landscape and is enriched by observation of his landscape as it appears today.

Young Brave, oil, 24 x 18The typical Edwards painting is an oil of medium size depicting a scene of historical western life—cowboys, Indians, hunters, and horses in streams, mountains, and meadows. The imagined, realistically rendered scenes reflect both his own life growing up amid the farms and ranches of Idaho and the life of his imagination, which from boyhood flourished on cowboy and Indian lore left over from the 19th century. His childhood was imprinted by movie double features in which Hopalong Cassidy, Gene Autry, and other western heroes raced through canyons, communed with Native Americans, and brought bandits to justice. In Edwards’ paintings, figures drawn freshly and skillfully in rich brushwork and vibrant pigment stand against landscapes rendered with deliberately abstract, painterly panache in a lower key. There’s an implied narrative, a relationship among the figures and a purpose to their activity. The titles—the trailing pinto, stolen horses, the hunt—are simply stated.

That the elements of Edwards’ youthful fantasy life are now the subjects of his pictures is, despite the imaginative hold they still have on him, largely an irrelevant matter, he maintains. “I think of everything as just painting,” he says. “The subject matter is incidental, really. What makes for a good painting has nothing to do with its subject.” Still, there are reasons he has never delved more deeply into landscape painting, for example, which is the focus of many painters who grew up with Edwards’ enthusiasms. “I sometimes think I should paint landscapes,” he says, “and they sell better than cowboy and Indian paintings. But I’m infatuated with the figure.”

Edwards has been infatuated with the figure all along. Born in 1942, he drew figures and animals throughout a childhood that was, despite the death of his father when he was 3 and the ongoing struggle his mother went through to keep three boys clothed and fed, a happy one. Once in college at Utah State he began to learn the fundamentals of drawing, painting, and design, and from early on he held that these activities were basically the same thing—and that drawing was ultimately the fundamental thing that was going on in art. “We separate drawing, painting, and design, but as soon as you put a mark on paper, you’re drawing,” he points out.

As an undergraduate, he gravitated to graphic design and took a job in the field right out of college. But a short stint doing logos, brochures, and flip charts drove him to put together the money to attend the prestigious Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, CA. There he focused on illustration, deepening his drawing skills while mastering color theory, and learning how to negotiate in the commercial world. When the money ran out before he’d finished the program, he left and eventually enrolled in the graduate program at Utah State, where he earned a master’s degree in fine art.

On a single trip to New York with his portfolio, he made contacts that fed him illustration work for the next several years, doing covers for books from Signet and Dell and magazines like Field & Stream. His calling, though, turned out to be teaching, and in the role of teacher, primarily of illustration, he was able to explore and communicate his infatuation with the figure and to impress upon his students the overriding importance of drawing.

“I believe that the better you draw, the better you paint,” says Edwards, who developed the illustration course for the Utah State art department, “so in my illustration classes I assigned my students to fill three sketchbooks with drawings. Each book had 100 pages, and everyone did 100 drawings in class as well. So by the end of the course, every student had done 400 drawings.” Over his 32-year academic career from which he has now retired, Edwards taught hundreds of students and watched many of them become successful artists. “I could go to Jackson Hole, walk into any gallery, and I’d see work by one of my students there,” he says.

Edwards sees virtually no important difference between the illustration he taught and executed over many years and the “pure” painting he now does full time. “The only difference,” he allows, “is that I’m painting what I want to paint as opposed to what I’m assigned. I’d have nothing against anyone using one of my paintings as an illustration, but I like choosing what will be in the painting.”

Edwards does energetic research when choosing what will be in a painting. He periodically goes to “rendezvous” events, which are get-togethers staged by enthusiasts of mountain-man culture—mountain men being the fur traders who hunted the West in earlier centuries. Cache Valley, where Edwards lives, is so named because it’s where fur traders hid their furs until the hunting season was finished and they could sell them. At a rendezvous, there are booths where modern-day nostalgia traders sell mountain-man crafts and accoutrements, and full-dress reenactments of mountain-man activities like hunting and ax-throwing. Edwards shoots lots of photographs at these events and collects fabrics, artifacts, and the like for use later in composing his paintings. Edwards also goes to the annual powwow over in Blackfoot, ID, where several tribes gather together and do ritual dances, most of which the public is allowed to photograph.

But more important, perhaps, than any rendezvous or powwow is a newer phenomenon that takes place just east of Rapid City, SD, in late summer, the Artist Ride. In what has become an increasingly well-attended annual event that verges on the surreal, authentic tableaus are set up for groups of artists to photograph, draw, or paint. Over the course of three or four days, all kinds of set-ups are made available, usually many at the same time. There could be three cowboys fording a stream on horseback in one spot, an Indian brave posing in morning light in another, and so on. “I shoot tons of film,” says Edwards, “and you can fill out requests ahead of time for any particular thing you want. I asked for a stagecoach a few years ago, and they set it up. It’s great research.”

As for the fresh, loosely painted landscapes that Edwards’ figures inhabit and animate, he has ranches, rivers, and mountains all around him for research. Almost 30 years ago he bought land in Star Valley, ID, and spent a few weeks there every summer in a teepee with his wife, Barbara, before finally building a cabin, where his family goes to this day. Even at home in Smithfield, UT, he doesn’t have to wander far for the visual drama he seeks for his canvases. In his above-garage studio, he looks out to north and northeastern light over an apple orchard and an expanse beyond.

It’s in this studio that Edwards, now 63, works to transform his reference material into paintings that transcend their beloved subject matter. He abides by and plays with the rules of drawing and painting he taught year after year—rules that deal with emphasis and subordination, variety within unity, form following function, the tendency of warm colors to come forward and cool colors to recede, a change in direction meaning a change in value, and so on. “All good artists know these rules,” says Edwards, “and all good artists break them to make a better painting. The difference between good painters and inexperienced ones is that good ones break rules to improve the painting, and inexperienced painters break them because they don’t know better.”

However much Edwards emphasizes the joy of pure painting over the importance of his western imagery, any division between what he paints and how he paints it seems specious when you look carefully at his work. There is a hard-won vividness to his brushwork and coloration that makes his artistry perfectly suited to its content. This seamlessness of technique and content is supported by an encompassing purpose. “I believe you have an obligation to make the world a better place through your painting,” he says. Edwards, whose demeanor is modest, doesn’t say this out of any lapse into grandiosity or naïve idealism. The examples he cites of how painting can “make the world a better place” are small and personal, ordinary moments of revelation that people have with paintings. You can see the passages in his paintings where viewers are drawn in and invited to be affected in a positive way by suspension in emotional resonance.

Edwards finds elemental poetry in the simplest wielding of the western visual vocabulary, and his determination to make paintings that exist beyond their subjects only adds to the poetic eloquence of his best work.

Edwards is represented by Broschofsky Galleries, Ketchum, ID; Mountain Trails Gallery, Jackson, WY; Mountain Trails Gallery, Park City, UT, and Palm Desert, CA; NanEtte Richardson Fine Art, San Antonio, TX; and Sage Creek Gallery, Santa Fe, NM.

Featured in June 2006