Joseph & Rita Orr

Threads of Winter, acrylic, 18 x 24. painting, southwest art.
Threads of Winter, acrylic, 18 x 24.

By Franz Brown

Missouri. The place where wooded East gives way to prairie West. The place where Spanish, French and English vied with one another to expand their own borders and where more Civil War battles were fought than in all but two other states.

Joseph Orr lives in the center of the state, in a rugged area of old mountains on the shores of Lake of the Ozarks, one of America’s largest man-made lakes. This sparsely populated region between St. Louis and Kansas City is closely tied to western expansion. “Our heritage is still evident in the area, though you might have to peel back a layer or two to see it just below the surface,” he says.

It is a region of many streams and creeks. The Osage River feeds the lake, and the Missouri River flows just to the north. Along with the Mississippi River to the east, these river corridors played major roles in shaping  the history and economy of the region. Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto’s expedition saw the landscape briefly in 1541. French voyageurs coming down the Mississippi from Canada first arrived in 1654, discovering a land abundant with wildlife as well as Indian inhabitants. The Osage tribe was one of the most powerful in the region, controlling the area south of the Missouri River. The place names they chose, many interpreted by the French, are still in use. The term Ozarks, for instance, comes from the French aux-arks for “on the Arkansas.”

Country Patterns, acrylic, 24 x 32. painting, southwest art.
Country Patterns, acrylic, 24 x 32.

Today, the region is still heavily forested, though 44 percent of the land is tilled by farmers. The air, thick with moisture, takes the bite out of the sun, slightly suppressing shadows so that instead of being sharp-edged, they are darker pools contrasting with the lighter areas around them. “The thin, gray veil over the sky brings up the land, making it more prominent,” says Orr. “As an artist I’ve latched onto the land more than the sky. This is what I try to put in my paintings—the love of the land and the hard work that goes into farming it. There’s an honesty here. People talk a little slower because they think about what they are going to say.”

Rivers, forests and farms dominate Orr’s work. The views are peaceful and often suggest pristine “secret places” where the welcome shade of dogwoods, sycamores and oaks invites a person to stop and read a bit of O. Henry or Ernest Hemingway. Weathered rolling hills and valleys are treated with silent respect, and ubiquitous farmlands dotted with large, round hay bales submit to the long shadows and shafts of golden late-afternoon light. Wildflowers also color the landscape. Splashes of white and yellow remind us that yarrow, goldenrod and Queen Anne’s lace still rule the summer countryside. Quietly presented by Orr, they suggest a shy boy offering a gift to his mother with bowed head and outstretched hand, a gesture of embarrassment mixed with love.

Purple Majesty, acrylic, 30 x 40. southwest art.
Purple Majesty, acrylic, 30 x 40.

Orr says that the landscape is a vehicle for exploration both its physical and psychological reality. He is not so much interested in details the individual types of trees and grasses but rather in the personality of the place, which is, of course, always open to interpretation.

Orr has experienced many landscapes in his nearly five decades of life. Born in Japan in 1949, he spent his first four and a half years in an orphanage before being adopted by American Army man Fremont Orr and wife Leona. With his new family Joseph moved many times, doing stints in Colorado, Germany and twice in California.

When Orr graduated from high school in 1967, his father retired from the service and moved to Missouri. At the suggestion of his mother, Orr stayed in California to take college business classes in Salinas and Monterey. Although he was unaware of the art scene close at hand in Carmel, Orr began to develop an interest in art through occasional contact with his landlady’s husband, an illustrator for a San Francisco newspaper who brought home his figure and still-life illustrations.

Thistles on the Edge, acrylic, 32 x 24. painting, southwest art.
Thistles on the Edge, acrylic, 32 x 24.

The defining moment in Orr’s life came in 1969 during a summer job as a machine operator at Hallmark Cards in Kansas City, MO. Eight hours a day he ran a machine that folded greeting cards. “That’s where my interest in art started,” he remembers. “I would watch cards going through the machines and marvel that people made a living as greeting-card artists.” When the summer break was over, Orr stayed in Kansas City.

Hallmark had a program of changing art exhibits in the employee’s cafeteria, work areas and hallways. Encouraged by what he saw in the plant, Orr began visiting the art galleries in Kansas City’s Plaza area. Around 1970 he started taking private lessons in watercolor and pencil taught by Hallmark artist Tony Allison. When Allison left a year later, Orr signed up for a commercial art course at Longview Junior College in Kansas City, MO. The instruction was unsatisfactory, says Orr, who attributes the shortcoming more to his own youthful impatience than to a deficiency in the curriculum. However, two classes did greatly influence him: life drawing and painting on location.

By 1972 Orr was badly infected with the art bug and found himself painting at every opportunity. “But I wanted something more than commercial art,” he recalls. “I liked what the Hallmark artists were doing but not where they were doing it. I didn’t want to end up in some tiny 6 by 6 foot cubicle.”

A View From Douglas, WY, acrylic, 20 x 28.
A View From Douglas, WY, acrylic, 20 x 28.

That same year oil painter Ron Huff invited Orr to Colorado for the summer to see if they could earn a living in art. They painted through the summer, selling what they could along the road and at the entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park at Estes Park. It was his first taste of “the Bohemian life.” Orr made little money during the trip, but the experience was so invigorating that he knew painting was to become his vocation.

“Thinking, breathing and eating art from morning to night seduced me,” says Orr, who nearly starved to death. Only the atmosphere kept him alive. “Art gets into your body and soul and consumes you,” he says of missed car payments and nagging parents who advised him to do something else to earn a living.

In 1973 Orr joined a group of about 40 artists who traveled the shopping mall circuit. The motley crew included Hungarian refugees, Hell’s Angels and members of the Croatian royal family. They traveled from Florida to Ohio, Washington, DC, to Canada. Along the way Orr married Rita Mathews, who is also an artist (see sidebar). She accepted and understood his needs and continues to share his life.

When the Orrs tired of living on the road, they opened their own gallery in 1976 in a space upstairs from the Potted Steer Restaurant in Osage Beach, MO, the premier restaurant in the area. Painting during the day and running the gallery from 6 p.m. till the wee hours of the morning began to make the mall circuit look attractive. Four years later Orr and Rita, “feeling a bit free-spirited,” decided to rejoin the tour, but by then it had changed. Now showing in lower-grade malls, the group was dominated by craftmakers and the refrigerator-magnet crowd.

A year later Orr began participating in outdoor art shows. In 1990 he was juried into the Top 100 in the annual Arts for the Parks competition in Jackson, WY; and in 1993 he won the Historical Award. Exposure there and continued hard work has won him representation in galleries across the country.

When he started out, Orr worked in watercolors but now he favors acrylic. “I like getting my hands dirty and loading the brush with paint. When I pile the pigment on the brush, the weight and application feel like sculpting. There’s a whoosh as I lay the paint down on the canvas, something like a kid wearing rubber boots and jumping into the mud.”

Because acrylic dries quickly, Orr finds it suitable for outdoor work. Not only can his idea be developed quickly, but he can also be more flexible in making changes and responding spontaneously to the light and textures of the Missouri landscape. Painting is his life, says Orr, who works seven days a week. The isolation of his location causes him to miss the companionship of other artists, yet he’s happy painting the “ordinary scene.” He wants others to recognize that, in its own way, the Midwest is a paradise. “So many people pass through the Midwest on their way somewhere else and never stop to see what’s here. I’m trying to show them that this part of the world is worth exploring, too.”

Photos courtesy the artist, Trailside Americana Fine Art Galleries, Scottsdale, AZ, and Jackson, WY; Altermann & Morris Galleries, Taos, NM; Quast Galleries, Taos, NM; Leopold International, Kansas City, MO; and Benson Fine Art, Ruidoso, NM.

Featured in April 1997