By Rosemary Carstens
Born into a family of writers and painters in Fort Worth, TX, Montana-based Will Pope is a renaissance man—an accomplished artist, published author, screenwriter, and filmmaker who even dreams creatively, visiting an imaginary town of his own design each night, filled with people, images, and symbols that often show up in his work. A self-described “postmodern landscape artist,” Pope strives to avoid overly romanticized western landscapes by portraying wildlife through abstraction and synthesis: “When I paint a fox, I am not simply painting a fox. There are straight lines and knife marks, and legs without paws,” he explains. “While I could easily fashion an anatomically ‘perfect’ fox, to me most of the meaning of the image would be lost.” His figures, he says, are “intuitive beats of color or line, much like improvisational music.”
Pope grew up surrounded by creativity and came to his life’s work quite naturally. As he relates it, he and his 11 siblings lived in a household of “barely ordered chaos.” “My mother was a playwright, poet, and musician. She opened a Montessori school for children and had a children’s puppet-based TV show,” he says. “My father, Tim Pope, still an active artist and writer, taught at Corcoran College of Art & Design and the Famous Artists School, and he was the Fort Worth Zoo artist for 15 years.” Growing up, Will often spent after-school hours and weekends at the zoo observing the animals—experiences that would serve him well as an artist who often focuses on wildlife.
The 43-year-old artist has been developing his various talents for more than two decades. He painted his first canvases while stationed in Germany during a tour in the army. When he was discharged, he spent a month with his sister, artist Stephanie Clifton, in New York and created 20 paintings. It was then that he knew he would always make art.
Once settled on a life as an artist, Pope attended the University of New Mexico’s art program, where he first studied photography and ceramic sculpture and then finished in painting. Among important adjunct professors who influenced Pope were California artists Lee Mullican, Larry Bell, and Ron Cooper. Artist Wes Mills, known for his minimalist drawings of isolated shapes, was Pope’s roommate several times over the years, and the impact of his work remains strong. Mills also lives in Montana and the artists continue to be close friends. Although Pope’s personal style is uniquely his own, he has always surrounded himself with talented people, learning from each and extending those lessons to his own work. Among his most notable mentors was abstractionist Agnes Martin of Taos: “She would paint and argue with me under her breath. She impressed upon me values of aesthetics that are still with me, though our work is dramatically different.”
Pope paints on Venetian plaster—which he calls a “glorious form of gesso”—because doesn’t like to see canvas texture beneath the paint. Traditional fresco, such as that used by Michelangelo and Diego Rivera, often muted colors over time, while Pope seeks very high color intensity and chooses contemporary products that promote it.
Ben Mitchell, senior curator of art at the Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture in Spokane, WA, aptly describes Pope’s work as “highly complex and layered, wild and passionate, a form of alchemy, with one foot solidly planted in oil painting’s history, the other finding purchase in present-day electronic images.”
Pope’s visions frequently begin with wild animal photographs he’s taken in Yellowstone National Park or the Bridger Mountains near his home in Bozeman. The images are downloaded to his computer and Photoshopped, each color layer is separated as if for a screen-printing process, and the resulting templates are printed on cardstock to create stencils.
Often working on three large paintings at a time, the artist begins by mixing vast quantities of plaster with raw Italian dry pigments and olive oil. He applies this mixture to wood panels in thin layers with broad, rhythmic strokes and metal spatulas, much like a master cake decorator applying frosting. After so many years of experience, he does this step quickly, but not haphazardly—in his mind’s eye he sees exactly the motion and color placement desired.
Next, he lays out graphite sketches on the plaster ground and begins building them up with color and texture, frequently using any number of his pre-designed stencils, laying in oil through the cutouts with a broad knife, layer by layer, hue by hue. At times, Pope might trowel tinted plaster into the cutouts, creating one-dimensional silhouettes of bison, foxes, flamingos, and long-horned steers alongside urban images such as skyscrapers or cars. Each is then re-layered with more texture and more paint until multidimensional, multicolored details slowly emerge.
Pope’s work is “populated by a signature cast of animals, icons, colors, and shapes in a surprising and refreshing manner,” says Nikki Todd, owner of Visions West Galleries. “Underlying all the work is a technical virtuosity that adeptly complements the balance of each painting. Will has created his own boundless world and he invites, or perhaps I should say, entices the viewer in for a peek.”
The artist also includes in his repertoire his own encaustic mixture of beeswax (blended with mineral spirits, Venetian turpentine, pigment, and damar varnish), linocuts, photo transfers, and ethereal fragments of text created with antique leather-stamping tools on rare Fabriano paper dating back to 1589. He subtly applies bits and pieces of poetry, allusions in homage to master painters such as Matisse and Picasso, and words that seem to swim to the surface with hidden, symbolic meaning.
Working on several paintings at once allows Pope, whose mind is never at rest, to move quickly back and forth. His work is essentially intuitive, involving a stream-of-consciousness that constantly generates unique and compelling connections. Here there are no “accidents,” he contends, only newly defined expressions of his central theme of an interconnected and interdependent universe. Pope sometimes feels he cannot work fast enough. “I feel I can’t keep up with the interpretations and images flowing through me,” he says, “of animals peering from each work’s surface, relating to me, to each other, to a number of things all at once.” His job is to capture as much interaction and reaction as possible, pulling images in by their tails and embedding each in its place. It takes a burning energy—something he never lacks.
In his studio, Pope exudes vigor. He is never still, bouncing back and forth between pieces—mixing, brushing, scraping, applying stencils, altering juxtaposition of color and object, quickly slapping on a suddenly inspired word—all the while scoping out something new he sees for one of the other paintings in progress. His approach contains not a whit of timidity; he tackles each work boldly, with confidence, knowing that inspiration will pour forth. Like a juggler with numerous balls in the air, there is constant mental and physical motion as each painting rises from a blank piece of wood into a fully realized work of art. From what seems pure chaos at times, order and insight are achieved.
Pope considers himself a “colorist and a symbolist” and these are two defining components of his style. “None of my colors come straight from the tube,” he says. Weather also has an enormous emotional impact on the artist. In winter, when all is muted and neutral in the north, he longs for warmer climes and expresses his mood through brighter, more intense hues, especially oranges and reds. “I paint a new environment for myself as my thoughts drift south, to the Texas of my childhood, to Florida and Mexico.”
During Montana’s brutally cold months, it is not unusual to see a bright red long-horned steer or a hot pink flamingo jump to life in a painting. In summer, he might work outdoors on groups of smaller paintings using a more muted palette—more realistic, with less wattage. Regardless of palette, certain themes and symbols repeat: elephants, cars, the number eleven (he was born 11-11-65, two elevens and a numeral that combines to make another, plus he is a twin), and, perhaps especially, bison, long an iconic image for the artist.
Pope’s paintings are the work of a cultural anthropologist, digging deep into imagery, symbolism, and mark-making to unearth meaning and spontaneous reinterpretation, while combining traditional and contemporary methods and materials. Each piece’s multilayered surface simultaneously reflects the past, present, and future of wildlife, its evolving relationship to society, and art as a means for discussion. These are paintings that never tire the eye. Each interacts dynamically with the viewer’s memories and experiences to create a never-ending narrative of imagination and play.
Rosemary Carstens, editor of the award-winning webzine FEAST, is writing a book about Mexico City artist Annette Nancarrow, a contemporary of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo.
Meyer Gallery, Salt Lake City and Park City, UT; Visions West Galleries, Bozeman and Livingston, MT, and Denver, CO; www.willpope.com.
Meyer Gallery, Salt Lake City, through August. Visions West Galleries, Bozeman, September 1-30.
Featured in May 2009