Bo Bartlett | Manifest Destiny

Return to Hope, oil, 52 x 88
Return to Hope, oil, 52 x 88

By Bonnie Gangelhoff

The road from the Vashon Island ferry dock to Bo Bartlett’s studio meanders up a winding hill, through the town center, and past a marina full of small sailboats. Eventually Bartlett’s quaint, cottage-like studio nestled in the trees come into view. Inside the artist’s space, the most noticeable feature is the silvery light illuminating the surfaces of the second-story studio. Artist Betsy Eby, who on occasion appears in Bartlett’s contemporary figurative paintings, maintains a studio downstairs. From his window, Bartlett can see Mount Rainier, Maury Island, and a forest of trees. Like the woods in which he grew up in Georgia, it feels like home.

Bartlett came to Seattle from Philadelphia three years ago for a solo exhibition at the Frye Art Museum and decided to stay. About a year ago he moved to the island, where farmhouses dating back to the 1940s give the place the ambiance of a watery retreat lost in time and space.
Accolades are many for the mid-career painter. Seattle-based art critic and still-life painter Gary Faigin recently commented, “There are few if any contemporary American artists who can match Bartlett’s ability to conjure people and places in paint.” Andrew Wyeth, Bartlett’s mentor, once declared that there were not many American artists whose work he found exciting, and Bartlett was one of them. This month, the Farnsworth Museum of Art in Rockland, ME, mounts a show paying homage to Wyeth, and then in June presents a concurrent one-man show of Bartlett’s works.
Vashon Ferry, oil, 24 x 24
Vashon Ferry, oil, 24 x 24

Bartlett was drawn into the Wyeths’ inner circle at a low moment in his career—the first of two times when he seriously considered quitting the painting life. As he relates the story about his artistic crisis of faith, his voice is slow, soothing, laced with remnants of a Southern drawl. He is a private person; not everything is for the record. But he does talk about the depression he experienced more than a decade ago after a critic from the New York Times panned a show of his works at a New York City gallery. “She called the works idiotic,” Bartlett recalls, “and I was ready to give up and become a filmmaker.”

But soon after the devastating review, fate intervened in the form of an unexpected, life-changing phone call. After reading the unfavorable critique, Andrew Wyeth’s wife, Betsy, invited Bartlett to their home for a visit. The couple bought several of his paintings, offered encouragement, and eventually commissioned him to produce a documentary on Andrew Wyeth. (Bartlett had studied filmmaking at New York University.)
For three years Bartlett followed Wyeth with a camera, recording his days and nights. The two artists became fast friends, and Wyeth soon became his mentor. The film, Andrew Wyeth: Self-Portrait—Snow Hill, went on to win a string of awards, and Bartlett received some valuable advice about critics: “You have to keep on going, be yourself, and not worry,” Wyeth told the young painter. “People will only make you swerve.”
After studying with Wyeth, Bartlett says, his paintings became calmer, less angst-driven. Like Wyeth, Bartlett draws inspiration from the familiar, portraying slices of the lives of his family and friends. But often the familiar is a mere foil for what some have called epic narratives about marriage, conflict, life, death, love, family, and memory. Though the figures in Bartlett’s works may appear contemporary, the themes are timeless—Shakespearian, operatic, and mythic in scope.
It is tempting to see the figures that inhabit these narrative universes as characters or actors, both because the painter’s canvases can be cinematic in scale (up to 18 feet long) and because Bartlett employs film terms to describe his visual intent. He uses mise-en-scène to explain how he attempts to tell the whole story in one scene, conveying a thought or plot without dialogue…

Featured in May 2007
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