A Red Gate, oil, 20 x 16.
By Jennie Shortridge
Landscape painter Michael Ome Untiedt is a storyteller. In his artwork he tells tales of his deep connection to the West. “I try to paint like Mark Twain wrote,” the 48-year-old artist explains, although his work is not strictly narrative. The stories lie within the imagery, the color, the brush strokes, and the often symbolic subject matter. Using a cowboy poet’s cadence, Untiedt then writes colorful accounts of his paintings, elucidating the creative process and the history and vision that go into each landscape.
With long gray hair and the look of someone who spends as much time as possible outdoors, Untiedt cuts an unusual figure—a blend of cowboy and Twain. “I wasn’t exactly raised in an art environment,” he says. “I come from a long line of tool users, farmers, ranchers, and carpenters. But when I think about it, the art was there. My grandmother playing Missouri Waltz on a piano brought to Colorado by wagon. My dad admiring the hog-pen gate he meticulously crafted in a style passed from father to son.”
When the artist was 14 years old and living with his family in Denver, his grandfather, a farmer on Colorado’s eastern plains, suffered a heart attack. Untiedt went to help on the farm and stayed through the end of high school. This proved a formative time in his life, and of it he writes: “I cut my eyeteeth on sage and buffalo grass, sandstone and the drip of a blue-shale spring. I see prairie colors by long light; coyotes, God’s dogs, have howled these colors into my soul. Of the many landscapes and country I travel through to paint, I paint the prairie best.”
I Don’t Recall I Ever Said Goodbye, oil, 30 x 30.
Untiedt studied art at the University of Denver but soon grew frustrated with the art department’s “colloquial wave of abstract expressionism that was 15 years out of date,” he says. After trying another major psychology he left school in the mid-1970s, bought an old truck, and traveled the country, teaching himself to draw and paint in watercolor along the way. He eventually returned to school to earn a degree in industrial arts and settled down as a middle-school shop teacher.
In 1987, the Art Students League of Denver formed and Untiedt became one of its first students, studying under and assisting watercolorist Buffalo Kaplinski. “He had a big influence on me because of his strong use of color, his compositional choices, and his reliance on good drawing skills,” Untiedt says. “I was also influenced by the group of painters he belonged to, called the Denver Seven or the Denver School. I greatly admired those painters.”
About eight years ago, Untiedt made the transition to oil paint and finally started to consider himself a painter. “I found my feet, my vision, my direction,” he says. “I felt like my paintings relied on my own sensibilities rather than the influence of others.”
View of Landscape Through a Red Barn, oil, 30 x 30.
These days he’s influenced in a different way by a group of philanthropic artists he belongs to called The Gatherers, who raise funds for community projects through the sale and donation of their art. “It’s great to be around artists from other disciplines who are so incredibly good at what they do. I’ve never pushed myself so hard, but it’s really cool pressure,” he says. “It’s like family.”
Now a full-time artist, Untiedt works near downtown Denver in a 100-year-old house he and his wife, Donna, will soon convert into their home as well as his studio. “She has always been supportive of my career, and not just emotionally,” he says of his wife. “She’s like a patron of old. She worked hard to allow me to focus on art.” The Untiedts have two children, Zachariah, 19, and Hannah, 6.
Untiedt’s studio fills what used to be a living room with high ceilings, large windows, and wood floors. “People still call me Shop Guy because I like to make things,” he says, pointing out the taboret he crafted from an old saw table and the pulley system that raises and lowers a light fixture over his easel. He built his portable palette as well, a design he says he copied from painter Kim English. “Sometimes I get a bigger kick from building stuff than painting,” Untiedt admits.
Reflections of Hannah’s Prayers, oil, 36 x 24.
But from his stories of the West, it is clear that he thrives on his chosen profession of painting it. He travels around Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, Montana, and Colo-rado for inspiration. “When I go to these places, I have to spend some time, hike around, absorb, mull it over,” he explains. “I’m half walking around the landscape, half walking around its stories. What I’m trying to convey in my paintings is timelessness, a sense of ‘at the moment’ that is almost eternal.”
Deborah Melnick, owner of Third Canyon Gallery in Denver which represents his work, says of Untiedt, “He paints lushly the mysticism of nature. It’s not just concrete realism—there’s much more to his paintings than that.”
Untiedt loves to paint on location. Because of the region’s mercurial weather patterns, however, he often sketches and takes notes, “or I just look and remember,” he says, so he can paint in his studio. Working in the alla prima method, he usually finishes a painting in one sitting. If he can’t get the work done, he sleeps in the studio so he can stay with it until it’s finished.
The artist keeps a full-length mirror behind him at the opposite end of his studio, an idea he got from San Francisco painter Joseph Rafaela. “I’m after brushy work,” Untiedt explains, “and up close it doesn’t ‘read.’ So I look into the mirror while I’m at the easel, and with that distance I can better see what I’m doing without having to dart back and forth.” His “brushy” strokes lend an abstract quality to his landscapes. “My work is definitely drifting toward a more abstracted, spontaneous technique,” he says. “I’m searching for what the thing I’m seeing feels like.”
Certain themes and objects crop up repeatedly in Untiedt’s work. “I use roads a lot because they’re so inviting,” he says. “They can mean many things: transition, change, cutting off. Roads are as symbol-laden as crosses, Easter bunnies, and Christmas trees.” A Red Gate is one such “road” painting, and it depicts another favorite symbol. “The red gate paintings came about one afternoon near Taos, when I was looking south at the sapphire blue Sangre de Cristo Mountains. There was a ranch with a red roof, and the contrast took my breath away.” Ever since, he’s enjoyed using red as an accent color for elements like gates.
And, whether they exist or not, Untiedt often paints buildings into his landscapes. “I like the geometry of a building amongst the landscape and other natural forms,” he explains. Although he didn’t realize it at first, one building that he painted repeatedly turned out to be a very familiar one. It appears in I Don’t Recall I Ever Said Goodbye. “I thought I’d created the house from my imagination,” he says. “I only realized as I finished this painting that the house was from my memory. It was my aunt and uncle’s farmhouse a half mile from where I was raised.”
Reflections of Hannah’s Prayers demonstrates Untiedt’s fascination with water. “I’m intrigued by the abstract qualities of water, what’s reflected on the surface, what’s underneath,” he says. The story behind the painting is that of a harried cross-country trip Untiedt was making with family in tow. Upon hearing his young daughter Hannah pray, “please let Papa pull over so I can run around,” Untiedt stopped the car and discovered this beautiful scene.
One of Untiedt’s favorite paintings is Portrait of John Meigs: Garden of Eternity. “It’s a portrait of an amazing man,” says Untiedt. John Meigs is an artist, collector, and bona fide bon vivant who has become a legendary figure in the art world. Untiedt met him at his hacienda in San Patricio, NM, and was impressed by Meigs’ elaborate garden. “To me the garden was the man, so I painted the garden with John as a sliver of light, an eternal epitaph.” He keeps this painting in his private collection and says, “It accomplishes everything I’ve ever wanted to in a painting.”
As with the rest of Untiedt’s work, its expressive colors, expressionistic brushwork, and metaphoric imagery tell one heck of a story.
Photos courtesy the artist and Third Canyon Gallery, Denver, CO; Act I Gallery, Taos, NM; El Presidio Gallery, Tucson, AZ; Ray Tracey Gallery, Santa Fe, NM; Sloan Jordan Gallery, Austin, TX; and Naturally Yours, Lipscomb, TX.
Featured in February 2001