Marc Bohne | The Back of Beyond

By Todd Wilkinson

While sitting in his Seattle studio, a warm but cluttered space that was once an elementary school classroom, Marc Bohne may surprise you with a revelation: As a contemporary realist who has earned acclaim for his understated landscapes, still lifes, and portraits, his approach to the seen and unseen has been influenced mightily by the metaphysical magic realism of late novelist Carlos Castaneda.’Bohne (pronounced Bonnie) is hardly a New Ager, nor a hippie who needs to reach into the proverbial cookie jar to pharmacologically enhance his aesthetic perception.

But one could say that, as an artist who has arrived behind the easel by route of the long way, he has taken the teachings of Castaneda’s mystical sorcerer Don Juan to heart—the foremost lesson being to let go of one’s fear as a presage to truly opening one’s eyes.Where some may take a literal approach to beauty, Bohne sees it manifested in emotion written large across the faces of people, places, and things he paints. He sees whirring vibrations of color; ineffable shapes and patterns; visceral sensations that rise in the light but fade into eternal shadow.In contrast to many who allow ordinary scenes to pass through their lives unnoticed, Bohne finds a reason to pause before them. His oil paintings make the world seem larger. “They have a sense of place and a timeless quality,” says Nancy Hardwick, assistant director of Munson Gallery in Santa Fe, NM. “Once you see a landscape he’s painted, you want to go there and live inside of it.”

Bohne’s studio work, Hardwick notes, has been compared to that of predecessors in the Hudson River School and the enclave at Brandywine who painted the East more than a century ago. Bohne could be considered a western landscape painter of the younger Baby Boomer generation—the one that grew to adulthood during the 1970s, adopted an awareness of environmental issues, embraced the outdoors with gusto, and set out to achieve a deeper metaphysical connection.Consider the inspiration behind SONOMA BACKROAD, a tribute to the rolling hinterlands of Northern California.

On a warm day in autumn, with the grassy savanna sun-cured, Bohne loaded up his backpack with water and completed a marathon trans-navigation on his mountain bike. Exhausted, his personal intensity tempered by physical exertion, Bohne says the scene revealed itself before him—becoming atomized, breathed into his memory like oxygen. “I must have sat at that spot till the sun went down, watching the shadow creep,” he says. “There was an odd magic in the afternoon itself.” Born in 1955 in El Paso, tx, Bohne is the son of Ralph Bohne, who was a military careerist stationed at Fort Bliss.

His childhood was spent in West Texas and southern New Mexico, and Bohne, now 48, says it was neither particularly eventful nor traumatic. He attended a Catholic grade school, and with a wryness that borders on irony, surmises: “The Catholic church is big on projecting mystery and forcing one to think about eternity. I think it helped cultivate my darker side.” Although Pacific Northwest forests and agrarian meadows are the settings for Bohne’s recent critically acclaimed work, his way of approaching nature with a brush began as a boy in the arid, sunlight-bending realm of the desert. On summer days, as temperatures soared past 100 degrees, the young Bohne would retreat into his modest home with a swamp cooler running, his mother drawing the window shades to make it dark and soothing inside. “The Southwest landscape and sky were a good starting point for the imagination,” he points out.

When Bohne wasn’t reading Castaneda, he was sketching in pencil. Looking to the horizon past the asphalt jungle, the southern end of the Rockies silhouetted behind muted, broiling mirages, he yearned to be transported into the mythical place that Castaneda once called “the back of the beyond.”“I always wanted to know what it was like to be in those brown mountains in the distance, or even what was there just over the next hill,” Bohne explains. “I spent a lot of time drawing. I was fascinated with the appearance of the natural world, and I wanted to know why those mountains in the distance were blue or purple when the ones closer were tan.” After high school, Bohne received his bachelor’s degree in fine arts from Columbia College in Columbia, MO. The art department may have been small, he allows, but instructors challenged students to challenge themselves. Classic studio training was considered a prerequisite—not a distraction—to the avant-garde. Yet while his passion steered him in one direction, practicality pulled him in another.

To make ends meet, Bohne put painting on hold and began a career first in resort administration, then medicine, then wilderness rescues. The bulk of his 30s was spent in yet another undertaking—finish carpentry—as he helped people design their dream homes. Always painting on weekends, he looked to natural panoramas with the dissatisfaction of being only a visitor. In his mind, he wanted to dwell there permanently as a painter. Eventually he came to the realization that while his carpentry in Seattle might be motivated by an altruistic impulse to help other people derive aesthetic satisfaction, it wasn’t filling his creative well: “I realized I could do things for other people, but I needed to do what I was supposed to do for me, and that was paint.”Being practical and analytical, Bohne made a plan for his escape and held himself to the pact.

Over the years, he squirreled away money that would enable him to take on painting full time and with enough breathing room that he wouldn’t have to create with a commercial outcome in mind. In 1996, he enrolled in a painting seminar in Washington State taught by Santa Fe artist Albert Handell, who encouraged him to follow his bliss.He did. Bohne traveled around Ireland solo on a bicycle in order to put himself in a different frame of mind by “decompressing.” One afternoon stands out: He was all by himself in the countryside on a breezy day, the smell of cool air in his lungs. A little tan-and-white dog appeared out of nowhere, representing the sum of his encounters with any other living thing. “For a very peculiar 10 minutes the world was something out of a Castaneda book: white sky, shimmering grass with the moving surface, the deep realization that I was nowhere near what I knew, and yet some metaphysical thread connected me to everything,” he recounts. When the Ireland trip ended, he returned to the States, got a studio in an old gentrified school in Seattle, and painted every day, workmanlike, as scene after scene poured out.“His education hadn’t prepared him to paint this way at all,” comments Bohne’s close friend and fellow painter, Kent Lovelace. “I wouldn’t call Marc an impressionist.

He is a consummate realist, yet when I look at his paintings there’s a uniqueness that is clearly his own. Marc’s a really bright guy, but it’s pretty unusual what he did, to pick up painting again and to do it so well.”In 1997, as friends saw his emerging studio paintings, and as talk of his vision spread by word of mouth, a collector remarked that his style was reminiscent of Montana landscapist Russell Chatham’s. But Bohne honestly didn’t know who Chatham was. Within a few months, Lovelace (who owned a press and had published Chatham’s limited-edition lithographs) brought the two together. All three hit it off so well they’ve had shows together in Missoula, MT. Of the differences between his two friends’ styles, Lovelace says, “Marc sees color, and Russell sees the most subtle light and value.”Bohne, who was still without formal gallery representation, began showing with Kimzey Miller Gallery in Seattle. Still, he was running out of money. With a stack of oils loaded in his pickup, he headed south, to the major art markets of Santa Fe and Los Angeles.

He feared that just as economic necessity had pulled him away from painting 20 years earlier, it could do so again. In Santa Fe, Bohne’s first stop, he quietly strolled through the galleries off the downtown plaza, trying to identify venues where his work might fit in. He went to Munson Gallery carrying a handmade brochure, and was politely told thanks, but no thanks. As he left, the gallery clerk glanced at the images and was so impressed by the snapshots glued into the brochure that she told Bohne he might stop back in when owner Larry Munson returned from lunch. Bohne did, and Munson agreed to carry Bohne’s work on the spot, taking on three pieces.The same thing happened at Gail Harvey Gallery in Santa Monica, CA, and by the time Bohne returned to Seattle, both galleries had made sales and wanted more.“I have a number of outstanding contemporary painters, and even among them he is recognized as a painter’s painter,” Gail Harvey says. “His work appeals to a more sophisticated kind of collector.” According to Harvey, admirers of Bohne include clients from the entertainment industry who own works worth seven figures by European masters. “Each piece by Marc is a little gem,” she says. “It doesn’t matter whether his painting was inspired by a California landscape or not. It’s his style that is unforgettable.”Bohne will tell you, in a self-deprecating though forceful way, that he does not like using the word “moody” when taking part in a discussion of his sentiently evocative portrayals of people, places, and things.

The reason is not that moody doesn’t apply—indeed, it often does—but in terms of providing any descriptive value, it’s a cheap word, Bohne posits, one that is virtually meaningless.“Replace moody with emotional,” suggests Denise Burkel, director of Center Street Gallery in Jackson Hole, WY. “I admire the fact that he is deliberately slow and meticulous. He could be cranking out paintings, because the demand for his work is certainly there, but he does not paint for love of money.” Burkel considers Bohne one of the finest young tonalists of his generation in the country. “He can take subject matter that would come across as dull in anyone else’s hands and give it emotion,” she says.While Bohne relates to Chatham’s evolved style, it is the psychological terrain of painting—the exercise of using an unspoken visual language to learn more about oneself—that holds gravity for him. In particular, with still lifes and portraits of place, he feels a kindredness with Andrew Wyeth and his studies of people in the Brandywine country.For Bohne, one painting—a 36-by-42-inch oil called DANIEL—distills his approach to contemporary impressionism.

The subject, Daniel Warren, was a real-life eccentric who lived across the hall from Bohne’s studio in a small room, colloquially dubbed “the closet.” Bohne would sketch Daniel and tried to have him sit in the moody light for photographs, but he was always jittery, playfully impossible to pin down. Is DANIEL a partial projection of the artist himself? “To me, DANIEL is a mix of things, some sensible, some quixotic, all overlaid with a heavy coat of idealism,” Bohne proposes. “A good person with a good heart, only taking enough material to sustain himself on a very basic level, and always searching for a way to be a better person.” Elaborating further on the resonant quality of the work, Bohne says it was informed, in part, by a literary reference to the character Prince Mishkin in Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot. “Daniel is not an idiot, nor was Prince Mishkin,” Bohne muses. “But when I read the book a long time ago, Mishkin’s character formed an image in my head, and Daniel fit this character very closely on several levels.”This description alone yields profound insight into how Bohne thinks about painting. If, upon viewing his work, the viewer is left reflecting on a scene for days afterward, it is because Bohne’s motivation is not merely visceral, but driven by an attempt to tap into the unconscious in ways few of us understand.

Indeed, the viewer of DANIEL might be moved further in knowing that the subject, long after he posed for Bohne, found his way to a monastery in Arizona. With Bohne, landscapes and portraits sometimes reach a point of convergence. In A GHOST OF BELIEFS, an ancient barn becomes a vehicle not only for exploring light and value but also for tapping into the cultural plight of American agrarians. This barn, of course, isn’t merely a barn, but a provocative work of converging composition, shape, and texture.Says fellow painter Lovelace, “Marc doesn’t fear representing what he sees, while at the same time he isn’t interested in painting detail. His subjects can be iconographic, in that they are his take on the world but with larger symbolism.”Bohne says painting is his method for transporting himself away: “I like the land, the earth. I like feeling it. I like the way I feel when I am in it.” As for what he senses, as he gazes into the maw of natural light, the challenges lie in translating how the physical environment reflects the emotions that well up inside.

For him, painting involves “a mixture of serendipity and limitations, of exhilaration with regrets.” He suggests, “Things you cannot paint are the things that end up part of the creative process.”Not long ago, writer Lacy Wilkinson [no relation to this author] spent time with Bohne and sized him up in the book Marcus Bohne: Under the Big Sky. “The essence of something—whether a work of art or a human—is measured by its presentation of truth; by its veracity as defined by an innate and, really, old-brain knowledge that knows the difference between contrived and passionate,” she observed. “Marc’s works are anciently true. They are as uncontrived and unadorned as a cave painting. They are passionate in its most dynamic and, like a dormant volcano, restrained sense.”

Bohne is represented by Munson Gallery, Santa Fe, NM; Gail Harvey Gallery, Santa Monica, CA; Center Street Gallery, Jackson, WY; Forrest Scott Gallery, Millburn, NJ; and Corporate Art West, Seattle, WA.

Featured in March 2004