Wilson Hurley | A Monumental Challenge

By Maria Moss

Wyoming Suite [1998],painting, southwest art.
Wyoming Suite [1998]

From the start, there was never anything conventional about Wilson Hurley’s commissioned murals, Windows to the West [SWA NOV 94]. The imposing dimensions alone—five triptychs in oil with center panels 16 by 16 feet each, flanked by 16-by-10-foot wing pieces—set the whole thing squarely in its own Herculean universe. When the National Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City, OK, asked Hurley to create the paintings in 1991, the artist recommended that the 15,000-square-foot banquet hall that would house the works be reconfigured, which it promptly was. The price tag for the murals was fairly noteworthy as well—somewhere in the neighborhood of $2 million.

Today the triptychs hang as majestic dioramas in specially constructed alcoves around the perimeter of the room, their wing panels gently canted to draw the viewer in. The 15 paintings cover a total of 2,876 square feet. Each depicts a sunset over an iconic American vista: Yellowstone Valley in Wyoming, the Grand Canyon in Arizona, Point Lobos in Northern California, Monument Valley in Utah, and the artist’s beloved Sandia Mountains outside his home in Albuquerque, NM. Above the five horizons, light gold, alabaster, amethyst, and seashell pink seems to flow from one beautiful swath of land to the next.

textured-canvas print, center panel 24 x 24,painting, southwest art.
textured-canvas print, center panel 24 x 24

The murals were big news when Hurley completed them in 1996, and they’re garnering attention once again. The Greenwich Workshop, a Connecticut-based publisher of limited-edition prints, art books, and porcelain figures, has begun a series of canvas reproductions of the Windows to the West murals that will eventually include all five triptychs. This time the center panels will be a manageable 24 by 24 inches. The Wyoming, Arizona, and Utah suites are due out this year, with the New Mexico and California suites to follow. Scott Usher, publisher of Greenwich, says he plans to limit the editions to 550 prints.

When talk of publishing the images began, says Bill Wylie, the National Cowboy Hall of Fame’s director of development, the museum and Greenwich executives were already planning a series of stretched-canvas reproductions of selected museum holdings, including works by Albert Bierstadt and C.M. Russell. “As we were developing the series, it occurred to us that the museum owned the rights to some of the most dramatic recent works of art in the world Wilson’s murals,” he says. “Since the murals were installed in the banquet room, we haven’t been able to keep up with the demand for bookings,” says Wylie, a longtime friend of Hurley’s. “Making these images available to a wider audience seemed like a logical step.”

side panels 15 x 24.,painting, southwest art.
side panels 15 x 24.

Canvas reproductions, which include a range of canvas-transfer and other print methods, received scant respect when the process was first introduced a dozen or so years ago. Dealers, collectors, and artists alike sniffed at the idea of “semi-originals.” As the process improved, however, canvas prints gradually began to take their place among respectable media. The fact is, the surface of a well-executed canvas reproduction has a richness and depth that can far more vividly express certain original works than a standard-issue lithograph mounted under glass.

The field of canvas printing is now fiercely competitive, with a variety of trademark water-based inks, canvas pre-treatments, and color-enhancing software. A traditional canvas transfer is created by immersing a printed image in a chemical bath, which lifts it off whatever surface it’s printed on. The image is then applied to a piece of canvas, which can later be textured with brush strokes in clear acrylic or oil.

The Windows to the West prints on canvas marketed by The Greenwich Workshop are being created by Artagraph Reproduc-tion Technologies, a Markham, Ontario, Canada, company. Art-agraph begins by photographing the artwork, then scanning a transparency into a computer and printing a digitized image onto lithograph paper. After precise color adjustments, a final print-size proof is mounted on a rigid backing and covered with a translucent, canvas-textured coating. With the original image clearly visible, the artist then re-creates his or her brush strokes on the coating in colorless acrylic, and a three-dimensional mold is prepared by pouring a silicon-based liquid over the hand-applied strokes. Finally, the canvas, texture mold, and printed lithograph are placed in a press, fused with heat, and shock-frozen, permanently capturing the image.

Photographing the murals was a monumental challenge. Green-wich Workshop chose photographer Peter Bloomer, whose Horizons West studio in Flagstaff, AZ, specializes in photographing fine art. The shoot was a complicated operation in its own right since it had to be done on location at the museum.

“It was a technical challenge, certainly, due to the size of the paintings,” says Hurley. “The soft edges become knifelike, and you lose detail. It takes away some of the painterly aspects of the paintings.” Still, Hurley is an ardent supporter of the process. “If museums will allow the best of classic artworks to become available as canvas prints, people will be able to have permanent, good-looking reproductions of them in their homes,” he says. “The public’s taste in art will improve the canvas-print process could result in a cultural renaissance.”

Featured in April 1998