Western painter Dan Bodelson has learned to trust his instincts and skill
By Gussie Fauntleroy
This story was featured in the February 2013 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Order the Southwest Art February 2013 print edition, or download the Southwest Art February 2013 issue now…Or just subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss a story!
The older artist leaned back in her chair, smoke curling from the cigarette between her fingers, and looked at Dan Bodelson. “Your brain is always five years ahead of your hands,” she said. It was the mid-1970s. Bodelson was a young painter who had spent his teenage years in Santa Fe, studied art and briefly worked in illustration in California, and then returned to New Mexico. Eager for advice, he made a point of hanging out with established artists like Bettina Steinke, whose cigarette smoke now hung in the air between them in her Santa Fe studio. Her words could have been discouraging—how could a painter’s hands and skill ever catch up with his vision? But then she added one more thought: “Every once in a while,” she said, “your brain and hands hook up together, and that’s when there’s magic.”
Bodelson has known that magic—those moments at the easel when an instinctive impulse teams up with the hard-earned tools of training and skill. His widely collected paintings of historic western and Native American subjects, landscapes, and still lifes have garnered awards and earned him invitations to participate in national exhibitions at such institutions as the Art Students League of New York, the Autry National Center in Los Angeles, the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, and the Eiteljorg Museum in Indianapolis.
Yet at 63, with decades of painting behind him, the artist knows that the magic—when what emerges seems beyond what he believed he could create—is more than simply a brush stroke of luck. When he finds himself staring at a painting in process and wondering whether it’s done, he asks the question he’s been asking himself for years: When you add more paint, are you making it better or just changing it? If he’s still not sure of the answer, he might call up a memory of Steinke, who died in 1999. In her New York accent and no-nonsense voice he can still hear her say, “Just stop and get on with the next one!”
Words of artistic wisdom and role models for a fine-art career were notably absent from Bodelson’s 1950s Leave It to Beaver boyhood. (He quips that he was less like the earnest Beaver character and more the smart-alecky neighbor kid.) He didn’t fit the “future artist” stereotype of winning grade-school poster contests and innately knowing that painting would be his path. Instead he spent his free time roaming the mountain foothills and riding his bike. “I always drew, but just because I was a goof-off in school, not paying attention,” he remembers, smiling. Then one day his junior high art teacher asked the class to do a watercolor painting outdoors. Bodelson painted the Flatirons rock formations near Boulder, CO. His teacher’s high praise of the painting tucked itself into the back of the teenager’s mind.
With this hint of artistic aptitude, Bodelson might have welcomed the family’s move to art-rich Santa Fe in the summer before his junior year in high school. Instead, he says wryly, “I thought I’d died and gone to hell.” He was depressed by the pervasive brown of low adobe buildings, and he missed his friends back in Boulder. It wasn’t until almost a decade later—after he’d spent time in California and discovered a passion for art—that he was able to fully appreciate the benefits of his New Mexico home.
After high school Bodelson entered California College of the Arts in Oakland (then called California College of Arts and Crafts). He envisioned applying his drawing skills to architectural rendering and design. He soon changed tracks but gained a foundation in art history and drawing and studied a wide range of artistic mediums. An illustration course, and one instructor in particular, opened his eyes to the possibility of making a living with art. Following graduation he spent a year working as part of a full- service Bay Area ad design team. When the studio closed, he was offered other jobs—but just at that time, another crucial realization struck: He wasn’t meant for the city or the Pacific Coast. He needed to go home to the mountain West.
In the early 1970s Bodelson returned to Santa Fe, where he worked for a time in a small ad agency and began showing his paintings at one of the early galleries on Canyon Road. This time he was ready to soak up artistic insights and enjoy creative encounters with older Santa Fe-based painters including Steinke, Clark Hulings, Tom Lovell, Robert Lougheed, and Wayne Wolfe. “I went up to Bob Lougheed’s house one night dragging my paintings, just so he could say, ‘You’re not doing it right.’ That was scary!” Bodelson recalls. “But it was great stuff Bob told me. He did tiny thumbnail sketches of my paintings and showed me exactly what I was doing wrong.”
Over the years the younger artist found inspiration in the work of these and other great painters while steadily developing his own direction and style. Today, he says, painting ideas are sparked by a variety of sources—and they can change dramatically even after a painting is well underway. JOURNEY’S END, for example, originally was titled HE MADE HIS STAND FROM HERE. It depicted three Plains Indians gazing down at a lance tied with a broken strip of leather and staked in the ground. The image was inspired by certain warrior societies in which an Indian tied himself to a stake in one spot and remained there fighting until victory, death, or release by fellow warriors. In Bodelson’s painting the leather tie was broken, and the tribesmen were left to wonder about the warrior’s fate.
But any understanding of the painting required knowledge of the role of the tethered lance. “It didn’t work,” the artist admits. So he painted out the lance, leaving the three men gazing at—what? The answer came when Bodelson spotted old, broken wagon wheels at a Santa Fe-area museum. He recomposed the image, which now suggests a wagon’s unsuccessful crossing of rocky, rough ground. “I really liked the idea and dynamics of the broken wheels and the way they’re becoming part of the landscape,” he observes.
Another time, a friend who had taught on a reservation recounted attending tribal events in years past where mothers hung cradleboards from branches so the breeze would gently sway their babies to sleep while an older sister watched over them. “I thought, what a cool image!” Bodelson recalls. He envisioned a large painting containing several cradleboards secured to a limb and a young girl quietly playing below them. While that piece has not yet emerged, the artist did create two paintings from different components of the idea. He borrowed an authentic Cheyenne cradleboard for ROCK-A-BYe BABY, CHEYENNE, 1870, a full-scale painting of one of the sleeping infants. A second work, IN HER OWN WORLD, is Bodelson’s conception of a young girl—perhaps sitting beneath the swaying cradleboards—absorbed in play with a handmade miniature cradleboard and doll.
THEY ARE YOUR PEOPLE was inspired by a scene from the book Black Elk Speaks, in which the Oglala Lakota leader seeks guidance from an elderly medicine man. Wrapped in a buffalo robe and holding a sacred pipe, Black Elk receives a vision of a cloud of butterflies. He is told they represent his people, who need his help. With its dreamlike quality enhanced by a simple golden background, the painting has much in common with a series of works that come from the other side of Bodelson’s self-described “schizophrenic” artistic personality. Inspired by pop artists such as Andy Warhol, he produced a series of large acrylic and screen-printed works featuring western or Native American imagery against solid-colored backgrounds. Combining layers of screen print and direct paint applied with brushes, rollers, or “anything I can put my hands on,” each piece—BLUE SHOOTER among them—is one of a kind.
“That whole genre influences me in a creative way, but not necessarily the imagery itself,” the artist explains. As it turned out, when he returned to a more traditional approach in oils, the newness, passion, and freedom of the mixed-media series seemed to inject a fresh sense of excitement into his work. In fact, Bodelson sees the energy of creative focus threading through very different aspects of his life in a similar way. As a fire department volunteer, he taps into a source of creative power on a deep level, whether he’s designing improved rescue trucks and extrication equipment, knowing how to get a structure fire to move in a certain direction, or determining how to most effectively extricate victims from a crash scene. “It’s all relying on instinct and training. You have to trust both of those, and it applies to life as well as art,” he reflects. “It all ties together—it’s really cool.”
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