Rox Corbett | Drawing the Viewer In

Rox Corbett’s unconventional art suggests stories in black and white

By Gussie Fauntleroy

Rox Corbett, My Girl, charcoal, 21 x 29.

Rox Corbett, My Girl, charcoal, 21 x 29.

This story was featured in the October 2016 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art  October 2016 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story.

Photorealism in charcoal—it sounds like an oxymoron. Yet in the hands of Canadian-born artist Rox Corbett, what we usually consider a sketching tool for quick, gestural marks becomes a means for creating finished artworks with a satisfying sense of realism and exquisite textural detail. It’s an approach she developed despite her attraction to the loose, unbridled manner of many of the artists she most admires. Early on Corbett tried adopting a loose drawing style, but it never stuck. Then she had an idea. “I thought if I worked with big, fat charcoal sticks, I’d have to be loose.” She smiles. “But I guess it’s just not in me.”

Apparently not. In fact, the 60-year-old artist’s drawing has gotten even more detailed in recent months—thanks to reading glasses. Thanks also to years of honing her skills and devising ingenious tools for applying charcoal, her ability to wield one of humankind’s most primitive mediums produces such striking effects as delicately rippled muscles under a filly’s coat, the woody texture of elk antler, and glistening drops of water falling from a grizzly’s dark fur.

And her growing number of collectors wouldn’t want it any other way. In 2015 Corbett’s drawing WINDFALL received the Trustee Purchase Award at the National Museum of Wildlife Art’s Western Visions Show & Sale. Over the years Corbett’s work has earned multiple honors in other museum exhibitions as well, including six First Place and two People’s Choice awards at the Desert Caballeros Western Museum’s annual show, Cowgirl Up!

Born Harriet Corbett in southern Ontario—her nickname links back to a high-school talent show—her family moved to Connecticut when she was 18 months old. Her musically inclined father had become a church organist and choirmaster at the age of 12 and later turned to selling pipe organs in the United States and Canada to support his five children. When Corbett was 14, the family settled in an English-speaking pocket of rural Quebec. Her mother’s deep devotion to the natural world became a bond between mother and daughter and translated into Corbett’s own lifelong love of nature. As a child she constantly drew animals—the family’s menagerie of dogs, cats, rabbits, turtles, foxes, and skunks, as well as other people’s horses. (Corbett didn’t get her own horses until she was in her 40s and living in Wyoming.)

As an athlete and tomboy always roaming the woods and hanging out with animals, in her teen years Corbett found herself apart from “the normal things going on with all the girls” her age. But she was fine with that; she enjoyed solitude even then. She vacillated between a strong interest in science and a passion for art and considered becoming a veterinarian before realizing she wasn’t academically suited for the math and sciences that required. Instead, after high school she accepted a friend’s invitation to travel to Belize. There she met a man and spent the next few years traveling in California, Central America, and Mexico. She returned to Quebec when her grandfather promised her $5,000 if she would enroll in college. Otherwise, he warned her with gruff affection, “You’ll end up barefoot and pregnant.”

In Montreal, Corbett rented a seven-room apartment for $200 a month, just down the street from singer Leonard Cohen. She earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts in graphic design and illustration from Concordia University, graduating with honors and, just as importantly, finding herself enormously inspired by a drawing instructor named Russell T. Gordon. “His classes, critiques, ideas, the pushing of all his students—he was a very charismatic person and a really good teacher,” she says. When it came to applying her degree in a career, however, in those pre-computer days it suddenly occurred to her that she would need to live in a city and probably work at a high-pressure job, neither of which held any appeal.

Fate came to the rescue through a visit Corbett and her mother took to coastal Maine in the fall of 1982. They went whale-watching and got to know the couple in charge of a citizen-
scientist program, through the College of the Atlantic, which collected observational data on whales. The following summer when the couple retired, Corbett was invited to lead the program, gathering and recording whale observations from a lighthouse on Mount Desert Island. She ran the program four months a year for four years, spending winters in Bar Harbor, ME, where she created
illustrations for t-shirt designs.

That first gig led to 20 years of fieldwork with various nonprofits in marine mammal research and involved considerable time on boats in the Caribbean, Indian Ocean, North Sea, and elsewhere. That segued into jobs on eco-tour ships in the Pacific and Antarctic, where Corbett served as a lecturer and Zodiac (inflatable boat) driver for natural-history tours. In all her marine work, her artistic training and natural facility provided the important asset of a keen observational eye. She also kept her hand in art through illustrations for books, posters, informational brochures, and field guides for the U.S. Navy. Today she continues to occasionally serve as a marine mammal artistic consultant, and a few years ago she was invited to advise on the appearance of a life-size right whale sculpture now hanging in the Smithsonian.

But dry land and terrestrial mammals eventually claimed Corbett’s attention. It began in 1991 with a month-long artist residency at the Ucross Foundation near Sheridan, WY. While there, the artist met cowboys, ranchers, and their families and was welcomed into their world. “If you’re interested in what they’re doing, they love to share,” she says of the folks who became her good friends. In 1993 she made Wyoming her home and turned her eye to cowboy imagery, although never in a stereotypical way. Instead, her innate aesthetic and Gordon’s influence guided her focus toward strong composition, radical cropping, a convincing sense of texture, and the power of lights and darks.

These days Corbett works in a cozy log studio on a friend’s land almost 30 miles from the ranch beside the Clark Fork River where she and her husband live. Her subjects have expanded over the years from cattle-working scenes to other domesticated animals and North and South American wildlife, with horses remaining a central theme. Living in grizzly territory provides opportunities for incorporating these beautiful, formidable bears in her work. WINDFALL came about after Corbett happened upon an elk that had died in a remote section of the ranch. She set up a trail camera at the site and captured photos of grizzlies that later found the animal. In her award-winning drawing, the elk’s antlers frame an ever-watchful bear.

For other wildlife imagery, including large cats, she employs reference photographs taken by a British wildlife photographer friend. Yet while Corbett enjoys rendering exotic animals, her heart remains loyal to horses and dogs—“there are no greater domesticated animals,” she declares. “When I draw horses I really want to celebrate them. They’re amazing animals for what they’ve done for us, and with us, in the western United States and around the world.” Having ridden and worked with horses for many years, she is especially interested in conveying equine thinking through body language. “They’re so expressive once you know what to look for,” she says. In the closely cropped piece entitled MY GIRL, a mare stands close to her foal, her muzzle tipped toward the viewer. “You don’t need to see her whole head or hereye to know she’s saying, ‘This is my girl,’” Corbett says, laughing. And while the filly appears nonchalant, her cocked ear lets us know that she’s also paying attention.

In this and other pieces, textural details, such as the horses’ shiny coats, are produced by stretching coarse fabric or soft leather over blending stumps, rubbing the tools on charcoal sticks, and then using them to “paint.” Corbett favors compressed charcoal for deep blacks, while homemade willow-wood charcoal produces softer darks. She also applies her medium with Q-tips, makeup applicators, cotton balls, or her fingertips. Sharp erasers can drag black powder from dark areas, while soft erasers create subtle highlights. And once any mark is made, that spot can never be pure white again. To keep from smudging what she has completed, Corbett—being right-handed—always works from the upper-left to lower-right corner of the paper, finishing both foreground and background entirely as she goes. As a result, the in-process image appears to incrementally emerge fully formed from white space.

Over time, Corbett has become increasingly interested in narrative. Yet because of her deep love of both animals and drawing, even a relatively straightforward portrait of a horse will thoroughly engage her attention and heart. Reflecting on the process of deciding on a subject, she says, “It’s a question of finding something that grabs me, design-wise, and pulling it into something compelling. It can be quirky, or serious, or something with humor.” Whatever the subject, Corbett speaks for both her unusual medium and distinctive style when she adds, “I don’t want it to be like anything else.”

Big Horn Galleries, Cody, WY, and Tubac, AZ.

This story was featured in the October 2016 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art  October 2016 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story.

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