Douglas Fryer | Seeing the Soul

Landscape painter Douglas Fryer perceives beauty in forgotten and overlooked places

By Gussie Fauntleroy

Douglas Fryer

Summer Grasses, oil on panel, 33 x 33.

The landscape passing by the car window was dreary—patches of snow and mud under an overcast, late-winter sky. Douglas Fryer and several artist friends were on a road trip from central Utah to Idaho. Fryer, his face turned perpetually toward the window, snapped photo after photo, completely captivated by the bleak, nondescript scenery. Finally one of his fellow artists couldn’t stand it any longer. “Doug, there is nothing there!” he said. “There is nothing to see! Stop taking pictures!”

Fryer smiles at the memory. “Guess what?” he says. “I did about 15 paintings from those photos.” It’s not that this Utah-based artist enjoys painting what is dull; instead, where others often see nothing noteworthy, Fryer’s perception, memory, and imagination imbue a scene with something significant. In his eyes, layers of meaning and beauty are contained in a rutted tractor road, a simple fence line, or the subtle patchwork of grasses in a field. And the qualities that evoke in him an emotional response can also move the viewer when translated onto canvas in color and form.

Fryer’s pensive, atmospheric paintings, with points of sharp focus and areas of loosely brushed paint—like the streaks of color seen through the window of a moving car—in many ways reflect the way we actually see. “Our brain keeps us from falling down, but what we see is always moving, with one shape penetrating another shape,” the thoughtful, 48-year-old painter explains. It’s a phenomenon that caught his attention as a small boy looking up at the wind-stirred leaves of trees. And it’s a way of seeing that has informed his art since the day of his first painting lesson at age 10.

Winter Veils, oil on panel, 40 x 50.

On that day, after setting up the other students outdoors with their assignment and painting supplies, the teacher took young Doug aside. Pointing toward the trees and sky, she asked him what he saw. “Only sky and trees,” he replied, unsure of what his answer was supposed to be. His perceptive teacher encouraged him to look again; the trees were full of air, and the sky had substance and weight, she said. Her words brought back a deeply etched memory from when Fryer was 5 or 6. Riding in a car on a windy day, he watched trees blowing in the distance and felt certain he could actually see the air as it moved through the branches—as if the air itself was as dense and substantial as the trees.

Other aspects of Fryer’s childhood prepared him for a life of seeing and painting as well. The son of a sales manager, whose work moved the family between the Chicago area and California several times, Doug grew up with a library of art books and with parents who valued and appreciated art. Fryer’s father studied art in college before switching to a “more practical” career. Fryer’s uncle, a technical illustrator in the air force, died young and left his drawing supplies and books to his teenaged nephew. But well before that, Fryer was sure of his fate.

“I vividly remember in kindergarten, sitting around the low table, and the teacher passed out paper and told us to draw dinosaurs,” he relates. Doug hunched over his paper, happy in his own world, intent on rendering all the varieties of dinosaurs he knew. Suddenly 
he stopped and looked up. The entire class, including the teacher, was gathered around him, watching him draw. The teacher heaped praise on his efforts. “Doug is an artist!” she declared. “From that point on, I was an artist,” he marvels, “and that’s what I was going to do.”

A Sultry Afternoon, oil on panel, 8 x 16.

By the time Fryer entered Brigham Young University in Provo, UT, to study art, however, one small point remained unclear. Having grown up with an appreciation of both illustration and fine art, he didn’t know the difference. That mattered on his first day at BYU. The school’s art department had recently split, and students needed to register either in illustration or fine art. “It was a big decision on the spot,” the artist recounts. “I said, well, I like book and album covers, and I like making pictures for stories, so I picked illustration.” He has no regrets.

In fact, freelance illustration work, along with part-time teaching as a graduate student, helped pay for Fryer’s master’s degree in fine art, received a few years later from BYU. In graduate school he studied painting under Bruce Smith and was also inspired and influenced by a number of professors and fellow students, including Michael Workman, Bruce Brainard, Ron Richmond, and David Linn. “There were a lot of very intense, gifted, articulate graduate students there when I was there. It was an energetic, charged time for all of us,” he recalls.

For a few years afterward, Fryer, who by then was married and a father, continued to work in the illustration field while painting on his own. Eventually, painting for galleries began taking all his time, and illustration fell by the wayside. Today, he may be working on up to two dozen paintings at a time in the studio at his home outside the town of Spring City, UT. The land that surrounds his own five acres—farms and ranches in a wide valley bordered by high peaks—is the source of much of Fryer’s inspiration these days. It is not dramatic, spectacular land. Instead it yields a contemplative quality, with colors that can’t be named but only described as warm or cool. “The colors are a metaphor for the painting: a nameless place, the corner of a hayfield that sits there, year in and year out,” he observes. “It gives the sense of a very ordinary place, yet there is just this profound beauty in places we take for granted.”

A Forgotten Farm, oil on panel, 7 x 9.

For Fryer, this kind of beauty reflects what he calls the “land’s hidden poetry”—the unseen, ineffable elements of memory, emotion, association, and the passage of time. When the painter infuses a subject with these qualities by means of composition, color, and form, the result is a record of his own inner state, he believes. Through years of experience, he has learned to manipulate paint to capture and convey his subtle or deeply felt response to a scene. The use of horizon lines, for example, suggests stability and calm, while certain geometric divisions of space communicate harmony. “Composition is really what moves us. It’s the culmination of thousands of marks and their arrangement on the surface,” he affirms. “I have to make it meaningful to 
me. If it’s not vital to me, why should it be vitally important to someone else?”

In many cases, the evidence of human activity adds levels of meaning to the natural beauty of the land. A few years ago, a friend who raises sheep invited Fryer to help him herd sheep one day. They did this from horseback, and the experience became the inspiration for FARM NEAR HILLTOP, depicting an open, snow-dotted landscape in which a horse shelter stands beside a forked dirt road. Where ruts mark the empty lane and the structure leans on its posts, the artist sees more than empty fields and a disintegrating building. The painting contains no figures, yet, to Fryer, it is a portrait of the hardworking farmers and ranchers who live on, and care for, the land.

Midsummer Greens, oil on panel, 12 x 28.

Similarly, collapsed barns and abandoned buildings half-hidden by overgrown vegetation, as in A FORGOTTEN FARM, speak poignantly of once-vibrant dreams and lives that now are concealed or eclipsed by time. “A hundred and twenty years ago, when this barn was built, it was the pride of the family, a family that maybe came from someplace where they couldn’t own land,” Fryer muses. “It was the culmination of an entire family’s dreams, and I want to say that is important. I paint it because this is where I live and also to pay respect.”

Fryer appreciates the many moods of the place he lives. In Winter Veils, brown grasses and stark trees stand against a backdrop of mist-draped mountains. Fryer describes the spot, west of Spring City, as a leftover parcel of unused pastureland that many travel past and doubtless never see. “No one in his or her right mind would look at it and say, ‘Wow! That needs to be painted!’” he points out. “But for me it’s one of those places you see out of the corner of your eye as you’re going down the highway, and it stays in your mind.”

While the landscapes that catch Fryer’s eye may not be magnificent in a conventional sense, in a way they are easier to endow with their own kind of loveliness, he believes. “It’s very difficult to create a beautiful painting of something that’s patently beautiful, like a sunset or a mountain meadow. How do you even come close to conveying how beautiful it is? But if I’m taking a place that maybe nobody would look at, and contemplating it and seeing beauty in it, if I can pay enough respect to this place, maybe someone else will see the beauty I see.”

Meyer Gallery, Santa Fe, NM; Howard/Mandville Gallery, Kirkland, WA; Principle Gallery, Alexandria, VA;

Featured in May 2012.