By Rosemary Carstens
Some artists paint what they see, some paint what they feel, some paint what they imagine. And then there are a few, like celebrated painter and sculptor Gerald Harvey Jones—one of America’s most recognized and collected living artists—who have the talent to combine all three, marrying observation with emotion and imagination. Best known simply as G. Harvey, he is renowned for impressionistic portrayals of turn-of-the-century western scenes and American and European city life. Speaking recently about his work, Harvey emphasized, “Art is very personal. How you respond to it is fascinating. Being an artist now is more exciting than ever.”
Harvey, a soft-spoken, silver-haired man with a twinkle in his eye and an impish smile, is shy about public appearances. He’d rather be in his studio or spending time with his family, but when he speaks of his sculpting and painting, his diffidence melts away to reveal a heartwarming enthusiasm and appreciation of life. “I really enjoy uncovering historic details and then using them to build drama or emotional impact in a composition,” he says. “I strive for a sense of nostalgia, to stimulate reminiscence. If you miss that, it’s just a graphic presentation—you might as well have taken a photo.”
This fall, Harvey celebrates more than four decades as an artist with his first major Texas exhibition in 24 years. There will be two days of festivities, including a public reception on Friday, September 24, at Whistle Pik Galleries in Fredericksburg, and an invitation-only dinner, reception, and sale on Saturday, September 25. Tim Taylor, co-owner of Whistle Pik with his wife, Pamela, says this about Harvey’s artistry: “There is a broad, common bond that draws G. Harvey’s works to the hearts of art enthusiasts. Some say it is the subjects, others say it is his style, and some contend it is his technique of using light to guide the viewer through his compositions. All are correct, but there is something more. Tolstoy described it best when he wrote that true art occurs when the artist’s emotions in producing a work can be understood without interpretation, when the work is infectious and produces a like feeling in its viewers. G. Harvey’s ability to capture the emotional impact of scenes—cowboys riding through winter mountains, the emergence of boomtowns, for the tangled bustle of city streets—and to pass those feelings along is another critical ingredient that continues to increase his base of admirers.”
DREAMS OF A NATION, a scene of Pennsylvania Avenue with the U.S. Capitol in the distance, was inspired by Harvey’s many trips to Washington. More than 4 feet high, it is the largest painting in the September show. Within the signature G. Harvey style—a depiction of both artificial and natural lighting at dusk on rain-washed city streets—the artist’s deep love for his country is clearly evident. “Washington, DC, will always represent home to all Americans, no matter where they live and no matter what political party is in the administration,” he says. “Pennsylvania Avenue stirs most Americans’ hearts, because it represents ‘the road to home.’”
Born in 1933, Harvey grew up in the Texas Hill Country, where he was immersed in its history of saddle-hardened cowboys driving huge herds of longhorns up the Chisholm Trail to Kansas. His father often related tales about his grandfather’s days as a young trail boss, and Harvey cut his teeth on legends of horses and cowhands, the Old West, and the belief in a larger-than-life Texas. That imagery has become a hallmark of his work. “The horse has found its way into most of my paintings,” says Harvey. “The ‘All American Horse’ was the theme of my 1991-92 exhibition at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. It depicted the horse and our culture from the conquistadors to ranches and even in our cities.”
As a young man, Harvey’s early interest in sketching and drawing slowly evolved into a passion for painting in oils and, later, for the three-dimensional qualities offered by sculpture. While attending North Texas State University, he taught industrial arts to middle-school students to meet his expenses. But every evening would find him painting late into the night. His hard work soon paid off: By the early ’60s, his paintings were selling steadily, and he quit his full-time job to focus on his expanding art career.
Within two years he was receiving national recognition. Such notables as President Lyndon Johnson and Texas governor John Connally became collectors, and by the early ’80s, Harvey was established as an important American artist. The ’90s brought exhibitions at the National Archives, the U.S. Treasury building, and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, plus a commission to paint THE SMITHSONIAN DREAM to commemorate the institute’s 150th anniversary. He continues to rack up awards, including a lifetime achievement award from the Briscoe Western Art Museum in San Antonio, TX, and the Legacy Award from the Booth Western Art Museum in Cartersville, GA, both bestowed last year. His paintings are in private and museum collections, as well as in major corporate offices in the United States, Europe, and Asia.
Duffy Oyster, an avid art collector in Dallas, includes fewer than a handful of living artists in his extensive collection. Harvey is among them. “The common quality these artists share,” he says, “is their passion for their work and their quest for perfection.” What specifically draws him to Harvey’s work? “His paintings are breathtaking,” Oyster says. “Whether it’s luminous clouds, a sunset glowing behind a cowboy, or the lights in the windows of a street scene, his paintings take you directly there.”
Harvey’s compositions draw deeply on a western storytelling tradition that calls to mind men around a smoky campfire trading tales. Some of these characteristic elements can be seen in BUNKHOUSE LIGHTS—the glow of welcoming light emanates from the bunkhouse as two cowboys tend to their horses; there is a sense of a journey, either beginning or ending. That narrative quality also extends to his renderings of horse-drawn carriages along wet streets and tranquil Old World city scenes.
Harvey strives to portray mankind’s best qualities—courage, faith, industry, pride, and caring. His skillful handling of light and shadow in dramatic settings and his fierce attention to detail combine in ways that transport us back through time. “It’s just not in me to dwell on life’s negative aspects,” he notes. “I want to evoke positive emotional connections.”
He works out of his 150-year-old stone home and studio in Fredericksburg, TX. “The further away from the office I stay, the better off I am. I want to be in the studio, or out with family,” says the artist. His studio is large and well-appointed, with an extensive library and comfortable seating areas adjacent to his work space. Some days as he works, classical or western music plays in the background, but, when tackling a “seasonal or contemplative mood,” silence suits him best.
Harvey never lacks for inspiration and believes that artists get their ideas everywhere. He can “go to a place ten times and see something different each time. There are always different challenges, but once you get that idea or thought, it’ll develop on its own. Then it’s best to get out of the way.”
He makes three or four painting trips a year and regularly visits the Spade Ranch, a historic West Texas landholding of nearly 200,000 acres established by two men from Chicago who invented barbed wire and traded it for Texas land. In the early ’60s, Harvey asked to visit the ranch to photograph and sketch the daily routines. He remembers that first visit well: “I have many fond memories of the cowhands, and to this day, [ranch owner] Bill McClellan and his wife Doris come to visit us,” he says. “On my visits there, I observe the cowboys from early sunrise to quittin’ time. There are so many stories of cowboy humor, hard work, and daily chores.”
One of Harvey’s greatest strengths is his willingness to accept input from others, such as Bill McClellan, who often helps name paintings and discusses ranch life. Thirty years ago, Harvey organized an informal board of such advisors to help him steer his way through business contracts and gallery arrangements. The group includes men from banking, insurance, real estate, and investment fields, and their perspective is highly valued. “They are all great Christian men, they don’t take fees, they attend my exhibitions, and they are great to bounce ideas off of. They were all friends to begin with and then became collectors. They are a real special part of my life.”
For G. Harvey, feelings for country, family, and friends are essential elements in a balanced life. As he puts it, “they complete the circle.” Undergirding it all is his faith in God. “My faith is important to me,” he continues. “One’s faith should permeate everything—your life, work, and relationships. It’s your guiding light and basically defines you.” With an appreciative smile, he sums up this point in his career simply and poignantly: “It’s a sweet time of life.”
Whistle Pik Galleries, Fredericksburg, TX; Legacy Gallery, Scottsdale, AZ, and Jackson, WY.
Solo show, Whistle Pik Galleries, September 1-25.
Featured in September 2010