D. Edward Kucera | Ode to the Frontier

D. Edward Kucera’s paintings connect us with the beauty and humanity of the Old West

By Gussie Fauntleroy

D. Edward Kucera, Treading Lightly, oil, 30 x 46.

D. Edward Kucera, Treading Lightly, oil, 30 x 46.

This story was featured in the February 2017 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art  February 2017 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story.

As a young man working for Pony Express delivery service, D. Edward Kucera got a small taste of just how harrowing winters on the Great Plains must have been in the Old West. He was driving a van, delivering candy and pharmaceuticals in rural eastern Wyoming. When winter storms howled, his lightweight vehicle could be violently buffeted around. “You’d hope for a lot of candy on the way out, because it weighed more, and then you only had to worry about the trip home,” he recalls with a wry smile.

As he looks back on his earlier days, Kucera (pronounced koo-CHAIR-uh) is sitting in his windowless basement studio at his home just south of Denver. The space is small and minimally furnished, which he appreciates for its lack of distractions. There’s his easel and painting paraphernalia, including a screen for viewing selections from the more than 20,000 reference photos he’s taken over the years. There’s a place to hang his painting apron, hats, and coats. It’s a room where a lot of work gets done.

Long before his white-knuckle Pony Express experience, Kucera was fascinated by life on the western frontier. Since boyhood he’s been in awe of the stamina and courage it must have taken—
for both Native peoples and European Americans—to get through ordinary life. That interest intensified at age 10, when his family “went east to be in the West”—moving from California to rural Nebraska. Today the 55-year-old artist’s internationally collected, award-winning paintings convey a sense of hard-won character, relatable humanity, and dramatic or everyday moments that pay homage to an earlier time.

Among the countless tense situations early settlers and Native peoples endured, near the top of the list must have been encounters with the feared and unknown “other.” Kucera envisioned HOLD STEADY as one of those moments: A young greenhorn with more imagination than experience has been out exploring or hunting when he strays close to the path of a group of mounted Indians, who may or may not be pleased if they see him. Having succeeded in getting his horse to lie down under a rock overhang, he holds his breath as the line of riders passes a few yards away.

Ironically, posing such a scene required a cowboy with unsurpassed experience to serve as the model, Kucera says. “Very few people can make a horse lie down like that. I thought about one of the best horsemen I know, and I knew he could do it.” As with most of his works, the artist composed the scene using reference from multiple sources, including photos he’d taken of Native men on horseback in traditional dress. He shoots scores of photographs at events such as rendezvous gatherings and powwows, often asking subjects to move or sit on a horse a certain way, to ride forward, or to imagine something suddenly catching their eye. From these images, as well as from books and by talking with historians and other knowledgeable sources, he gathers historically accurate details and the gestures, poses, and facial expressions he needs. It can take months or years as he collects reference material and an idea gradually evolves before it makes its way to canvas.

The idea of becoming a fine artist underwent its own lengthy evolution before Kucera first stood before an easel with brushes and oils. His first “artwork” emerged when he was 5. He’d been sent to his room, in trouble for little-boy misbehavior, and was bored and mad. Then he spied a box of crayons and four smooth walls. Soon the walls were covered with scribbles, but the budding artist went an extra step and carefully colored inside all the shapes. “My mother was furious—and I was already in trouble anyway,” he remembers. “She brought my dad in and said, ‘Look what your son did!’ My dad stood there a moment and then he goes, ‘Wow, I kind of like it.’ That was the one time when I thought I was going to be in big trouble, and he let it go.”

Abstract art soon gave way to figurative, and Kucera sold his first creation, a Batmobile drawing, to his babysitter’s husband for 50 cents. When he was 10 the family left San José, CA, for rural Nebraska where his electrician father, ready to leave the traffic behind, had a new job. In Nebraska there were pastures for Ed to explore and a landscape expansive enough to make him imagine the Old West. “I had a horse for a short time, but the horse and I didn’t really get along,” he says. “I thought it was the horse and found out later it was me—I didn’t know how to care for a horse.” But he did know how to draw a horse. He remembers drawing on whatever paper he could find and using an inexpensive watercolor set to paint his favorite subjects: horses and baseball players.

When Kucera reached his teens, drawing took a back seat for a time. He turned his attention to music, taking guitar lessons and playing in a rock band. While it was fun, he soon realized that going beyond weekend gigs playing cover tunes would require ratcheting up his skills. So following high school he enrolled in the Guitar Institute of Technology in Hollywood, CA, where he studied for a year with Grammy award-winning virtuoso Frank Gambale. “There were times when Gambale would be with students, and they would turn up the volume on his amp so the whole school could just sit and listen,” Kucera says.

His own playing improved, but more importantly, he found himself immensely inspired by seeing someone “that good at his craft.” That sense of admiring respect led to the next turn in Kucera’s circuitous path—a search for something he could do that well. “I knew that unless I was a phenomenal sight-reader, I wouldn’t find work with the guitar, and I didn’t have an itch to write a song,” he says. “My dad would say: Do something that’s yours.” Kucera believed he would find what was his in visual art, but he’d never known anyone who made a living that way. So he decided on commercial art, earning a degree in advertising design from the Colorado Institute of Art (now the Art Institute of Colorado). While there, he discovered his true talent lay in illustration. He honed his drawing skills and earned scholarship money by winning illustration competitions. But as it happened, he graduated just as computer-generated graphics were taking over the design field and “the career I thought I wanted was quickly fading away.”

So he shifted into fine art, although by an unconventional route. “I put the cart before the horse,” he says. Rather than selling his original paintings—which at the time were produced in acrylics using airbrush—he dove straight into the limited-edition print market, where his work sold well. Then one day Irma Eubanks, wife of television personality Bob Eubanks who hosted the Peppertree Ranch Art Show in Santa Ynez, CA, noticed one of Kucera’s originals at the printer they both used. She invited him to take part in the show. When galleries began to express interest in his original work, he realized it was time to switch to oils. “I developed a reputation for being good with the airbrush, but just because you’re good at something doesn’t mean you should do it,” he says. He’s been painting full time in oils since 1996.

Among Kucera’s most recent honors, his painting AROUND AND ABOUT was purchased and donated to be hung over the library fireplace in the Colorado governor’s residence, the historic Cheesman-Boettcher Mansion in Denver. For the artist, the painting reflects the quiet confidence of an experienced horseman as expressed through the young cowboy’s bearing and the way he holds the reins. “His posture on the horse says, ‘I’m in charge here, and I know what I’m doing—and by the way, I look good doing it,’” the artist says, chuckling.

Kucera sees his own already high level of competence continually increasing, aided by a disciplined daily work routine. “It’s constantly evolving into something I’m eventually going to be proud of,” he says with modest self-effacement. “That’s the proverbial carrot in front of my nose.” One aspect of that evolution is a focus on incorporating abstract elements into his work, particularly in portrait backgrounds that contrast with the tightly rendered figures. “I like the idea of something not recognizable and then a focal point that’s more realistic,” he says. “It makes the realism look more real.”

While reality is not always pretty, especially in frontier times often marked by physical hardship and struggle for survival, Kucera’s aim is to reveal and highlight the human and natural beauty in the world he portrays. As a way of summing up what he sees as a central message in his art, he smiles and softly sings a few bars from a World War II-era popular song: “Accentuate the positive/eliminate the negative/latch on to the affirmative/don’t mess with Mr. In-Between.”

Jones & Terwilliger Galleries, Carmel and Palm Desert, CA; Settlers West Galleries, Tucson, AZ; Astoria Fine Art, Jackson, WY; Evergreen Fine Art, Evergreen, CO.

This story was featured in the February 2017 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art  February 2017 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story.

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