Bryce Cameron Liston captures the universal human experience
By Gussie Fauntleroy
Painter and sculptor Bryce Cameron Liston tells his students they’ll know when they get the form right with sculpture by the way the light falls on it. And with figurative painting, when the light is executed just so, it makes the form look right. In earlier centuries, when artists undertook years of meticulous classical training in an atelier environment, they pursued both disciplines. They sculpted the human figure to viscerally understand its nuances, its joints and muscles, and its graceful lines. And they drew and painted to translate these qualities into two dimensions through the play of color, shadow, and light.
Liston has sometimes yearned for that kind of art education—watched over by the careful eye of a highly experienced artist and pushed to master one element of visual representation before earning the right to undertake the next. Instead, the 46-year-old artist has often learned skills in no particular order: some drawing and painting, then a long unofficial apprenticeship in bronze sculpture, then back to drawing and painting to fill in what he still needed to know.
“I think of art education like the spiral of a spring,” he muses, sitting in the light-filled studio above his garage in a foothills suburb of Salt Lake City, UT. “As you go up the spiral, around the spring, you come back to the same spot but on the next level up, and you understand more deeply what you learned at that spot the last time.” As he continually moves around the spiral of rendering the figure in paint, he finds himself discovering how to say more with less, to convey the essence of emotion, character, and human experience with fewer highly defined details and more telling gesture, more emphasis on shadow and light.
While Liston still has a passion for sculpting, three-dimensional art has had to take a backseat for now. Over the past few years, collector interest in his paintings has been growing, along with recognition. The only artist ever to have received three of the five top awards at the annual C.M. Russell Auction, in 2010, he also has taken Best of Show at the juried Oil Painters of America Western Regional Exhibition, among other honors. The thoughtful, congenial artist and father of three daughters notes that painting, family, and upkeep on his 1927-vintage home consumes “125 percent” of his time these days.
There was a time—hard as it may be to imagine—when hanging out with artists made Liston unbearably bored. But that was when he was a young boy and those artists were his mother and her plein-air painter friends, setting up their easels in the landscape of Liston’s childhood, south of Salt Lake. His mother, once an assistant to her photographer husband, later took up portrait and landscape painting and reached a high level of proficiency, he says, although she never tried to sell her work. As a boy he may not have appreciated her passion for painting, but he now knows she was a significant if indirect inspiration in his artistic path. “None of my friends grew up around art, and I think taking it in, seeing art produced, and talking about it must have planted some kind of seed,” he reflects. “If I could go back, I would savor every second.”
By junior high school Liston had changed his mind and decided he wanted to be an artist. Early great American illustrators, such as Howard Pyle, N.C. Wyeth, and Norman Rockwell, played an important role in that decision, but school career counselors didn’t quite see things the same way. “They said: ‘You can’t give me that answer [about your career path], that’s not acceptable, it’s not on our career list,’” he recounts. “So one time when they asked, on the spur of the moment I said architecture, and that was on their list.”
Liston studied architectural drafting in high school, but, by the time graduation came around, he realized computers were taking over the drafting field, and, at the time, computers were not his friends. So he entered a fine-art program at the University of Utah, soon transferring to Weber State University in Ogden. In college it quickly became clear that he would not receive the kind of rigorous training in art fundamentals he sought. “They didn’t teach the craft of art, and there was nothing else out there,” he explains. “The atelier situation blossomed again later, but in the mid-1980s, if you wanted to be a representational artist, you were on your own.”
Liston did find a mentor in sculpture, however, and that experience cemented his belief in the value of truly understanding anatomy and the human form, whether in clay or paint. For 15 years, while still drawing and painting on the side, he worked in the private foundry of acclaimed Utah sculptor Edward J. Fraughton. Liston learned every step of the bronze-casting process, but, more than that, Fraughton generously took the young man under his wing in a broader art context as well. “He was very liberal with sharing what he knew about art. I would spend hours in his studio, on the clock, talking about art and looking at art books,” he remembers. “It was a strange education to be a painter and to have learned so much from a sculptor.”
Following his time with Fraughton, Liston once more focused his attention on painting, teaching himself to use color and value to create the same sense of dimensionality and faithfulness to form he had learned to produce in bronze. For a time he worked in a fairly tight, realistic style, especially in a series of paintings based on mythological themes. Eventually, however, the artistic journey around the spiral brought him to a more loosely rendered form of expression, in which not everything needs to be spelled out. “I love the subtle nuances of human anatomy and form, and I enjoy the endless discoveries and delicacies I find there,” he relates, “but I’m forcing myself to a softer, looser style. It’s definitely a battle between the two.”
As it has since high school, the human figure presents itself to Liston as the highest artistic tradition. And while the male form seemed most suited to sculpture, it is the feminine figure that speaks to him when he works in paint; most of his figurative and portrait subjects are young women and girls. “The male anatomy is broken into smaller shapes and straight lines; it’s squared off and easier to get the proper proportions,” the artist observes. The female figure, on the other hand, “involves long, fluid, smooth lines. Obviously I think they’re very beautiful.”
With three daughters, the oldest in her mid teens, Liston has ample inspiration for the romantic, often solitary and reflective beauty featured in his art. He looks for simple, non-period clothing for his wife, daughters, and other models to pose in, adding to a timeless quality of innocence and beauty that resonates across the human spectrum. Liston sketches from life as much as possible and also works from photographs he takes. For HEADING HOME, he captured his youngest daughter in a backlit moment walking in tall grass, carrying a basket of flowers the two had picked. “She started fanning herself, just doing what little girls do,” he says, smiling at the memory. As he often does, Liston played with the dual qualities of visual warmth and coolness in the piece. “Where the sun hits, there’s warmth, but the reflection of sky on flesh makes a cool feeling—that really caught me in this one. It’s one of my favorite recent paintings,” he says.
His oldest daughter is the subject of another of his favorite works. WATER’S EDGE depicts a young woman in quiet contemplation as she dips a toe in the water of a stream. The scene needed to be photographed in early morning, not always a popular time for a 15-year-old. “She’s a teenager. She knew the night before that we were going to do this, but she was not pleased. I was blown away that I got her up to the creek by 8 o’clock,” he laughingly recalls.
Although timeless female beauty is at the heart of much of Liston’s imagery, the painting that took three awards at the C.M. Russell Auction features two males—a father and son. THE FLEDGLING is a tender portrayal of a man teaching a young boy how to handle a rifle. The gentle care reflected in the father’s manner, and the boy’s expression of thoughtful attention, resonated deeply with many who saw the painting at the show, the artist says. “So many men came up to me and said, ‘You captured that scene perfectly—that little moment between father and son.’”
Indeed, as Liston matures as an artist, connecting with viewers and collectors on the level of shared human experience has become increasingly important in his work. Whether in a portrait or figurative image, reflecting the subject’s soulful, essential qualities—and through those, touching the viewer—has become a central goal. “That’s very satisfying,” he affirms. “It’s what drives my work these days.”
Legacy Gallery, Scottsdale, AZ; M Gallery of Fine Art, Charleston, SC; Sage Creek Gallery, Santa Fe, NM; Waterhouse Gallery, Santa Barbara, CA; Galerie Kornye West, Ft. Worth, TX; New Masters Gallery, Carmel, CA; Apple Frame Gallery, Bountiful, UT; www.listonart.com.
Featured in January 2012.