Landscape painter Michael Godfrey strives to portray the beauty of creation
By Rosemary Carstens
In 1990, Michael Godfrey painted in the West for the first time. “I’ve never been the same since that trip,” he says. “I am an Easterner in love with the West.” Whether capturing the vast, open vistas of Colorado, Wyoming, and the Sierra Nevadas, or the lusher, denser wildness of the East, the artist never fails to feel God’s hand at work. One look at Godfrey’s paintings and it’s easy to see that he skillfully translates his emotional and spiritual engagement with the landscape onto the canvas. As Cynthia McBride, owner of McBride Gallery in Annapolis, MD, remarked recently, “Michael’s work celebrates the beauty of creation. When an artist feels that strongly, it shows in the work. His compositions are wonderful—they lead your eye into the painting and you want to linger there.”
A self-proclaimed army brat, Godfrey was born in Germany but returned to the United States at the age of 3 when his father was stationed at Fort Bragg in Fayetteville, NC. He and his brothers roamed the region’s verdant hills, hunting, fishing, and growing ever more at ease in the woods.
Godfrey credits his early interest in painting to his seventh-grade teacher, Ms. Boyette, who brought her own oil paints into the classroom, set up a still life, and put young Michael to work. She allowed him to paint during class as long as he completed his assignments at home. Throughout high school he built on those basic skills under the guidance of his art teacher and mentor, Mrs. Appie Bolton. By graduation, Godfrey knew his life’s path was art, and he went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in fine art at East Carolina University.
By 1985 Godfrey was married and working in commercial art. He often visited the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, where the paintings of Albert Bierstadt and George Inness drew him in. These two 19th-century artists would have a profound influence on Godfrey’s art. Bierstadt, best known for his epic, sweeping landscapes, impressed Godfrey with the grandeur of the scenes he painted and his exceptional craftsmanship. One of the Hudson River School artists, Bierstadt was known for creating carefully detailed paintings with romantic, almost glowing lighting, sometimes called luminism. Bierstadt is also grouped with the retrospectively titled Rocky Mountain School, artists known for the reverential spirit with which they portrayed that dramatic scenery. Inness, too, showed this same reverence for the majesty of the natural world in his paintings. Inness, influenced by the Hudson River School painters and tonalism, rendered evocative, atmospheric works that emphasized softened edges, saturated colors, and a more abstracted handling of shapes that Godfrey greatly admired.
As Godfrey’s career progressed, the influence of these two master painters would become even more apparent. At times, Godfrey’s handling of the quality of light in his paintings has been considered reminiscent of the Hudson River School, but, as he says, “While I like their approach to landscape, I am a modern artist working in this day and age, making use of contemporary tools to achieve results.”
He feels that a more accurate commonality between his work and that of the earlier landscape painters is their shared spiritual or religious insight into the natural world. If, as George Inness remarked in an 1878 interview in Harper’s magazine, the true use of art is “to cultivate the artist’s own spiritual nature,” then at the heart of Godfrey’s work lies his belief in God’s hand in all he sees. “When you see a sunset, it can’t help but affect you,” he notes. “You know it has been created by God.”
Godfrey works out of a studio in his home in suburban Maryland. He likes living near a large metropolitan area, but not in it. In Washington, DC, he has access to the National Gallery of Art, where he sees all the exhibitions and studies works there on a regular basis. He’s also less than two hours from Virginia’s Shenandoah Mountains, an hour from the Chesapeake Bay, and only four hours from New York City. It’s an ideal location.
Like most artists’ studios, Godfrey’s is crammed with reference materials. Bookshelves, cabinets, and files are filled to overflowing (including 25 years of Southwest Art magazines). Two computer screens allow him to review photographs taken during his travels, to confirm color and light at various hours of the day and to experiment with compositional components. Once he has an idea in mind for a new painting, he thinks deeply about the direction to take it: “I ask myself, ‘What do I want to be the dominant idea in the work? What should be the emphasis?’ I try to work out the direction before I put brush to canvas.”
The artist often produces large paintings, which he feels emphasize the natural grandeur of scenes and allow viewers to feel like they are part of the composition, as if they were standing there. “Most of my larger paintings are composed. I rarely paint a scene as I find it,” he explains. “I’m not out just to copy. I am more interested in designing a piece that conforms to my sense of order and has the look and feel of an area. With large works, I can best achieve my goals as a painter.”
When on location, Godfrey takes photographs of a vista in all directions and makes plein-air field studies. He also notes how light interacts with the environment, its reflective quality, and the sky’s color and effect on the land and water beneath it. His spectacular painting THE UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY evolved from just such a trip. He had hiked into Cascade Canyon in Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park. “I start out early in the morning so I can reach the high country as the sun breaks the horizon. Early morning and late evening are the times of maximum color saturation, so it’s worth the effort.” Physical endurance, too, can be essential for those who paint nature, and Godfrey does not leave that to chance. “I usually train for four months prior to my trips out west, to build up my stamina. Living at an elevation of 150 feet puts me at a distinct disadvantage when I’m hiking at 8,000 to 10,000 feet. But the rewards are great!”
Back home in the studio, he’s a bit of a night owl, frequently working until 2 or even 3 in the morning, when everything’s quiet. As he works, he’ll occasionally listen to classical music or jazz, but mostly he listens to audio books. Four times a year he listens to the bible. Through the rhythm and poetry of the spoken words, he frequently finds new meaning and inspiration in its familiar passages. Godfrey is an even-tempered fellow with a friendly, humorous manner. When asked what bugs him in life, he replies, “Running out of white paint, which I did earlier this year. Isn’t that sort of like KFC running out of chickens?”
Movies have also proven instructive for Godfrey. He watches them “to study how directors use lighting to achieve their results,” he says, “and, in the same way, I compose my paintings by orchestrating light throughout the scene.” Godfrey is known for his painterly handling of light, color, and contrast, and viewers are frequently stopped in their tracks when they come upon a painting like GILDED FOREST. Luminous light pours through the delicate gold and orange filter of aspen leaves and purely shimmers in contrast to the chilly, mist-shrouded lavender peaks in the distance. The artist has composed a scene that few could resist—an invitation to step into a beautiful fall day.
In addition to his visits to the Rocky Mountain region, Godfrey travels to paint the quiet marshes of the Chesapeake Bay and the subtle beauty of the Shenandoah Valley, as well as a range of other settings from coast to coast. His paintings have been exhibited in numerous shows and museum exhibitions nationwide, and he’s garnered recognition almost yearly. This year he was voted Best of Show in the Rocky Mountain Plein Air Painters national exhibition. He has also won the Quest for the West Palette Award at the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art, and he has been juried into the Arts for the Parks competition’s Top 100 six times, winning both the Landscape Award and a Yellowstone National Park Purchase Award. The artist’s work hangs in many private and corporate collections.
Godfrey’s guiding principle in work and life is his faith. “Any ability I have is God-given. I want my paintings to reflect what God has created and the sense of awe that I experience,” he says. “There is much that is beautiful in this world, and I think that art—my art—should lift the spirit of the viewer. I want the work of my hands to glorify God and cause people to think about the beauty of this wondrous creation, our world.”
Trailside Galleries, Jackson Hole, WY, and Scottsdale, AZ; Highlands Art Gallery, Chester, NJ; New Masters Gallery, Carmel, CA; McBride Gallery, Annapolis, MD; Somerville Manning Gallery, Greenville, DE; Broadway Gallery, Fairfax, VA; www.michaelgodfrey.com.
American Art Invitational, Saks Galleries, Denver, CO, December 3-31.
Featured in December 2010