John Potter’s paintings celebrate wildlife and his Native American heritage
By Norman Kolpas
This story was featured in the October 2015 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art October 2015 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story
On a scrubby rise shrouded in a cold, flossy mist, a bison bull stands alone, seemingly contemplative while the rest of the herd rests and grazes in the distance. Behind them rises the craggy Teton range, its crevasses frosted with snow. Storm clouds quietly threaten in the vast sky.
Vividly realistic but with passages of expressive brushwork, the painting by John Potter conveys a deep sense of emotion, and its title, WHERE WE ARE IN OUR HEARTS, offers some insight into the artist’s intentions. Asked for further explanation, Potter offers, “It speaks of loss, and of a feeling of isolation and separation that I’ve been dealing with recently. I feel that society is careening out of control, on a path in direct opposition to the pulse of the natural world.”
Lest that statement lead anyone to think of Potter as a purveyor of doom and gloom, it’s imperative to note that the 58-year-old resident of Red Lodge, MT, communicates this all with an abundance of affability and warmth. Yes, he may believe that the so-called civilized world is on a wayward path. But he remains dedicated to celebrating nature and humanity through the oils he applies to canvas, the words he so eloquently speaks, and the personal trail he has chosen through life.
Potter has always felt as if he stood one giant step apart from the society around him. Born of mixed Native American and Anglo heritage, in childhood he often felt as if he belonged to neither world, shuttling back and forth between the northern Wisconsin reservation of the Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians, or Ojibwe, and the suburban Chicago home of his stepfather. “I’ve always felt separate, distant,” he says.
Yet two important constants remained in his life. One was art. “According to my mom, I started drawing when I was around 3. Mostly it was pencil on paper. But if I ran out of paper I would draw on the walls, on birch bark or cardboard, on my desk at school, or on my classmates’ arms,” he laughs. The surfaces may have varied, Potter adds, but the subjects never did. “It was animals, always animals.”
The other constant was Nick Hockings, a man on the reservation whom Potter refers to as his uncle even though that wasn’t actually the familial relationship. “Nick,” he says, “was the male role model in my life, at any given time a best friend, a brother, and a fatherly figure, who influenced me culturally, emotionally, spiritually, and artistically.”
A respected Ojibwe artist, educator, and human rights activist, Hockings not only was the first person to foster young John’s talent and teach him how to paint but also introduced him to nature. “He totally immersed me in the natural world,” says Potter. “He taught me how to spear fish through the ice in winter or by lighting up the waters with torches in the summer, how to hunt and live in the woods for weeks at a time. I learned from Nick that to understand nature you have to pay attention to it instead of to the outside world or to the clamor inside yourself. Thanks to him, I felt comfortable out there. Nature was home to me.”
The dynamic combination of nature and art seemed to point the way for Potter. But an incident at Barrington High School in Wauconda, IL, almost threw him off-track. “In art class one day, I’d painted an Indian village, and I was really proud of it,” he recalls. “But the teacher looked at it and said, ‘John, you know, you have no talent as an artist. You don’t have what it takes.’ With my somewhat traditional native upbringing that says you should listen to your elders, I paid attention to her, and I completely quit drawing and painting.”
Instead, he pursued a path that seemed like it might be the next best thing for his interests, enrolling in the wildlife science department at Utah State University. “At least I would immerse myself in the natural world,” he thought. He soon found, however, that the program had other intentions: “It was preparing us to treat wildlife and nature as commodities.” Two quarters after enrolling, he switched majors to art.
The Utah State art department proved ideal for Potter. Two instructors in particular became cherished mentors. Painting professor Harrison Groutage, “an incredible painter and a great teacher,” steeped him in the fundamentals of drawing, composition, and values. “He was one of the nicest people you could ever meet, but he was very forceful and determined when it came to his students getting things right,” Potter remembers. Illustration professor Glen Edwards, a widely respected painter of Old West subjects, shared, among many other lessons, the practical advice that “you should get a job as an illustrator so you can have a steady income and benefits while you work on your paintings on the side.”
After graduating in 1981, and doing a brief year and a half of industrial work to support the family he’d begun during college, Potter secured a job perfectly in step with the goal Edwards had recommended, joining the Billings Gazette, Montana’s second-largest newspaper, as its “one-person art department.” During a career there that lasted 19 years, he did “everything from wildlife illustrations to portraits of local figures, courtroom sketches to political cartoons to maps and graphs. I got to sit around and draw all day and get paid for it. It was a great job.” On the side, he continued to paint a bit, and his scenes of wildlife, nature, and Indians were represented by a local gallery and won a few awards at events across the West.
Eventually, however, he found his paintings “screaming for more attention.” And with the growing presence of computers in the newsroom making his hand-drawn work obsolete, Potter finally left that job in 2001 to devote himself full time to fine art, taking workshops early on from the likes of famed landscape painters Jim Wilcox and Scott Christensen and renowned wildlife painter Tucker Smith. “They gave me the idea that if I put the effort into it and dedicated myself, I could do this. I wanted to learn what they know, while having my own voice as an artist. And that’s what happened.” Gallery representation soon followed, and Potter has been expressing himself as an artist ever since.
Along the way, Potter has continued to mature and evolve as an artist while immersing himself ever more deeply in the natural world around him. “I paint to listen,” he says. “I paint to transcend, or to be transformed or transported. I believe painting should engage the heart and spirit, much in the same way scientists have found that sincere prayer brings about chemical changes in the brain. A painting should enlighten both the artist and the viewer.”
By way of example, consider the enlightenment Potter offers in SNOW TIME TO REST, a 10-by-12-inch oil on canvas that the artist was asked to present in the 2014 Small Works, Great Wonders show at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City. The painting presents the stunning image of a black wolf resting on a snowy stream bank. Rather than glorify or demonize an animal viewed as a predator by ranchers and as endangered by environmentalists, Potter simply depicted his subject as part of the natural world he himself strives so fully to inhabit. “For me, as a native man, wolves hold a place of honor and respect in my traditional soul,” he explains. “Unlike humans, they have the ability to move with a quiet dignity and a silent reverence in their world. They are fully integrated. Their world is whole and balanced, complete. And I believe our world, and the natural world, would be incomplete without them.”
In a significant way, Potter’s personal world has felt sorrowfully incomplete in the past three years. On November 20, 2012, his uncle Nick Hockings passed on at the age of 70, and his life was widely memorialized. Following native custom, Potter “chopped off a good foot of my long hair, to a point that it was too short to braid,” as a sign of mourning. Memories of the good man who was a major influence on his life remain strong and continue to guide him. “I once asked him, ‘Being of mixed blood, what do I have to do to be Indian?’ He said to me, ‘The real Indians left the reservation. They’re out in the world, free. So get out there in the world and fight the enemy. And the enemy is ignorance. Fight ignorance, John, and teach people about how we were, who we are, and who we can be, if we just stay true to our values.’”
Potter has distilled that wisdom down to one simple statement that sums up the purpose of his calling as an artist: “I’m trying to educate people.” Deep thinker that he is, however, he cannot resist going on to define what he does in more detail: “Fine art should be just that—fine in its inspiration, composition, and fine in its ability to elevate and illuminate the soul. I have not gotten to this place in my career, wherever that is, in an easy way. I have not ‘arrived,’ and I never will, because I will never be as good as I want to be. This path is lifelong, and the effort to improve is never-ending.”
Featured in the October 2015 issue of Southwest Art magazine–click below to purchase:
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