Meet 10 leaders who are shaping the representational art world
By Bonnie Gangelhoff
Every year, we at Southwest Art salute a special group of people who are making noteworthy contributions to the art world. Some of them are artists whose impressive accomplishments—be they awards won, sales made, respect earned—elevate the whole field of western art. Others are gallery owners whose tireless efforts have led to success in a constantly changing, economically challenging world. And one is the leader of an important institution that is helping to train the art stars of tomorrow. All of them are making a significant impact, and we hope you enjoy meeting them.
Daniel Sprick | Painter, Denver, CO
Eggshells, skeletons, and soup cans—these are a few of the unusual objects that might pop up in a Daniel Sprick still life. Over the years, Sprick has earned a national reputation with shows at prominent galleries and paintings held in prestigious museum collections, such as the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC.
Sprick’s meticulously rendered tableaux have been compared with works by old masters such as Jan Vermeer. The artist also manages to imbue his works with a sense of mystery and a touch of the surreal. Seemingly unrelated objects cluster on a table and sometimes levitate or fly through the air. Sprick has long been interested in flight, ever since he first started drawing airplanes as a child. Today he is a registered pilot.
The artist has never been content to stay still, creatively speaking, but has always chosen to explore new artistic realms. These days, he is focusing on figurative works—portraits of everyday people set against stark, off-white backgrounds. These portraits will be the subject of a solo exhibition in 2014 at the Denver Art Museum.
When asked about his goals for the future, Sprick replies, “To continue to grow as an artist and to do works I will find compelling and that will be compelling for others as well. But I have to find it. It has to come naturally. I cannot force it into being.”
Jeffrey Watts | Painter, Encinitas, CA
This year Watts Atelier of the Arts celebrates its 20th anniversary, and founder Jeffrey Watts is as proud of the atelier as he is of his own award-winning figurative paintings. “Leaving a legacy of artists behind who you have helped train is moving art forward and bringing back traditional art that everyone seems to want to see,” Watts says.
Watts’ atelier, located in Southern California, has always changed with the times, so it’s no surprise that its founder is reacting to the educational potential of the Internet. Watts is currently creating 250 hours of curriculum for an online version of the school that is scheduled to debut this summer and reach hundreds of art students around the world seeking classical fine-art instruction. Watts says the Internet is the single biggest change he has seen in the art world during his career.
Meanwhile, everyday life and travel inspire many of Watts’ own Russian- Impressionist-style paintings. Whether he’s painting close to home or in more exotic locations, such as Peru or Morocco, the artist is fond of searching for the humanity in his subject matter. “I’m always looking for things that resonate with me, ranging from the person around my town with a cool look to fleeting lighting conditions,” he says.
For Watts, creating great art includes demonstrating a high level of craftsmanship, drawing ability, integrity, and honesty. But he also tries to push beyond these key elements and beyond mere technical proficiency. “Drawing is the linchpin to painting, but the main thing is, I want my work to have soul,” he says.
Elisa Stephens | President, Academy of Art University, San Francisco, CA
For Elisa Stephens, president of the Academy of Art University, her career is “all in the family.” Her grandfather, Richard S. Stephens, founded the art school in 1929 and brought in distinguished faculty in art and design. Her father, Richard A. Stephens, took the reins as president in 1951. Forty-one years later, Elisa Stephens, armed with a law degree, assumed the presidency. Under her leadership the school continues to flourish and grow as a dynamic institution, with 21 majors available for degrees and a vibrant interactive online program. Today it’s the largest private art-and-design school in the country, with a student population that hails from around the globe. Gifted teachers and students often appear in the pages of Southwest Art, such as Craig Nelson, Bryan Mark Taylor, Jonathan Ahn, and Hsin-Yao Tseng, just to name a few.
Stephens has seen many changes in the art world during her career, but she says that the most exciting is witnessing a revolution of innovation and technology in the art and design world, with entire new industries being created.
When it comes to accomplishments, Stephens says she is most proud of the academy’s incredible students, who work hard and launch successful careers after graduation, as well as the fact that the school makes art education affordable to a wide range of students at a time when there are dramatic cuts to higher education, especially in the arts. “I am also very proud of our online degree program because it is truly state of the art. It is something that we conceived of and built entirely ourselves in 2003. It’s highly interactive and video-intensive, with tens of thousands of professionally produced demonstrations,” Stephens says.
Bill Rey | Owner, Claggett/Rey Gallery, Vail, CO
Coloradan Bill Rey grew up in the art world—his father is well-known western artist Jim Rey. The younger Rey began working in the gallery business in 1983, and six years later, he opened his own gallery in the ski-resort town of Vail. Over the years Claggett/Rey Gallery has become recognized for representing some of the country’s top western artists. Gallery artists boast a wide spectrum of style and subject matter, from traditional western and wildlife paintings and sculptures to classic realism and impressionism. Artists represented include Roy Andersen, Curt Walters, Steve Kestrel, Quang Ho, and Laura Robb. Claggett/Rey artists have brought home a number of awards from respected shows, such as the Prix de West Invitational at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, OK.
Rey views the rise of art auctions and the trend of museums becoming “significant forces” in the retail art world as some of the biggest changes he’s seen during his career. Although galleries now compete with auctions and museums for sales, he remains proud of the long-term relationships he has established with artists, employees, and collectors after 30 years in the business. “I am also most proud of our gallery becoming known for representing the highest level of quality,” Rey says. “And I am proud that we make a difference in the lives of those with whom we interact.”
In the next 10 years he wants to continue to establish a high level of quality in the living and deceased artists he represents. “I want to continue to educate ourselves and our patrons to know the difference between good and great in the art world,” Rey says.
G. Harvey | Painter & Sculptor, Fredericksburg, TX
Cowboys on horseback crossing a river. A city street where horses gallop alongside Ford Model T’s. A street peppered with horse-drawn carriages. Collectors familiar with paintings by G. Harvey cherish scenes like these and relish his ability to capture the nostalgic flavor of turn-of-the-century America. Indeed, Harvey says that his artistic mission is to depict the spirit of America—the main inspiration for his popular paintings. “I find inspiration in nature, in the beauty and faith of our founding fathers that helped mold this nation, and most importantly, in the hope that the nation will find this faith again,” Harvey says.
The artist grew up in rugged terrain north of San Antonio, TX, where his grandfather was a trail boss and longhorn cattle were regularly herded up and driven to Kansas railheads. In fact, the legends and myths of the American West are another prime source of Harvey’s inspiration.
Although he is best known for his historical, impressionistic paintings, Harvey is also a sculptor, and his artworks are held in museum collections throughout the United States. But he is humbled by the ordinary collector who loves his work enough to own it. He is also touched that collectors share his strong feelings for America’s spirit. “If I can convey a nation of people that worked hard and had faith and love for mankind, I have accomplished my goal,” Harvey says.
Charla & Bob Nelson | Owners, Manitou Galleries and Auctions, Cheyenne, WY, and Santa Fe, NM
Museums, galleries, and auctions—Bob and Charla Nelson run them all, and they are as tireless as they are passionate about art. Their mini-art empire got its start in 1975, when Bob Nelson founded Manitou Galleries in Cheyenne, WY. Then in 2002 and 2011, respectively, the couple opened two more galleries in Santa Fe, NM. The three galleries represent top contemporary, mostly western-based artists, such as R. Tom Gilleon, Nelson Boren, and Miguel Martinez.
Fifteen years ago, Bob Nelson also founded the Nelson Museum of the West in Cheyenne, which features Native American and cowboy art and artifacts. This year the Nelsons celebrate the 26th anniversary of March in Montana, an auction that is now a collaborative effort with the Coeur d’Alene Art Auction. In 2005, the couple added a second art auction in Santa Fe.
The couple says they have seen a significant change in the art market in terms of the type of art people collect. Today clients purchase more original art instead of prints. And clients are buying more works by deceased artists for investment purposes. “We started out in the western art circle. That’s where the strongest buyers were,” the Nelsons say. “However, that’s expanded now into additional subject matter, including landscapes, figurative works, and cutting-edge styles and subjects.”
The couple is proud of expanding their businesses in difficult, recessionary times. We’ve been proud to cater to clients from all walks of life with a one-stop-shopping experience. Few in the industry can offer all price and quality levels of art and artifacts,” the Nelsons say.
Walt Gonske | Painter, Taos, NM
Walt Gonske left the world of New York fashion illustration in 1972, moved to Taos, NM, and has never looked back. Today he says that the life-changing decision was by far the best he’s ever made. He is content to spend his days capturing both the landscape around his northern New Mexico home and scenes in far-off locations, such as Greece and Spain. He is equally talented at painting a vase of flowers plucked from his garden as he is a historic adobe church.
Bill Rey, who represents Gonske, says there are no gimmicks, formulas, or smoke and mirrors in the painter’s works, just pure creativity, energy, color, emotion, and drawing. One thing remains constant no matter what he is depicting: Gonske’s signature loose, painterly style. “I put down my reaction to one impulse after another with a loaded brush,” he says. “I would rather not have any preconceived ideas and allow the work to just take on a life of its own. That keeps me in the present moment and entertained during the process.”
As this story was going to press, Gonske was finishing a painting for the annual Prix de West Invitational show; the prestigious event opens in June at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, OK. The artist says his proudest accomplishment is being fortunate enough to have his work seen by the public at such highly respected venues across the Southwest. Gonske says in the future he looks forward to getting his new “paintmobile,” which is currently on order, and then hitting the road for some serious plein-air painting.
John Coleman | Sculptor & Painter, Prescott, AZ
Artist John Coleman is widely recognized for his evocative bronze sculptures that capture the personalities of Native Americans. But these days he is excited about a new direction in his fine-art career. For an upcoming retrospective in September at the Eiteljorg Museum in Indianapolis, IN, the sculptor is introducing oil painting to his body of work.
Although he is a traditional artist, he views his craft as not merely fashioning replicas of the objects or people he portrays. If that were true, it wouldn’t be art, he says. “Just as in a great novel, the value comes not from the sum of its words, but through the rhythms with which the writer is able to invoke empathy for its characters, bringing them to life,” he says.
Coleman’s retrospective takes place as part of the annual Quest for the West show at the Eiteljorg Museum. And in fact, Coleman says one of the biggest changes he’s seen in the art world during his career is the dramatic growth of museum shows and auctions. Coleman views this change as positive, fostering artistic growth while raising the bar for artists because the events are so competitive.
In the future, Coleman looks forward to the empowering knowledge that he has chosen a profession where people don’t retire but instead have the potential for growth at any age. “Some of my favorite artists and mentors are in their 80s and still getting better,” he says. “I am very excited about building on my past experiences and the promise of growth they will bring not only to my sculptures but to my paintings as well.”
Ann Crouch | Owner/Founder, Sunset Art Gallery, Galleries at Sunset Center, Amarillo Art Institute, Amarillo, TX
When it comes to the visual arts in Amarillo, Ann Crouch’s passion, influence, and tireless spirit seem to be everywhere. For starters, Crouch owns Sunset Art Gallery. The gallery opened in 2005 and represents both Amarillo-based artists and nationally known artists, such as Ramon Kelley. About the same time, Crouch, who owned a shopping mall, was approached by a professor who asked if she could provide studio space for young artists. Crouch agreed, and the student artists soon moved into the mall. Then local professional artists requested space, and they, too, moved in. These days The Galleries at Sunset Center is home to 84 artists who rent studio spaces at affordable rates.
In addition, Crouch founded the nonprofit Amarillo Art Institute, which is housed in the same center. Prominent artists regularly fly into the city to teach workshops at the institute. The sprawling Sunset Center features three galleries, including Crouch’s. In addition there’s an artists’ cooperative, Panhandle Art Center, which rents walls to artists to display their works. Each month artists and galleries come together for a First Friday Art Walk that attracts 3,000 people.
The biggest change Crouch has seen in the art market is a new generation of young people who are realizing that they can afford original art, she says. And she modestly adds that she thinks there is now a greater appreciation for the visual arts in Amarillo because so many artists have come together under one roof.
Finally, in her spare time, Crouch herself is an artist. “As a result of the life I lead, I find myself painting in the wee hours. Thank goodness, God blessed me with a need for very little sleep and a lot of energy to complete all of my dreams and aspirations,” she says.
Meredith & David Plesko | Owners, InSight Gallery, Fredericksburg, TX
Meredith and David Plesko are the first to admit that they relish a challenge. In the midst of a brutally tough economy in 2009, they opened InSight Gallery. The couple shares a passion for art and a love of the Hill Country town of Fredericksburg. They believe that the charming town is on its way to becoming the next great art destination.
Over the past three years, they have seen their business thrive alongside about 15 other local galleries. “We knew that if we could get very good at what we did, hone our skills, and learn to be successful when times were difficult, that we would be ready when the good days arrived again,” the Pleskos say.
The couple has intentionally kept their stable of artists small so as to represent each artist well. And they have been careful to make sure styles and subject matter do not overlap. The Pleskos say that they are not so much proud as they are thankful for the stable of artists who have decided to accompany them on their journey. Among the impressive artists InSight Gallery represents are still-life painter Sherrie McGraw, figurative painter Dan Gerhartz, and landscape painter Scott Christensen.
As for the future, they say they know Fredericksburg will continue to attract new galleries, and they plan to play a role in that unfolding scenario. “In 10 years, we want everyone reading Southwest Art to know that Fredericksburg is an art destination and to visit the town time and time again,” the Pleskos say.
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