By Virginia Campbell
Most artists, like most people, slog along in the process of their lives, moving in small fits and starts as they broaden their experience, hone their skills, search out inspiration, and fight off self-doubt. There are victories and failures of various sizes, and unexpected leaps and losses, but most of the time there is the kind of progress that can only really be noticed retroactively.
When an artist’s career makes a show-stopping leap forward, undergoing an intense period in which promise that has long percolated comes out of the shadows, the sheer drama of the phenomenon throws the artist’s particular creative process into high relief. The artist’s whole sensibility and career can be seen with new clarity. For Oregon-born painter Tom Browning, that sort of creative period came in the space of one year—2009. During this annus mirabilis, which was, as it happened, the year Browning turned 60, the fruits of good decisions combined with twists of fate to propel him forward, renewing artistic energies that had been pumping since 1972.
Browning had felt his way along a painting career that was grounded in talent and discipline—“I never had a doubt about what I would do in life,” he says, “but when I started out I had no idea how to do it”—and helped along by mentors like painter Bill Reese, a prominent artist who died in June 2010. He spent his early painting years moving from one genre to another, beginning with wildlife and gradually taking on western themes, landscape, portraiture, and still life. In his initial foray into any new genre, he inevitably learned valuable things about painting as a whole. Upon focusing on still life, for example, he realized for the first time “how important it is to know how to simplify detail.” As he entered a mid-career period, he was comfortable moving among multiple genres; depending on demand, Browning was as happy to paint a pitcher of flowers as a portrait of a woman or a pair of horses. “Every painting is a portrait of its subject,” he says.
Until about five years ago, this non-discrimination policy prevailed, possibly at the expense of a clear, compelling perception of Browning’s work as a whole. People who saw, for example, one of Browning’s western paintings of horses animated by subtly dramatic light might look further into the artist’s oeuvre and find historical figurative paintings. Had these other genres seemed only the perfectly reasonable expression of an artist’s need to stretch and keep fresh, there would have been no impetus to narrow focus. But Browning came to believe that the variety in his work was obscuring, rather than expanding, the perception of his work. And beyond that concern was Browning’s fundamental restlessness. “I hit plateaus where I just need to have a change,” says the artist.
The inner call for change reached high volume in 2006. “In 2006, I decided to focus on only a few things—western themes,” Browning says. “I’d always thought of doing western paintings as going back to the well.”
Western themes were Browning’s comfort zone. He’d grown up in the high-desert ranchland of Oregon, and his first personal art experience was discovering Charles M. Russell. But like any serious artist, Browning had been wary of being too comfortable. And yet, western themes were comfortable for a reason—they were the most natural ground for working out his ideas about painting. The interactions between animals and landscape, and animals and humans, are for him the perfect subject as he seeks out the ways in which light guides the eye along on its bright leash.
Browning worked for a taxidermist for a year after dropping out of the University of Oregon art program just short of graduation, and you can see in his western canvases that he knows about what lies beneath an animal’s skin. His feeling for horses is palpable beyond anything related to anatomy. As a painter with particularly strong technical skills, Browning can paint a late-day ridge as well as he paints the flank of a sorrel, but what another painter feels for the land he feels for the animal, and his ridges become more beautiful for having horses beneath them. So Browning spent more of his time on western paintings from 2006 forward. This had the effect of bumping up the quality of all his work, and the result was the annus mirabilis of 2009.
In January of 2009, Browning’s monumental three-part altar mural, ADORATION OF THE CHRIST CHILD, was installed and consecrated at St. Mary’s Church in Boise, ID. The work had been finished the previous year, but the experience of seeing it in place, and of being present when the church’s congregation saw it for the first time, was a unique, emotional variety of artistic gratification. In June, Browning won the Prix de West from the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City. It was the most prestigious award of his career and put the kind of spotlight on his work that it had never before had. Then, in October, Browning was invited to join the Cowboy Artists of America, a prestigious group of 24 artists who don’t go about increasing their ranks without solemn consideration. This was a new, profound validation coming from the artist’s peers.
Browning’s professional standing had, in the space of a few months, been transformed. He had won awards before and was a highly respected, successful artist. But suddenly his name was on people’s lips. He was hot in a whole new way. It was right then that his annus mirabilis almost became an annus horribilis.
In November 2009, Browning was diagnosed with a brain tumor and underwent two surgeries. The tumor was benign, but it doesn’t take much to imagine the terror of being an artist and having surgeons start removing tissue from the organ that controls your vision. Browning came through with his perceptual capabilities unimpaired, and by year’s end was already thinking about how to respond to what was now a year of even more unexpected wonders than it had seemed halfway through.
Though he was still recovering from surgery at the beginning of 2010, Browning was so revved with the success of the previous year that he made an ambitious resolution. He had either effectively put the health scare behind him, or, perhaps, he had taken the brush with mortality as a second call to arms. “What happened in 2009 put me in a position where I wanted to get another 25 percent of quality into my work,” says the artist.
The paintings Browning created in that next year did at least that. FADING LIGHT took the Silver Medal at the Cowboy Artists of America exhibition in the fall of 2010. He could probably have painted a piece as good as this before 2009, but in 2010 he painted a lot of them. Brain surgery be damned, he batted them out of the park all year.
The energy that radiates from a year like Browning’s 2009 is rare and precious. He has run with it in every way imaginable. Less than 18 months after his surgery, he moved with his wife, Joyce, from central Oregon, where they’d lived for 16 years, to Arizona, just outside Scottsdale. His studio has yet to be built, but he was painting within a week of moving into the new house. (“I don’t wait for the creative mood to strike me,” Browning says. “Painting isn’t just my passion. It’s my business.”) He misses family and friends back in Oregon, but the active art world in Arizona is the place for an artist who’s lived through the two years Browning has. “I want to be in the thick of things,” he says.
One of the loveliest of Browning’s 2010 paintings is a piece called BOXED IN. The 20-by-40-inch painting shows a group of horses who’ve been corralled against a ledge wall that’s only suggested within the frame of the picture. Light settles along the neck and mane of one horse whose head, circling around back toward the viewer, tells us there’s nowhere to go over there. On the far left of the herd in the painting’s middle ground is a white horse in full profile, head faced into the emptiness of dust and light that occupies the left quarter of the canvas. “My game plan was to use simplicity and light to tell the story,” says Browning. “I liked the way the light on the left created negative space against the darker tones and weight of the horses.”
The scene’s drama comes from the mounted cowboy in the middle of the painting, whose presence explains how the horses came to be boxed in, their energies safely, temporarily contained. But the cowboy is barely there. “I painted him many times, each time more faintly than before,” says Browning. “I didn’t want him distracting from the focal point.” The focal point is where that negative space Browning created meets living potential in the form of the horse’s head, lit up at the edges. Vibrant energy is held in a moment of impossibly perfect stasis.
If Browning had specifically set out to paint a portrait of his experience of psychological focus at this point in his life, it’s hard to believe he would have painted any other canvas than this.
Claggett/Rey Gallery, Vail, CO; InSight Gallery, Fredericksburg, TX; Wilcox Gallery, Jackson, WY.
Featured in June 2011.