Colorado painter Michael Ome Untiedt captures contemporary and historic visions of the West
By Bonnie Gangelhoff
This story was featured in the November 2013 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art November 2013 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story!
Michael Ome Untiedt likes to tell stories in his paintings. Some stories come to him as a historical footnote he has discovered, while others arrive in the form of a personal memory from days gone by. For Untiedt, the past is never quite past nor left behind to gather dust.
While Untiedt’s subject matter focuses on the West, it’s not the shoot-em-up West of Hollywood lore where gunslingers fight it out at the OK Corral or take aim in a duel at high noon. Instead, his paintings are about capturing “the countless ordinary human moments” that are also part of the West. The Denver-based artist prefers to leave the extraordinary, high-drama events to the history books and movies. “I prefer to paint like Mark Twain wrote,” he says. In other words, he would rather train his artistic eye on the common folks, not the educated upper classes. “I don’t try to make big, grand statements. I don’t have to paint a bunch of cowboys shooting at Indians,” Untiedt says. “I try to paint things everyone can relate to, cowboys that someone from Norway can relate to.”
As this story was going to press, Untiedt was finishing works for the annual Buffalo Bill Art Show & Sale, an event he has participated in for the past seven years. He was also creating pieces for shows opening this month at Colorado’s Evergreen Fine Art and Settlers West Galleries in Tucson, AZ.
Those familiar with Untiedt’s works know that his titles frequently offer oblique clues to the stories and memories that inspire his paintings. Take FARE THEE WELL, FIRST LADY OF THE AIR. This work was inspired by one of the artist’s recent forays to Meeteetse, WY, an old western town about 32 miles south of Cody. As locals there know, legendary aviatrix Amelia Earhart and her husband were in the process of building a cabin in the area before she disappeared on her fateful transatlantic flight. Untiedt also learned from locals that Earhart enjoyed stopping into the Cowboy Bar when she visited Meeteetse.
Folks that frequent the bar today say that before Earhart left on her fatal flight, she attended a send-off party there in her honor. A horseshoe hung over the door in the bar, and tradition held that upon leaving, patrons would jump up and hit the horseshoe for good luck. As the local legend goes, Earhart jumped and swung, but she missed her mark. Untiedt says the story stayed with him and eventually became the inspiration for FARE THEE WELL, FIRST LADY OF THE AIR, in which he captured a scene not far from where Earhart intended to build her cabin.
Untiedt spins a yarn of a different sort in a work titled APPLE TREE WITH AN OLD MAN ON HORSEBACK; ONCE BOTH KNEW HER NAME [see page 86]. This one is more personal and moves between his past and the present. He begins the story of this painting by saying that about a year ago he was driving through the Spanish Peaks area in southwestern Colorado when he spotted a ramshackle old building with an apple tree on the property. The scene prompted a flashback to his youth and a day when his grandfather, a Colorado farmer, showed him a similar landscape. His grandfather explained to him that he once knew the people that lived there but now they were gone. “I was reminded of the transient nature of things, and it made me think about how I, too, will go back to places of my youth and nothing will be there,” Untiedt says.
The painter recalls that the day at the Spanish Peaks and the memory from many years ago were both examples of times when he was, as he puts it, “dinking around.” By this Untiedt means driving around with no particular purpose or destination. Nonetheless, he says, these “dinking around” trips are often a source of great inspiration for him when he is traveling in Wyoming, Montana, Texas, Colorado, Arizona, or New Mexico—his main artistic stomping grounds. “I just call it dinking around—my words,” he says. “To dink is to wander aimlessly with no set goal or destination in mind. I am always looking for ideas. Everyone else is image driven, but I am not at all. I’m about the idea. I go out to get ideas.”
Untiedt grew up straddling two worlds—the city and the country. As a youngster, he lived with his parents in Denver. But when he was 14, his grandfather suffered a heart attack, and Untiedt moved to his grandparents’ farm on Colorado’s eastern plains to help with the daily chores. Before going to school every day, he fed the cows, chickens, and hogs. After school he would do everything from tending the cattle to driving a tractor. He inherited his love of storytelling from his grandparents, who passed down tales about watching cattle settle down under the stars at night—which would become artistic subject matter for Untiedt later in nocturnal paintings.
When it came time for college, Untiedt, who had always displayed a talent for drawing, entered the University of Denver to study art. But it wasn’t long before he became disillusioned by the emphasis on abstract expressionism, which was all the vogue in the 1970s. He switched majors to psychology and, after graduation, entered an intensive preparation program to qualify for a PhD in psychology. Not satisfied with this academic pathway, he sought advice from a professor who told him to follow his passions. Untiedt dropped out of the program, bought a truck, and traveled around the Deep South painting watercolor landscapes for a year. Always good with his hands since his days on the farm, when he arrived back in Colorado, he took a job in a state park demonstrating crafts like blacksmithing and woodworking—crafts that personified life on the American frontier in the 1830s.
After a year he shed his 19th-century costume and returned to college to get a teaching certificate. For seven years he taught shop in the Denver-area public school systems. But he continued to paint in every spare moment, and there were days when he felt as if he really had two full-time jobs. In 1987 he enrolled in the Art Students League of Denver and began studying with Buffalo Kaplinski, who remains a major influence on his work. Like Kaplinksi, Untiedt favors bold use of color, relying on strong patterns of lights and darks.
By 1999 Untiedt’s paintings were selling well, and he had acquired gallery representation. He decided it was time to take a leap of faith and become a full-time artist. Exhausted from trying to keep up with two careers, during the transition he went to an artists’ retreat, Anam Cara, in West Cork, Ireland—a place he has since returned to three or four times for brief spells. Thus, references to Irish history and culture occasionally pop up in his titles and form the seeds of new works. For example, I LONG TOO MUCH, BY SUCH, BY SUCH, IS HAPPINESS THROWN AWAY is the title of an Untiedt work that comes from a poem titled “Raglan Road” by Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh. The poem later became the basis for a song of the same title sung by numerous recording artists, including Van Morrison and The Young Dubliners. Untiedt says he listened to the haunting song about love lost while he painted the piece, which actually captures a rural scene in the Texas Hill Country.
For the past few years Untiedt has turned his talents to creating nocturnes that feature everything from old mission churches under southwestern skies to cowboys riding the range. The works may bring to mind paintings by Frank Tenney Johnson [1874-1939], who chronicled the western frontier. Both Untiedt’s and Johnson’s western-themed night scenes often feature light emanating from within a building. For Untiedt the nighttime offers a chance to venture into a more abstract style because the human eye doesn’t see as well at night and as in much detail, he explains. “I like the symbolism and mythology we associate with things unseen and not of this world, the supernatural,” Untiedt says. “There is mystery, and at the same time there can be a certain peacefulness, too.”
The artist has no regrets about leaving behind the psychology field. “My big goal today is to improve my paintings and to improve my ability to say something that inspires people to examine things,” Untiedt says. “What I am trying to do is make a statement with the imagery I choose that I hope inspires viewers to examine their humanity and to think thoughts of what poets call ‘the great ideas.’”
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