Art in the Eye of the Beholder

The true impact of a painting often is found in the memories it stirs in its viewers

  • Mark Wexler
  • Jun 01, 1997
Each of us carries around a brainful of images that are visible only through the mind´s eye. They are recurring pictures of the past--incidents that remain as vivid in our thoughts as the day we experienced them.

For me, one of those recurring images shows a whitetail buck in full antlers during the heat of the rutting season. The image dates back to a day when I was nine years old--a big-city boy on a camping trip for the first time in his life. The deer streaked past me in the woods, and I was awestruck. I had never seen a wild whitetail before. Since then, I´ve seen dozens of deer, yet that animal is the one that always comes to mind when I look at a painting or photograph of a whitetail.

In his former best-selling book, The Painted Word, author Tom Wolfe observes that much of the strength of realistic art does not come from the artist. Instead, Wolfe writes, it comes"from the sentiments the viewer hauls along to it, like so much mental baggage." As a result, when a birder examines a painting of a house wren gathering nesting material, or when a fly fisherman looks at a rainbow trout portrait, only some of the power of those works of art can be attributed to the people who created them; a lot of the impact of the paintings is found in the memories they conjure up in the viewers. In that respect, good wildlife art has, in the words of the late John Madson,"trophy value." It provides the viewer with"a memory of adventure past and a vision of adventure hoped for," observed the acclaimed Illinois nature writer.

Such art requires more than just knowledge of the principles of painting."It requires firsthand experience by a sensitive observer," noted Madson."The artist must have been there."

"Without field studies," adds Oklahoma artist Jan Martin McGuire,"I would have nothing substantive to base my work on." McGuire, whose paintings are displayed on these pages, spends more time each year in the field watching wildlife and sketching habitat than working in her studio."I enjoy the outdoors," she says,"and so it´s easy for me to gain the experience necessary to paint nature."

McGuire concedes, however, that not everyone who views her work will react positively to the subjects in her paintings. Consider her portrait of a pair of Alpha male and female wolves, pictured at right."Wolves inspire a broad range of emotions among Americans--everything from a sense of spirituality to anger and hatred," she says."And so no matter what my goal was in creating it, if the painting is successful, it will stir up that full range of feelings among viewers."

Needless to say, the value of art is not measured merely by its ability to stir emotions. But to me, thereÕs something particularly pleasing about a painting that conjures up a mental picture from my past--an image like that electric moment in the woods many years ago, when a big whitetail buck streaked past me in a frenzy and left me filled with awe.

Mark Wexler is editor of National Wildlife. Artist Jan Martin McGuire is among a select group of painters whose work is available from NWF Editions. For more information about prints of her paintings and the phone number of an art gallery near you, call 1-800-699-9693. A subsidiary of the National Wildlife Federation, NWF Editions is dedicated to sustainable development of global natural resources.

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