Sacred Cows

My art career is now behind me. I only wish I could say the same for the abstract painters.

I was recently gratified to learn that filmmakers Steven Spielberg and George Lucas have been collecting the paintings of Norman Rockwell. I enjoy it when other people like the same things I do, and I think more highly of those movie moguls, having discovered we share similar tastes in art.

I don’t like to brag, but I have something of a reputation as an artist, formed during 12 years of art classes in the Danville schools in the late 1960s and 1970s. I was especially gifted at scissor work, gluing macaroni, and making ashtrays from clay.

In my junior year of high school, one of my ashtrays was displayed in the glass case outside of the art room. It had started out as a bowl, but I accidentally dropped it while the clay was still soft, forming a perfect indentation in which to rest a cigarette, so I changed it to an ashtray. Accomplished artists are famous for their ability to adapt to changing circumstances.

When I left high school, I had to suppress my artistic ambitions in order to concentrate on other endeavors. My former art teacher, Joan Kisner, would write, urging my return to the field, but I found my vocation in ministry gratifying and, despite her escalating pleas, elected to stay in the pastorate. No man, after all, can serve two masters. Still, I would be lying if I said I haven’t occasionally wondered what might have been had I pursued a career in art.

In more recent years, my interest in art has reignited, inspired by a woman in my Quaker meeting, Libby Whipple, who, like me, was something of a child prodigy before parlaying her talent into a promising livelihood as an artist. Libby familiarized my wife and me with other Indiana artists. To be sure, our relationship has not been entirely one-sided. I introduced Libby to the work of Quaker artist Cassius Marcellus Coolidge, who painted A Friend in Need, known among the less refined as Dogs Playing Poker. For someone as conversant in art as Libby, I was surprised to learn she was no fan of Coolidge. But she is young yet, not even 50, with sufficient time to broaden her appreciation for the finer things in life.

In addition to liking Rockwell and Coolidge, I also enjoy cow art. My preference for bovine paintings doesn’t stem from a fondness for one particular cow. I like them generally. I appreciate their air of contentment and unflappable demeanor, so whenever I see one, whether in field or on canvas, I feel that same sense of calm. I could gaze at cow art all day and never tire of it. If given the choice between watching television or cows, I would pick cows.

If you’re a painter interested in getting on my good side, you should paint cows. I recently met such an artist, Rick Wilson, proprietor of the Rick D. Wilson Fine Art Gallery in Edinburgh, Indiana. If, when you hear the word “Edinburgh,” you think first of the outlet mall on I-65, you need to look a bit farther north and discover the charms of the town’s Main Street.

Rick didn’t always make his living as a painter. He worked for an architectural alu-minum company for 29 years until he was laid off in 2008, at which point he decided to take up painting, reasoning he would never fire himself. To say Rick is an adequate painter is to say Luciano Pavarotti was a passable tenor. You wish there were a doorway in Rick’s canvases you could step through to enter the scene. The folk singer Woody Guthrie once said, “Any fool can make something complicated. It takes a genius to make it simple.” Rick has managed, with canvas and paint, to reduce the complexities of nature to simple, pastoral beauty. If I were a cow, I’d hire Rick Wilson to paint me.

With the economy making a slow but dogged comeback, art prices are on the rise. Billionaires are once again happy to pay millions of dollars for a Monet or Picasso and then lock it away in a safe where it can never be enjoyed. But if your tastes and budget are more Hoosier-esque, you can discover, as I have, the work of Ron Mack, Jerry Smith, Carol Strock Wasson, Rob O’Dell, Pam Newell, Todd Reifers, Ken Bucklew, and Thom Robinson. If you’re interested in ashtrays, my parents have several Phil Gulley originals they might part with for a princely sum.

Like most people well-versed in art, I have my dislikes. I abhor abstract art, believing it a scam foisted on people so desperate to be judged sophisticated they praise that which lacks even the slightest merit. Art is not exempt from the standards of clarity, scale, and beauty.

I raise this subject in support of art and in defense of my home state, which is often viewed by others as backward and parochial. Yes, it’s true we Hoosiers favor Norman Rockwell over piles of scrap metal meant to symbolize humanity’s angst, but this is a testament to our sunny optimism and common-sense practicality.

When I was in the seventh grade, Bobby Stevens, who was always up to no good, dribbled paint on a sheet of paper, glued on two buttons and a pipe cleaner, and tried to pawn it off on our teacher, Mrs. Frazier, as respectable art. She sent him to Mr. Peters’ office, where he was told to straighten up or else. (We never learned what the “or else” was because we always straightened up.) That was when my low opinion of abstract art took hold, and I’ve seen nothing since to make me change my mind.

On January 6, 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt gave a State of the Union address in which he proposed four fundamental freedoms every person should enjoy—the freedoms of speech and worship and the freedoms from want and fear. As speeches go, the Four Freedoms was a solid piece of work. Inspired by Roosevelt’s speech, Norman Rockwell painted four pictures, also known as the Four Freedoms. When the works were completed in 1943, the Department of the Treasury took them around the country and sold $130 million worth of war bonds. Now let us suppose Jackson Pollock, another artist at the top of his game during World War II, had been similarly inspired by Roosevelt’s words and had flung various buckets of paints at canvases, as was his custom, to be displayed across the country. Not only would bond sales have plummeted; we might well have lost the war.

This column originally appeared in the April 2011 issue.