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Making the cud

Looking back at the pastoral pleasures of steers revered

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“Theodore Waddell’s paintings take specific landscapes as their points of departure. It is the prompting of reality that sparks the creation of a mood. Yet while a painting may be ignited by something ‘out there’ in the real world, the resulting translation is a record of the artist’s exploration of, and meditation upon, a situation that interests him.”

These words by Terry Milton are a good introduction to the retrospective of Waddell’s paintings and sculpture over the last 40 years, now on display in the Montana Museum of Art and Culture, in the lobby of the PAR/TV building on the University of Montana campus.

For Waddell, painting is a way of exploring the landscape in which he lives, as well as the responses of his inner landscape to his external environment. His recent work reflects the ranching life that he has led in eastern Montana since leaving the UM faculty in 1976. His abstract impressionistic oil paint depictions of the grassland horizon are richly textured and awash with colorful shades of cream. And, they nearly all contain cows.

As abstract depictions, these bovines exist as extensions of an abstract landscape, the captured essence of “cow” in total conjunction with the captured essence of its external cowscape.

Following the opening reception of Waddell’s show, I had the opportunity to discuss cows and art with Waddell:

Missoula Independent: Is it safe to say that you love cows?

Theodore Waddell: (Chuckles) Absolutely.

MI: Why do you love cows so much?

TW: Cows are remarkable creatures. If you take care of them, they take care of you. In spite of what the environmentalists say, cows are well adapted to the grasslands of eastern Montana. We are creatures who survive by producing what food we can from our landscape. Here in eastern Montana, what grows best is grass. And cows are really amazing at turning grass into protein.

MI: When you lived in Arlee, your work was mostly abstract geometric sculptures. What caused your art to shift to landscapes and cows?

TW: Well, the shift really had its roots in the change of location. The geometric shapes were done in Arlee, before I went to graduate school. The Arlee valley is narrow, and so doing pieces on a smaller, human scale made sense. It was a human scale that fit with the scale of the valley. When I ended up in eastern Montana, sculpture didn’t make sense in the vast tactile horizon of the ranch.

MI: What does the abstract style do for you? Why do you paint in the abstract?

TW: Actually, a lot of people would say that my work is not abstract, that I’m part of a realist tradition, and that only people with no subject matter reference are abstract. What I am doing is abstracting the landscape, rather than reproducing it exactly. But the subject matter is very much definitely the landscape. I’m not trying to paint every leaf on the tree, obviously. I’m trying to represent my feeling without trying to draw a conclusion for you. So that you as a viewer can bring your own feelings to it.

MI: At some point, while looking at your recent stuff, I realized that it looked to me like a landscape as perceived through squinted eyes. So I decided to squint my eyes and see how it looked. To my amazement, the work appeared more realistic through my squinted eyes. The cows looked more like cows, and the landscapes looked like I was squinting at a photograph of a landscape.

TW: That’s pretty neat, actually.

MI: Yeah, except in one instance, Monida Angus, the black dots that I thought were cows didn’t look like cows anymore, and what I had thought were clouds on the horizon then became cows. So, I would like to know from you, in your opinion, where are the cows in Monida Angus?

TW: The black dots in the foreground are the cows. But I think that’s all right. Part of what goes on is that there are a lot of red willow clumps, and they get interspersed with the cows and the horizon and all blend together.

MI: Next to Monida Angus on the wall there is a quote of yours that says “There is an alchemy and mystery about oil paint that defies explanation.” Even though oil paint defies explanation, could explain to me a bit about the alchemy and mystery of oil paint?

TW: Oil painting is old, over 1,500 years. In medieval times it was even more like alchemy than it is today because they ground up the colors with a mortar and pestle before adding the oil. There is a lot of versatility in what you can do with oil paints. You can glaze with it, like Rembrandt did. Glazing is when you dilute a color of paint in turpentine or wax or varnish, and then paint over an existing dried section of paint, covering it with a pigmented film of a different color. It looks really deep.

MI: I have heard that you once did a sculpture of a mallard duck out of horse shit. Could you tell me a little bit about that?

TW: (Laughs) Well, I like to use available materials…like with my sculptures on display in this exhibit made from cow bones. These materials are part of my landscape. In the case of this particular piece, I was invited to do a hunting show in Wyoming, and the horse shit mallard is what I made. I have also done a horse shit trout, and a horse shit landscape. You know, sometimes people knock you and say your work looks like horse shit. Well…in this case they would be correct.

Enter the Horizon: A Retrospective of the Works of Theodore Waddell is on display in the lobby of the PAR/TV Building through the end of March.

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