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Bobbie McKibbin gets Drawn West


As a child growing up on the north side of Philadelphia, Bobbie McKibbin was first introduced to the Western landscapes she now draws. Her older brother had a toy Viewfinder and showed McKibbin slides of the Badlands, Yosemite and Yellowstone National Park. The places in the pictures looked to her like another planet, someplace she didn’t fully understand and certainly never ever imagined visiting.

Today, McKibbin draws those same images she once held in the Viewfinder with a distinct, realistic style. Standing across the room from one of her large-scale pastel landscapes, it looks photographic. But moving closer, the lines and the layers of charcoal and chalk become clearer and lose the larger image. In talking about her work, which is currently on display at the Missoula Art Museum’s Temporary Contemporary gallery, McKibbin often returns to the challenge of balancing her roles as a faithful documentarian of place—like those Viewfinder slides—and as an artist celebrating the act of creation by making images with the wide-eyed wonderment she had as a child in North Philly.

“I’m making images,” says McKibbin. “I’m making pictures. First and foremost, the work has to be smart picture making. It’s not Yellowstone. It’s not the Bitterroot. It’s a picture of that. So the idea of space, the idea of composition, the idea of light…These are kind of like jazz improvisations. You start out with an idea that I’m drawing a steaming pool from Yellowstone, and you certainly want to record that. But how? What is that image going to tell me?”

For McKibbin, her 18 drawings currently on display in Drawn West convey many things. In addition to her relationship to her subject as a recorder and an artist, McKibbin’s work also touches on the link between traditional and contemporary landscape art. McKibbin’s improvisational approach is a product of her beginnings as an abstract expressionist. As a student at Miami (Ohio) University, her early influences included Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline, and those initial abstract lessons remain a part of her work today.

“I see a lot of realist work and it feels reactionary to me. It’s nostalgic, following some formula. A lot of contemporary work actually looks like it was done in the 19th century,” she says. “I embrace and celebrate the 20th century. I love cubism, I love abstract expressionism. I’m not working as a realist as a reaction against all of the abstract work that’s been produced. I’d like very much to think that I carry some of that with me.”

McKibbin now lives part of the year in Stevensville, splitting her time between her studio near Kootenai Creek and another studio 1,400 miles away in Iowa, where she has been an art professor at Grinnell College for 29 years. Naturally, her connection to the rugged and raw terrain of the Northwest (she started making the drive from Iowa to Montana regularly in 1992) has impacted a style that was honed in an expanse of cornfields and grain elevators. The comparison of those environments is another fundamental aspect of her work.

“Living in the prairie as long as I have, I love the space,” she says. “But, while Iowa is very open, it’s also very controlled. It’s all in grids. We dug up this glorious eco-system and destroyed it. We’re still controlling the shots…So, when I started to go west and hit places like Western South Dakota and Wyoming and Montana, initially it was frightening. The scale was enormous. In some of these western landscapes, our hand is not very present. Human presence is fairly minimal. It puts you in a perspective where you don’t really count for much.”

McKibbin supplemented her drives back and forth from Grinnell to Stevensville, and her studies of her new residence, by reading and meeting with regional authors to improve her understanding of the land. Over time, she says she began to feel a connection to the terrain just as much from memory as from the photographs she brought back to her studio. It’s a lasting impression she hopes to convey, highlighting not only recognizable landmarks but also giving frame to landscapes that are in many ways being forgotten and dismissed.

“Somebody said, ‘When you’re driving through the landscape, it’s just more T.V. watching.’ And now, of course, when you drive through the landscape you’re not even looking at the landscape because you’ve got the kids with their [DVD players] and the GameBoys. So, a landscape has become just another thing to get through,” she says. “I don’t want to be didactic, but how are we going to get things right—as far as living on the planet—if we aren’t even looking at it.”

Whether functioning as recorder or artist, abstractionist or realist, Iowan or Montanan, McKibbin feels a strong responsibility to her craft and the land. How to convey that is something she’s continually determining—starting with her initial fascination with the images in the Viewfinder to her current days simply looking out her Stevensville front door.

“You know, if you look up the word ‘draw’ in Webster’s, the definition is to drag and to pull,” she says. “Certainly when you draw, that’s what you are doing. In my case, these charcoals and these pastels are being dragged across that surface. But another way to look at it is, when I initially decided to do landscapes they were not appealing. It was a tough sell. So, at first I was dragged. Now I can say that I’m pulled.”

Drawn West will be on display at the Missoula Art Museum’s Temporary Contemporary gallery in the historic Florence Hotel through July 23.

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