We happened upon the Booth Western Art Museum in Cartersville, Georgia, in 2011 on a return trip from Atlanta. We still had plenty of time left that day and the museum’s name appeared on one of those brown signs alongside the highway…the signs that denote cultural attractions in the vicinity. The collection was so large and appealing that we spent the rest of the afternoon touring the galleries. As we were leaving, we picked up a brochure with a list of sister museums that comprised “Museums West,” a consortium of thirteen institutions who’s collections focus on the people, art and history of North America’s West.
Over the next eight years we crossed the country to visit each of these museums. We traveled from Cartersville to Cody and Jackson, Wyoming…from Los Angeles to Corning, New York, and as far south as Orange, Texas. Through these visits, we were introduced to artworks old and new that expanded our understanding and appreciation of the culture of the American West. Each of the other twelve museums had held magnificent collections of Western Art, and they had all had substantially different focus, approach and presentation of their holdings.
Now we were driving back from Orange, Texas, and the last museum on our list, the Stark Museum of Art…and our route took us back to the Booth Museum. Over the years since our first visit, things had changed: the museum had almost doubled in size and the collections had expanded to fill that new space.
Outside the museum’s entrance we paused to admire Austin Barton’s sculpture “Attitude Adjustment.” The sign reads: “This confident cowboy, aboard the spirited horse, is engaged in a test of wills. As the viewer, can you decide who is adjusting whom?” With this question planted, we begin our return visit to the Booth, knowing that we too could have our attitudes adjusted though our encounter with new art and ideas. [NOTE: All subsequent quotes come from museum signs.]
“A Meeting in Time” is an enormous painting that introduces visitors to the eighteen United States Presidents of the 20th century. This expansive work is a perfect segue to the Carolyn & James Millar Presidential Gallery that holds a collection of original one-page, signed letters from every U.S. President, with an accompanying portrait and other memorabilia.
Nearby, an earlier companion painting completes the presidential roster.
Standing silently in contrast to the jovial politicians is Glenna Goodacre’s bronze “He Is, They Are.” The juxtaposition of this bound Native American and Presidents underscores the artist’s view that “we banished the Native American’s from their lands and tied their hands at the same time.”
Andy Warhol does not immediately come to mind when I think of western artists and the Warhol and the West exhibit quickly changed that. As a child books and television introduced him to cowboys and Indians and they became a life-long interest, especially in his later years. Warhol became an avid collector of Native American art, jewelry, weavings and artifacts.
His early portraits of western television and movie stars feature Dennis Hopper, Howdy Doody, Elvis and other luminaries.
Probably due to his untimely death in 1987, his 1986 “Cowboys and Indians” series is not well known except for a few pieces. This traveling exhibit is intended to bring overdue attention to this area of his work and to secure for him a much-deserved standing in the genre of Western art.
Of course, Western art has been fascinating the public since the days of the early American explorers. The artists who accompanied Lewis and Clark on their trek across the country to reach the Pacific Northwest and those who endured the hardships of Powell’s explorations of the Grand Canyon brought back images of lands and peoples that sparked interest in these previously uncharted lands.
Fact merged with fiction and illustrated magazine and book covers helped sell the Western action stories within their covers. These stories, set in this rough, mysterious, and lightly populated land, moved to the big screen of the movies, and Gunsmoke and Bonanza became enormously popular and enduring television series…and Western legends continue to hold fascination today.
I found myself wondering why I am so drawn to this genre. I think it is because Western art is so approachable and evocative. The works I like the best seem to plant the seeds for a story and encourage my imagination to pick up and travel from there.
Western landscape paintings transport me to places with endless sky. Dan Namingha’s “Reservation Dusk” with its narrow strip of mesa and Kevin Kehoe’s “Book Club” from his “Western Therapy Series” are both reminders of our role in the “big picture.” Kehoe believes: “Feeling significantly insignificant is the West’s wonderful way of wow and wonder, while simultaneously resizing life’s trials and tribulations.”
In “Dust to Dusk,” Billy Schenck expresses his view that a great vista reminds him of a symphony. While artist Z.Z. Wei, feels that light and color tell their own stories about the interaction between nature and the human spirit.
In “Before White Man,” Michael Poulsen imagines Cody, Wyoming, as this small band of Native American’s would have seen the landscape.
Many of the images and artifacts in the museum’s collections reflect Native American history and the changing character and traditions of the tribes over the years. The materials in these artifacts help historians piece together the lives, customs, travels and social encounters of these early peoples.
While painters use oil and canvas to create their images, other artists express themselves in everything from cast bronze to delicate manipulated paper.
Prior to this return visit to the Booth Museum, we had been doing a lot of travel in the South, a region permanently marked by the impact of the American Civil War. The Museum’s “War Is Hell” exhibit includes works that document a broad range of wartime experiences and emotions…from detailed documentation of the uniforms, arms and armaments of battle to haunting images of death on the battlefield…from the colorful jingoistic works that stir young men to enlist to the grim final days of the fighting.
Some of these works are so intense that they reflect one survivor’s description of the fighting: “It was impossible to breathe without inhaling a bullet.”
Other pieces tell individual stories like “The Letter” or show the brotherhood of those bonded into close relationships by what they endured together.
Finally, the end comes as shown in these two emotional works by Mort Kunstler. In his painting “War Is Hell,” Kunstler captures the burning of Atlanta and reminds us of General Sherman’s pledge: “I want to make Georgia howl.” Contrasting that is “We Still Love You, General Lee,” which shows the Confederate soldiers’ respect and affection for their leader when he returns from surrendering to General Grant at Appomattox.
The Booth’s collections recognize and honor the past while presenting images of the changing lifestyle and landscape of the West today. The landscape is still vast and beautiful, and men and women still work hard to raise livestock, farm and earn a living from the land.
Nelson Boren’s “Wishful Thinkin’” shows a real working cowboy reading about the glamorous lifestyle he is reputed to be living…a life that doesn’t match the realities, hardships and harsh conditions that fill his days.
In all weather there is work to be done. In “Breaking Light” a cowboy sets out in the early dawn to face a long wet day in the saddle. Whether saving a calf or hauling bales of hay in the snow, winter is long and challenging…
…but the job comes with a sense of freedom and satisfaction as seen in the four riders in Bruce Greene’s “Far From Phones and Freeways” and in Duane Bryers’ “A Day’s Work Done.”
The museum acknowledges that women were not just minding the home front, cooking and raising children…Girls, TOO! are artists and cowgirls. For Texas artist Nancy Boren, the windmill in her painting “Aloft in the Western Sky” is a “circular symbol of sustenance, energy, life and empowerment.”
Plenty of other women pull on their boots and saddle up to participate in ranch activities.
On the drive home, after touring the much expanded Booth Museum and spending time with its superb collections, we found ourselves already talking about a return visit. That is the true stamp of a good museum. They feed and engage me while I’m within their walls then memories of the artworks give rise to thoughts and reflection…and they invite me to return again and again to renew acquaintances with favorite works and to expand my artistic horizons.