(1921 – 2007)
By Michele Corriel - Published in Western Art & Architecture, Spring/Summer 2011
It would be hard to imagine contemporary Western art without Gennie DeWeese. Her work and her presence, along with husband and painter Bob DeWeese, injected the art scene with an infectious energy, bringing modernism and non-objective expressionism to far-flung regions of the country during the 1940s and 50s. A true pioneer, Gennie DeWeese was also matriarchal in every sense of the word, caring for, overseeing, and very much like a mother osprey, encouraging three generations of contemporary artists off the nest’s edge to fly on their own.
“I paint what I see,” DeWeese has said in countless interviews. And it is exactly her way of seeing that puts her work in such high esteem. Her work is pure. Honest. Her feel for color, her uninhibited lines and perspective, her natural composition of a painting is unrivaled in today’s art world.
Elizabeth Guheen, director and chief curator at the Bair Family Museum, U Cross Foundation president for sixteen years, and a previous senior curator at the Yellowstone Art Museum sees DeWeese as an important American artist in the west. “Just the fact that she drew all her subject matter from her family and her surroundings with materials she had on hand makes her an important artist,” she says. “She wasn’t concerned with making something monumental. She was concerned with translating the importance of immediacy. The rough hewn of ‘I see it and I’m putting it down.’
“It speaks to the fact that all of her subjects were drawn from her own life using indigenous materials, especially the cattle markers,” Guheen said. “She was very spontaneous and very connected to her environment.”
Her ability to combine family and career, friends and colleagues, making and sharing art, was an example to many women artists.
“Gennie DeWeese was a role model for students and younger artists,” Guheen said. “I think it’s important to see serious career artists not getting bogged down in a certain way to approach art. Her ethic was work. Make art no matter what else you do. She sent that message to all the artists and students she came into contact with.”
Born in 1921, Gennie Adams and her family moved from Indianapolis to Grosse Pointe, Michigan then to Columbus, Ohio. In 1938 she enrolled in Ohio State University and met Bob DeWeese. During WWII she went into occupational therapy, enrolling in a training course offered to artists by the Army, she worked with head and nerve injured soldiers in Battle Creek, Michigan. When Bob returned home from the war they got married, and in 1948 they moved to Bozeman, Montana, where Bob taught art at the university.
The DeWeeses brought new ideas of modernism to Montana, the land of Charlie Russell. There they opened the doors of contemporary art, not only to Bob’s students, but to a group of intellectuals and artists that were not affiliated with the university. Under Gennie’s tutelage, between plates of food, trays of beer (as depicted in Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance) and late night conversations creativity abounded.
“The fact was there were exactly four other people in Montana at that time that experienced art in their terms,” Tina DeWeese said, daughter and archivist for her parent’s work. “But they weren’t intimated by the isolation. They were excited and charged up with these ideas – the ideas they brought with them from Iowa and New York.”
The community that emerged became an ongoing, organic evolution of various generations of artists.
They had five children between 1947 and 1963 (Cathie, Jan, Gretchen, Tina and Josh – all of them grew up to be artists/musicians) and Gennie painted all that time while keeping her family central in their lives. Beginning in the mid 1950s she began exhibiting her work in shows from Montana and South Dakota to Seattle and San Francisco.
Primarily an oil painter, DeWeese also worked in cattle markers, paint sticks, and oil sticks, as well as drawing and woodcut printmaking, monoprints and lithographs. Over her life of 86 years, she produced decades and decades of art going through half a dozen general periods of work beginning with her non-objective work in the 1950s and 60s.
“I can see the roots of what evolved from that period into more abstract paintings,” Tina DeWeese said.
Beginning with her gestural studies of form derived from nature, DeWeese came to a period of very loose amorphous expressionism. She then evolved to working with line and shape more organically, in various stages both in form and personal expression.
“From there she moved into what we’ve been calling her Totem Period,” Tina said, pointing to several paintings where the forms are somewhat stacked, both vertically and horizontally. “In her Mythic Themed work you can see a lot of the same elements but she’s started to work with the ideas of myth and mythic figures like Medea, Isis and Pieta.”
After that her work veered more toward landscapes, which coincided with the family’s move from town to the mountains, where they built a house in Cottonwood Canyon during the late 1960s.
“People loved her landscapes and it was a very prolific period for her,” Tina said, and then added, “She was prolific in every decade of her life.”
By the mid-1980s DeWeese began to convert from traditional canvases to the scrolls for which is most widely known.
Terry Karson, former curator of the Yellowstone Art Center museum in Billings, curator of Gennie and Bob DeWeese’s traveling shows, and perhaps the top scholar of Gennie DeWeese’s work, has followed her work throughout the years.
“As her work sold she upgraded her materials, which brought more collectors to her paintings,” Karson said. “As far as pure goes, Gennie was a master painter. There’s no one in the state today that’s as good as she was. After Bob died she started doing all these amazing paintings. Her kids were gone and she started to really come into her own.”
Beginning in the early 1990s, her work began to get some national recognition and by 1992 she was being collected widely. In 1995 DeWeese garnered the Montana Governor’s Award and an honorary doctorate degree from Montana State University; in 1996 she had her first major retrospective at the Art Museum of Missoula.
In an artist statement DeWeese authored in the 1990s, she said that her non-objective work opened up avenues of visual awareness in the landscapes she returned to when she moved to the mountains and was confronted daily with “visual feasts.”
“What became important was to try to transmit that impact,” she wrote. “Cattle makers, paint sticks and recently oil bars became my means of personal expression that were close to oil painting yet contained a quality that felt more comfortable. I don’t know why. I love color but feel it is the icing on the cake. Structure is first.”
In that same statement she commented on her transition to scrolls.
“I became intrigued with the idea of doing scrolls rather than framed paintings both from the practical standpoint of ease of storage but more importantly to introduce the Japanese tradition of ease in changing displays according to the seasons, moods or whims,” she wrote. “One need not have the same thing in the same spot year in and year out. It allows more personal contact and decisions from the observer.”
The youngest of Bob and Gennie’s children, Josh DeWeese, an internationally recognized ceramic artist and former director of the Archie Bray Foundation for the Ceramic Arts, appreciates his mother’s work not just as a son but as an artist and a teacher.
“She developed a particular way of capturing the quality of color, and light in the landscape, and the sense of generosity, maybe with the bold and direct nature of how she worked,” he said. “I think it is very honest work, she painted what she saw. She was devoted to what she believed were basic principles of visual organization, and any image had potential, it was how one dealt with the balance and composition of the painting, that made it successful or not.”
One look at her large, rich paintings and her generosity of spirit is apparent, but it was also through her actions, her unwavering support of her fellow artists, young and old alike that she was beloved. The DeWeese household bustled with inspiration and art.
“Gennie was a masterful social nurturer, a great cook, and she had some great dinner parties,” Tina DeWeese said. “She was always a great supporter of other artists. All of my mother’s calendars were centered on art openings.”
Even if it meant traveling hundreds of miles.
“She spent a lot of energy by being present,” Tina said.
Which didn’t take away from her being a prolific artist. Her studio was always full to brimming with paintings, drawings, and prints.
Josh remembered what it like being a kid in such a creative setting.
“Growing up in that environment was perfectly normal, or at least I thought it was, which it wasn’t, of course, and that’s the point,” he said. “It was very special, but no one made a big deal of it. We were supported in whatever we did, we were held accountable for our actions, we were taught to be considerate of our fellow human beings, whoever they were. Looking back on it, it was endlessly entertaining and stimulating with the constant interaction of friends and visitors who were always welcome in the home. I feel incredibly fortunate.”
Josh added that his mother was a true champion for young artists, “Particularly young women artists that she was genuinely interested in and supportive of her whole life.”
What is apparent in DeWeese’s work, her impact on Western painters, is her ability to see the world, whether landscapes, interiors, or figures, as it is revealed to the painter, to naturally focus on a single element without seeming to leave out the context. Like a photographer choosing the perfect shot, DeWeese composed what “she saw” honestly, without compromise.
Contact email@example.com to inquire about the DeWeese Family Trust.
As part of the catalog for the 1996 Retropective at the Art Museum of Missoula Karson included an interview he had with DeWeese, included here in part:
Karson: Early on, you were doing landscapes and paintings of the kids. Then you went into non-objective painting. Why?
DeWeese: I read Kandinsky. I liked what he said, the idea of it being like music. That it didn’t have to be about something. It could just be a response of some kind.
Karson: How many years did you work non-objectively?
DeWeese: Well, off and on – I started in the mid 50s and have done it off and on ever since. I keep intending to go back. In fact, I just did one last year. So it’s going back and forth. Someone once asked me what prompted one or the other and I said that it depended on whether what was going on inside was more important than what was going on outside.
Karson: How do you feel about objective/non-objective? Does it make any difference to you?
DeWeese: No, it doesn’t make any difference at all. It’s all the same thing – you’re organizing visual things. You turn a representational thing upside down and you have a non-objective painting. What’s important is the visual part of it … to be visual, to be really visual all the parts have to relate.