Editor's note: The following essay was reprinted in Resource Library on May 9, 2005 with the permission of the Weatherspoon Art Museum. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, or wish to obtain a copy of the catalogue from which it is excerpted, please contact the Weatherspoon Art Museum directly through either this phone number or web address:


Bert Carpenter: Persistence of Realism

by Sam Yates


Bert Carpenter's art is immersed in the realist tradition and embodies twentieth-century American culture. Carpenter has always been "drawn to the different ways things feel and hold their place in the moving air and changing light." [1] A painting of a single rose is a microcosm mirroring the complexities of the universe. A solitary Hooded figure evokes emotional and psychological mysteries of the "self," and a mythological Scene conveys the eroticism and narcissism manifested by an indulgent material culture.

The life of this American realist began in the remote western town of Billings, Montana. Gilbert F. Carpenter was born in 1920. His parents, Elva and Harry Carpenter, had moved to Billings in 1916 to establish the Northern Mountain State Division of the Carpenter Paper Company, a family-owned business headquartered in Omaha, Nebraska. One of four children, Bert Carpenter liked to draw, and knew from an early age that he wanted to be an artist. "I am certain that my first memory includes the idea that I wanted to be an artist. For some peculiar reason, I don't have the slightest idea why, when I was in grade lA, the first half of the first grade, I understood that when I got into grade lB, I would be allowed to draw a sailboat and a sailboat would be the last thing I would have seen. I don't think there was a sailboat within 200 miles, but I was going to draw a picture of one."

As there were no artists in his immediate family or hometown, and no art museums in the region, Carpenter's artistic motivations were a youthful imagination and an insatiable curiosity. A continuing fascination with the "inside-outside" relationship of reality is rooted in his childhood experiences. "We spent summer after summer totally alone as kids, running around the rimrocks making up our own lives. We had caves in the cliffs where I would sit, staring out at the valley. Sometimes I would sit up there half the afternoon trying to figure out how I knew I was there. It seemed to be a very important question. I remember the very strong sensation that if I thought hard enough I could turn myself inside-out. My outside would be on the inside and that would be like going back into the cave and coming out into the sun -- the sense that somehow there was another side to our being, our experience."

While in high school, Carpenter was introduced to an artist who had relocated to Billings. Leroy Greene was an accomplished watercolorist, was a member of New York's Salmagundi Club, and had studied on the east coast with artists educated in the Robert Henri tradition. Attracted to the Montana landscape, Greene opened a studio in Billings and began offering evening classes in art. The young Carpenter was eager to study with the only working artist residing within this vast, isolated region of the United States. "There was a professional artist in town and in his studio he organized a small class that met every Tuesday and Friday night. It cost twenty dollars a session and the year was divided into four sessions. I told my parents I wanted to go which meant they had to drive me downtown. It wasn't that easy every Tuesday and Friday night. They agreed to do it. Dad gave me the twenty dollars and told me I had better be good at it if I wanted another twenty dollars." From these classes, Carpenter gained a solid technical foundation in art. His enthusiasm and talent led Greene to permit the young artist frequent access to his personal art library.

Also during these years, Carpenter accompanied his father and his brothers Harry Jr. and Ted, all avid outdoorsmen, on frequent hunting and fishing trips. Carpenter, however, preferred to carry art supplies and paint the rugged Montana landscape. These outdoor excursions with his father continued throughout college and into adulthood. "When my dad would go hunting, and he often did, I would take my watercolor box. I would follow him hunting or fishing, and when he got to a good place, I would sit down and paint. He didn't mind that. I can't remember the time when my idea of what I would like to do in an afternoon wasn't finding some good place to sit down and do some painting and drawing. The family, whatever they did, they did, and I tagged along."

Continuing a family tradition, Carpenter entered Stanford University in the Fall of 1938. Enrolled as an art major, he produced notable watercolors depicting the landscape around Stanford. His primary involvement, however, became the literary arts. He eventually worked on The Carillon, Stanford's literary magazine. In order to pursue his art studies in greater depth, Carpenter began his junior year in Los Angeles at The Chouinard Art Institute, a professional art school. There he met Tom Craig, a nationally emerging painter, who helped to expand Carpenter's technique and compositional approaches to landscape subjects. Craig's commitment and dedication also deepened Carpenter's understanding of the requirements of an artist's career.

In the summer of 1940, Craig invited Carpenter to join him on a cross-country trip. During the next two months they lived out of Craig's station wagon while painting numerous watercolors of the countryside. Carpenter met other working artists who were friends of Craig, and was finally able to see the great art collections in major midwestern and eastern cities. In a letter to his parents, he stated, "I'm getting more of an education in the museums than from a whole year of college." Although he saved only fifteen watercolors from the trip, it was the overall summer experience that solidified his commitment to becoming an artist, and in particular, a painter. "Art was so much more powerful and vivid than I would have imagined. That trip made me aware of what an artist was and that I could be one. It left me in a position to face the major problem for everybody at that time in painting, the conflict between modernism and traditionalism. A totally partisan division, you either declared your allegiance to one or the other. Whatever you were doing was art and whatever the other guy was doing was nonsense. I tried to untangle that knot and gain enough confidence in terms of what was known about art, and what should be understood as the basis of style. How do you make a choice among things or how do you find what you can do yourself? Before that, I didn't have the vaguest idea of what it meant to say you were a painter."

Carpenter returned to Stanford in the fall of 1941 and in December of that year the United States entered World War II. Shortly thereafter, Carpenter withdrew from the university to join the war effort by working in a Los Angeles aircraft assembly plant. In 1943, Carpenter was inducted into the United States Army and was assigned to the Army Air Force Weather Service. While stationed outside London at Bungay, he drew and painted watercolors of the Norfolk countryside. "The weather service was considered so critical that we were only allowed to work 36 hours a week, which meant that we worked three long shifts, then we took off for London. So I spent most of my extra time in London or out on a bicycle doing the watercolors of the Norfolk countryside. "


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