Many private art collectors gaze at a wall and search to find a perfect painting to fill the space. For them, art functions as ornamentation, trophy or speculative investment, not necessarily as a meditation on existential meaning.
When Clyde Aspevig was enlisted recently to interpret the wending sightline of the Boulder River thundering out of the Absaroka Mountains —one of the grandest epics of his esteemed career — the clients who commissioned the painting literally designed the interior of their new home to showcase his masterwork.
It isn’t the first time people have acquired an Aspevig to deepen their connection with the West.
Much has been written about Montana’s renowned native-born landscape painter. The accolades count him among the finest naturalistic Impressionists in America; they tout how he has helped usher forth a modern visual language for pondering still-wild landscapes; and how he is revered by a notable coterie of contemporaries.
Aspevig has won nearly every major western art award and his pieces can be found in public museums and private residences belonging to the rich and famous.
Yet perhaps the most declarative affirmation of Aspevig’s status arrived in 2018 when the Yellowstone Art Museum in Billings staged a showing of major Aspevigs, placing them in the same gallery next to a traveling retrospective featuring one of his heroes, the legendary Danish-American Emil Carlsen (1848-1932).
Robyn G. Peterson, the former museum director who toiled for years to make the remarkable dual exhibition happen, observed that Aspevig is among the few living nature painters worthy of comparison to those already in the pantheon of art history.
Unlike 19th century members of the Hudson River School, including Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran, who ventured into the West as interlopers and delivered romantic, often sentimental interpretations, Aspevig finds truth in realism. Nature, he says, needs no embellishment.
Born in 1951, Aspevig hails from Rudyard, a town located in the “Hi-Line” egion of northern Montana which for 10,000 years harbored huge herds of buffalo before settlers arrived. During his childhood, the artist recalls a tight-knit farming community, cropland fringed by indigenous sod, pastures framed by tree-lined windbreaks, river corridors as well as ditches thick with brush and grass. “No one ploughed their rows from road to road, river bank to irrigation channel to get one more bushel out of the ground,” he said. “The scale of human presence was much more compatible with natural settings.”
Wildlife abounded yet industrial strength agriculture, arriving in the post-World War II years, obliterated the pastoral idyll and left many mom and pop farmers and ranchers trapped in indebtedness. Aspevig has spent his whole life trying to reconcile what once was, the dynamic tension of what is, and the promise of what still can be.
Aspevig finds kindredness in the words of writer Wallace Stegner whose reverence for human humility in the Big Open was part of his inner compass. Many, in fact, consider Aspevig a Stegnerian painter in that his approach to revealing grandeur involves paying attention to everything else happening around the obvious. In his paintings, Aspevig wants to convey “an organic sense of vibration, a physical feeling of pulse that emanates from plants, earth, stone and sky.”
For him each composition flows through him synesthetically like the score of a symphony, sonata or concerto, alive in high notes and lower pallet keys, melody carried along on a current of harmony. Be it the high plains, Caribbean, Adirondack mountains, or the countrysides of France and Tuscany,
Aspevig has taken many painting sojourns.
Sometimes in order to know where you’re from you have to leave it first. After taking art classes at Eastern Montana College in Billings, Aspevig left Montana. Milo “Skip” Whitcomb was part of a pack of young Western plein air painters and sculptors who gathered in the Colorado Rockies or passed through in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Besides Whitcomb and Aspevig, it included contemporaries such as Len Chmiel, Bob Barlow, George Carlson, Matt Smith, Ned Jacob, Hollis Williford and later T. Allen Lawson.
“Clyde has always been a real independent guy. He kind of charted his own path,” Whitcomb says. “He just put his head down and went off in a direction where he wouldn’t be swayed by the influence of what everyone else was doing. For him, the experience of being in nature has always been intensely personal. I admire the authenticity he’s contributed to the visual language we try to speak. It’s not the West interpreted through the lens of 150 years ago.”
A polymath, Aspevig is a hardcore adherent of classical music and Jazz. Charlie Parker famously said: “If you don't live it, it won't come out your horn. They teach you there's a boundary line to music. But, man, there's no boundary line to art. Don't play the saxophone. Let it play you.”
Parker also said this, and it speaks directly to Aspevig’s painting; “Music is basically melody, harmony, and rhythm. But people can do much more with music than that. It can be very descriptive in all kinds of ways, all walks of life.” So, too Aspevig says, is painting.
While details matter elementally in telling the story of a place, an artist can become lost and completely miss the essence of a scene by replicating every physical manifestation of it. It’s like painting a portrait of a person.
As artists, Aspevig and his wife, the talented nature painter Carol Guzman, make an intriguing tandem. For years they lived in the Shields Valley along the southwestern toe of the Crazy Mountains. Their new digs in the Gallatin Valley south of Bozeman reflect a high-graded sense of aesthetics, a mixture of rustic and modern place-based architecture, literature, philosophy and spiritual connection to place.
Together, they have pioneered a concept of seeing that they call “landsnorkeling” which involves immersing oneself in terrestrial terrain the same way one drifts, eyes wide open, while exploring a coral reef.
While Aspevig summons us to the macro-rhythms of landscapes, Guzman takes us in closer, revealing many of the inhabitants. She loves birds. The chorus of the prairie that Aspevig hears is present in Guzman’s portrayals of migratory neotropical fliers that spend the warm months in Montana and winters in subtropical climes, screeching raptors, cawing corvids or strutting “drumming” sage grouse. She has also been praised for her florals and artful chronicling of weathered prairie structures.
With painters, the public has a general assumption that the illusion involves distilling the essence of a three dimensional world down to two. That’s not how it works with Aspevig’s thought process. With each work he masochistically sets out to translate six dimensions (the five senses plus another involving sentience, emotion, and consilience involving the combination of science and spirituality) onto a flat surface. His paintings function as a kind of extra-sensory portal and, on the other side—the the artist is waiting, communicating to us in a nonverbal language. Indeed, Aspevig renders words pointless.
One wisp of paint might represent a slab of exposed gneiss 2.5 billion years old; a glint of mollisol, communicated via a dab of highlight insinuates the remnant of a melting glacier. Aspevig’s brushstrokes can appear whimsically exquisite and spontaneous yet behind them is a purpose, the result of a lifetime’s worth of accruing knowledge than can only come from being out there, seeing.
This isn’t the kind of stuff that can be taught in studio art classes; it must be absorbed via osmosis then recast through the artist’s interpretation. Ambiance is not solely an expression of mood; it is mood conjured by Aspevig’s interpretation of ambient light, whether falling from the sun, moon or stars.
Guzman understands this about her husband and it’s why the deepest expression of affection they hold for each other, besides sharing love and a mutual penchant for wanderlust, is respecting each other’s space. Not disrupting the other when they start entering the creative “zone” where true fine art happens—the place in which the painter wrestles with decisions.
Sometimes those decisions are conscious choices, they say, and in other moments, the best kind, they involve unconscious channeling of awareness that cannot possibly be explained to a person who has never experienced it. The purest form of expression, it involves a state of non-thinking.
Well read, incorrigibly curious, Aspevig is constantly trying to unlock the unseen. “Paintings are a spiritual communion with nature which results in my celebration of life. I yearn for country that has not been tainted by subdivision, power poles, billboards, and water slides,” Aspevig says. “I choose to paint my pictures as if I, or the viewer, were the first person to set up foot upon the landscape.”
A no-apologies conservationist, Aspevig counts as one of his citizen passions an involvement with the American Prairie Reserve (APR). The goal of APR, says its founder Sean Gerrity, is to create the largest wildlife preserve in the Lower 48 states consisting of both public and private land. Basically, it means permanently protecting a short- and mixed-grass prairie ecosystem similar to the one encountered by painters George Catlin and Karl Bodmer who came up the Missouri River in the early 1830s.
One of APR’s ardent supporters is historian Ken Burns, known for his documentaries on public television. In 2017, his friend, the eminent American historian David McCullough was presented with an award APR created in Burns’ honor. “I was talking with David and Ken. We were discussing painting. David said, ‘Sean, you are the founder of this thing; it’s got to be intimidating.’”
Gerrity said he is no longer daunted by the scale of the undertaking and credits Aspevig with bringing intellectual grounding to the endeavor. He has witnessed Aspevig, an APR board member, inspire conservation-minded investors in a Manhattan skyscraper become smitten with his vision.
“Clyde has this way of speaking brilliantly in visual metaphors. What he does is the same thing his paintings do—he brings revelations,” Gerrity says. “His paintings cause people to slow down, think and feel. As he says, if you get stuck in one area, don’t let it bog you down, move to another. See the landscape whole, approach conservation like you would a master composition.”
For Gerrity, Aspevig and APR, the solid foundation is the land itself, protecting the best native prairie that’s left and nurturing healing on that which has been degraded.
Not long ago, Gerrity took up painting as an apprentice to Aspevig. “Art translates well into grasping the big picture of conservation,” Gerrity says. “Clyde always says don’t let perfect be the enemy of the good or you will become paralyzed from ever moving forward. Be ambitious but lay in the groundwork. Before you do anything, understand the foundation from all angles and build upon it.”
That, he says, is how you create a masterpiece.