Into the Horizon
A look at the mind, motivations, and work of a Montana artist.
Theodore Waddell, 1960-2000
Young Waddell’s interest in paint paralleled a growing interest of music. He played coronet in a high school dance band, traveling on weekends to play for dances in nearby Montana towns. His interest in music would later turn to jazz, which in turn would influence his art.
An early interest in architecture was squelched when he flunked a math test at Eastern Montana College in Billings. Instead, Waddell enrolled in Isabelle Johnson’s painting class. After a few days with her, he decided painting was what he wanted to do the rest of his life.
Montana’s first modernist painter, Johnson was steeped in the nineteenth-century European traditions of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism. Johnson lived and painted from her family’s Stillwater Ranch outside Absarokee for most of her long life. She held a bachelor’s degree in history from UM and a master’s in history from Columbia University in New York. It is as easy to see the influence of Cezanne in her paintings of Montana landscapes, cattle, and the ranching life as it is to see the influence she had on Ted Waddell. Like another Montana rancher and painter, Bill Stockton, Johnson painted what was close to her, eschewing the traditional Western realism that had long dominated art in the region.
In 1968 he joined the UM art faculty, teaching sculpture and design. During the eight years spent living in Arlee and teaching at the University, Waddell created many minimalist-influenced, polished steel sculptures that can still be viewed in many towns and cities across the state. “When we were living in the mountains, making sculpture made sense, and it fit within the context of the narrow mountain valleys,” he says. Waddell left the University in 1976, the same year he was granted tenure and associate professor rank, simply saying he was not doing his job.
Waddell took a job as a manager for a large ranch north of Laurel owned by relatives of his wife, Betty. “On the prairie where you can see for 150 miles in any direction, sculpture made no sense to me,” he said. “I couldn’t afford to make sculpture on the scale necessary [for it] to make sense, so I went back to drawing and painting—drawing first—and then, after feeling the need for a scale change, painting our black cows.” For years, Waddell ranched and painted, rarely showing any of his work. In 1987 the Waddells bought a small ranch near Ryegate and began to build their own herd.
Waddell left the ranching life in 1995, moving to the Gallatin Valley east of Bozeman. He now divides his time between homes in Manhattan, Montana, and Hailey, Idaho, where his second wife, Lynn Campion, a writer and photographer, teaches at the Sun Valley Art Center.
The images shown on these pages are part of the retrospective exhibit Into the Horizon, Theodore Waddell, 1960-2000, curated by Ben Mitchell of the Yellowstone Museum of Art, Billings. The exhibit was the first to be hung in UM’s newly-renamed Montana Museum of Art and Culture. Other venues were the Plains Art Museum in Fargo, North Dakota, and the Polk Museum of Art in Lakeland, Florida.
Montanan Editor Joan Melcher interviewed Waddell from his studio in Hailey, Idaho.
Many of the paintings from your ranch years place individual cattle or herds of cattle on a shifting, sometimes undecipherable horizon. Most people expect to see paintings of horses but might question the aesthetic of range cattle and sheep. What made you want to paint them?
When you left the University and took the job as a ranch manager, did you have an idea you might want to paint elements of the ranching life, as Isabelle Johnson had?
No. I didn’t know what I had in mind. The reason I took the job was that at that time in my life it was my belief that there’s a contract between the student and the teacher and if one of those people fails to uphold the contract, they should not be there. I didn’t feel I was doing the job I was supposed to be doing. I had always wanted to do something in which I could learn. I had no qualifications whatsoever for becoming a ranch manager. Ranching and farming are problem-solving occupations, much like art, and the problems are always different. It’s very exciting.
There were probably half a dozen years when I didn’t exhibit much at all. [I was] going from the minimal sculpture to what I’m doing now. We had thirty-two miles of fence to maintain, so often you’d go out in the morning and not see anyone for eight to ten hours. I guess I liked that. Bill Stockton used to call January and February the aesthetic months. That’s because we didn’t have time to paint during the busy season. All of the hours before eight o’clock in the morning were mine, so when we were calving, I’d get up at two o’clock to check the heifers and I’d stay up to paint. It makes you kind of crabby after a while. During the summer I didn’t paint much at all because our work days were fourteen to sixteen hours long. Winter is my favorite time. You do maintenance and that’s it. Snow covers up all the stuff you were supposed to do before it snowed.
Have jazz or other forms of music influenced your painting? If so, how?
There has been much discussion about your use of the horizon line and your placement of objects in the landscape. Can you talk a little on how you see what you are painting and the emotive nature of your work?
If you’re away from the mountains, the strongest reference point you have is the horizon line. In Montana, because we don’t have a lot of humidity or a great deal of pollution, the skies are clear and so they are big. Just that basic relationship continues to fascinate me. In terms of the emotional part of it, I’m not trying to tell you anything you can’t learn on your own in terms of realism. What I am trying to share with you is how much I love it. My emotional attachment to it—I can’t describe it.
I love it. If I could use turpentine for aftershave, I would. There’s nothing like it. My palette is four by eight feet. I buy my oil paint by the gallon. There isn’t anything that I know of that is any better than oil paint. It always offers up something new to be learned. The way I use paint comes from an Abstract Impressionist influence—they wanted you to be aware that this was a canvas and there was paint on it. The thick paint is part of a vocabulary that I use. I think it’s very inviting. Probably everybody has made finger paintings. It’s a delicious sensation.
What are your key memories from teaching at UM?
There are three or four things that were very, very strong memories for me. One was being able to teach with Rudy Autio. He and I were side by side and often shared the same office. I learned a tremendous amount from him. He’s a wonderful artist and person. Another thing that was going on there was that the English department was incredibly strong at the same time—Hugo and McClanahan, Roger Dunsmore, and Jim Welch and Kittredge showed up around that time, and so it was a really vital place. We were all friends, and we all knew about each other and cared about each other. The president was Robert Pantzer and there was a big flap about an English professor teaching a book that some people didn’t think was appropriate, and Mr. Pantzer got up and defended academic freedom in a gentle but strong way and he got a standing ovation from about 400 faculty members. It really impressed me. It was amazing.
I think my father’s influence on me was that he painted boxcars and my first memories of him are associated with paint. He always told me to have a backup. He died before I became successful so he didn’t witness that. His influence on me, in a related way, was that he was a voracious reader. We would go to the library and get bags of books, sometimes twenty at a time, and we’d both sit and read. He’s one of my heroes. He always told me to be a gentleman and he tried to teach me that. That’s one of my goals in life— to be a gentleman.
What influences are working on you now?
If anything has influenced me, it’s a sense of light. It’s probably always been there; maybe I haven’t been receptive to it. Light in Sun Valley is not like light anywhere else. It’s clear but there’s also this mystical, magical kind of haze that changes the quality of the light and affects the landscape. I’ve found I’m much more interested in light and the sky and find myself studying the sky more and more. If you have more sky and more distance, then the animal shapes within it are much smaller. I think that’s because I’m not close to them.
I have a Brown Swiss heifer that my wife, Lynn, bought me for my birthday. Her name is Crystal and she’ll be having a calf in the next couple of weeks. And at our place in Manhattan one of our neighbors is running cattle so I have all of the benefits and none of the responsibilities
Early on, did you think you’d be able to make a living doing your art?
I didn’t know. I kept doing it because I never wanted to do anything else. Everyone always dreams of making their living from art and few people get to realize that dream. I always tell people I’m the luckiest man in the world and I know it.