I grew up in Philadelphia where my father worked as a photo-retoucher for the Philadelphia Enquirer and my mother was a housewife. As a child I loved to draw and hours would dissolve into minutes as I invented my visual worlds. One day my father gave me an astounding present – a beautiful set of soft pastels contained in a wonderful wood box. I was immediately entranced by the array of rich, dense colors.
My work originates from my love for drawing. I still work with beautiful soft pastels – I enjoy the feel of the pastel on my fingers as it moves across the surface of the page. I appreciate how it can be manipulated – it is one of the most direct and simple materials an artist can employ.
I try to bring about a sense of balance and harmony in my image making and to faithfully record a sense of place without sacrificing the overall integrity of the image. My mark making leaves a record of my activity and search. Light, time and atmospheric conditions are very important elements and viewing my work from various distances affects the interpretation and response considerably. From across a gallery light, atmosphere, and overall design dominate. At a much closer range, the handwriting and personal short hand take center stage. It is my hope that as a result of studying my images, you will view your world with a keener and sharper vision.
Growing up in the city my sensibilities were decidedly urban. In college I focused almost entirely on non-objective images as I learned the art of printmaking. As a young printmaker I was influenced by the work of the Abstract Expressionists. I strove in my color intaglios for the same strong, sure and personal mark making and gesture that I admired in the works of William DeKooning, Franz Kline and Estaban Vicente.
A move to Iowa in the mid-seventies to teach at Grinnell College, a small liberal arts college, dramatically changed my work’s direction. I was captivated by the space, light, patterns and vastness of the plains–realism had to be explored – it was impossible not to engage with the landscape. Two painters who greatly influenced my early landscapes were Richard Diebenkorn and Edward Hopper. Each artist beautifully combined abstraction and figurative elements in their compositions. Working plein air in pastel and paint, I embraced documenting the world in which I lived. The grain elevators, corn and soybean fields and streets of Grinnell all vied for my attention. The demands and immediacy of working on site produced a shorthand that was direct, austere, and elemental. I wanted each drawing to be a sensitive portrait faithfully representing a particular place and time. This quest of faithful depiction, emphasizing time, place, and atmosphere continues today.
One particular event and my attempt to record it changed my drawings forever. A friend and I were tooling along a rural road on our bikes enjoying a beautiful fall day. Beans and corn had just been harvested, the fields sported a three-day growth, and the pattern of the stubble stood in relief against the dark Iowa soil. These rides were unfortunately rare. It was a beautiful day with no timetable or destination, just a leisurely ride in the country. A few miles from town the road split, we stopped and I glanced over my shoulder. There on the horizon sat a classic, scary, monster of a storm. The palette of blues, violets and purples announced nothing but bad intentions. How quickly your insignificance becomes painfully apparent. We turned tail and made a beeline for the safety of town. We really cranked trying to out run the beast. My senses were heightened by the approaching storm. The light in the sky, the colors in the fields, the heaviness of the atmosphere was unique and I was mesmerized. The sky emptied and the downpour began just as we turned into the backyard. I dashed into the studio where I would wait for the deluge to pass.
As I scanned my recent works, all drawn from life – I had the tan and mosquito bites to prove it – I thought that the energy of the storm from which I raced for cover presented a new opportunity to record nature at its most dynamic. I grabbed toned paper and pastels and filled the page with passages of color, flying blind, working from memory, definitely out of my usual M.O. I tried to get that storm down on the page – working quickly, I had to – my visual memory seemed so feeble, so fragile. Details were not available. The drawing quickly developed and to my surprise it reflected the landscape I raced through and it joined the wall of summer work.
I realized this new drawing was different. It conveyed an essence of time and place without unnecessary detail. Now I understood that less could be so much more. This new image redefined how and what I could record. It changed the dance steps of how I could work. What started on that October afternoon has taken years to integrate successfully into my images that at their best reflect the power of nature.
I recently left full-time teaching in 2007 and now have as much time as I want to spend in my studio. After many years of travel to the west I now live in the Bitterroot Valley of western Montana. My work is shaped by living and working in the west and by an immersion in the works of writers such as Rick Bass, Terry Tempest Williams, Edward Abbey, and William Kittredge and many others. I see myself as a kind of reporter, someone who documents, a witness to the mystery and beauty that surrounds us. My work faithfully records a sense of place and at the same time celebrates the act of drawing and image making.
John Singer Sargent, an artist I greatly admire and whose work has had a great influence on me, today is criticized for being only an “eye”. Contemporary society with its visual over-stimulation has perhaps diminished our ability to really see. I wholeheartedly agree with Edward Abbey’s point of view in his introduction from the1968 classic Desert Solitaire:
It will be objected that the book deals too much with mere appearances, with the surface of things, and fails to engage and reveal the patterns of unifying relationships which form the true underlying reality of existence. Here I must confess that I know nothing whatever about true underlying reality, having never met any. There are many people who say they have, I know, but they’ve been luckier than I.
For my own part I am pleased enough with surfaces–in fact they alone seem to me to be of much importance. . . .
Capturing and transporting the viewer’s attention underscores the value of place. I love to be an “eye” and I love pastel – I slide open a drawer of chalk and I am transported. Blues and violets become the Bitterroot Range, mountains which slowed the Corp of Discovery. Through my myopic eyes, light passes through new high tech, implanted lenses flooding tattered, torn, repaired retinas only to be transformed into the idea of mountain and farm.
I never saw an ugly thing in my life:
for let the form of an object be what it may,
light and perspective will always make it beautiful.
– John Constable
I couldn’t agree more nor say it any better!
Writing in the Big Sky Journal, Artists of the West issue, Charles Finn said of my work in an essay titled “Bobbie McKibbin: Drawn West, Landscape Artist Records the World with Honesty”:
Attempting to draw, to “record” a landscape is to attempt the meeting between two impossible scales of time: eternity and the fleeting, ungraspable present, both of which are what the landscape continually offer us. It is one of the beguiling paradoxes of nature, as well as what the very best landscape artists are able to portray. In each of McKibbin’s landscapes there is exactly such a moment of time—steam rising off a hot pool in Yellowstone, a conglomeration of clouds above a ridge, the gray veil of a rainstorm touching the Bitterroots—each rendered until McKibbin, the artist, has disappeared, and only the subject remains. In her Midwest houses, or in her Montana barns leaning into the sunshine, the fleeting nature of each moment is tangible; and then one sees, as if behind it all, the impossible swab of forever.
And, John Canaday, former art critic for the New York Times and author of “Mainstreams of Modern Art” called McKibbin’s work,
“a cross between Sargent’s fluency with the brush and Hopper’s sensitivity to her subjects. Among the numerous artists who have recently turned to representations of the American scene, McKibbin impresses me as exceptionally skillful technically, which in itself means little, and exceptionally sensitive to the kind of interpretative values in subject matter that make the difference between skillful rendition and significant art. McKibbin finds in the most commonplace views of daily American life a native poetry statement.”