Turning bold journeys into brushstrokes
Exploring the art of adventure with Schoonover and Manchess
STOCKBRIDGE — A man twists to his right atop a galloping horse, his whip raised, his eyes intent. A dust cloud trails them, but another horse and rider can be glimpsed just beyond this billowing earth, prompting questions about where they've come from — and where they're going.
A sense of adventure prevails in Frank E. Schoonover's "Abe Catherson Pursues Masten Across the Desert" (1916), an illustration for Charles Alden Seltzer's "The Range Boss." That spirit underlies many of the Golden Age illustrator's 80-plus original pieces in "Frank E. Schoonover: American Visions" and the 30 oil paintings in "Gregory Manchess: Above the Timberline," which offers selections from the artist's illustrated novel, on display at the Norman Rockwell Museum. The two exhibits, which opens Saturday, Nov. 10, feature esteemed illustrators using their brushes to document and imagine bold journeys.
"The adventure part of it, basically, is setting out to discover the unknown and what happens along the way, and usually what happens along the way is not very happy," Manchess told The Eagle by phone on Tuesday. "And because it isn't very happy, it takes people persevering to get through it, and that becomes the story."
It isn't a coincidence that the danger of exploration runs through both Manchess' and the late Schoonover's works, which fill three rooms at the Stockbridge institution. Early in Manchess' career, the artist was searching for a "voice" in his oil paintings, a technique to guide his art. He looked to illustrators such as N. C. Wyeth, Norman Rockwell, but others influenced him, too, including Schoonover.
"Frank's work really spoke a lot to me because he did some science-fiction work that I really liked; the 'A Princess of Mars' series [by Edgar Rice Burroughs], which felt like it brought the fine-art approach to an illustration, similar to N.C. Wyeth," Manchess said.
One work from that series, "I Fought Once Again for Dejah Thoris" (1917), is on view at the exhibit.
Schoonover's paintings served as a beacon for Manchess.
"Everybody told me you can't oil-paint in the business any more, and I just didn't believe it and kept going," the Kentucky native said.
At the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, for example, instructors told him that they didn't teach painting and drawing any more, only conceptual art.
Schoonover's schooling was far more inspirational. Born in 1877, Schoonover studied under illustrator Howard Pyle at Drexel Institute of Art, Science and Industry in Philadelphia and at Chadds Ford Summer School in Chadds Ford, Pa., where Pyle trained Wyeth and Harvey Dunn, among others, during the late 1890s. It was the "Golden Age of Illustration," a period spanning several decades in the late-19th and early-20th centuries that saw printing advances and, consequently, more opportunities for illustrators. During his youth, Schoonover had learned how to draw by imitating Pyle and others, according to the exhibition's catalog.
"To hear on the day before Christmas that I had been admitted into Howard Pyle's class on composition was my greatest Christmas present, as I felt I was on my way to some kind of living," Schoonover recalled.
Pyle also stressed that artists should live what they painted.
"Pyle's thoughts were, 'You can't really paint it if you haven't experienced it,'" said John R. Schoonover, who now houses illustration art at his late grandfather's studio in Wilmington, Del. "A lot of that experience came through travel."
Heeding his teacher's advice, Schoonover trekked to the American West and South, Jamaica, Europe and Canada, sometimes under less-than-ideal conditions, to generate ideas for works in books and magazines, such as Harper's and Scribner's.
"On one such trek across northern Canada, along Hudson Bay and James Bay, from November 1903 to March 1904, he traveled more than a thousand miles with Inuit fur traders almost entirely by snowshoe, dogsled and canoe, fishing and trapping small game to survive," Norman Rockwell Museum Deputy Director/Chief Curator Stephanie Haboush Plunkett writes in the catalog, noting that a portable wood stove allowed Schoonover to sketch, paint and photograph as he traveled.
"It was extraordinary how dedicated he was to Pyle's teaching and how productive those trips were," John R. Schoonover said.
Schoonover's Canadian journey helped motivate his illustrations for Jack London's "White Fang." In "Circle of Fire" (1906), London's Henry character is haggard, warding off wolves with a ring of flame. Other famous works such as "Robinson Crusoe" and "Ivanhoe" provided the impetus for the adventure in Schoonover's works, but the artist also had an explorer's energy about him. He held salons at his Wilmington studio well into his 80s.
"His storytelling was really his greatest attribute," said Schoonover, who helped organize the show with Plunkett by looking at Schoonover's meticulous "daybooks" that documented his creations. "That's what fascinated people. He just was a great raconteur."
Manchess' graphic novel
Explorers' narratives of struggle and endurance have long intrigued Manchess, who once retraced some of David Thomson's Canadian travels for the National Geographic Society. Few ventures can challenge one's soul like weathering an endless winter. In "Above the Timberline," Wesley Singleton must locate his lost father, Galen, a famous polar explorer, in a futuristic world that has been buried in snow and ice for more than 1,500 years.
"I had read about some scientists that talked about the pole shift on the Earth several times over its history, and supposedly we're due for another one," Manchess said, noting that this event would cause chaos and ruin. He rolled the Snowball Earth theory's resolution into this turmoil.
The novel stemmed from a painting of Galen climbing above the timberline. After seeing the work, a friend mentioned that Manchess should pursue a book project. Manchess eventually started sketching thumbnails, beginning a five-plus year creative process that involved periods of writing and drawing and resulted in more than 120 spreads. He tried to avoid redundancy.
"Generally, I painted what I didn't write about, and I wrote about what I couldn't paint," he said.
The story kept him engaged.
"I always wanted to get back to it because I didn't know what was going to happen," he said.
Manchess' pieces at the Rockwell span graphic novels and screenplays; it's not surprising that he has work appearing in the Coen Brothers' Netflix Western, "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs," that is set for a Nov. 16 Netflix release. Two days later, Manchess will visit the Rockwell at 1 p.m. for a talk about "Above the Timberline." His work has been shown at the museum before, but it doesn't make this exhibit any less special to him. He also has a luxury that Schoonover does not.
"It's nearly impossible to describe the honor that it is to be a part of the Rockwell Museum as an illustrator, as a living illustrator, not where I'm gone and they're doing a retrospective," he said. "I get to experience this with a pulse, and I just can't wait to see how people react to the show."
Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.
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