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A RT

Artist Floyd DeWitt, in


his studio outside of
Bozeman, approaches
his work with humility.
He said he studies
nature, seeking
inspiration rather than
imitation.

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Being DeWitt
Now in his 80s, the Bozeman
sculptor follows his own ethos on
the artistic path less traveled
BY AL AN KESSELHEIM
PHOTOGRAPHY BY THOMAS LEE

DeWitt is not a man or artist you come


to know, as much as a man and artist you experience. Like weather.
As with a storm, DeWitt is unpredictable,
powerful, fitful, intimidating, challenging
and very real. Also, like a storm, and despite the apparent chaos of forces, he adheres to certain patterns and
rhythms, themes that keep surfacing out of the mix, clear
and fundamental. And it is that mixture of chaos and
pattern that emerges, powerful as a microburst, in his art.
DeWitt doesnt stick to the topic in conversation. He
refuses a linear discussion, but instead veers off into stories
and memories, reveals the epiphanies that stand clear in
his life. He quotes Aristotle, Frost, Hesse, Twain, leaps
decades, confounds chronology, employs metaphor.
If I could tell you what it is I do, he blurts out, I
wouldnt have to do it!
How a kid from Roosevelt County, Montana, came to
be the artist I am? he shrugs, smiles.
I have a kind of passion, he goes on. That makes me
difficult for some reason. Ive always been different, kind of
an oddball, and there is a price to pay for that. It took me
many years to understand. I remember even when I was a
kid in Wolf Point, I was asked to leave the Cub Scout pack
because I wasnt going to fit in. The den leader talked to my
mother and told her it wasnt a good idea.
Same thing happened in the Army, he says. I was
the one nobody urged to re-enlist.
Now entering his 80s, DeWitt is perhaps the oldest
loyd

DeWitt applies a patina to a casting of Mother of the Ram at


a foundry in Livingston. DeWitt says his work serves as an
expression of gratitude to nature.

working sculptor in Montana. His house, outside of


Bozeman, is full of his work. Horses everywhere. Headless
horses and horse heads, riders on horseback, a stunning
rendition of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, a piece
DeWitt calls Weightlessness. His studio is crammed with
sketches, busts, nudes, a figure of a symphony conductor,
his fathers old barber chair, a full-sized ewe called Mother
of the Ram, a bust of his daughter he has been working on
for 30 years.
Maybe I dont want to finish her, because then Id have
to let her go, he says.
My parents were hard-working people, DeWitt says.
My mother was a nurse. My father was a full-time barber.
I went to school. I smoked cigarettes and got into mischief.
I found magazines lying around and started copying the
pictures. I liked the Indians around home, mostly because

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Demise of the Mighty Casey, at left, was inspired by a debate over what to watch on television: troops heading off to war in Iraq or a
baseball game. At right is Mother of the Ram, a full-size sculpture. DeWitt, at far right, is animated and engaged in conversation. You have
to open the envelope of who you are, he says.

they liked horses. It was all really about learning to be a


man. By the way, I finally gave up on that, he says with a
laugh. I got handy at drawing, started doing some landscapes, little studies, playing around with ideas. Like I
said, I was an oddball.
He leaps again. You have to open the envelope of who
you are. DeWitt rounds his aged hand around his coffee
cup. Find out who you are, find your way to God, whatever
you decide that is.
After growing up in Wolf Point, DeWitt enlisted in
the army, traveled to Europe. There was no compatibility between me and the military, he says. But I was in
Europe and that opened my eyes. Europe is full of epiphany. The air is thick with it. You put your hand on an
ancient stone bridge and think about all the other hands
that have rested there. Thats something.
DeWitt remembers visiting St. Peters Cathedral one
time on leave. I was walking around and not thinking
much of the art. I was a young fool looking for Charlie
Russell or Frederic Remington in the face of all that great
stuff. There was a door marked Do Not Enter. Of course
that was just an invitation and I walked right in. It was
an alcove full of hedges, patterned in a maze. There were
monks strolling around in robes, meditating. I sat on a

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bench. Gregorian chants were playing. No one bothered


me. Id never heard anything like it, never been anywhere
like that. It was a revelation. Talk about magic!
One of the themes that surfaces again and again out of
the confusion of DeWitts life is the edict to study nature,
not copy nature. Study nature, he emphasizes, dont
copy it. Do you see what I mean? he leans in, intensity
emanating like heat.
Somewhere in that distinction is the leap of abstraction, the quality that separates DeWitts work from the
clich of wildlife sculpture outside of bank buildings. That
unnameable element that marries the true experience of
observation, the synthesis of emotion and humanity and
contemplation, and then expresses something fresh and
authentic in a piece of art.
We lack humility, he says, reflecting on current
trends in art. There is none of that in most gallery art.
There is no humility in university art schools. So much art,
now, is crass commercialism. And the rich people buying
art have no appreciation or understanding of it.
On the center of DeWitts dining room table sits a sculpture of a baseball pitcher, caught in the crescendo of a
windup, a figure about to explode, tension like the sizzling
air before a lightning bolt.

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I was sitting in a bar in Livingston, DeWitt


remembers. Just me and the bartender. There was a
baseball game on, but on the other channel the news
was showing troops marching into Iraq. We started
arguing about which channel to watch. Finally we
struck a compromisethree minutes of baseball to one
minute of news.
This piece came out of that moment. Ive never pitched
a baseball in my life. But thats me. I became that pitcher.
Thats the terror and tension of humanity. Thats the appalling realization that watching baseball was more interesting
than men going to war.
DeWitt starts to sketch the lines of the pitcher with his
hands in the air, following the flow of the piece, connecting
elements, noting how the light falls here and there, leading
the eye, how it all adds up to unity.
Its not a conscious process, he says, looking at the
figure. You begin with humility. You go out and observe,
come back with material. And then theres the magic of
that synthesis coming out.
I cant stop. Its in me. It has to come out.

Read Frosts poem, thats my life in a nutshell, DeWitt


says.
In the poem The Road Not Taken, Frost wrote,
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
For DeWitt, that road started with time back home in
Wolf Point, working as a cop, breaking horses, drawing
landscapes, seeking.
After the army, and ever since, its been a swamp of
confusion and enlightenment all jumbled up, DeWitt says.
I look at it as a series of rebirths. I was reborn when I
came back from Europe. Then I went to the Minneapolis
School of Art, and was reborn. From there I got a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Fine Art in Holland, an
offshoot of the Beaux Arts Academy tradition in France.
Reborn again.
DeWitt spent six years studying at the academy, and
several subsequent decades working in Holland as an
artist. His art is showcased in European museums and
private collections, owned by members of the Danish royal

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Its not a conscious process. You begin with humility.


You go out and observe, come back with material.
And then theres the magic of that synthesis coming out.
I cant stop. Its in me. It has to come out.
family, and has been installed as public monuments. When DeWitt first arrived in
Europe, one of the first instructions he received was the life-changing edict to study
nature, not copy it.
For DeWitt, the challenge, the magic, is to truly inhabit a subject, to get at its
essence. His Mother of the Ram was provoked by a visit to a ranch in Paradise Valley.
This ewe, a really defenseless creature, was standing there, so defiant, so protective,
so unequivocal. She was nature standing up for itself.
We all have access to the same visual experience, DeWitt emphasizes. An artist
like Van Gogh had the ability to express that experience like a poet does. Frost said
that he wrote poetry that was hard to get rid of. I guess thats what I try to do.
DeWitt tends to sleep until midday. He has a cup or two of strong coffee, something
to eat, and gets to work some time in the afternoon. Then he works late into the night,
often after midnight.
I am a great consumer of time, he admits. Much of that time is spent mulling,
looking, getting at feelings, moving around through the clutter of pieces in the studio,
losing himself.
People think Im difficult, he says. They say Im complicated and hard to understand. Really, all of my work is just a big thank you. My pieces are eulogies, statements
of gratitude to nature. Thats all.
A lot of it is subliminal, DeWitt says. Changing perspective, working with the
masses, balance, seeing where the light falls.
As he talks he points to the details of pieces, how a shoulder leads to the torso, how
lines and shapes reinforce each other, how a complex mass of running horses all rests
on four points, everything building toward unity.
He notices a sculpture of a yoga instructor he is working on. It feels like her, he
says. I call that the music of a piece.
I did a bust of Gustav Mahler once, he said. I didnt know anything about him. I
started listening to The Titan to get a sense of him. Mahler didnt particularly like that
piece. To tell the truth, I didnt much like it either. But I listened to it, nonstop, for 14
hours a day. Again and again. I got so I could smell Mahlers armpits.
You dont really know when youre done. You just decide youve finally done all
you can. At the same time, you can ruin a piece in 15 minutes if you go too far. Its a
helluva tough thing.
Late afternoon, the light gray, DeWitt stands in front of the nearly life-sized
symphony conductor, a work in progress that began with a study of Bozeman conductor Matthew Savery. This isnt Matthew any more, he says. You can make it Matthew
if you want, but its not. He looks up and down the figure, the upward surge from the
tiptoe stance to the bent wrists, full of the tension of the symphonic moment about to
burst forth. You can almost hear the rising music, like a wave about to crash.
You see? he says.

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