Nine years ago, when landscape artist Carl Rowe set out to do his first commission, he was apprehensive. He’d been hired to paint a scene in the Boise foothills that had special significance to his client. “Painting someone’s favorite place is nerve-wracking,” says Rowe with appealing candor. To get a sense of the place, he went for a long hike in the area. “There were lots of big bulls around, which was also nerve-wracking.”
Rowe survived the excursion, and when he unveiled the finished canvas (a moment he describes as—you guessed it—nerve-wracking) his client literally wept with joy. She hadn’t seen his work in progress, because Rowe likes to complete a painting before calling in witnesses. “For me,” he explains, smiling, “painting isn’t a spectator sport.”
That’s a somewhat ironic statement, coming from a man whose first profession consistently brought him in front of live audiences. As a professional dancer, Rowe toured nationally with the Baroque Dance Ensemble of the Smithsonian Institute and danced in New York City for renowned choreographers Rod Rogers and Rael Lamb. He was a force in the Ketchum performing arts world during his 13 years in the Wood River Valley.
Today, at, 58, Rowe still works behind the scenes, as co-artistic director and choreographer for Idaho Dance Theatre. It was only in 1990, at the age of 43, that Rowe first picked up a paintbrush—and unwittingly embarked on a second career.
From his debut on the visual arts scene, Rowe’s work has been met with rave reviews. He won a national competition at the Cheyenne Artists’ Guild in 1994, and the following year, his paintings were included in seven shows in three states. His first exhibition, at Ketchum’s Kneeland Gallery, led to installations at the Boise Art Museum, Boise State University Gallery, and Paris Gibson Square Museum of Art in Great Falls, Montana, as well as solo shows in Boise at Galos Gallery and Brown Gallery. By 1997, he was represented in six states.
“He’s had amazing, sell-out exhibitions,” says Kneeland director Carey Molter. “His work is so appealing because [the subject matter] is so familiar to everybody here; yet his use of color, of light and shadow, is unique.”
Rowe dwells in that dramatic realm where the prairies of south-central Idaho surge up to meet the mountains. He paints in early morning or late afternoon, when bold hues saturate the sagebrush and sidelighting bestows the hills with a sense of motion and rhythm. With complementary colors and strong, fluid, often repetitive forms, he captures the constantly shifting shadows that make the foothills seem to roll and move through the day, through the seasons, like strange bodies stirring in slumber. The resulting landscapes merge abstraction with a palette-full of “-isms”: expressionism and impressionism, realism and surrealism.
New American Painting has likened Rowe’s powerful Western vistas to those of Georgia O’Keeffe, but he shrugs aside the comparison. He is modest about his niche in the art world: “I’m just lucky that I’m affected so strongly by the land. My response to the West is a visceral one. It’s where I feel at home. I grew up in Illinois . . .” He grins. “Flat isn’t interesting to me.”
After a childhood spent on the Illinois prairie, Rowe attended Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, graduating in 1968. He accepted a position as a high school English teacher in Rochester, Minnesota, where it took him all of two years to become thoroughly disenchanted with the public school system. In the meantime, he had become involved with a local theater company—and had discovered a passion.
He quit his job and enrolled in the Chicago Art Institute’s Goodman School of Drama, where he encountered another problem: He liked every aspect of performing, except one. “I never felt comfortable talking,” he says with a self-deprecating smile. “That, I’m afraid, is a liability for an actor.”
Rowe didn’t have a Plan B—or, in this case, a Plan C. Restless and naïve, he headed in the early ‘70s for the most exciting place he could think of: Berkeley, California. There, barely making ends meet with “a long list of boring jobs,” he discovered improvisational dance. Impressed by a troupe of formally-trained dancers from San Francisco, Rowe, with a characteristic desire to test his limits, enrolled in a dance program at the University of California at Santa Cruz.
In the dance world, as in painting, Rowe was a late bloomer. When he started, he was in his mid-twenties, an age when many dancers—due to injury, finances, or the rise of younger stars—start thinking about exchanging their ballet slippers for more sensible shoes. He had no intention of making a career of it. “Both of these careers [dancing and painting] were accidental,” he says. “Opportunities came along, and I took them.”
One such opportunity came when he was asked to join a dance company in Portland, Oregon. For the next few years, it paid his rent. In 1978, the troupe was invited for a weeklong residency at the Sun Valley Center for the Arts. When the director told him they were going to Sun Valley, Rowe replied, “Great! I love Colorado!”
Soon after, Rowe’s Portland dance troupe became one of thousands of casualties when the National Endowment for the Arts lost millions in federal funding. Hilarie Neely, present-day director of Footlight Dance Studio in Ketchum and then a dancer for the Ballet School Foundation, convinced Rowe to return to Sun Valley. The two had met and danced together in Portland, and for the next five years they taught, toured, and performed together across Idaho and Wyoming. Meanwhile, Rowe’s long list of boring jobs got longer. He worked in restaurants, and as a masseur at the Sun Valley Lodge.
“If Van Gogh hadn’t had Theo,” Rowe quips, “he would have been a waiter, too. Yet, of course, one of the reasons I am so drawn to dance is that it is populated by people who care deeply about what they are doing, and get almost nothing tangible back from it.”
In 1985, Rowe, in his early forties and eager to pursue a livelihood that would enable him to support himself in the increasingly expensive Wood River Valley, gave up the stage and started a recycling pickup business. Local garbage haulers quickly quashed the venture, leaving him with an order for a large truck—and the paperwork for a pending loan. Then, like a fairy godmother, Marla Hansen, who would become Rowe’s co-director at Idaho Dance Theatre, gave him a call. She was choreographing a production of Cinderella for the American Festival Ballet in Boise. Would he like to be one of the ugly stepsisters? The answer, of course, was yes.
That collaboration led to others. Two years later, deeply involved as a choreographer with the fledgling Idaho Dance Theatre and wearied by the commute, Rowe made the difficult decision to leave Ketchum for Boise. There, he met his future wife, Tracy, bought a house, and has been instrumental in building the city’s reputation as a budding center for the arts.
Somehow, Rowe had found spare time between dancing and earning a living in the Wood River Valley to begin to paint. “The land around Sun Valley always had a big impact on me,” he explains. “I thought it was gorgeous. And when I’m attracted to something, I want to interact with it.”
At first he drew, in black and white, the hills he could see from the window of his Ketchum home. Then, at the encouragement of a visiting painter friend, he moved on to color, using borrowed brushes and tempera paint. “I found I could actually do it!” he exclaims, still sounding surprised at the discovery. “It was a revelation. I mean, the last image I had of myself as a visual artist was from junior high, and back then it was, ‘You can’t do this.’”
With no formal visual arts training, he applied the strict discipline of a dancer and set out to teach himself. “These are my mentors,” he says, gesturing to a tall shelf in his studio brimming with thick books whose spines read like a catalogue of The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s permanent collection. Knowing that it would be essential to gain credibility, he built a resumé by entering competitions. Then, encouraged by several awards, he approached galleries and found widespread interest. No one was painting the land of south-central Idaho like he was.
Rowe’s Idaho is a dancer’s landscape. Sensual forms flow across his canvases, recalling the curves of hip, torso, thigh. He acknowledges that dance has influenced his painting from the beginning, especially the stage lighting, which is often strong, from the side, and colored to emphasize the shapes of the body. What the Impressionists “discovered” over a century ago—that the color of an object is largely dictated by the color of the light shining on it—Rowe learned in the theater.
The luminous surfaces of Rowe’s canvases result from a lengthy process of laying on an underpainting, then layering on top of that a combination of thin glazes and thick daubs. He scrapes, scrubs, adds, and blends until he’s satisfied. Sometimes this takes days, although it can take longer when the painting is what Rowe almost tenderly calls “a problem child.” He uses a relatively new paint known as alkyd, a synthetic oil-based medium that marries the best qualities of oils and acrylics.
Developed recently in England by Windsor and Newton, whose products were used by the likes of Turner and Monet, alkyds dry faster than oils (which can take days or weeks, depending on the pigments) but more slowly than acrylics.
Rowe paints around the one-inch edges of each work. He began this practice early in his career after a client hung a landscape above his mantel, then sat on the couch to enjoy it—only to see the white under-edge glaring out at him. He called Rowe and asked him to finish the painting. Rowe happily complied, and has been employing the “wrapped canvas” technique ever since. While Kneeland Gallery offers the option of framing, gallery director Carey Molter reports that she installs most of Rowe’s work unframed, for a contemporary look that works well in many modern homes.
Each painting begins out in a field, so to speak, although Rowe tries to avoid places with large bulls. He and Tracy travel throughout the West, traipsing through meadows and up mountains, driving back roads, and rafting Idaho’s rivers in search of the raw material for his paintings. Half the fun for him is what he calls “prospecting”: taking hundreds or even thousands of pictures, using the camera as a tool to frame compositions. He leaves his brushes at home.
Back in the studio above his garage—a spare, bright space whose white walls are stacked with finished and partially finished canvases—he sifts through the images, using the strongest as springboards for paintings. Rather than slavishly copy, he simplifies the scenes, taking liberties with details and color. “I couldn’t make up these hills,” he explains, agreeing that visual fact is, indeed, stranger than fiction. “But I try to see how much I can leave out while still evoking what I’m trying to get at.”
So what is Rowe trying to get at?
He tells a story of a recent trip to the Boise Art Museum to view a retrospective of work by Idaho artists from the early 1900s. Two young men in suits were marveling over a painting of turn-of-the-century Boise—just a small cluster of houses. One said to the other, “You know, I’ll bet it really looked like that once.”
Rowe is only too aware that the subject of his work exists on borrowed time. “Landscape painting now is different from when the Impressionists were working. Monet’s haystacks . . . no one thought that there might be a two-thousand-house development on them in 10 years.” He shrugs helplessly. “I really feel like I’m painting an epitaph.”
The illusion of temporal stability marks all of Rowe’s work. In Trail Creek (2003), painted just east of Sun Valley, scorched summer hills recall the Egyptian pyramids in a composition so solid that it feels complete in itself, a land that has no use for the touch of human hands. “All good art yanks us out of our pettiness and ties us back into something worth our attention, even our devotion,” Rowe says. He speaks sadly of how technology so often trumps common sense: “We live in a society that allows technology’s ability to affect things go pretty much unchecked. As a landscape painter, all I can really do is say, ‘This is what I find beautiful. This is what you’re going to lose.’” He did not set out to make a cultural statement but, in the choice of his subject, the statement was inadvertently made.
In Hills with Trees (2003), the ochre slopes of August rise voluptuously, like the buttocks of an odalisque. Hillcrests holding the last of the light slide like pale green snakes between shadow and sky, some areas morphing into abstraction, all dioxazine purple and cadmium orange. Viewing this sumptuous vocabulary of forms, a longtime resident might become wholly aware for the first time that the valley walls above the Big Wood River really look like that at, say, four o’clock in mid-September. They resonate with familiarity, these flowing triangles of liquid gold set off by implausibly blue, massy shadows.
Rowe uses both of his art forms as means of expression. “For me, choreography is about getting at what it feels like to be human,” he explains. “Painting is about how I feel about where I live.” He admits that painting is easier because choreography, as a translation process through dancers to the audience, involves people. “Paint is never in a bad mood,” laughs Rowe. “It never gets sick or forgets.”
As long as he’s physically able to dance, however, Rowe will continue to choreograph and direct. He treasures the freedom to push artistic limits on stage. He admits to being more conservative in his painting, simply because a painter’s reputation is built on a consistency of style.
“But I’m lucky: I’m painting exactly what I want to paint, how I want to paint it,” Rowe says, adding with characteristic understatement, “and people seem to like it.” His blue eyes light up when he talks about facing a blank canvas. “All the possibilities in the world exist. So much of life, you know, is a continuation of things that never end. You can’t sign your name to them, or really ever finish. I can finish a painting, and it is a record of who I am at that moment. If I didn’t like the last one, I can start over. It’s this area of your life where you get to redeem yourself every time you start. And that’s exciting.”
Betsy Andrews works at Galena Lodge in the mountains north of Ketchum, where she can ride her bike from the door of her yurt out into a Carl Rowe landscape. She has a degree in art history.