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Making It Home

will pope's new paintings

by Ben Mitchell,

Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture

April 2008

It’s the spring equinox today and as I write these words an unexpected storm brings wet, driving snow out of the northwest. Along the banks of the river where we live the willow and alder - luminously golden, scarlet and rust-colored in the mute grey light, each branch laden with swollen buds - are momentarily limed with white streaks of new snow. The intrepid magpies dive purposefully from bank to bank and mergansers drift by all morning, riding the river engorged now with early runoff. The world outside my window is all shifting color, motion, surprise.

I also have before me this morning a group of Will Pope’s surprising and compelling paintings, and like the world outside my window, they too are full of color, motion, and mystery.

Composing, Building, Playing

Will Pope’s working method - highly complex and layered, wild and passionate - is a form of alchemy, with one foot solidly planted in oil painting’s history, the other finding purchase in present-day electronic magic. Pope refers to his paintings as “oil on plaster on panel” so as not to confuse the viewer.  “I’m an oil painter,” he says, “and I paint on Venetian plaster which is for me a glorified - and glorious - form of gesso.”  He begins by saturating the plaster with raw Italian pigments, a method that dates back several thousand years, applying the concoction to wood panels in micro-thin layers with various sized trowels in predetermined geometric or random fields of color. The application is quick and appears spontaneous - but one would be remiss to think of it as mere spontaneity; by now it is second nature for him. Next, he lays in graphite drawings that he builds up with oil pigments, or, using any of dozens of stencils that are taped to his studio walls, he adds images with oil pigment toweled through the cutouts, yielding a silhouette in the picture plane - a bison, a wolf pup, a man working.  When I asked him how he came to use stencils his answer was unhesitating and direct: “Matisse.”


These stencils have their own history. Pope photographs wild animals in Yellowstone National Park and in the big valleys north and west of Yellowstone near his home in Bozeman, Montana. Loading the images into his computer, he creates templates using Photoshop to separate the color layers, and then makes templates for each color, cutting them out of cardstock. These separated color layers are then applied to the painting one by one, yielding a rich visual aura much like a multi-colored woodblock print.  Sometimes he also builds images on the plaster surfaces from resin or thick, wax-like glycerin—or he may apply encaustic by melting beeswax mixed with blended mineral spirits, damar varnish, Venetian turpentine, and pigment. As the plaster and encaustic dry, a controlled craquelature sets in that fascinates him. Recently he has begun to add images from lino cuts and photo transfer, using wintergreen oil or gel medium. And there’s more: sometimes he adds small pieces of text using a set of antique leather-stamping tools that have been in his wife’s family for over a hundred years. Miniature poems, the texts float like leaves on a pond’s surface. With all their layers of oil color and images these paintings are wondrous objects conceived in photography, gestated in computer graphics, and born as oil paintings.

After all of the elements are complete, the work is coated with successive layers of marine urethane and, finally, varnish and beeswax that seal and protect the piece - these last two steps giving a lens-like effect to the surface, as if you are peering into a different world. And you are.

You should be getting the idea that the surfaces of Will Pope’s work are complex, visually and tactilely, with an intricate texture that lends the finished paintings multifaceted avenues of approach. Why this level of technical complexity? Why not? With so much work to do to make a painting, almost anything can happen. And does. Through preparation and chance, seriousness and play, and between patient care and an intrepid wildness and spontaneity, a curiously striking tension inhabits these paintings. At work in the studio he is loose, animated, dancer-like, playful - mixing plaster and pigment, grabbing for a stencil, intuitively stamping on a word or phrase, boldly adding and subtracting images, altering and adjusting the compositional structures. And out of the wet, oily mess of wet plaster and color there coheres a vivid, unified composition that transcends the weight and history of its construction.

Marks, Signs, Crossroads

The lingering, resonant presence of the hand and mind at work in Will Pope’s paintings begins in the many different intimate engagements the artist has with his paintings. Mark-making - the apparition and echo of the hand at work dispersed across the paintings’ surfaces - is of fundamental importance to this artist; it gives the
paintings depth and visual richness. The dynamic energy that crackles between the images, the charm and challenge of multiple points of view, the occasional and surprising text bits, the rich and sensuous textures of the plaster and craquelature all contribute. The bottom of the mind is covered with crossroads, as the poet Paul Valéry said, recalling here the many crossroads - of technique and imagination - Will Pope explores.

The paintings are like maps, geographies of the imagination full of signs and clues and memory, yet are composed almost musically, with spontaneous bursts of image-building, intuitive beats of color, and stream-of-consciousness chords laid down like the signposts and tracks of a journey, an evolution not of formal design but an organic process of balance and surprise. Pope, who is also a musician, filmmaker, and children’s book author, says, “One way to think about it is that there are two paintings: an underlying abstract, and a formal representational painting on top.” In Pope’s paintings there are traces of Larry Rivers’s early fractured and energetic Pop compositions and Joan Mitchell’s wild and masterful color, as well as Rauschenberg’s collisions of the nonobjective and the concrete. But these are at best historical background - you would never mistake the wild and courageous imagination at work here.

Pope’s 2007 Some of the Animals You’re Likely to See in the Park Today is wonderfully representative of his painting. “The Park” in our part of the world means Yellowstone National Park, just a short hour south of the artist’s home. The painting, like the park itself, is rich with a concentration of large animals that once thrived in vast numbers throughout North America - bison, moose, elk, mule deer, wolves, bighorn sheep, grizzly bear, swans, pelicans. But its freshness rings true, unlike the countless trite, sanitized examples of “wildlife art” one finds in the tourist-town galleries surrounding Yellowstone. Visit Jackson Hole and Cody, Gallatin Gateway, Big Sky, Bozeman, and Livingston, and you will find paintings that endlessly recycle saccharine and romanticized images of a world long lost to us, with its vanished animals and grand landscapes. By contrast, in Pope’s painting here - and in works like I Shan’t Be Gone Long, You Come Too;, Skyline Boulevard; Dinquinesh, and others - the animals seem to reside in a kind of ghost realm, poised somewhere between their world and ours. The splintered nature of the landscape these animals inhabit, the various points of view, the uncertain and multiple horizon lines, the sinuous and muscular colors he mixes, all contribute to make this work startlingly contemporary and prescient. After all, one has to honestly face the fractured and broken landscape of the American West, a place that today no longer provides open country for the largest animals to migrate and feed, but restricts them to habitat insufficient to allow them to thrive. Yet in these paintings there is another space discovered, one where something wonderfully illusory and at the same time concrete, grounded, and essential is at work.

Landscapes are culture before they are nature, constructs of the imagination projected onto wood and water and rock,Simon Shama has said, and Will Pope’s paintings essentially illustrate Shama’s insight. Here’s the thing: I believe it’s nothing short of courageous for a serious artist to paint wildlife today. The subject is bone-tired, freighted with nostalgia, and sullied with commercial frenzy. It’s impossible to find anything new in it. Yet Will Pope has ferociously and surprisingly revealed something fresh for us in that history. The paintings are filled with images - signs and signals and pictograph-like glyphs - that carry within them a kind of delightful news, late-breaking bulletins from the front lines of his deep passion and engagement with the world. These are fully realized landscapes of the imagination, paintings of a purely intuitive order, and that also operate within the realm of simple record-making. That is, they uniquely record what we find at the intersection of traditional nineteenth-century Romantic landscape painting and something wholly original and of our own time.

“I very much relate to these animals as a part of our everyday life in Montana,” Pope says. “I feel that painting them brings them closer, that somehow I become a part of them, and them a part of me . . . I’m a third-generation painter of animals in the landscape; my father still does this and my grandfather did before us. So while these are landscapes, they more and more become not only self-portraits, but family portraits as well.” Perhaps, in seeking to find a way to live more wholly in the place he does, his concept of family has now expanded outward to encompass the animals and plants that are intrinsic to this world. With technical virtuosity, childlike curiosity, unbounded energy, and a courageous and unfettered imagination - and with respectful attention to what it is that surrounds him, his place in it, and a trust that awareness grows into fondness - Will Pope stakes a claim to helping us learn again how to live more fully in a world that is still, thankfully, full of surprise and mystery.

—Ben Mitchell
    Spokane, Washington
    Spring 2008


Ben Mitchell, a writer and curator, is the senior curator of art at the Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture in Spokane, Washington.  He is the author of Play Disguised: The Jewelry of Ken Cory and Into the Horizon: Theodore Waddell, 1960-1990, both published by the University of Washington Press. He edited and published this spring John Buck: Iconography, also published with the University of Washington Press.


In the Studio

full of possibilities

by Michele Corriel, for At Home Magazine

July 2007

will pope: full of possibilities


Up on the wall in Will Pope's whitewashed basement half a dozen paintings wait for his attention.   A couple of them are finished but most still need a little more: a slash of color, a flourish, maybe another stencil. Pope tends to work on three paintings at a time, but in preparation for a show at Visions West in Livingston, the fires are stoked a bit brighter this week.

            "Sometimes while I'm working on one painting I can resolve something in another painting," Pope says, applying a stain of pigment and olive oil to the upper left corner of a piece. "I'm creating a visual narrative with my pieces and I have several picture planes operating within one painting."

In some ways his pieces are landscapes, but in other ways they most certainly are not. The horizon lines linger, sometimes they're vertical, creating the sense of a dreamlike place. And like a dream, icons pop up in strange places. There's a kind of moment when you think, what is that doing there?   Then upon reflection the symbols embedded in the piece make sense.   But if there's a single quality that makes Pope's work unique it would be the colors.   They stand out, quietly, perfectly, unobtrusively, involving and capturing the viewer. His pastel pieces, just like candy, are as addictive.

Nikki Todd, owner of Visions West, appreciates the exceptional work Pope is doing, especially those he does using Venetian plaster.

"There's an element of the possibility for discovery," Todd says. "There's so many things going on in his paintings, all these treasures to find if you look enough. There's also an architectonic element with the words he stamps into the plaster when it's still wet."

Pope works in both oil paints and Italian plaster. The plaster is mixed with color and is very thinly laid on the surface, creating a texture that plays a part in the overall feeling of a piece.

"I want people to get a visceral hit off the paintings," Pope says. "The surface is very important to me."

Todd loves that kind of tactile quality that happens with the plaster.

"And the colors of course are very unusual for a man," Todd adds. "There's something really beautiful in that. There's a geometric quality - a symmetry that is very interesting. At first glance it might seem naïve or folk-art looking, but as you examine them deeper there is a lot more to it."

            Opening a can of Italian dry pigment combined with Venetian plaster he dips a metal spatula into the almost odorless mixture and spreads the thick blue blend across the surface of a painting. Pope smoothes the color like icing on a cake, gently but quickly.

            "I have about twenty minutes until it's so sticky I can't work with it anymore," he says, hardly seeming to think about where the paint is going. "The way I work - it has something to do with logic. I like puzzles. I look at a painting until I just know what comes next. The picture plane is a problem and I try to solve it."

            In "Calypso," a piece that is still acquiring symbolic tulips, Pope's use of a shockingly pastel color palette meets with the powerful images of Montana: a buffalo whose body is tattooed with multi-colored grids like a gerrymandered map, a dainty architectural flourish in deep red, stenciled birds in flight and a misshapen heart against a triptych color-block. It is a piece that combines images and feelings, obvious ciphers with invisible emotional strings.

            "None of my colors come straight the tube," Pope says, mixing a tinge of emerald with some white and then a bit of ultra marine blue on a palette that is so crowded with dabs and dots, smears and swirls, that it could be an abstract painting all by itself. "I stare and stare at a painting until I see what needs to be done where."

            Looking for a bit of yellow, he rifles through a heap of squeezed and folded paint tubes that look like a pile of bones after a feast. Finally content with the color he fills in a tulip stencil on the buffalo painting - a purposely over-romanticized montage of Montana.

Included in this recent body of work animals play an important part. Elephants, buffalo, giraffe, cranes: all signify a kind of conversation going on in and between the pieces. Perhaps, it is the influence of his father, who was the Fort Worth Zoo's resident artist, painting pictures of all the zoo's creatures, great and small. The memory of spending time with his father at the zoo is a rich source of inspiration, especially now that Pope is a father as well.

"I'd say he's become more focused since he's had children." Anne Winkler, a fellow artist from Santa Fe, who has watched Pope's work develop over the last dozen or so years, says, spooning out macaroni for her own boys.

"He's so dedicated to his painting career," she says. "And he's prolific. If I were to look back I'd say he's gotten a lot more adventurous with his compositions. He's always done loose work, and he's always been one to take chances."

            She sees something new in his color blocking and a tendency toward the abstract.

"I love his colors," she adds, "they're really juicy and fresh. But as far as his whole composition, I don't try to understand the content too much. I don't question it. It's one of those things."

Like waking up in the morning and trying to interpret a dream.

"And I love his drawings, they're very childlike," Winkler says. "There's no lamenting about redoing an animal over and over. He's happy with the quick sketch."

In the past he'd jumped around with his styles but now Winkler thinks he's found something he can stay with for a while. "These pieces feel like he's cranking on a series that is fluid."

And while some of his pieces have the notion of disorder, Pope's studio reflects the true orderliness of his work. The space feels geometric, white, light, with rectangular surfaces, squared windows, and lines dividing the ceiling. Taped to one wall are drawings done by his young son, drawings included in some of his pieces. Dozens of small canvases lean against the wainscoted wall.

"When you start looking there's a vast amount of art knowledge behind what he's painting," Nikki Todd says. "I've watched his work evolve. He's always changing. He won't be stuck in a rut. Each painting is a stepping stone, and that's exciting to see."

She sees each of his pieces speaking to art movements of the past.

"Even his oil paintings are interesting," Todd says.   "They have so much build up, so much texture, and they have a relationship to the plaster. He surprises us every now and then and he'll bring in a small group of paintings that go off on a different tangent. You can tell it's his work, but it's different. I think he's very influenced by the seasons."

She mentions a series he did during the winter with a lot of starkness. But Pope says the seasons drained of color inspire him to warm himself with pastels. During the winters Pope says he turns to a brighter, warmer palette.

"They literally warm and comfort me," he says. "Painting is magic for me. The images I tend to create invoke an archetypal ideal, like Greek statues in a way. I'm not sure it's evident to other people, but there's a positivity in the work that leaves tragedy aside. It's very childlike... and I'm glad about that."




community crossroads

(montana, nov-dec 2006)

Will Pope - Breaking the Mold on the Western Landscape

by Ariel Overstreet

Will Pope, a new and refreshing addition to the Montana art scene is a third generation painter.   His paintings are his livelihood and his passion. He has been carefully honing his craft for nearly 20 years.

Pope describes himself as a colorist and a symbolist.   He also describes himself as a "Postmodern landscape artist."   One thing is for certain; his work is unlike any other.

Pope's symbolism and color schemes are vaguely reminiscent of the Southwest, where he spent the formative years of his art career.  

Pope was born in 1965 in Fort Worth, Texas, and still garners much of his imagery from his home state, where roughly half of his eleven brothers and sisters still reside.  


He began his painting career while working at the Bedford Schoolhouse in New York in 1989 .   He sojourned to Taos, New Mexico soon after, a return to family property that would repeat itself for eighteen years, and in fact still does, but in briefer stints.   He attended the University of New Mexico and painted in Taos in the company of noted artists R.C. Gorman, Agnes Martin, Wes Mills, Ron Cooper, Larry Bell, Lee Mullican and Jim Wagner.

"What makes my paintings original is that they really do come from inside," Pope said. "It's that intuitive response that comes out in the painting that is above and beyond anything I could have been taught."

Pope and his wife Adria, a bronze sculptor, and their two children, Oliver, 5, and Isabel, 2, moved to Bozeman in September of 2005.

His first series of paintings, completed during Pope's first winter in Bozeman, was titled "Maps for Matadors" and was displayed in a gallery in Bozeman.   The paintings were distinctive in their rich symbolism and vibrant colors.  

"It was so bleak and cold I thought a lot about Mexico, South America, points south," Pope said.   "I began to work in a very bright and warm palette, which literally warmed and comforted me, and hence the Mexican imagery, even the flamingos of south Florida and South America presented themselves as a reminder that in other places people were tanned, warm and happy."

The meanings of his works in the "Maps for Matadors" series are far from obvious and open for interpretation, making each viewing an intensely personal experience.   Plus, they're fun to look at, almost childlike or whimsical in a way, but at the same time, deep and thought provoking.

Pope is currently working on a series of paintings called "Out West" with a focus on bison, horses, deer, moose, antelope and jackrabbits--animals we are used to seeing in Montana.   The series continues much of the same stylistic moves of Pope's previous work but focuses clearly on Western themes.

Pope's process of creating a painting is extremely labor intensive.   He works with a historical Italian plaster ground which he treats with an Italian dry pigment and olive oil.   He then paints with oil on top of the plaster.   Once his painting is complete, he seals the piece with an ultra-hard modern varnish to give it archival protection.

Pope also uses a set of antique leather stamps to tap words into the plaster, which adds a layer of meaning to his paintings.  

In addition to his work on his "Out West" series, Pope is gearing up for Christmas and hopes to complete 100 smaller, very affordable paintings by the holiday.

In addition to his painting, Pope recently completed an original screenplay for a major motion picture to be produced in 2006-07 in Cuba.   He maintains other works-in-progress as well.

Pope's work can be found in galleries in Montana, Utah, Idaho, Colorado and California in addition to the University of New Mexico permanent print collection, and the National Gallery of Mexico at Queretaro.   For a full list of gallery representation, please visit his website, or give him a call.

(406) 599-4107


the bozone

'Maps for Matadors'

(montana, june-july 2006)

Launching the summer Artwalks in Bozeman for Artifacts gallery is featured modern artist Will Pope.   His new body of work, which comprises 20 paintings in oil on prepared ground, is an utterly fresh, individual, and masterful handling of the mediums of oil and plaster - and a welcome arrival on the Montana art scene, where contemporary and modern art can be scarce.

Pope's images lead the mind through a labyrinth of playful narratives, formed from an utterly individual juxtaposition of both personal and universal symbols, codified and spelt out in bombastic Technicolor.   The result is a mesmerizing voyage into his imagination and creative process, a peep-show into a language of color and symbol-logic that is strong, luscious, archetypal, and perhaps above all genuine.   This is art that knows what it is, from frame to frame.   In ' A Mexican Loveletter, ' Pope weaves a tale through old men, bandits, desert animals, chocolate, and an accidental nude; in ' Map of South America' he simply drops you off in the South Pacific, swimming with flamingos, the overpopulated hillsides of Rio de Janiero, the occasional Alpaca, and heads of Easter Island.   Several visages of matadors, lovebirds, ballerinas, and yes, more maps are an invitation to trek this ethereal, bold, and ever-present landscape.  

The handling of materials sets the work apart from all but serious painters, in fact the impetuous drawings in bright color on perfectly cracked background evoke a sense of history, mastery, and finesse likened to the Fauvists a century ago.   Pope, who considers himself to be 'a colorist and a symbolist,' also has accepted the moniker of 'Western Fauvist,' (Fauvist meaning literally, 'wild beast.')  

'The new work is very quick, very essentialized,' says Pope. " I've made a lot of headway with putting bright color and earthtones together in a way that is successful for me.   I'm also utterly comfortable with my subject matter, and that gives me a lot of freedom to loosen up, to find out what the painting is really about."

The show will be on exhibit through the month of June.


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