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Being DeWitt

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Now in his 80s, the Bozeman sculptor Floyd DeWitt follows his own ethos on the artistic path less traveled

Text of Being DeWitt

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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.

  • 49M O N T A N A Q U A R T E R L YM O N T A N A Q U A R T E R L Y 49

    Being DeWitt

    Floyd deWitt is not a man or artist you come to know, as much as a man and artist you expe-rience. Like weather.

    As with a storm, DeWitt is unpredictable, powerful, fitful, intimidating, challenging

    and very real. Also, like a storm, and despite the appar-ent 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

    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

    Now in his 80s, the Bozeman sculptor follows his own ethos on the artistic path less traveled

    BY ALAN KESSELHEIM

    PHOTOGRAPHY BY THOMAS LEE

    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.

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    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 land-scapes, 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 compatibil-ity between me and the military, he says. But I was in Europe and that opened my eyes. Europe is full of epiph-any. 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

    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 abstrac-tion, 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 sculp-ture 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.

    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.

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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 appall-ing 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 II 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 schol-arship 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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    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, s

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