Interview with Linda Jones Gibbs
Art Historian, Author, “Escape to Reality: The Western World of Maynard Dixon”
Nancy Green: Where does Maynard Dixon fall inside of the spectrum of American art?
Gibbs Jones Gibbs: Dixon is difficult to categorize in the history of American art. He’s unusual in that he, unlike many other painters of his generation, did not train on the East coast, did not train in Europe. He was virtually self-taught. If I were to put him in a place in American art history, I would put him under the rubric of Robert Henri’s realism. Robert Henri was a very influential teacher in New York in the early twentieth century and Dixon is living in New York City for five years at really the height of Henri’s notoriety and influence and not only did Henri teach realism in terms of a style that was realistic, but he wanted his students to be authentic in their art and to paint what they personally knew and were deeply acquainted with so he sent his students into the streets of New York City. He would have, had Henri, or had Dixon been a student, would have said, “Go back to California and paint that landscape that you know so well.”
Nancy Green: That is something intriguing about Dixon. He often refers to the “real thing”. What is the real thing?
Linda Jones Gibbs: That’s hard to answer. But I think the real thing for Dixon was the landscape that he grew up in, that he lived in, that he wandered in, that he knew inside and out. There were the peoples of the far remote regions of the west who seemed to be untainted by civilization. There was no pretense about them. They were perpetuating their culture that had been in existence for years. For him that was the real thing.
Nancy Green: What was he in search of?
Gibbs Jones Gibbs: He was almost in search of something that was not certain things, was not materialistic, was not caught up in worldly concerns. He was on a quest. He was on an artistic quest, but he was on a personal, a spiritual quest. When he went out in the landscape and went out into these remote regions, he’s looking for subject matter, but he’s also looking for a depth of feeling that he felt he could only have out in those areas. He once said that silence sends your questions back to you and that you can find deep self in those places.
Nancy Green: I’d like to just go into that a little bit deeper. What was he questing for artistically?
Gibbs: Dixon was looking for subject matter, I think that was instilled in him as a child and what I mean by that is when he was little he was very sick and as is the case of many artists stories they’re in bed with some ailment and in that time their mind wanders and he imagined, as he looked out his window in the San Joaquin Valley, what might be happening over those mountains over yonder, he would say, or back beyond those mountains, and his imagination got very fired up. And so I think as he was physically finally able as a young adult to venture out, he was looking to find those visions that he had imagined and he often talked about his imaginings and what he was looking for in sort of non-concrete terms and so while he was in the landscape and with the Native Americans he was always looking for something mystical and intangible to try to capture along with the actual physical surroundings, but I think again that’s this vivid imagination that fueled him from a very young age.
Green: It seems like that would be a really tall order, to find a way to put down in paint something that’s intangible. Was that also part of his search?
Gibbs: I don’t know if Dixon was consciously trying to paint something intangible. I think that as he went into the, his journeys in the west, it was a dual journey; it was an exterior journey, a journey outside of himself. At the same time it was a journey inside of himself to answer some of these unanswerable questions and I think it just was inevitable for him that the search resulted in these paintings that have a sense about them. And this is what I think makes him unique as a western artist, a sense of mystery, a sense of awe, that, that doesn’t occur in a lot of western painting.
Green: Say more about that, about what makes him unique.
Gibbs: What I think makes Maynard Dixon unique is that he had this wonderful combination or a superior sense of design. And again he had three weeks of formal training so it was very innate, this facility with the paint brush and with color and then you add to that this, I think there was an art critic who said he felt the west, as opposed to so many other western artists, so called western artists, who came from the east, who came from Europe, and were always outsiders. No matter how long they lived in the west, they didn’t feel it as intimately as he did. And I think that added to that authenticity and that genuineness. So you add this, this incredible ability, artistic, technical ability, with this passion, this visionary passion that he had and you get this art that is unlike any other.
Green: What techniques did he use to try to capture that sense of space? How did his technique develop over time?
Gibbs: In terms of Maynard Dixon’s evolving technique, I think you have to look at several things. He starts as an illustrator, so he becomes very facile with line and drawing. Then he goes back east and he’s exposed to a lot of art by American artists who have studied abroad so when he comes back home, by the early ‘20s you see that impressionist palette and daubed on paint and no doubt he saw that kind of style in the east when he was there. But then he’s, as he further gets involved with mural painting, which demands very broad shapes, simplified forms, something that reads well from a distance, very little detail, strong color, strong line, strong pattern, that definitely works its way into his easel painting. And it is really incredible when you think that he is able to capture boundlessness, you know, the sense of endlessness on a canvas that has boundaries and it was partly through, just principles of design and perspective and that simplification of form, where you don’t see all the detail and then your mind is allowed to kind of fill in the blanks and go to that back and beyond that he’s giving you a hint of.
Green: Moving away from technique, I’d like to give people is a context of the west that Dixon was born into because he was born in 1875 and sitting here in 2006; it’s hard for me now to comprehend what that world was like. What was the west like back in 1875?
Gibbs: When I think of Dixon being born in 1875 and it’s not that long since the Civil War. It sort of, first of all gives you a perspective of how long ago he lived. I believe it was within a year of his birth, the barbed wire was first up so he was really coming into a time in history, in American history in the west where things were still very rugged and they were just starting to compartmentalize the landscape.
In 1890 at the time when he’s deciding to become an artist, coincides with Custer’s last stand, which was the last hand to hand combat between Indians and white culture, so there really was this beginning of the closure of the old west. We also have in 1893 the declaration by Frederick Jackson Turner, in his famous essay about the closing of the frontier and how that marked a real change for the country. For three centuries there was this idea that there was something else beyond to push forward to, to go to - for progression as a country and that was gone now that we had made it to the west coast. So there was definitely this idea, as he’s formulating his ideas that the west is ultimately going to change and aspects will vanish.
Green: Was that a reoccurring theme with him-- the vanishing West? Was that a concern of his?
Gibbs: I think the idea of the west vanishing was absolutely a concern of his. If you think about him going into the southwest in 1900, how much different it was when he goes back in the ‘20s and the ‘30s. Now we have automobiles that are snaking their way to the Grand Canyon, you’ve got stores popping up. I mean the landscape is changing and the only way he can preserve what he wants to preserve is getting beyond all that, going even further into the backcountry and I think there’s a quote where he talks about, the sky doesn’t change, and the mountains don’t change, so as long as he held his sights high enough and got rid of any billboard or paved roads then he could hold onto that ideal of the west that’s still pristine and untouched, a paradise.
Green: Is that a west that ever really existed-- that paradise?
Gibbs: The whole idea of the west as a paradise was certainly a construct by people. It in fact starts in the east when our pilgrim forefathers first came they saw the east coast as the, the new Eden or the paradise and then that gets full of people and industry so now we have to look somewhere else to find that one place where we can go and be in touch with nature and be away from all the negative aspects of civilization. Was it ever a paradise? I don’t think so. It was hard living, you know, for the inhabitants.
Green: It was, but as Dixon’s traveling around what was his emotional reaction to the changes that he was seeing around him in the west?
Gibbs: As Dixon traveled in the west and saw that it was changing I think he felt very sad about it and helpless about it and I think he realized it was inevitable. I don’t hear anger in his comments, but just a nostalgia and lamentation about it and maybe a fervent desire because of it to try to get on paint those aspects of it that were still so beautiful and untouched before they too fell prey to civilization.
Green: You know in 1900 he’s wandering around on horseback in Arizona. How rough a landscape was it? How rough a land was it? I’m just wondering was it rare for somebody to be on horseback out in the middle of Arizona back then?
Gibbs: I would think that it was unusual for an individual such as Dixon to be out in the middle of the southwest in 1900 on horse. It was not the norm. It took a lot of courage and stamina and desire and I don’t think there were many people at that time that had any reason or, you know, it wasn’t really until the railroads came that you saw any number of people going into that part of the United States. And that’s the reason why the southwest was so attractive to him because the Native American cultures, the Native American cultures that were in the Plains, for example, were run over by civilization early on, but because they were isolated geographically down in the southwest they kind of stayed out of the way for a long, lot longer time and that’s what he loved about that particular region.
Green: And artistically, were people wandering and capturing that landscape at the turn of the century?
Gibbs: The earliest artist to venture into Taos, say for example, would have been the group of artists that later became known as the Taos school, Irving Couse, Oscar Blumenschein, and they were, Joseph Sharp might have been the first one, who came in the 1890s, but they weren’t wandering around much. They came and stayed, and their motivation was here is some subject matter that nobody’s done yet. This is a clean slate. This will give us some notoriety. And so they weren’t coming to with quite the passion for the peoples and the landscape that Dixon had. They were thinking of it more in terms of something for the market. Not to say they didn’t love it here and they stayed, but that was their initial driving motivation.
Green: As a young man, a young artist beginning to discover the West, Dixon has people who influence him. Charles Lummis, what kind of influence did he have in Dixon’s life?
Gibbs: Because Dixon lost his father at a young age, he found men who became surrogate fathers and one of the most important early on for him was Charles Lummis. Charles Lummis was a Harvard educated journalist who walked in 1890s from Cincinnati, Ohio to Los Angeles in 143 days and sent a weekly journal back to the LA Times about his experiences. And he did actually go through the southwest en route to LA. He sees Dixon’s illustrations and contacts him. He wants him to submit some work for the magazine that he starts called Land of the Sunshine. And Dixon comes down, meets him, does some work for him, and in a moment of pure exhaustion from having worked on the San Francisco Examiner, which was just such an antithesis of the kind of environment that Dixon loved. He almost had a nervous breakdown and Lummis sends him into the southwest. It was really Lummis who was the first person to send him into that part of the country because Lummis himself had gone in there when he was ill and the Indians had taken care of him and helped him and healed him with their medicinal ways and so he sent Dixon in and furthermore, Lummis gathered around him this whole assemblage of artists, essayists, anthropologists, educators who all had one thing in common in that they wanted, they saw in the American west the chance to have a civilization that was untainted by European based materialistic ideals and what they felt were decadent ideals so he really influenced his philosophy about the southwest and literally sent him in there.
Green: Tell me more about that, the ideals of what they were, what was it they were afraid, that might not be the right term, but you’re saying that they were afraid of the west being tainted or that America is being tainted?
Gibbs: Around 1900 you really see the growth of industrialization in the eastern United States and with that, you know, the poverty, the separation of classes, the inequities, the removal from nature. You know, moving to the city, one of the census, American census reports from around that time showed that there was a definite move of the population to urban center and so wanting to escape to a place that still honored and valued a very intimate relationship with the earth as opposed to urban life was one of their goals, one of Dixon’s goals and those around him.
Green: The West is seen in different ways throughout this time period. When Dixon is in New York and he’s being asked to a do a lot of wild and wooly western novels. What is that depiction?
Gibbs: When Dixon is in New York he’s illustrating for popular magazines and feeding the public’s imagination of what they imagine the west to be, which is shoot ‘em up, gunslingers, you know the, not the real west that he knew. And it was very distasteful for him. But he goes to New York really after the San Francisco earthquake when his studio was destroyed so in some ways I think it was an escape, a starting over. I mean that must have been devastating for him when that happened, but after a while in New York he, he’s just so depressed having to do work that he feels is not authentic and he actually refers to it as, “that evil time in my life” or “the evil work” which is pretty strong and finally gets the strength to get out and leave.
Green: And he, right before the outbreak of World War I, he’s going through some very difficult personal times. Why was that such a struggle for him during that time?
Gibbs: Around 1917 his first marriage is dissolving. It was very difficult. She was very difficult to live with and at the same time on the grander scale of things you have the outbreak of World War I. It’s hard for us, even though we’ve lived through turmoil in our day and age, to imagine how absolutely devastating that was for people to think that something so horrific could happen on such a grand scale. And especially for artists who are of a sensitive nature. There were many, many artists who at that time, responded in one way or another to the war. Some turned to modernism because they didn’t want to paint anything that resembled in any way the world, this corrupt world that we lived in. Dixon, however, that’s when he becomes all the more determined to go back into that landscape that feeds his soul and starts really painting the Native Americans to a great degree and more frequently than he had been.
Green: What was Dixon’s relationship with the Native Americans? Why do you think he was so drawn to them?
Gibbs: I think Dixon very early on in his first travels in California when he meets various tribes of Native Americans, related to them in a very deep level. He liked the fact that they lived off the land, they were non-materialistic. He just found so much in their culture. He loved the superstitions of their culture, the mysticism. It just, it spoke to him. Again it was taking him a step out of the reality of the commercial world that he lived in. It was the antithesis of the commercial world that he was forced to live in to make a living, but he truly immersed himself in the culture. He went to sweat lodges. He was invited into their ceremonies. They trusted him because I think they sensed his respect for them and their culture.
Green: Do you think he idealized the Native Americans in his work?
Gibbs: There’s no doubt that Maynard Dixon idealized the Native Americans in his paintings. He was highly selective on what he chose to paint. If you look at that body of work compared to his series on the Forgotten Man or Maritime Strike, both peoples are disinherited. With the Forgotten Man, with people from his own culture he shows them down and out in their poverty. The Native Americans are never shown in the reality of their circumstance, in terms of the efforts by the government to acculturate them. They took their children out of their homes, they sent them to boarding schools. They cut their hair. They tried to disrupt their communal way of life by giving them parcels of land to farm. There was tuberculosis rampant, trachoma that was rampant. You don’t see a hint of this in any of his art. What you see is what he wanted to and what he wanted to preserve. It was his way of creating a salve for himself and for anyone else who was troubled, who could look upon these paintings and take a sigh, you know, of someone who seemed trouble free and just able to stand in the landscape and be reflective. That was not reality.
Green: I think he wrote something about the Native people…
Gibbs: Maynard, at one point, wrote something very telling when, and I’m paraphrasing. He said, many people see the Indians and see that they are dirty and live in poverty and that they are full of lice and disease. He said, but when you see one of their find ceremonies something tremendous comes forward and he said the visions of the old days are as important to me as what is actually seen. So he admits right up front that he is imagining the best of their culture.
I think Dixon felt there were organizations that were working to try to help the Native Americans in terms of their conditions and he saw his role as taking the finest of their culture and preserving it on canvas, so that people who saw it would understand. And these are his words, ”the fantasy of the freedom of space and thought”, that is inherent in their culture, that people would find inspiring and uplifting. So it is, he’s using them for a purpose that is, has nothing to do with their culture. It’s not helping them, but he’s, it’s medicine for the soul, for his soul, and for other people who likewise are disgruntled and disillusioned with the country and the world.
Green: So what is the west? What does the west have to teach us, as Americans?
Gibbs: Dixon like many contemporary writers and artists at the time saw the west as being very important to the American psyche and by that I mean its spaciousness, its openness. It was a symbol of endless opportunity. Anybody could by anybody.
The west has often been described as a screen upon which people’s dreams and aspirations are projected and against which many dramas can be played out. It’s this wide open space. Anything’s possible and so it was important to Dixon, as a painter, to have this, kind of blank canvas because he could fill it with his imaginings and he could. He entitled the painting Yonder the Navajo and what’s so fascinating to me is that you can’t see the Navajo. They’re so beyond and yonder that they’re not in the painting.
Green: As much as Dixon steeps himself in the Western outback, he also isn’t immune to urban and social problems. There’s a brief period where he portrays issues around the Great Depression. He and Dorothea Lange take a trip to Taos, New Mexico to escape the horrors of the Depression, but they do return to San Francisco and deal with the social problems artistically. What caused Dixon to paint the Depression?
Gibbs: As Maynard Dixon and Dorothea Lange were driving back to San Francisco from Taos, what had happened in the interim while they were sequestered in Taos hit them right in face when they saw the transient men on the roadside walking, looking for work, going from town to town. I think it was an image that was just, indelibly printed in his mind and that he didn’t shake. It just took a while to germinate. He made some sketches and it was after his assignment with the government WPA agency to do work in Boulder Dam, where he was very sensitive to what was happening to individuals not protected on the job and he decided once and for all to turn his sights to the human condition and at that point paints Forgotten Man and I think he definitely was influenced by Dorothea Lange in the Maritime Strike series. I think the subject matter was certainly something that he turned to because of her. I think she pricked his social conscience. It was pricked already, but I think she helped it along.
Green: How did she do that?
Gibbs: I think she was able to influence, not directly, she didn’t browbeat him and tell him to do this. I think it was by virtue of the fact that they were together and he was seeing what she was doing just like she saw what he was doing previously to that and I, I really think that it was just by virtue of living with her and observing her consciousness which was in him. I think it just needed a little firing up, you know, to actually direct it artistically.
Green: Brigham Young University ends up owning many of the Forgotten Man and Strike Series painting. How did that come about?
Gibbs: People are very surprised to learn that Brigham Young University owns the largest Dixon collection in the United States and it’s quite a wonderful story as to how that came to happen. There was an individual at BYU in the 1930s, by the name of Herald R. Clark, who was dean of the business school, who may have seen some of Dixon’s paintings on exhibit in Utah. We really don’t know, but what we do know is that he saw, in the St. Louis dispatch, reproductions of the Forgotten Man series and the Maritime Strike series. Herald R. Clark was an economist first and foremost. He was very, very touched by the pathos in these works and took it upon himself to make a personal and unofficial visit to Dixon in San Francisco. Finally tracks him down and the two meet, go to a bar together, Herald R. Clark has milk. I don’t know what Dixon had. And they talk about a potential acquisition of the university of some of his art. I do know also that Herald R. Clark had lost money in the crash, many people had, so again he brought a very personal view…you know what, let’s not put that in the film because the family might not like that. They were a little, they didn’t want to tell me too much about that, and the fact that it was actually somebody in the Clark family that bought the paintings because BYU didn’t have money to buy art in the ‘30s.
Herald R. Clark was also very interested in bringing culture to BYU. He had a lyceum series that ran for decades and he brought people like Helen Keller, Pearl S. Buck, Robert Frost, Rachmaninov to this campus, kind of a remote campus and so it’s not unusual that he would start thinking let’s bring some art here, but what art and why Maynard Dixon? It’s because he was so moved by that particular series of the Forgotten Man. So he travels to San Francisco and in a very short amount of time he contracts with him to buy about 85 paintings and drawings that really cover a good bit of Maynard’s career, for the sum of $3,700. I always wondered was it because it was 1937 that it was $3,700. He establishes a lifelong correspondence with Maynard Dixon. They’re very fond of each other. Their letters back and forth until Maynard’s death really, are just full of affection and Herald R. Clark tried to get Maynard Dixon to BYU to talk to the classes in front of his art and it, unfortunately, never happened. Dixon kept trying to come and his failing health prevented that from ever occurring.
Green: Dixon had been to Zion National Park in 1933, and then later bought a house in Mt. Carmel, Utah. What was his attraction to the state?
Gibbs: Maynard Dixon loved Utah. He loved it not only for its diverse and beautiful landscape, but he loved the Mormon people. He had tremendous respect for their industry, for their independence, for their sense of community, which is something he also admired about the Native American tribes that he visited. He comes in 1933 with Dorothea Lange and their sons and perhaps it’s the one state in the west he hadn’t been to yet, you know, and he wanted to see it all. I don’t really know what the initial motivation was for coming to Utah, but he was there very briefly and I know by 1935 or 6 some of his paintings were exhibited in Salt Lake City and Ogden and Springville so he beings to have a little bit of a presence there as an artist.
Green: I’d like to actually go back to talking about his art and his technique. In your book you mention how he, unlike other artists, put you inside what was happening, especially in his Native American paintings. What was Maynard Dixon doing artistically that was different?
Gibbs: Maynard Dixon’s depictions of Native Americans are different from a lot of his contemporaries who were more of an insider than he was in their culture. He really literally put himself in the middle of their life, whereas the Taos School, for example, really saw the Indians as objects to pose, in almost sometimes contrived situations in their studios. Dixon never did that. And even when his contemporaries painted them in their natural environment there’s a certain sort of decorative quality about a lot of that art. The color’s kind of pushed a little bit, they’re pretty, but we the viewer I think feel like an outsider whereas Dixon pulls us right inside. When you look at Round Dance you are in that circle of dancers. You’re seeing that firelight flickering in the faces right across from you. Watchers on the Rooftop is another one where you’re standing right there looking up at them and you’re in that environment and you’re sensing what they sense. So he did it compositionally, very definitely and I think very deliberately because I think that’s how he felt and that’s how he wanted us to feel. He wanted to bring us along for that ride.
Green: Everyone says his Taos work is his best work. Why is that?
Gibbs: I think Dixon’s best paintings were done in the time period he spent in Taos. I think he was at his peak as an artist. His maturity, everything just kind of came together for him artistically, but he was also removed from cares of the world, of which there were many at the time and I think he really put it out of his mind and was totally, totally focused. He also had a great affinity for the Native American tribes here. At different times in his life he seemed to be attracted to one tribe over another for various reasons. Again think it was because the Native Americans in Taos were still so isolated that he just loved it here and that love for that particular culture and region comes out coupled with his extraordinary finesse as a painter, makes for a great combination.
Green: What about his dips? I mean his went through a lot of depression.
Gibbs: Shapes of Fear, I think is one of his most powerful images. It’s almost monochromatic, so we are really looking at the form and the feeling of that painting. There’s nothing in the background to speak of. It came out of his angst over the depression.
So in Shapes of Fear by using the cloaked Indian who is kind of hidden you don’t see faces, they’re sort of hunched over and hiding, he’s able to kind of release the fear he has inside and put it into those figures and almost, it’s a relief. And this is such a dramatic example of how his art is functioning as medicine for him and he’s able just to get it out and get it on canvas.
Green: So was his art cathartic?
Gibbs: Dixon’s art was very definitely cathartic for him. He admits it time and again that, you know he uses it to make himself feel better. I mean that’s not his words, but he would definitely see it as a way to not think about his problems, the world’s problems. The subject matter that he chose for him was just uplifting and relaxing and escaping real life.
Green: Speaking of escape, why did you title your book Escape to Reality?
Green: Dixon basically says, I’m paraphrasing, “There’s something in the west that sings to us. And I’m searching for a way to show that in paint and form to the best of my ability.” Did he succeed in doing that?
Green: Lonesome Journey. You end your book with that painting.
Gibbs: I find Lonesome Journey to be very poignant image because he did take that journey through life alone so much of the time. Even when he was with people I think his, by nature his personality, his character was one of solitude and you see that figure in that wagon going away from us against that brilliantly red canyon, sunlit canyon at sunset, it’s the end of life and he’s going out of it the way he came into it, you know, experiencing it alone, loving it, taking it in, immersing himself in it and he did in his home in Mount Carmel. He was, that’s where he wanted to be in his last days.
Green: Is there a legacy he left us?Gibbs: I think the legacy that Dixon has left us is this incredible body of work that can take us back to a time and a place that doesn’t exist for the most part. You can still find it. You can follow Dixon’s quest if you want to. You can go to those places he painted and catch a glimpse of what he saw and imagine, and he would enjoy our imagining because he liked to imagine, what it was like for him, just as he tried to imagine what it was like for centuries before. That’s the legacy. We get to take the journey through his art.
Maynard Dixon: To the Desert Again is a production of KUED in Salt Lake City, Utah.