Portrait of an Artist: Bo Bartlett

Inheritance / Bo Bartlett / Oil on linen,2010 / Collection of the artist
Inheritance / Bo Bartlett / Oil on linen,2010 / Collection of the artist

Q: Where are you from, where do you live now?

A: I was born in Columbus, Georgia, grew up in Georgia, moved to Florence at eighteen, and lived in Philadelphia for thirty years. I’ve lived on Vashon Island, west of Seattle, for the past eight years; we live on a tiny island off the coast of Maine in the summers. Currently, we are living in my childhood home in Georgia.

Q: What medium(s) do you work with?

A: Mostly oil. But I draw every day.

Q: Tell us about your technique/creative process.

A: I look and dream. Try to stay awake in the moment. Try to find a distilled moment, to represent how it feels to be alive in this world. It is about finding something equivalent to a mise-en-scène. A single image which encapsulates and describes the whole idea.

Q: What is your background (education, career, etc.), and how does it contribute to your art?

A: Studied in Florence, studied drawing privately with Ben Long, at PAFA in Philly, studied painting privately with Nelson Shanks. University of Pennsylvania, New York University for film. Spent many years alongside Andrew Wyeth, who became my mentor and “artistic father.

Q: Tell us about the piece you submitted to the competition.

A: Inheritance is a double portrait of my parents. I was working on a small interior of my childhood living room when they came over to the old house one Sunday after church. I hadn’t planned on painting them. But when they sat on either end of the little love seat, it was a perfect representation of their relationship.

I started a larger version of the interior with them in it. It wasn’t staged or planned; it just happened. The blank canvas I had in my childhood bedroom studio had unknowingly been graffitied by my son, Man, when he visited over the holidays. He had written “Yes” in the exact center of the blank canvas, a sort of homage to Yoko Ono. Man is a visual and performance artist in New York.

When I discovered the tiny “Yes,” I realized I had to incorporate it into the composition, so I allowed a streak of sunlight (which only momentarily struck the back of the love seat each afternoon) to highlight my son’s affirmation.

Q: What are you currently working on?

A: Currently working on several different long-term series, which I am keeping private. I have no plans to show them.

Q: What inspires you?

A: My work changes slowly, incrementally over time; rarely are there sharp turns or U-turns. I don’t think of myself as having a style. If I do have a style of painting, it is no-frills— I don’t want the viewer to be aware of the hand of the artist or of the process.

I paint the best I can. I don’t strive for distance or objectivity. There is no strategy or agenda; I’m not trying to prove anything. I like work that is real, earnest, to the point. An artist can’t hide behind any veils; if you look at the surface, the original intent is revealed.

The single most important event in my artistic life was becoming friends with Andrew Wyeth. I was making a documentary on his life at the request of his wife, Betsy. Once we met, we realized that we were kindred spirits. I’d admired his work when I was younger. But art school had sort of beat it out of me.

So there was a period when I was cool, thinking, oh, you’re Andrew Wyeth, you were famous in the sixties, but you have nothing to offer, I’m just making this film. But the more time I spent with him and the more I studied his work, I slowly began to deprogram. The scales fell away from my eyes, and I realized, “My God, this guy is a great artist!”

Funny, I’d wanted to study with Wyeth when I’d first moved to Philadelphia, but he wasn’t taking students. In retrospect, I’m glad I didn’t study with him when I was young, because if I had, I would have been enticed to try to copy his technique (which had been developed on his own and was unique). But by meeting him later on, when I was a more mature artist and had developed my own way of working, I was able to appreciate his art on a deeper level.

We discussed his motivations, why he painted, how he stayed motivated over a long career. Andy believed that “freedom” was of the utmost importance for the artist. No one should tell an artist what he or she can paint. This sense of freedom, which borders on “bravery,” is nurtured in an artist by their daily practice.

Andy loved art—all art—but he loved nature more, and he didn’t allow himself to be swayed by the thoughts or ideologies of others. He was fearless. He would paint anything he wanted. This is the key. No rules. It transcends style.

Each artist’s truth is different depending on their experience, their temperament. Rip down all the old hegemonies, of theology, of art, of cultural mores. Total freedom. Andy famously said, “your art goes as deep as your love goes.” Ken Wilber has written that in the end it comes down to “what is the original intent of the artist?”

Original intent trumps all conceits. Art may be context-dependent, some things may be shocking and cool at one point in time and blasé the next, but the original intent of the artist is true, timeless, consistent, and undeniable.