Charlotte Street Foundation identifies the needs and fuels the evolution of an ever-changing multidisciplinary arts ecosystem, acting as its primary provocateur. We cultivate the contemporary, the exceptional, and the unexpected in the practice of artists working in and engaging with the Kansas City Art Community
Documentary film collaboration update from Studio Resident Elizabeth Stehling
Standing in Loose Park one month ago, I asked the painter Wilbur Niewald, now 93, questions for a short documentary film. My husband, Steve Snell, and I are creating the film for the Kansas City Art Institute. This was our first time in the park with him. A beautiful day outside. Chilly. Sunny. Lots of green all around, with some autumn tones.
Wilbur doesn’t paint the autumn tones though. The picturesque landscape around him was a great visual for the video, but Wilbur’s attention was on his favorite trees: three or four evergreen pines. How many times has he painted them since he abandoned abstract painting in 1970? Great question. It’s countless. We will have to get a number for the film, but to give an idea, he paints outside seasonly, six days a week since the 70s. He returns to his favorite spots in Kansas City to paint from life, outside, the same trees as the subject while surrounded by volleyball players, kids birthday partiers, joggers, dog-walkers, and picnic-ers. And now us, filmmakers. He tolerates us very well and participates fully in what we need to capture of his routine, answering questions as he paints.
One of his answers that stuck with me from that day was one that seems so essentially different from what priorities are nowadays.
I asked Wilbur, “what kind of trees are those?”
Surely he knows everything about them, I was thinking. Maybe he even knows the exact scientific name and what region they are most popular in, or if they are a special kind of tree in Kansas City, or if they are a pine tree with a special kind of bark, or if they are the most common type, or if they are endangered, or all of that kind of thing. Since he has painted them for what — forty or fifty years at this point, he probably knows everything there is to know about those trees, I was thinking.
Wilbur kept painting with gentle brushstrokes, looking up for a second and thinking, as if it had never occurred to him to want to know that, and he responded along the lines of “well pine, some kind of pine evergreen, I don’t really know.”
There was a long pause. He put his brush to the paper and back up again.
“You see, to me, it is just color.”
To spend decades painting the same subject and to not know what it is, seemed so unusual to me in that moment. Yet, he does know what it is – on a completely different level from the one I’m on. It was obvious to me in the following moments that I had somehow gotten into the world of superficiality — judging, needing data points to provide a temporary meaning.
Using the sense of sight, of observation, the meditation on color, the simple beauty of observing something sounds freeing and calming. Even though he abandoned abstraction, he sees abstractly, with a poetic clarity, in what I perceive to be a meditation, seeing color, only color.
My surprise though at his answer made me take a look at why I even asked that question. Do or did I think it is important know “everything” about what I observe or make art about?
What is an adequate amount of data to know about your subject as an artist and where does it stop? Is data in a google search, or maybe a peer-reviewed journal, or a few books, a hashtag list, which expert said this or that — is all it needed at all in creative efforts?
The motivation behind the contemporary need for data is something I’ve thought about as well. Is the data that we accumulate for knowing and finding meaning, or is it because we need proof, our view isn’t enough?
The limitless information at our fingertips is enormous pressure and distracts us from what we really see, experience, and find meaningful.
Wilbur reminded me of the freedom to see and observe without having to make claims.
He lets the trees be what they are. Color. Evergreen.
Wilbur Niewald’s watercolor paintings can be seen at the Nerman Museum now until February 3, 2019.
The documentary film Elizabeth Stehling and Steve Snell are working on will be complete in Spring 2019.
Photos by Elizabeth Stehling.