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Archive for Sunday, October 13, 2002

Artist seeks to capture essence of Kansas landscape

October 13, 2002

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There's a fleeting moment between late afternoon and dusk, when the sun-soaked hues of the land brim with intensity before the views blur to gray.

Lawrence landscape painter Robert Sudlow lately has been trying to freeze that transition on canvas.

"It means working very quickly before the light changes," he said.

The challenge fascinates Sudlow, an 82-year-old native Kansan who for 60 years has committed his vision of the eastern Kansas landscape to hundreds of canvases. His interpretations are part of public and private collections throughout the country and overseas.

An exhibit opening Friday at the Lawrence Arts Center, "Spiritual Journeys: The Art of Robert Sudlow," will showcase select paintings from Sudlow's career. A book about his life and work will be published as a companion to the retrospective.

Captured in his works are snapshots of spots like the Flint Hills in Chase and Wabaunsee counties, an iris garden near Tonganoxie, a pond close to his 28 acres in southern Douglas County and the wooded slopes visible from his hilltop studio.

"Everybody's imprinted, wherever they live," he said. "If they're at all close to the environment, it affects them. Being here (in Kansas) and being part of it all my life, it's a natural extension of my psyche."

Escape from reality

To describe Sudlow's body of work as prolific might be an understatement. Paintings hang from and lean against his studio walls  some framed, others pinned to Styrofoam panels. Works in progress rest balanced on easels.

He paints nearly every day.

"I come out here (to my studio), whether I paint or ruin a lot of stuff," he said. "It's a daily meditation, I guess. I don't have to force myself because it's more or less an escape from a lot of reality I don't like."

Sudlow connected to the land as a young boy growing up in Holton, where he was something of a loner.

"I wasn't an athlete. I didn't date girls. I was timid. I was interior," he said. "I felt most at home on the prairie."

He came to Kansas University in the 1930s, thinking he wanted to be a scientific illustrator. He toiled in the basement of Snow Hall, "drawing pickled snakes."

But he ended up in the art and design school, where he studied painting with Raymond Eastwood, Karl Mattern and Albert Bloch. After three years flying a Martin PBM-1 Mariner in the U.S. Navy during World War II, he got his master's degree of fine arts from the California College of Arts and Crafts.

He returned to KU in 1947 and taught painting until his retirement in 1987. He never tried to teach his students to paint a certain way, though he urged them to perceive typical circumstances afresh. He sometimes had them turn upside down to view the landscape, so they would shy away from registering a series of objects and instead see prisms of color.

Lawrence artist Stan Herd studied under Sudlow at KU.

"When you sit with him in the landscape, it just opens up this whole new vision," Herd said.

Making a name

It was the early 1970s when Sudlow's vision of the Kansas prairie began to grip viewers. After three of his paintings were in an exhibit called "A Sense of Place," corporations and individuals started buying his work, he said. In 1947, he was named the first-ever Kansas Governor's Artist.

Notoriety certainly isn't what drives Sudlow to continue lugging large canvases, coffee cans filled with paint brushes and tubes of oil paint into the wind-beaten plains.

"To get an 80-inch canvas in a 40-mile-an-hour wind is just awful," he said. "You've got to abandon yourself, I think. Just go at it.

"Though it might be an awful experience, I always feel like I've been moved out of my every day."

Sudlow's propensity to work outdoors, in communion with nature, seems evident in his ruddy complexion and white hair that looks as if a wind gust blew it to one side. It's easy to imagine him stationed at some isolated vantage point, surveying the panorama and blocking it in with frantic, sweeping brush strokes, returning later to refine his impressions.

His goal is never to subdue a scene, jail it, by taking it out of nature and putting it on a two-dimensional surface. Rather, he strives to evoke the "livingness" of the ever-changing Kansas landscape, which often is dismissed as drab.

"You've got this canvas. It's got its own limitations," he said. "You have to make that canvas live."

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