Ellen Wagener, DH LAWRENCE TREE, 2019 pastel on paper, 60 x 60 inches

Landscape and Lineage

Ellen Wagener’s DH Lawrence Tree
Online Event
Wednesday, March 15, 2023
3:00 pm –  5:00 pm

Though it manifests differently across various religions, there exists a human desire to bond with the natural world and grow in tandem. The painter Paul Klee connected the creative process to the natural world and likened the artist’s role to a tree trunk: “The artist’s position is humble. He himself is not the beauty of the crown; it has merely passed through him.” This posturing of the artist as a conduit for nature’s beauty can be seen across art history, from American landscape painters like Frederic Edwin Church, to Ana Mendieta’s Silutetas. Similarly, the artist Ellen Wagener sought to demonstrate a desire for connection with trees beyond a mere subject-object relationship, in her work DH Lawrence Tree (2019), currently on view in To Bough and To Bend. The pastel is a portrait of a Ponderosa Pine in the wilds of New Mexico once gazed up by the English author and the painter Georgia O'Keefe, who made her own famous painting of the tree in 1929—a lineage of artists all connected by one sylvan companion.

In this talk, Joni Kinsey, Professor of American Art History in the School of Art and Art History at the University of Iowa, will provide a brief overview of early American landscape painting to situate Wagener’s work in within an art historical lineage and to lay the groundwork for a conversation with Wagener about the role landscape has played in her own conceptual and stylistic approach.

Joni L. Kinsey received her Ph.D. from Washington University in St. Louis in 1989 and joined the University of Iowa faculty in 1991. She teaches a variety of classes, ranging from surveys of visual culture in the United States to thematic courses on American landscape painting, American print culture, art of the American National Parks, art and regional perspectives on America, and museum theory and practice, and Native American art. Her research specialties include nineteenth-century landscape painting and art of the American West and Midwest, but her interests and research ranges widely, from nineteenth-century popular prints to the rise of women artists in the central U.S. She is the author of four books, Thomas Moran and the Surveying of the American West, Plain Pictures: Images of the American Prairie, The Majestic Grand Canyon: 150 Years in Art, Thomas Moran’s West: Chromolithography, High Art, and Popular Taste. Professor Kinsey is also the curator of the Eve Drewelowe Collection, a remarkable corpus of hundreds of paintings, sculptures, works on paper, and personal effects of Eve Drewelowe, who bequeathed the collection to the School of Art & Art History in the late 1980s.

Over the years, Ellen Wagener has developed a penchant for certain areas and places, revisiting these sites to observe the changing crops, weather, time of day or season. She absorbs the characteristics of a location and recreates it anew on paper. Wagener’s landscapes demonstrate her awareness of the great tradition of landscape painting, from which she invents her own conceptual and stylistic approach. The Hudson River School, American Luminism, the French Barbizon School, Impressionism, and 20th-century Iowa artists such as Grant Wood and Marvin Cone are the landscape painters that inspire her. At the same time, the influence of the work of such Abstract Expressionists artists as Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline can be felt in her use of frenzied, gestural lines. Her tour-de-force, F5Tornado, 2003, in the Figge Art Museum permanent collection, demonstrates her ability to work within her own alphabet of realistic landscape imagery to create symbolic, abstract works. Stormy clouds, burning fields, dust storms, and tornadoes move across her formerly pristine, carefully groomed landscapes, demonstrating the powerful force of nature. Contrast is key in Wagener’s work. There are strong gestural elements and ethereal clouds that soften the focus. While her renderings of fields and trees have a tactile quality, the skies are always elusive. The warm tones of the land against the cool colors of the sky are depicted in endless variations, whether spring, summer, fall, or winter. Her ability to capture the color, light, shapes, and textures of nature allows us to feel the cultivated land, to marvel at the endless diversity of the sky, and to have a mysterious encounter with nature.

Ellen Wagener, DH LAWRENCE TREE, 2019 pastel on paper, 60 x 60 inches