Thursday was a lovely day, too perfect to spend mopping floors or balancing checkbooks. My husband needed to drop off ‘my’ motorcycle for its 600 mile checkup and I decided I needed to go to a museum.
The Stark Museum is in the historic district of Orange Texas and is reputed to have the best collection of Western art. Although it is within twenty minutes of my home if the road crews aren’t busily tearing up and replacing the interstate, I had never set foot in it.
The Starks had money to spare and established not only the art museum but also their home as a museum, a theatre, and bankrolled the local university as well.
Road signs are still not fully up and functional after Hurricane Rita, but I managed to find the museum without too much trouble. It is a favorite school trip for fourth graders and there were about a hundred fifty or so all in little groups being shepherded around the museum. Half of them were at the nearby fire station practicing their skills at donning bunker gear. Docents were patiently corralling the students through the galleries. Some of their comments were quite humorous but it was clear they fully enjoyed the experience of no written assignments—just looking and talking. One fun exercise was to take a handful of words—funny, serious, exciting, dangerous, sad and place them in front of the works that they felt best represented those feelings. Then they had to explain why they chose those paintings or sculptures. One little boy thought adobe was a kind of wagon but after he learned it was dried mud he felt it would not be a good building material for our rain-drenched climate.
Paintings are arranged roughly by periods of time and include some wonderful examples by Bierstadt, Moran, Alfred Miller, Twachtman, and Georgia O’Keeffe. One hallway contains the complete set of state glass vases by Steuben—the only complete collection. Another room features the porcelain painted birds by Dorothy Doughty. There are a few Audubon plates and some blackware pottery by Maria & Julian Martinez. A few Remingtons are displayed including the magnificent piece outside but the Clifton Steamboat Museum nearby has a larger grouping of Remingtons.
Nicolai Fechin’s works were featured in the traveling gallery. I was unfamiliar with this Russian immigrant artist but I was entranced by his style. He began each painting with an elaborate and detailed charcoal drawing on brown wrapping paper. The paintings were mostly portraits but he did landscapes particularly of Taos area. The faces in his portraits were clearly the part he wanted the viewer to concentrate on. Hair, clothing, necks, shoulders were very loose—actually looked sloppy when viewed closely but when you stepped back ten or more feet—the students had all left for lunch by then—they seemed alive and vibrant.
N.C. Wyeth was also an unfamiliar artist although he illustrated a lot of novels and was frequently featured on Saturday Evening Post covers as was his son Andrew Wyeth. He titles his works with long paragraphs. My favorite was a painting done in monochromatic grays and browns with little touches of bright cherry red entitled “I’ve Seen Him Ride Horses and….” I was fortunate enough to find that painting reproduced as a notecard or otherwise I might have been forced to swipe that gorgeous painting. The guard laughed when I asked him if he might notice me walking out the door with it stuck under my shirt—the painting is about three feet by two feet—a little tough to hide. I spent a lot of time in that gallery—the work was so alive—not contrived or posed or traditional—but each one had a story that jumped out.
One thing I found interesting were the lovely little watercolors by Moran. When the west was being explored, an artist was sent along. His job was to record what he saw so that people back east could understand what the west was all about. Most of the resultant paintings are huge oils that clearly were completed in the studio. But the watercolors were the size of a regular sheet of paper and detailed with pencil. I’m not sure if the pencil came first or last. I asked if these pieces were done on site—I’m assuming they must have—but the nice lady at the gift shop didn’t know.
I’ve included the website for the museum but nothing can match going and seeing for yourself.