Issue: Spring 2008
Written by Sonja Horoshko
Before I met Veryl Goodnight at the ranch she and her husband, Roger Brooks, purchased a year ago, I listened patiently to the words of enchantment surrounding her arrival.
Most of the stories about her relocation to our region focus on the economic impact. Rumors of plans for the future circulate widely: foundry, anatomy school, and the influx of a collector base and patrons of high-price-tag representational arts.
Missing in the descriptions of her, however, is the sense of grace she shares through her professional commitment to the technical demands, marketing responsibilities and vast material scale and depth of her work—the humanity inside her works of art. Her story benefits us all—artist, farmer or lawyer—as we learn more about the dedication it takes to create successful visual art from a place of raw belief in self and story.
What motivates Veryl? The answer is humble: the great respect and love she has for her family’s place in Western history and for the land and animals that are intrinsic to the story. It is Veryl’s identity, her passion, her reason for creating.
In his book "A Buffalo in the House," author R. D. Rosen reveals the Goodnight family legacy, introducing Charles and Mary Ann Goodnight as they hand-raise two buffalo in the late 1870s to help save the species from extinction. The book connects the Texas Panhandle and Mancos, Colorado; the Goodnights then and the Goodnight today. It richly foreshadows the content of Veryl’s visual art, laying out the backstory for Charlie, the infant bison, to enter the art scene as a studio life-model for her work.
The tale is humorous, yet poignant, describing why Veryl and Roger rescued an abandoned baby buffalo in Idaho, air-lifting Charlie to Santa Fe in their Cessna Conquest.
The relationship between the Goodnight family history and the emotional bond that grew between Veryl, Roger and Charlie is tenderly told. But how a buffalo came to take up residence and settle in Santa Fe as a permanent guest in Veryl’s and Roger’s home also explains a lot about Veryl’s personal convictions. It is, and always has been, her intention to work with subjects she loves and knows well.
When she began in the late 1960s, Western American representational subject matter was being replaced by contemporary abstract expressionism, pop art, conceptual work, installation and media practices. The romantic figurative genre was disappearing from the art market.
“Even so,” she says, “I knew what I wanted to do—paint representational wildlife and landscapes—and find help for my work.”
Regardless of the contemporary trends in art markets elsewhere, the Denver market remained strongly supportive of regional representational artists. All of them were selling to wealthy clientele through galleries and solo studio exhibitions. They were also generous teachers and critics, and welcomed Veryl into their cadre of painters, sculptors and printmakers.
“I started painting by attending Ned Jacobs’s life drawing studios and critiques. He introduced me to Guide to Landscape Painting by John Carlson. The method made sense to me. I could accomplish my goal to do plein-air painting, and, in fact, use it still like a bible of painting even today.”
The method is an immediate process, sharing some of the characteristics of drawing.
“In my preliminary compositional work, the ultramarine blue and burnt-ochre turpentine washes feel so similar to drawing. It’s as if painting is a drawing done in oil pigments.”
Although she learned the method quickly, and felt satisfied with the work, painting is two-dimensional—about one plane and shape—while sculpture is voluptuous form. Desire to work three dimensionally began to grow. She asked for help again from the Denver group. Wildlife sculptor Ken Bunn, whose work was collected by international patrons, stepped into her life as mentor and friend.
“When the moment came that I wanted to make sculpture, Ken encouraged me. He taught me about armatures, actually made the first one for me, showing how it holds the clay up on the figure. After I finished the first, a big horn ram, I made ten more castings from it immediately, sold them all, and haven’t stopped since.”
She had found her medium.
Bunn has remained close friends with Veryl throughout her career. He remembers that although it was significant to Veryl at the time, his assistance was fairly straightforward. “An armature means bending some wire, or pieces of metal together like a skeleton … enabling the clay to get out of the way of itself. It can’t hold any decisive attitude without support. She just took it and ran with it.”
It’s tough work—exhausting, exacting. Precisely what Veryl loved and wanted to do. As her technical skill increased, so did her confidence. Over time, her self-evaluation grew more critically responsive. Much of her focus assessed anatomy.
“I knew it had to be right. It is paramount to get the anatomy right in representational work.”
Jon Zahourek was painting in Denver then. According to Bunn, Zahourek’s landscape and figurative drawings were exceptional, masterful. Zahourek moved out of the art business as a painter in 1989 to found the company Anatomy in Clay, which manufactures human and animal skeletal products. He also offers workshop courses in anatomy. His system is designed to teach artists as well as medical, veterinary and healing practitioners, and is based in Loveland, Colorado. Veryl is a graduate of the Zahourek programs, and it shows in the authoritative weight and comportment of her images.
“I feel his program gave me the keys to anatomy, and continue using the system in my work today, Maniken® for figures and Equiken™ for the horses.”
When Veryl and Roger moved from Santa Fe, relocating on the property near Mancos, the architectural design for their new home placed top priority on the dual-purpose barn. It is a place for their horses as well as a her studio. And because Veryl works with live models, animal holding pens surround the building and provide the observation spaces Veryl needs for her work.
A sculpture rotates on the stand in front of the new full-length studio window. She wields the clay for it as easily as some of us use a charcoal stick, drawing damp, raw handfuls up onto an armature while watching two deer graze outside.
“It’s like drawing a stick figure. I start with the skeletal armature, and once the movement is laid in, then I work on the proportion, adjust position and profile. I love to see the silhouette of it against a studio window. It feels like I am drawing with light and shadow when I turn the piece. Constantly moving it around shows the light following the form. It brings out the anatomy and corrections that need to be made.”
Suddenly, the deer leap over the fence, bounding away through the stubbly, winter-bare scrub oak. Laying down the tools, she says, “They’ll be back and then I’ll finish the piece.”
For Veryl, a live model reveals working musculature. She admits to not saving many pencil or graphite studies, preferring instead to build movement into the sculpture from the very beginning. “It is drawing in clay.”
Bunn agrees with Veryl. “Sculptors get in the habit of working three dimensionally … a ball of wax, little pieces of clay … we are so dimensional that when we do create preliminaries, they are usually small, quick thumbnail studies [forms] of the subject.”
Like a dancer, the process flows out of Veryl as she works. “I am in motion constantly, turning the armature with the work in progress, working with it. But so is the subject, the sculpture as well, together—a triad in motion, all three moving simultaneously. ”
When one area is adjusted, the correction affects other areas and details elsewhere on the form. “Well, honestly, I do hold a pencil in my hand to think, but a drawing doesn’t work as a study for me because I’d need to make another drawing of the place that was affected by the change. Two-dimensional studies are just not very satisfactory for the work I do in three dimensions.”
A favorite studio photograph shows Veryl working on a substantial, movable platform. She stands on a milk stool between two larger than life-size horses, her hand stretching out the clay of the nostril on the head of the back horse. Balanced, concentrating on a visual idea, she pulls and shapes the clay as if drawing it out of thin air, out of her heart. It is an alchemical scene. She looks serene beside the giant red-clay horses in the photograph, as if this is the most natural activity in the world, a common occurrence to turn a great concept into reality.
More transformations come when Veryl commits the sculpture to casting processes, fire and molten bronze. Her creativity looks smooth, like an intrinsic force of nature willing an invisible story to materialize as discernible experience—an original new object in our world, birthing through her hands.
When the Berlin Wall came tumbling down, it transfixed us all. Raw freedom played out uncensored before our eyes. In response, Veryl created a monumental sculpture depicting five one and a quarter size horses stampeding for freedom out and over the concrete rubble of the crumbling graffiti wall. “The Day the Wall Came Down” is caste in bronze, weighs seven tons, took three years to sculpt and six years to place.
There are only two castings of the monument. One was flown to a location in reunited, free Berlin by the U.S. Air Force. After installation by the German Army on July 2, 1998, it was unveiled by former U.S. President George Bush. The second casting is permanently displayed at the George Bush Presidential Library in Texas. What Veryl made is a magnanimous gestural study to freedom and courage. The piece parallels personal expression and interpretation of artistic freedoms, identifying the arts as a receptacle of communal memory. Veryl is willing to research and refine the imagery, seek instruction and direction, and follow her instincts with courage. Professionalism such as hers, in any endeavor, enables recognition of excellence and offers us the opportunity to mirror success.
I hope to challenge our voyeurism, our objectifying of Veryl—the successful artist—and ask us to attend, instead, to her presence in the community on a deeper level. What does it mean when an artist comes to a new place? How do we reflect on the effect she will have on our community and allow ourselves to be drawn into her life as well?
Visit Veryl at her gallery, Grand Avenue Studio, in Mancos. There you will find her story framed in the new plein-air paintings she is doing in the country around her ranch. And there, too, hang some lovely, small etchings of deer in their natural habitat. Pedestals, display shelves and side tables present her finished bronze sculptures. Reception tables hold expansive portfolio records of commissioned work. But what you really find is a woman’s whole story—desire, accomplishment, joy, life—modeled in clay, oil paint, etched ink lines, sharing with us, as all artists do, the opportunity to look at ourselves, to reflect on our beauty.
For information about Veryl Goodnight, visit http://www.verylgoodnight.com, or Grand Avenue Studio, 106 West Grand Ave., Mancos, CO 81328, (970) 533-1177 or view her work at Sorrel Sky Gallery, Durango, CO.
Sketch of “Away From the Crowd”
“Away From the Crowd”
oil on canvas, 12” x 12”
photo by Paul Boyer
“Rivalry in Clay”
clay, 24”h x 30”l x 12”w
photo by Veryl Goodnight
Sonja Horoshko, editor of Arts Perspective, is also a painter, freelance writer, mural artist and graphic designer. Contact her directly: email@example.com.