Painter showcases subtle beauty of Laurel Highlands in 'Winter'

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The painting "Winter," by Charles "Bud" Gibbons, captures the essence of woodlands in the Allegheny Mountains, part of the Appalachian chain that runs diagonally across the state east of Pittsburgh. The forest has been hushed by a heavy snow, so freshly fallen that glistening mounds still cling to evergreen boughs, and the ground is free of animal tracks. The only thing moving across this scene is light, the seasonally low sun spreading a golden warmth even as it begins to drape branch and trunk with the long purple-blue shadows of evening.

For the seventh consecutive year, the Post-Gazette features a painting of a winter scene on the cover of the Christmas Day newspaper. This year's painting was selected by Pittsburgh Post-Gazette publisher John Robinson Block and executive editor David Shribman during a recent visit to the Westmoreland Museum of American Art in Greensburg.

This is the first work by a living artist to be selected, and the first with no sign of human habitation.

"Winter" is part of a larger endeavor, a commission by the Westmoreland Museum to Mr. Gibbons for paintings of all four seasons set within Westmoreland County landscapes. They were designed to hang in the high-ceilinged, window-fronted, second floor McKenna Gallery, a popular reception area. The large paintings, averaging 90 inches by 140 inches, were completed between 1991 and 1993.

The thick trunk and limbs of a fallen tree lie across "Winter's" foreground, not as a barrier but as an invitation to pause and contemplate the scene. The viewer's eyes are drawn through a portal defined by two dominant, almost figural conifers, to bright green and blue mid-distance trees set aglow by sun rays. The gaze continues up the curve of a ridge to a cloud-dappled turquoise sky, and returns through the stark black branches of deciduous trees, themselves softened by snow. The few yellow-gold and rust-red leaves that cling to them add a festive touch to this chilly setting.

Where to paint was a fairly easy decision for Mr. Gibbons. As a plein air (out of doors) painter, he had spent countless days scouring and painting the Western Pennsylvania landscape, and he has hiked a large portion of the 70-mile-long Laurel Highlands Trail, which stretches from Ohiopyle, Fayette County, to Johnstown, Cambria County.

"When asked to do the four seasons, it became clear to me that different places would represent each season," said Mr. Gibbons, 65. "I didn't have to look for new solutions. I needed to make an iconic image that I had already worked hard to find."

Viewers shouldn't read too much into the painting. Or should they? "It's not metaphor at all. It's just a painting of a season. It is what it is," he said, adding "It's the seasons that carry the metaphor."

"Winter" was completed in Mr. Gibbons' Lower Burrell studio and is a composite of at least two sites.

The primary location was in the Roaring Run Natural Area, part of Forbes State Forest in Westmoreland County, about an hour and a half drive from his studio and an hour walk in.

"It's a place I visit in the summer and fall, but paint in the winter. It's a south-facing slope, and I can paint all day. While the sun's on me, I'm warm."

He had earlier completed a small study there, and had successfully transferred that composition to a larger format painting. "I knew it would hold up."

The region's softly rolling ridges, bearing names such as Laurel and Chestnut, are covered in second- and third-growth forest that is reclaiming the land after extensive logging in the early 20th century. Located at the juncture of four climatic zones, this forest is a rarity with a diversity of trees that includes several oak species, maple, hemlock (the state tree), white pine, tulip tree and spruce.

"Obviously, the forest community includes a wide range of life, from grubs and worms and microscopic forms in the soil under foot to the hawks circling overhead. Mosses, ferns, wildflowers and grasses, lichens, insects, fish, reptiles, birds, and mammals -- all have their essential place in the complex forest ecosystem. But it is the trees that dominate the landscape, that in a major sense create the landscape," wrote Barbara Thorne in "A Hiker's Guide to the Laurel Highlands Trail."

As with all of the Christmas Day paintings, the view that Mr. Gibbons chose has changed. Trees are taller and fuller after two decades of growth, and relationships between them have shifted. The difference is that these lands are now protected and the evolution taking place is a natural succession that will result in a mature forest.

A secondary painting site was in the Roaring Run Watershed near New Kensington, about a 20-minute drive from his studio, and 20-minute walk in.

"Winter" was the second painting of the four to be completed, and was delivered to the Westmoreland Museum in 1992. The paintings were commissioned by the late Paul A. Chew, the museum's founding director.

Mr. Chew "was very supportive of regional artists," said Barbara Jones, museum chief curator. "He gave Bud that opportunity, and found patrons to support it." He also purchased work by other local artists. "I think that's to his credit. First, that he chose to focus on American art, with a special focus on southwestern Pennsylvania. And then, to concentrate on contemporary art."

Mr. Chew also was a champion of the Scalp Level School, a group of 19th-century Pittsburgh artists who traveled regularly to a forested area south of Johnstown to paint plein air, Ms. Jones said. He collected the artists' work, which generated interest in them and probably encouraged others to collect. In 1994, Mr. Chew published a book on the school and its leader, artist George Hetzel. "It was a coup to get that done, and it set the groundwork for continuing museum acquisitions and scholarship," Ms. Jones said.

During her tenure, and under the leadership of director Judith Hansen O'Toole, the museum has added substantially to its Scalp Level holdings, while continuing its commitment to contemporary regional artists, she said.

Mr. Gibbons' seasons "relate to our collection philosophically," Ms. Jones said, "and relate to the 19th-century Scalp Level School landscape presented by a 20th-century hand. It shows artists are still in love with that landscape and the topography of Pennsylvania."

In addition to the four seasons, the museum owns another large painting by Mr. Gibbons, "Cows," and a full-length portrait of Mr. Chew. The artist is an accomplished portraitist, Ms. Jones noted, who has portrayed local luminaires, including university, corporate and religious heads. Among those was Charles H. Booth Jr., who is "Winter's" patron, with his wife. The Westmoreland Society supported the first painting, "Summer"; the John Barclay Jr. family, "Autumn"; and the J. Cleveland McKenna family, "Spring."

Three of the seasons have been removed in preparation for the museum's renovation and expansion project, the construction for which will begin in August. The museum projects a two-year closing. "Winter" may be seen through Feb. 17 in the exhibition "Your Art Needs You!" Two other Christmas Day paintings may be viewed in the adjacent reconfigured McKenna Gallery, Alfred Wall's "Old Saw Mill" (Christmas 2008) and Roy Hilton's "Winter Day" (2010).

In 1988, Mr. Gibbons was awarded the prestigious Distinguished Gold Medal of the Westmoreland Society, in recognition of outstanding contribution to the arts. It is among many awards and honors he has received during a distinguished career at Penn State University, New Kensington, where he began as an art instructor in 1974 and attained his current position, professor of art, in 1986. His painting and educational projects have taken him as far afield as Glacier Bay, Alaska; Machu Picchu, Peru; and the Great Wall of China. He has exhibited extensively with the Associated Artists of Pittsburgh; exhibits annually in a solo campus exhibition; and is represented by galleries in Ligonier, New York City and Londonderry, Vt.

Mr. Gibbons was born in 1947 in Salisbury on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. He grew up on a farm and hunted until he was 12 or 14, experiences he's found share qualities with his profession.

"What hunting really is is going out and being very still for a long time in the woods. And that's what a painter does. I often feel like a farmer because I go out in fields and work really hard and come back with something."

He earned a bachelor's degree of fine art from the Maryland Institute College of Art, Baltimore, and a master's of fine art from Penn State. But he was an artist long before that, dating to when second-grade teacher Mrs. Figgs pulled him aside to work on a special national poster project. "I was probably hooked before then, but that was when I was first noticed."

Mr. Gibbons taught at Salisbury State College before being offered the New Kensington position. Salt water was in his veins, but when he and his wife, Patti, visited the campus they were captivated by the scenery. "The rolling hills and the water that flows over them; the skies that are so close to the ground," as opposed to at his sea level native terrain. "We came here as Marylanders, and now we have four Pennsylvanians" he said, referring to their four adult children.

Trying to describe the allure of painting, Mr. Gibbons grasped for sufficient words.

"I really like being outside. It seems to be where life is. And certainly the truth is there. I can't put it into words but, for instance, when my feet are freezing and I start painting, my feet aren't freezing anymore. Not only are my feet not hurting, but there's also no damage to them."

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Post-Gazette art critic Mary Thomas: or 412-263-1925. First Published December 25, 2012 5:00 AM


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