The American West is part and parcel of Lawson’s core experience and affinities — determination and perseverance included.
From the quietude and beauty of his paintings, you’d never imagine the creative struggle T. Allen Lawson experiences every time he picks up his brush. “Little about my life — and consequently my work — is convenient or easy,” says the Sheridan, Wyoming-born artist. “There’s something about me that’s drawn to difficulty. I think that all good things come from a certain amount of struggle instead of ease.”
That could be the hardworking Westerner in him. But like a ballet dancer whose apparent ease and obvious grace belie excruciating training and exertion, Tim (as he is called) leaves the struggle to his psyche and lays the transcendent down on canvas.
The Zen-like quality of simplicity and calm that he achieves in paint is a disciplined canvas-by-canvas achievement that takes determination and perseverance — traits his Wyoming upbringing helped instill. Lawson is inclined more naturally toward hard work and rugged living than to recreation and entertainment. Give him an ax and wood to chop, and he’s a happy man; a massage at a spa, not so much. His pleasures are unpretentious: a walk in the evening; time on the ranch with his wife, Dorie, and their five children; or (at 53 years of age) an exhilarating foot-pumping ride on the back of a shopping cart through a parking lot.
The American West is part and parcel of Lawson’s core experience and affinities. And for much of the year, he still lives there. But 15 years ago, he packed up his family, left his beloved Bighorn Mountains, and headed for Maine. “We found a piece of property that was solid woods. I had no idea what it would take to turn a New England forest into a small farm.” A labor of love for his children, the farm would be a place to call their own, a place to identify with apart from Lawson’s essential Westernness.
The family now split their year between the two rural places, spending summers on the farm in Maine and the school year on a ranch in Wyoming. The change of venue gives Lawson fresh eyes and a different perspective. “I see the West very differently now than I saw it when I grew up here, and vastly different than if I had stayed here the whole time. It’s very exciting, especially for my work.”
His way of seeing is one of the secrets to the quiet thrall of his work. What’s also spellbinding — whether it’s chickens eating feed or wasps alighting on a nest, an old barn peeling paint in the sun or a copse of trees shimmering in the moonlight — is the feeling of his paintings. Primarily a representational painter, Lawson explains that he’s nonetheless reaching beyond literal representation. “Working on a painting, I concentrate on the abstraction of it, and the subject matter almost becomes irrelevant to me. I am much more after trying to paint the emotional connection to a subject or place than I am to the actual subject or place.”
He’s always in search of that “inspirational moment” — when the waning light of the setting Wyoming sun glances off worn mountainsides, for instance. “I can see something a thousand times, and then one day something is different; the light hits a hill in a way I’ve never seen before. It’s always at the most inconvenient time when it happens, and I end up making sketches on the back of gas receipts so I don’t forget it.” He takes the inspiration back to his studio in Sheridan (a beautiful building that “you would be more likely to see in Paris or London than Wyoming”) and spends the next months trying to translate not only what he observed, but how he felt about what he observed.
Therein lies the struggle. “I feel like a salmon swimming upstream to try to get back to its spawning place, to the essence of the inspirational moment,” Lawson says. “I constantly have to fight the distractions of daily life to try to get back there. But I think that’s probably the way it’s meant to be.”
T. Allen Lawson is represented by Simpson Gallagher Gallery in Cody, Wyoming; Jonathan Cooper in London; and Ann Long Fine Art in Charleston, South Carolina. His work will be on view October 7 – December 31 in The Best of the Best retrospective exhibit at Woolaroc Museum & Wildlife Preserve in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, and November 16 – December 16 at Jonathan Cooper in London. Find more on the artist at tallenlawson.com.
From the October 2017 issue.