C&I talks with the Michigan-based painter about his artistic journey, which began in the Netherlands and eventually landed him in the American West.
Like a lot of people who weren’t lucky enough to be born there, Franklin D. Speyers’ first connection to the West came from watching westerns when he was young. It wasn’t till he was grown with kids of his own that he actually ventured into the West on a series of family vacations. The initial foray, in 1993, went for the iconic: Speyers and his wife and their two boys drove to the Grand Canyon. It would be their first encounter with Native Americans — a future subject for a not-yet-contemplated art exhibition almost 25 years in the offing.
“After staying overnight at the Grand Canyon, we headed north to Tuba City [Arizona]. On the side of the road we saw these wooden booths set up by Navajos selling their jewelry,” Speyers recalls. “Joshua and Jonathan looked over the goods, and Josh suddenly ran back to me and said, ‘Dad, you need to buy something from that Indian man because he is really kind.’ I did, with my heart in my throat, for Josh was right: This man was truly so gentle and kind that I found it impossible not to buy from him.” Just west of Tuba City, they met a Navajo man pouring water on petrified red rock to reveal what he explained were dinosaur tracks. “Again, the same experience: A gentle aura of kindness surrounded this Native American.” In 1995, the West-enamored Dutchman took his family on another vacation in the West, this time a five-day rafting trip down the Colorado River from Moab, Utah, to Lake Powell.
The memorable adventures, landscapes, and people — from the genial Native Americans they met along the road to the pot-smoking raft pilot with whom they charted the Colorado — stuck with him. The trips are documented in fading color photographs. It would be more than 20 years before Speyers headed back with the idea of painting what he saw and experienced. It turned out to be far beyond compass points, GPS coordinates, and preconceptions.
On four different occasions, Speyers participated in Shearers’ Artist Ride in South Dakota, taking wife Bonnie on his first two trips and now-grown sons Josh and Jon on his last time out. An annual event that’s been attracting artists from all over since 1984, the Artist Ride transforms the Shearer ranch near Wall, South Dakota, into living history scenes of cowboys, Indians, horses, and cattle — all ripe for the painter’s brush.
Speyers would find himself shooting thousands of photos for future reference, enjoying the camaraderie of real Westerners, and even helping to extricate his filmmaker son from a certain very modern situation: “Jonathan had gotten permission to shoot the Artist Ride with his drone, but the cows thought it was an angry swarm of bees and wouldn’t leave the Cheyenne River.”
The greater challenge wouldn’t present itself till after Speyers returned to Michigan to begin work on the more than 30 paintings he intended for his upcoming West of the Imagination exhibition. He had no idea just how much he’d have to cowboy up to complete them all. “Last December, I was diagnosed with cancer, and I was operated on January 30, 2017,” Speyers says. “I’m in remission now, but I feel a new sense of urgency to get these works done — though I am counting on my rehab coach to help me create the strength I need to paint at least six hours each day.”
Speyers took time out from rehab and painting to talk with C&I about life in the art lane and how his Dutch roots and Western affinities have mapped his journey.
Cowboys & Indians: How is it that a Dutch immigrant, one-time Canadian, and eventual American citizen came to love the West?
Franklin D. Speyers: Probably like many in my generation, I largely came to “the West” through movies. We were exposed to black-and-white television glimpses of a rugged, heroic people in a dry, hostile landscape. I recall in 1956 watching Gene Autry on our neighbors’ black-and-white TV in Chatham, Ontario, Canada. I was totally captivated by everything about the West. My family had immigrated to Canada from the Netherlands only a few weeks earlier and could not afford a TV. But the neighbors had one, and that’s all it took. I couldn’t understand a word of English, but as a stranger in a strange land I was drawn into an enigmatic kinship with a genre that dramatized the triumph of the self-reliant lone hero overcoming conflict.
Send a city boy like me out West and his heart almost explodes with joy as he tries to get his head around the gargantuan scale of it all. The raw, unabashed rush of breaking a bronc or branding a calf. The delightful mix of aw-shucks humor and serious banter. The vivid contrast between the honest freedom of the West and the textual tiptoeing done in academic bubbles is startling. I’m a wannabe Westerner — it’s true; yet when I’m in the West, I see more clearly. I think more simply. I’m energized. I’m refreshed. I’m me.
C&I: You’re an academic: a master’s in communication design from Pratt Institute in New York, postgraduate studies at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, and, since 1988, a professor of “design as language” at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. You’re also a husband and father. With all the demands of teaching and family, how did you fit in fine art and what inspired you to stick with it?
Speyers: In all honesty, there were many times that I gave up on it altogether. But there were those summer months when I allowed myself to breathe again and reach backward to a phenomenal approach of art-making. I started with gouache landscapes and stayed with that familiar motif for two decades. It wasn’t until 2006 that I became courageous enough to seriously pursue plein-air painting. I drove out to Monument Valley in Arizona and figured I’d paint till I got the hang of it. I recall musing with my Navajo guides about the distant rain that fell but evaporated before it hit the valley floor. It didn’t take long for the dust and sand in those annual summer monsoons to sweep through the valley and disable my contact lenses.
C&I: In spite of the dust under your contacts, were you hooked on plein-air?
Speyers: Indeed. I flew out to California in 2007 and 2008 to learn how to apply oil paint with speed and accuracy from Greg LaRock in Laguna Beach, Randy Sexton in San Francisco, Tim Horn in Marin County, and Maggie Hellman in Santa Cruz [California]. In 2008, Eric and Barb Winkelman sponsored me as artist-in-residence in the Glen Arbor Art Association. The National Park Service in Sleeping Bear Dunes National [Lakeshore[ took notice of plein-air paintings that I did during the winter months, which led to a poster and subsequently several plein-air workshops I taught in Omena, Michigan. It was awesome to capture the stunning beauty of that scenic M-22 along the Lake Michigan shoreline of the magnificent Leelanau Peninsula, yet my heart tugged at me whenever I flew over the parched landscape of the Southwest when my wife and I visited our son Jon at USC, where he was pursuing a master’s of cinematography.
C&I: You were also eventually drawn to another part of the West: South Dakota. How did you learn about Shearers’ Artist Ride on the Shearer family ranch near Wall?
Speyers: I believe I learned about it through an article in Smithsonian magazine. The first time out on the 60,000-acre Shearer Ranch in 2011 was pretty impressive. There must have been 50 Lakota, Comanche, Apache, Cheyenne, and Navajo tribesmen represented with another 50 or so cowboys. That initial trip left an indelible impression on my imagination. Jim Hatzell, the [now former] organizer, worked closely with cowboys and Indians in the staging and reenactment of how these two cultures clashed and learned to live side by side with each other on a rugged landscape.
C&I: Did you discover it to be different in reality from what you’d imagined growing up?
Speyers: Yes, but isn’t that typically the way of the imagination? How many times have I launched out and gone to a place only to discover that it was nothing like I imagined it. The West I discovered was quite different from what I imagined it to be. On the surface, life seems to be suspended in binary decisions one makes each day. To rope or to fence. To cope with floods or cull the herd. These ranchers were plumbers, electricians, farmers, and horse whisperers. Above all, they were deeply spiritual. Who would not be when 30,000-foot-high storm clouds move toward you on the prairie?
The idea of the cowboy alone was larger than life itself. I found it was how Westerners defined their virtues, values, and dreams. The West I found was not so much a place as it was a set of ideas. John Charles Frémont, a geographer and mapmaker, was a great writer whose 1845 reports directed the public’s imagination to grasp that this “West” was part of a Manifest Destiny. When I started painting next to my Navajo guides in Monument Valley, I was struck by the disconnect between my romantic visions of the West and the skyline of red-rock buttes that mysteriously rose up from a dusty, dry landscape of windblown tumbleweeds.
C&I: And what struck you about the Native Americans you became acquainted with?
Speyers: My initial encounter with the Navajo on our family excursion to Monument Valley in 1993 was very moving. From movies, I was conditioned to accept the stereotypical images of Sioux, Cheyenne, and Navajo as warlike people. In person, I found them to be gracious and gentle, eager to dialogue and be understood. However, they have good reason to remain wary even to this day — in peaceful protest. They find little support for their perspectives and values. They’ve accommodated, straddled, and adapted to the conquistador for more than 500 years. And they survived. When they come together to sing and dance, one cannot help but respect the remnants of the nations they represent within our nation. Conversations with Chief David Bald Eagle and Chief Thomas White Eagle left a profound impression on me. These were great men with equally great women who possessed a resilient resolve to raise their young within their traditional tribal ways.
C&I: As an admitted academic and intellectual, did you want to dig a bit deeper into the setting and lives of these people?
Speyers: Indeed! I voraciously read dozens of books: Eyewitness to the Old West by Richard Scott, The Myth of the West by Jan Willem Schulte Nordholdt, and Visions of the Big Sky: Painting and Photographing the Northern Rocky Mountain West by Dan Flores. I even read Charles Kane’s book on herbal medicine of the Southwest. I was utterly captured by the West as I applied for and was granted a sabbatical by the college to continue to research and paint the West as I found it.
C&I: Was there anything that surprised you as you continued to travel to South Dakota, and then to Kansas in 2014 and 2016 when you added Robert Culbertson’s American Frontier Production’s Old West film set in Easton to your artistic forays?
Speyers: Cowboys fascinated me. What piqued my curiosity was why Americans would take a badly paid itinerant wage-laborer and make him the protagonist in the collective imagination of our culture. British writers reached back hundreds of years to create Camelot and the Arthurian legend to bring order to their genesis. Subsequent medieval writers took chivalrous knights to demonstrate how we could overcome conflicting cultural forces and learn to live in harmony. Even Jackie Kennedy embraced that as a descriptor in the early years of her husband’s administration. Yet the more I traveled out West, the more I marveled at how Americans had lionized as a role model this certain class of laborers who overcame the problem of getting cattle to railheads.
In Kansas, I met Kickapoo, Blackfeet, Osage, Arapaho, and Pawnee Native Americans. Photographing these at Robert Culbertson’s American Frontier Production was another privilege that broadened my appreciation of the diversity and richness of American Indian cultures.
C&I: Am I right that your paintings of these cultural role models look different from your earlier plein-air style?
Speyers: You’re right. I’m sitting on more than 8,000 pictures I shot over six years out West. The most difficult issue I had to face was the criteria by which I would edit these images. A book that had become seminal influence prior to this was David Hockney’s 2001 publication, Secret Knowledge. In it he documents how he chased down the hidden secrets of the ancients who managed to depict life with great visual accuracy. Hockney goes into great depth to describe how he painstakingly pieced together the scientific evidence from the works of Caravaggio, Velázquez, van Eyck, Holbein, da Vinci, and Ingres that demonstrates they used mirrors and lenses to create their masterpieces. It wasn’t the first time I had heard of this. In 1998, I went to the Mauritshuis in The Hague and was told by a curator that Vermeer used a camera obscura to help create his paintings. Mulling over Hockney helped me to finally embrace the camera as something Rembrandt would have done unapologetically.
Shrinking down the subjects is something that I can trace back to Jacob van Ruisdael, the 17th-century Dutch painter who Constable worshipped and Turner adored from a distance.
C&I: So, you reached back to these compatriots from long ago and far away. Why not find inspiration in a traditional Western art icon alike?
Speyers: I am a huge fan of [Frederic] Remington’s work. And like Remington and Theodore Roosevelt, I also came from the East to be transfixed and transformed by the West. But we are all invariably also a product of our roots. Van Ruisdael’s perspective was demonstrably influenced by the world and life view of his day; Reformational thought found fertile soil in the Netherlands and it influenced his work. That same perspective was something that I was introduced to and raised up into when we still lived in the Netherlands. Van Ruisdael lamented the dramatic alteration of the 17th-century Dutch landscape by juxtaposing humanity in a rogue physical environment. The more I traveled out west, the more I began to see that his perspective paralleled life on the high plains.
Van Ruisdael continues to inform the dominant visual syntax for my landscape paintings. He’s sort of the invisible Dutch uncle whose distant admonitions play like Muzak in the back of my mind. Then there’s Janhendrik Dolsma, a contemporary Dutch artist whom I gladly chase after. I will draw on works by John Singer Sargent and Tom Thompson, whose work I deeply respect for their honest brushwork. I will turn to and totally absorb myself in books on Edward Hopper, Winslow Homer, and Mark Tansey, but eventually the work has to begin. The construct has to be worked out with trial and error. Then there is the painting itself that many times will begin to dictate and sweep me along as if it has a mind of its own.
C&I: There’s something about the scale of your work that’s different and interesting — almost a wide-angle effect on some of those expansive landscapes. Is this deliberate?
Speyers: Yes, it’s true. I am deliberately genuflecting to Robert Gottschalk’s Panaflex 35 mm anamorphic widescreen format that is so prevalent that we hardly think much about it. Many of my larger works are of massive stormy skies and have an intentional cinematic resonance about them. As for inspiration, beyond the solitary land- and skyscapes themselves, Rich Mullins’ 1988 song “Winds of Heaven, Stuff of Earth” was a deep inspiration for my sky paintings. And, of course, good old van Ruisdael, who was a master of the stormy sky.
C&I: Your work is often tightly cropped and sometimes surprisingly positioned on the canvas.
Speyers: My paintings do strive toward having an edge to them. Composition is where you see the strongest influence of my graphic design background. Playing with framal reference is where I prefer to create tension, placing my subjects heading off screen.
Unlike Remington and many other great Western artists, my primary orientation isn’t as much with narrative as it is with the iconicity of each piece. I’m always on the lookout for the double-entendre. Perhaps that, too, is a result of studying the works of particular artists for any length of time. I paint. I am bound by time and space, yet I want to stretch out and transcend the existential moment. It’s a wild-goose chase, I admit.
C&I: Well, there’s certainly a high degree of iconicity in the West. Judging from the paintings you’ve done for your West of the Imagination series and exhibition, it seems you found plenty of suitable subject matter.
Speyers: Yes, and I found authentic people. Westerners just “breathe” all things Western so naturally, as if there is no other reality. There’s a remarkable uncut authenticity in their makeup. Grant Shearer was the first cowboy I painted. In him I saw a West that resonated with something inside my immediate imagination. Later I ran into Chief Dave Bald Eagle, who was wearing the World War II baseball cap. Here was this Lakota chieftain who fought in World War II. A man who knew about conflict and how to straddle cultures. Singularly he represented everything that I loved about the West I found.
C&I: You say you’re not overly concerned with narrative, but what story would you like viewers to see in your work?
Speyers: I suppose conflict and resolution — learning to live with our deepest differences. And perhaps an iconoclastic disposition toward stereotypes. I had a green card for many years before I embraced American citizenship. With that embrace came a peculiar weight of history. Having twice been an immigrant, I hold deep sympathies for not only the Lakota and Cheyenne Native Americans I met out West but for all who are uprooted from homelands and discriminated against because of their ethnic origins. This issue of living in two worlds, straddling cultures — in essence, that’s my story. Ultimately, though, we’re all just resident aliens trudging onward and upward to our real home.
C&I: I’m guessing you’d also like people not just to see but to experience something universal, some tie that binds humanity and that might help resolve the discord of this world. Beauty, perhaps, and maybe — especially — something transcendent in nature?
Speyers: Yes. Beauty beckons. Implicitly it will even drag viewers into the transcendent. I’ve watched people break out in applause on the great mountains of sand dune in Sleeping Bear Dunes, Michigan, as the sun sank beneath the even horizon of that magnificent Great Lake. What did the applause reveal but agreement and even a cheering-on of a grand aesthetic performance? On the prairie, the sky is so vast that even the hardiest of cowboys will tell you they believe in the transcendent. Many cowboys can recite 19:1 – 3 by heart: “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge. They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them.”
Franklin D. Speyers’ one-man exhibition West of the Imagination will be on view October 26 – December 20 at Calvin College’s Center Art Gallery in Grand Rapids, Michigan. See more of the artist’s work at frankspeyers.com.
From the August/September 2017 issue.