We talked with cowboy artists Marlin Rotach and Don Weller about their new book and exhibition The River Flows.
The two artists met and became fast friends in 2011 when their paintings were on view in the Western Art Show at Cheyenne Frontier Days. “What started out with a handshake in a rodeo’s photo pit has blossomed in so many ways,” says Weller. “We were both painting cowboys in watercolor, but Marlin is very photo-realistic and I’m very loose and fluid. We’re kind of the two extremes in the way people use watercolors — same subject, polar-opposite styles.”
That seemed like the basis for an interesting two-man show of their own work. While planning that exhibition — December 14 – April 24 at the Northeastern Nevada Museum in Elko — the duo began hatching another, even grander, groundbreaking project: a museum exhibition accompanied by a book that would explore Western history and Western art history all in one. The show would blend historical watercolors depicting the West with works by today’s top contemporary Western watercolorists. Nothing like it had ever been done.
But Weller and Rotach quickly discovered that there were stringent conditions and prohibitive expenses for transporting, storing, insuring, and displaying the antique paintings and that reconciling conflicting requirements from various museums presented an insurmountable snag. They would have to forfeit the idea of borrowing historical pieces and instead focus on creating a museum-quality book and recruiting living artists for the exhibition. Their efforts culminated in the recently published book The River Flows, and an exhibition and sale by the same name, which will be on view October 2, 2021 – February 6, 2022, at the Phippen Museum.
Ropin’ With Roanie by Don Weller
“Don and I are so immersed in watercolor that it’s all we think about,” Rotach says. “In this book and show, we tried to cover all the aspects. Works in watercolor are very collectible and they last forever — paintings from the 1500s are still as bright as ever. On the contemporary side, so many different accomplished artists are represented. They come at it from different directions, but what we all have in common is love of country and love of this medium.”
We talked with Weller and Rotach about the book, the exhibition, and the importance of watercolors in the West.
Cowboys & Indians: Congrats on The River Flows. It was a long time in the making. …
Marlin Rotach: When we first started to think about this project, we imagined an exhibition with the classic deceased artists’ paintings hanging right next to today’s contemporary masters. There would be an exhibition catalog to accompany the show. I began discussing our idea with over a dozen of the country’s most respected Western museums. After a few months it became quite clear that such an exhibition was not feasible. Each institution had their own unique demands for heat control, types of lighting, insurance, and packing and transporting regulations. A nightmare! Sadly, I had to inform Don. He, too, was disappointed, but he said, “Let’s just think on it a bit.” Two days later he called excitedly. We would shift the focus from an exhibition to an elegant book featuring watercolors of the American West, both then and now — surprisingly, a concept that had never been done. The book would be able to show multitudes more work by both historic and contemporary artists. Then, after the book’s publication, an exhibition and sale of the 14 living artists’ work could be held at a well-known Western museum, rewarding both the contributing artists and also potential Western art collectors.
C&I: And now that the heavy lifting is over?
Rotach: Being an artist is such a solitary thing. Don and I had so many hurdles to jump, but we figured out how to clear them and make the project even better. We talked every day for two years, and it was always positive. We always were in agreement. We could understand each other’s vision. It wasn’t till we were completely done that it dawned on me that this was what it must have been like in Abbey Road Studios. We were simpatico like Lennon and McCartney. All of this happened while I was blind in my right eye and couldn’t paint. It gave me a creative outlet. It was just a ball. It’s one of the highest achievements of my life.
Twilight, New Mexico by Tom Perkinson
C&I: Tell us a little about the long and important role of watercolors in the West.
Rotach: The earliest paintings in the book and exhibit were done when the first European explorers journeyed through the West and discovered new places and Native Americans. These early paintings show Native people who look far different than the Hollywood version. These portraits are stunning and an education. The early explorers often took artists with them since cameras were not yet invented, and the artists used watercolor because it was lighter and faster than oils. And that is how a pictorial history of the West was recorded. These are paintings that touch the heart and imagination but also tell of the continuing passage of time. And it is this continuing passage of time — the cycle and flow of lives and cultures, of people and experiences — that is told through the movement of water and paint on paper.
C&I: Who are a couple of those early artists whose name or work we would recognize?
Rotach: The historic artists in the book are not only fascinating for their creations, but their lives were equally interesting. Karl Bodmer and Alfred Jacob Miller, both skilled professional artists, accompanied very early expeditions into the West with an artistic approach to scientific recording. Their landscapes as well as images of Native Americans are still reference material for Hollywood in such movies as A Man Called Horse, Little Big Man, and Dances With Wolves. As the West evolved, the artists continued to reflect these changes. Later on, such artists as Frederic Remington and Charlie Russell gave us the reality of the cowhand and the Plains Indians. Thomas Moran exposed the world to the fantastic landscapes of the American West and in effect was a motivating force for the establishment of the National Park System.
The book and its “flow layout” are intended to give the reader a visual history of the opening and taming of the West as well as demonstrating the beauty of the living West in the contemporary works. We wanted to expose a wide variety of artists with brief glimpses into their lives to stimulate the reader for further individual research. We selected watercolors that deliver a sense of optimism, freedom, and pride that is inherently American.
On the historical side, you’ve got two centuries of American watercolors revealing through differing artists, each with his own distinctive style and experience, the exploration and magnificence of the American West.
Waiting for the Fog to Lift by Morten E. Solberg
C&I: Who are some of the contemporary artists we might recognize and why should we care?
Don Weller: Watercolor brings out the quirks and personality of the artist in a way not often seen in other mediums. In capable hands there is a freshness, luminosity, and joy that transcend the subject matter.
To hang a show of this caliber that is exclusively watercolor is truly unique. The 14 artists have been enthusiastic about this project from the first phone call, and that should set the tone for a great opening weekend.
For me, to name a favorite is impossible and politically incorrect.
However, I will mention that I walked into a gallery in Santa Fe and saw some Tom Perkinson landscapes that were beautiful and huge (where in the world does he get paper that big?). So amazing I had to go back several times. Also, long ago, living on cement surrounded by palm trees, I saw a watercolor painting of a Great Basin cowboy that took me to a West I thought I’d lost somewhere. It was a watercolor by William Matthews.
Morten Solberg’s paintings look like abstract expressionism. But look again. What looks frisky is genius. How did he do that? Do you admire craftsmanship? Our group includes Dean Mitchell, Marlin Rotach, and more. It’s a rich, diverse group, and we are proud of everyone.
C&I: How about the historic artists — any favorites?
Rotach: I have a number of favorite paintings in the book, but two deceased artists’ works I find special are Bodmer’s Mato-Tope, a Mandan Chief and Russell’s Powder River, Let ’Er Buck. Bodmer’s is such a beautifully depicted portrait of a tribal leader who, like most of his people, would soon die from intentional exposure by whites to smallpox. A lasting wonderful tribute to a magnificent, sharing man. Russell’s is wonderful just for the sheer energy of the scene. It doesn’t get more powerful or cowboy than that! Among contemporary artists, there are just too many admirable masterpieces to make a selection. I must say that my partner in this venture, Don Weller, is for me King of the Cowboy Watercolorists, and I consider him an artistic genius.
C&I: I’ve spent many enjoyable hours with the book, learning a ton from the text and immersing myself in the amazing images. Do you think people realize the historic nature of the medium?
Rotach: We wanted to demonstrate that the medium has proven itself through time — as stable as oils — and has been the chosen means of expression in limitless approaches. It historically brought the images of the new continent to life and led to the evolution of America as a country. We also wanted to give readers a taste of the artists’ fascinating lives in hopes that they would be compelled and rewarded by further research on their own.
C&I: Regarding the contemporary works in the upcoming exhibition at the Phippen, is there anything you’d single out?
Rotach: It’s tough to give a “don’t miss” pick. Most exhibitions show a few pieces by an artist. However, The River Flows will display large bodies of work by each artist hung within ample space. Because of this, viewers will be able to immerse themselves in images that in effect create an environment of that specific artist’s vision. It is a landmark exhibition because it is the first totally dedicated to the West portrayed in the watercolor medium. The exhibition and the book are not the end of the subject by any means, but rather a beginning … and so, the river continues to flow.
The River Flows is on view October 2, 2021 – February 6, 2022 at the Phippen Museum in Prescott, Arizona. The book is available from University Press of Kansas. The two-man show Shared Visions: The Art of Don Weller & Marlin Rotach, runs December 14, 2021 – April 24, 2022 (grand opening and meet the artists January 26; book signing January 27) at Northeastern Nevada Museum in Elko.
Photography: (All images) courtesy the artists
Cover image: Riders of the Red Cliffs by Marlin Rotach
From our October 2021 issue