Art for a Buck’s Sake

The only print left on Wieland’s wall is a caribou by Douglas Allen. Allen was a commercial artist, commissioned to provide art work for Jack O’Connor’s 1960 book "Big Game Animals of North America." As a full-page color plate in that book, this painting ignited Wieland’s love affair with caribou.

by Terry Wieland

Art who, you ask?  Good question.

The very first magazine article I ever wrote was about hunting caribou in Quebec; the second was about that questionable craze from the 1980s, wildlife art.  For the next half dozen years, at the behest of a demented editor, I wrote one piece after another, trying to imbue various wildlife artists with something approaching uniquity.  (That’s a word I just made up, to designate a state of uniqueness; you can see the problems I faced.)

I was even commissioned, more than once, to write the texts for books about wildlife artists.  Fortunately, these were serious painters:  Guy Coheleach, Manfred Schatz, Wilhelm Kuhnert.  So my powers of invention were not taxed.  Tell their story straight, add a little context, let the work speak for itself, and there’s your book.  The magazine articles were another story entirely.

From the foregoing, you may imagine I became cynical and jaded as I followed the fortunes of various painters who rode the limited-edition print craze to fame and fortune.  Well, you’re right.  Cynical and jaded hardly describes it.  Some of the gimmicks contrived by print publishers to push this stuff on the unsuspecting public defies belief, and looking back, it rivals the South Sea Bubble, or at least Dutch tulip mania.  I mean, people were breathlessly buying prints as they were published and storing them away under the bed, purely as an investment.  An investment!

And a guy who had gotten in early, and was permanent subscriber to every print #113 (regardless of artist or subject) from a particular publisher could lord it over the poor benighted wretch who only got #347.  I’m not making this up.  As for the scam regarding “artist’s proofs” and “publisher’s proofs,” you don’t want to know.

A magazine, Wildlife Art News, even published an annual valuation, listing all the prints, from all the painters, and all the publishers, going back years, giving what they sold for originally and what they were — purportedly, supposedly, allegedly — worth now.  In your dreams, pal.  Those numbers were pulled out of the air, and had as much validity as a random number chalked on the subway wall.

A quarter-century later, Allen gave Wieland one of the (very few) prints that were made from the originals — not numbered, nothing special, but with a hand-painted artist’s remarque.

As for the term “limited edition,” consider this:  One painting was printed in an edition limited to the number of people who subscribed, and paid a deposit, within a certain time.  That ended up at more than 62,000.  62,000!  That’s “limited?”  The whole edifice finally collapsed when a publisher offered a set of paintings by Bev Doolittle, celebrated renderer of what came to be called “camouflage art.”  Miss Doolittle’s métier was pinto horses that blended into a background.  Seen one way, it was a group of horses; squinted at another, it was a bunch of rocks and birch trees.

Anyway, in this last grandiose effort, there was to be, as I recall, six (or was it eight?) separate pieces.  Each was a picture on its own but, assembled like a jigsaw puzzle, would be one large picture.  These were to be published over the course of a year or so.  They would also take up most of one wall and eat up your discretionary income.  So many people signed up for this — tickets on the Titanic, anyone? — that it also pretty much drained the available funds from the limited-edition market generally.  And, as suddenly as that, it was all gone.

By the mid-1990s, the craze for wildlife art prints had run its course.  The publishers mostly survived and the artists themselves — the good ones, and there were quite a few — went back to competing for federal and state duck stamps, and creating originals for patrons with money, just as professional painters have done since Titian.  (Not the duck stamps, of course, but Titian probably would have, if they’d been around back then.)

The inscription along the bottom of the print gives it a personal meaning beyond any mere number.

In 2004, our then-Editor in Chief, David Foster, told me he wanted to add an art critic and columnist to the Gray’s lineup, something no outdoor magazine had ever done.  I introduced David to Brooke Chilvers, and Brookie has been gracing our pages ever since.

Every time I read one of Brooke’s pieces, here or in the magazine itself, I realize just how little I knew about art way back then, when I was trying to write about it.

On the other hand, I did know what I liked.  And I got to know some extremely fine artists, such as Guy Coheleach, Manfred Schatz, and Thomas Aquinas Daly.  And I did learn a lot about art.  I also learned enough that, when Foster offered me the job of shooting editor in 1993, I accepted on condition that he never, under any circumstances, ask me to write about wildlife art.  David looked at me strangely and asked, “Now why would I do that?”

We lived happily ever after.

Brooke Chilvers advises our shooting editor that his books on Coheleach et al, “were seriously good, so I would not belittle them. They are still the reference on those artists.” That’s something, anyway.