A Brush with HISTORY
A new art book celebrating the work of Morgan Weistling features the artist’s unmistakable brand of storytelling
Painter Morgan Weistling’s works tell stories big and small. The small ones are right there on the canvas as his pioneer and Western figures go about their daily lives amid wholesome scenes on country farms or small Old West towns. The big stories take place elsewhere, on other paintings, and when assembled together reveal larger narratives as characters grow up, take on new responsibilities and find themselves in new settings.
These two storytelling aspects of Weistling’s paintings can be clearly seen in a new book about his career, his work and his long history with art. The book, A Brush With History: The Paintings of Morgan Weistling, is available now and features 182 full-color plates of his works, as well as look into his early illustration career, his inspirations and his artistic family, which includes wife Joann Peralta and daughter Brittany Weistling.
The forward of the book is written by painter Howard Terpning, who first met Weistling in 1999. “The first time I saw an original painting by Morgan Weistling was at a dealer seminar in Salt Lake City, Utah. The painting was titled Goats and Roses. It was truly a beautiful work, and I thought to
The Snake Oil Salesman, oil, 36 x 56" (91 x 142 cm) The expression “Snake Oil salesman” is often used to describe a person who is selling you something with fraudulent claims. Back in the 1800s throughout the West, there were traveling salesman who crossed the land from town to town selling what they claimed to be remedies for all manner of ailments. These charlatans would pose as professors of medicine or doctors with dubious credentials to sell their fake medicines.
Originally, Chinese laborers on railroad gangs had brought to America their own oil made from Chinese Water Snakes. The oil they used actually had healing properties for joint pain. Soon, a Western version was being produced from a plentiful snake at hand, the rattler. Unfortunately, the rattler snake does not produce any of the benefits of the Chinese water snake. But that didn’t stop salesmen like this fellow depicted here. To help sell their elixirs, an accomplice in the crowd would be chosen to come on stage and test the magic cure. As in this painting, the “shill” came on stage with his cane and now is examining the bottle. Soon, after a spoonful, he will hop around the stage without his cane to the delight of the enthused crowd. This “doctor” will not hang around long. Soon he will pack it up and be out of town before his customers realize they have been fooled.
As part of the storytelling process for Morgan, he has threaded the lives of these characters throughout his work. With large paintings like The
Snake Oil Salesman it is a fun exercise to see how many people are represented from other paintings. These characters have depth beyond the one painting. In this way this created universe continues to present more stories to tell.
myself, ‘My gosh where did this guy come from, and where has he been?’” Terpning writes in the book. “…There is humanity in Morgan’s work and a sensitivity that is so evident. His work is instantly recognizable from across the room. In order to paint a
subject well, I believe that the artist must be emotionally connected to his or her subject matter. Painting a subject because it’s expedient—it’s what the collector is buying at the moment—will show in the end result. Morgan obviously feels that connection
to his models, and he treats his subjects with respect on canvas. He is in complete command of his craft.”
Some of the works featured in the A Brush With History include some of his most famous paintings, such as Indian Stories,
the cover image, which shows a grandfather sharing an adventure tale by the fireplace; The Quilting Bee, which shows nearly a dozen women working on a quilt; Where Stories Were Told, showing a country store and its customers; and The Dance, which won the Prix de West museum purchase award in 2001 at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum. Eagle-eyed viewers will notice repeating motifs—stories, characters, items on shelves or tables, and even pet cats—that pop up again and again in the artist’s works, each one advancing a different story within the world Weistling has created.
“I have always said that if it weren’t for knowing someone was going to see what I was creating, I would not have the desire to put all the effort required to produce it. I freely admit that I do these paintings for others to see—to communicate to someone else a feeling, a mood, and a story that means something to me,” Weistling writes in the book. “This talent to paint is a gift, and it is meant to be shared. Merely producing the art is not enough. It’s that vulnerability of showing it to someone for the first time that makes it complete. Therefore, painting is a language for me and requires someone willing to listen.”
Indian Stories, oil, 40 x 46" (102 x 117 cm)A grandfather recalls the day a group of Lakota were met on the trail West, a trade was made and that the pipe was given as part of the exchange. The tradition of passing down family history from generation to generation is an important theme in Morgan Weistling’s life. Many times it is an object that holds great significance and brings back memories of a person or event. In this case, the Lakota pipe and hints of other stories are emerging from Grandpa’s chest of memories. The children are immersed in this story and spellbound with every detail of his encounter. Before radio or television, this was a great form of entertainment, listening to stories. The older girl, Diana, bites her fingernails as the story reaches a tense moment as the expression on the boy facing us, James, attests to.
Oregon Trail Family, 1850, oil, 34 x 50" (86 x 127 cm)Morgan Weistling’s stories all begin with the brave pioneers that traveled West in search of a new and better life. It was a perilous journey and many did not make it. He is captivated by the diaries that were written by the men and women on the trail. This painting was inspired by one diary that was written by a young girl with her family. The end of the day was her favorite time. Food and a little entertainment helped to keep their minds off the long journey ahead. You can see the young writer sitting next to the wagon, penning the very words that inspired the painting.
Throughout the pages of this article are images accompanied by text excerpted from A Brush With History: The Paintings of Morgan Weistling, published by Blackhammer Press. For more information about the artist or the book, visit www.morganweistling.com.