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Landscapes loom large in diminutive art

Jan. 21, 2010

Paintings barely larger than postage stamps seem an unlikely means to depict vast landscapes.

But John McClanahan, professor and chair of the art department at Baylor University, chose to take on the challenge in his Mini-Landscape #2. It is a horizontal strip of 19 landscapes, each 1 1/2 inches square.

That work of art will be among 36 landscapes in McClanahan's McClanahans, a retrospective exhibition Jan. 21-Feb. 27 at the Martin Museum of Art in Baylor University's Hooper-Schaefer Fine Arts Center.

"It's difficult to work small and still get the monumentality," said the award-winning McClanahan, who will retire Aug. 1 after a 45-year career of creating and teaching art. "You lose so much information, so you try to build in the monumentality. It's not easy to be successful."

But he has succeeded. His work has been exhibited in more than 200 shows in locations ranging from Hong King, China, to Hays, Kan. He has won more than 20 awards and honors.

The mini-landscape is the smallest work in the exhibition; the largest is 22 by 30 inches.

Painting small has been a necessity for McClanahan, who has taught at Baylor for 34 years. Watercolor, his favorite medium, is "basically a small-format expression," he said. But his busy schedule also dictates the method.

"I have a studio, but I'm often interrupted," he said. "I have to work fairly small to complete some of the paintings while I have time for the creative process to work successfully."

Some art in the exhibition -- particularly work done early in his career --has not been shown previously.

"My first teaching position was in East Texas, where I couldn't see the horizon because of the trees. But because I came from the Midwest, sky and plain are important to me," said McClanahan, a native of Salina, Kan.

"But I had been told there was a special light in the Southwest, and I needed to experience it firsthand. I've experimented with still life and figures, but my heart and soul is with the landscape."

McClanahan likes to work on location, he said, because "later, when you view the work, all those impressions and impulses you had come back.

"It's like the interviews you hear with sports legends who remember the pitch that was thrown when they hit their home run. They remember how far the ball traveled."

During his travels, he prefers to sketch rather than take photographs for later reference.

"I believe in many ways, the purest and strongest expression is the sketchbook," McClanahan said. "That's where it begins, where the information is hidden. You're looking at the soul of the artist.

"The sketch is a means to an end; it's note-taking. But it also can stand on its own."

He has turned to the Hill Country and rural areas around Clifton, Valley Mills and Harker Heights for inspiration. While doing a watercolor of the Frio River, he perched on a rock in the river.

"I didn't have to have a water jar; I used the river," he said.

Sometimes, he said, he followed "endless FM roads. You'd never see anybody for hours. I'd be out there and sit on my tackle box -- sometimes with just a cow and the fire ants. You get super sensitive to what you're seeing, like a hawk circling in the distance and wind blowing through the trees. You're one-on-one with nature and putting it into personal terms."

While his favorite medium is watercolor, he has experimented with acrylics and metal collages.

"You can't work in one medium and sustain momentum," McClanahan said. "You have to change, grow for different creative expression."

Seeking material for his collages, he's gathered rusty debris on a creek bank, pocketed a chunk of license plate -- even picked up a weathered glove and tossed it into the bed of his truck.

He used to make weekly visits to a Waco scrap metal business, hunting for pieces he could use in his art.

"The three or four older gentlemen who were owners were cooperative and understanding," McClanahan said. "I think they had a good laugh when I left, but I found pieces of interest."

He often uses the term "de-clutter" when he talks about his art.

"That's scrutinizing and editing in a way that's meaningful to you and hopefully to others," he said. "Most of the labor of the creative process is editing what's in front of me. You can't paint every leaf on the tree. You have to distill, organize and edit to get to the core."

The exhibition is "the best of the best from John D. McClanahan," said Karin Gilliam, director of the Martin Museum of Art. "The 36 landscapes are a visual diary of places where people value an honest day's work and embrace family and friends when the day is done. Such describes the character of the man we have been so fortunate to call chairman for the last 25 years."

Retirement will not mean abandoning art, McClanahan said.

"I wouldn't walk away into the ether without something to occupy my mind and time and energy," he said. "I think if I just absolutely turn out the lights and walk south, I'll have enough to occupy my interest. I don't worry about it."

Exhibition: McClanahan's McClanahans

Dates: Jan. 21-Feb. 27, 2010

Museum hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays; noon-5 p.m. Saturdays

Location: Martin Museum of Art in Hooper-Schaefer Fine Arts Center, 60 Baylor Ave., Baylor University in Waco

Cost: Free

Museum information: (254) 710-1867 or www.baylor.edu/martinmuseum