A tribute to Jack Sampson: The artist’s touch
Sometimes, living in a small town in the Sandhills can feel like a cultural wasteland. But if one is determined enough and fortunate enough to dig around, one can find treasures. I found one such treasure in the likes of the Alliance artist and muralist, Jack Sampson.
My own artistic abilities have far to go to reach the lofty heights of Sampson’s. Far from artistically soaring, I met Jack when I was stuck in the mud while in the course of trying to produce a homage to my husband. I had hit a snag – a genuine artistic cul de sac. I could not see why my painting just seemed all off. Nancy Reiber suggested taking a lesson from Jack. He could tell me where I had missed it; he could be my professor of “proportion and perspective, of paint and perception.”
In actuality, my “canvas” was the back of some old paneling which barely fit through Jack’s studio doorway. The subject was an intentional copy of Remington’s Drury Rescuing the Girl with some artistic licenses. In Remington’s classic, a beleaguered cowpoke on horseback has swooped up a damsel in distress as if she were on her last bit of luck. I replaced Remington’s gaunt, mustachioed hero with the rugged clean-shaven face of my husband, John. The thin, plain, terror stricken damsel of the original was given my own glamorized face in full make up. (Remington’s rendition had spoken to me when I had seen it and I thought my personalized alterations would make a great Valentine’s gift. But my sorry attempt failed to live up to Remington’s dramatic scene.
Jack smiled at the subject matter and the ambitious size of my work. Large works hardly intimidated him. After all, he had done murals high and low – from imposing church altars to saucy saloons. He scanned my “artwork” and began asking me what medium I was using. I confidently replied, “Oh, a mix of things, some paint, some pastel … whatever I think will work on this.” He told me to stick to pastels at first. Get to know how to use them. “But,” I argued, “what if I make a mistake? Paint can be painted over, pastels are forever.” (He informed me that the mere use of some paint thinner and a Q-tip wipes off pastels just fine. He was right.) “Don’t mix your media,” he said. “Do your work in a single medium until you master it.” If anyone saw his pastel/chalk or charcoal works, it was immediately apparent that Jack was indeed a master.
He zeroed in and started to fix my mistakes – in about 20 seconds. First, the cowboy’s boot was too small for his body. Jack grabbed what appeared to me to be a random piece of chalk from a disorganized box of old jumbled, broken pieces. I was concerned because Jack wore thick glasses and I knew his eyesight was a bit questionable. He held the chalk as if it were a small rock and sort of dragged it on my painting. I winced and squealed. “No! Do you know how long it took me to draw that?” I felt for sure he was going to maim my masterpiece. I closed my eyes in dread. But when I opened my eyes, the cowboy’s boot was perfectly scaled. “Oh, that’s MUCH better!” I said. Then he assaulted my mouth (on the painting, of course). “The mouth is like a bowl.” He said. Again he haphazardly picked up another piece of chalk. Again, I closed my eyes in fear. Again, with a flick of the wrist – perfect lips. The picture was looking better.
“Now,” he muttered. “Your bottom could be bigger.” Obviously, he was speaking of the painting. In the original Remington, the girl’s figure was boney and angular. He took his magic chalk and with an imaginary wave, he outlined where he would round out the curves. I literally felt the cupping of my own backside when he made an exaggerated reverse “C” over the female’s behind. Then, just as he was about to enhance the sunken posterior, I grabbed his hand like the angel sparing Isaac’s life from Abraham’s dagger. “Don’t you think she needs a bigger behind?” He asked sweetly. In point of fact, to balance out the body, or even to make it more realistic, authenticity dictated that a few more ice cream sundaes be applied to the hips. But I just couldn’t allow it. “Jack, in the end this is my painting and she – the female figure – uh, er, me, can have a small butt. It’s okay. I can dream, can’t I?” He just chuckled and his eyes twinkled.
He had grown up in the age where the Rubenesque woman was the favored form. Indeed, if you look at Jack’s female subjects they often have curvaceous, rounded bodies, intimating a squishy pudgy flesh. Although he could render his human subjects with great accuracy they sometimes gave way to a hint of caricature and whimsy. Their bodies were drawn in exaggerated volumes, as if inflated from within. The figures could appear bulky or weighty while managing to float on the canvas as if defying gravity.
By now, I was happy. My own picture was flying higher. We turned from my artwork to talk of art in general. Jack told me of his studies in art and fascinated me with his own extensive knowledge of Art History and theory. By the end of our day, he encouraged me to keep up with the drawing, use the pastels and feel free to call on him.
Sadly, I can’t call on Jack now. A couple weeks ago western Nebraska lost a respected and revered member of its cultural community when Jack passed away. But every time I look at our collaboration on my wall, I have the great satisfaction that his gifted hand touched my work transforming it – and me – from amateurish dilettante to something much, much better. Goodbye, dear Jack and thanks for rescuing the girl … and her painting.
Editor’s Note: Jack Sampson’s obituary will be published in next week’s issue.