The Power Of Homely Detail

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If the West is an oasis civilization, as the historian Walter Webb once wrote, then Utah is the oasis civilization par excellence. It has a few more oases than Nevada, the only state that is more arid overall, but it also has more civilization, hard-won.

Utah’s terrain is rugged—the canyons and plateaus of the Green and Colorado rivers on the east and south, the Wasatch Mountains and their extension, the High Plateaus, in the middle, and the desert on the west. Settlement clustered where there was water, and there was most water along the Wasatch Front from Brigham City to Nephi, and in the fertile valleys between the plateaus. Even in the 1980s, three-quarters of Utah’s population live in the four central counties along the Wasatch Front. Much of the state remains a marvelously scenic but humanly uninhabitable wasteland.

Individuals did not settle Utah. Communities did—colonies “called” by Brigham Young to people the pockets and corners of Zion. The communal and oasis character of the settlement was enforced by church policy, by the paranoia resulting from persecutions in Illinois and Missouri, by the need for cooperative effort in the development of irrigation works, by the isolation of new settlements, and by the peculiar theology and sociology of Mormon society, both built around the family and community.

The result was that until very recently the Mormon town, as it existed in fact and as it existed in the Mormon mind, was a safe place, a sanctuary, in an essentially hostile world. The word home rings as commandingly in the Mormon ear as the school bell rings in the ears of obedient children. Love is centered there, family has its place there. Together with other homes, it makes part of a Stake in Zion, and those affections of the flesh will be realized in the flesh in the hereafter. Home and family have the sanction of Eternity.

Home, moreover, was always homey in Mormon communities. The earliest settlers had a large percentage of New Englanders among them; later immigrants were mainly from the British Isles and Scandinavia. Almost all were poor. Poverty and frontier hardship taught them to share and to make do with simple pleasures. Their homes, and therefore their towns, were and are almost oppressively middle class, huddled around the Ward House like chicks around a hen. Hemingway, who once described Salt Lake City as “clean but dull,” would have found smaller Mormon towns iust as clean but even duller.

In a prolific career spanning seventy-five years, the Utah artist LeConte Stewart evokes the moods and integrity of his native state.

Much has changed in Utah since World War ll, but, outside the metropolitan and industrialized center in the Salt Lake Valley, the addiction to rural simplicity and the idea of home is still strong. I have not lived in Utah since 1937, but every time I go back, I feel it. I am even more aware of it in the paintings of LeConte Stewart, for Stewart found his native subject matter in the 1920s and 1930s, the years when I knew Utah best; and he seized upon and made his own just those often shabby simplicities that everywhere enlist the affection of Utahns and probably have affected their vision as well. For those who want art to acknowledge the things they know and love, these landscapes of homely houses, unpainted barns, and well-used everyday machinery are impeccable both in detail and in feeling.

 

Stewart was born in Glenwood, in the Sevier Valley, between impressive high plateaus. Magnificence was in his eye every hour, but he was less interested in painting it than in portraying the commonplace and humanized. His favorite painting-ground has been around his home in Kaysville, a village just east of the Great Salt Lake; and though the Wasatch rears up splendidly behind the farms and towns, and the desert opens westward to wide skies, barren mountains, blue lake, and bloody sunsets, scenery in his paintings exists only as background, rarely for itself, and is recognized almost with suspicion, as if it threatened rather than exalted.

Especially in his paintings from the Depression years, Stewart achieved a bleak clarity of vision that has been compared to Hopper’s.

The last thing Stewart can be accused of is prettification. The marks of human effort, ugly or otherwise, interest him. His roadsides are dominated by graceless billboards, his false-fronted village streets are painfully drab. He paints industrial uglification as matter of factly as he paints barnyard clutter. The method is aggressively realist, but the result is not mere factual record.

 
 

Look at his painting of squareshouldered frame houses snowed-in to the windowsills, the drive choked with drifts. Look at the abandoned farmhouse on a sagebrush slope, its windows empty sockets for the wind to blow through. Look at the cars parked outside an austere, treeless meetinghouse while someone’s funeral goes on inside. Even group solidarity and communal effort are not much solace or protection. Desolate without them, life is difficult even with them. We live and labor on sufferance. Home, even in Utah, is inconceivable apart from its failure, homelessness.

Especially in his paintings from the Depression years, Stewart achieved a bleak clarity of vision that has been compared to Hopper’s. The thirty-five miles between Ogden and Salt Lake City are densely populated and increasingly industrialized. Below the alluvial slopes where towns like Kaysville perch, both the Union Pacific Railroad and the main north-south highway go by. And along those routes, below the shaky sanctuary of Mormon villages whose communal solidarity was being tested by hard times and change, passed the homeless of the thirties, distinguished by misfortune, without even the frail support that home and community can give. Stewart painted them walking the ties past empty stations under bare telephone poles, or parked under the lights of an allnight truck stop. Best of all, he painted them huddled on the roofs and lounging in the doors of empty freight cars.

 
 
 
 

This last painting, entitled Private Car, is indeed Hopperesque, and it demonstrates how much power there still is in realism when realism is the expression of a passionate vision. All of Stewart’s characteristic touches are there—the muted colors, the homely detail, the bleak, ambiguous message. The desert light that gilds those uprooted ones seems also to threaten them. They are silhouettes before flames. It is probably the finest picture ever painted by a Utahn, or in Utah; and unlike most of its competition, it totally resists the temptation to sensationalize Utah scenery.

I suppose that nostalgia is part of my respect for what LeConte Stewart does. But the hard-mouthed integrity of the life-view is more important. There is something in his best paintings that does not depend on nostalgia but upon recognitions of a less parochial kind.

Once, in the 1920s, I was caught in a summer cloudburst at Farmington, a town just south of Stewart’s home in Kaysville. Dozens of us were marooned on the Union Pacific grade while a tenfoot wall of water, mud, and gravel, mixed with boulders as big as sheds and bearing trees, cattle, even whole houses on its surface, roared down out of the canyon. A train got us out before the tracks were submerged, and a couple of days later I went back to view the wreckage.

For perhaps two miles, the slope that had once been prime orchard and berry land was buried under sterile gravel. Many farms were gone entirely. One, a solid, brick, two-story farmhouse built to last until the great and terrible last days, was filled to the second-story windows with mud and rocks, a desolate, man-made iceberg in a mud sea. On that sunny morning, in what had been a lush, green countryside, next door to towns that their industrious creators had given names like Bountiful, neighbors were already out trying to restore what had been lost, while the steaming mud landscape told how vain and precarious that effort was. LeConte Stewart should have been there. That was a LeConte Stewart picture.