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The Role of Nostalgia in Art

nos·tal·gia
/näˈstaljə,nəˈstaljə/
noun
noun: nostalgia; plural noun: nostalgias

a sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past, typically for a period or place with happy personal associations.

Tricky thing, nostalgia. In life in general, but in art specifically. It can be both positive and negative, empowering and limiting, the whole point and/or the sugar on top. In life, it can lead to wonderful warm feelings or years wasted pining away for something that was, but shall never be again. In art, it can connect us to beloved traditions, subjects, genres or styles, or it can stifle any hope of originality. Like I said, tricky.

Often, and to the chagrin of critics from time immemorial, nostalgia walks hand-in-hand with sentimentalism. And of course in the arts, sentimentalism is a four letter word… having long been the hobgoblin of the creative world, forever derided as the impetus for anything kitchy, pretty, pedestrian, or unsophisticated. God forbid. And while nostalgia and sentimentalism have two different meanings, they both literally appear in the other’s very definition and, as such, are often used interchangeably with little regard for clarity. Often one very much begets the other, and vice verse. As for nostalgia itself, it’s kind of inherent in all art, no? The simple act of creating anything artistic to begin with is in and of itself a nostalgic act. For no matter the what or the how or the why, from that point on we are harkening back. Forever.

The Quonset door at Chico Basin Ranch, hand painted this summer by Beardsley with his signature rider motif.

Nostalgia, as a driving force in art… in western art… in MY western art… is ticklish. Because it’s seductive. And effective. And let’s, face it, it’s easy. Not technically. Many of the most nostalgic works in history are also among the most technically advanced. No, I mean it’s easy intellectually. Because if something is driven artistically by nostalgia that means it’s most likely being driven by something already out there. Established. Worked over. It’s ABC gum. A well worn path. And comfortable as that may be, it’s not exactly pushing the envelope.

Harkening back (intellectually, thematically, stylistically, technically) to the way things were – the way they were depicted, the way they were painted – is only natural. It is the basis of our experiences and our ability to express ourselves. Learning from those that came before us is a human fact. But what about originality? What about growth? What about being of our time? Can we achieve any of that if nostalgia is at the reins? And we artists… we daring few… we’re a skittish bunch. Easily spooked. Insecure. And for good reason. We depend entirely on disposable income for our livelihoods. Not real practical… So naturally we long for approval, for acceptance. For anything that feels secure. You’re carrying on the great traditions of the masters! You paint like Maynard Dixon! You’re the next Charlie Russell! Music to our ears. But I don’t want to be the next anybody. I want to be me. And I want my art to reflect my time.

Back to originality real quick… What about it? What about innovation, growth, curiosity, even rebellion… Do these things thrive in an environment centered around nostalgia? I don’t think so. Weren’t the great masters we idolize and derive our styles from embracing all of these things? Challenging themselves to be new and fresh and original? Originality certainly isn’t the only goal in making art, but it’s pretty damn cool. Funny part is I’m a naturally nostalgic person! I think most of us are. I love the story of The West. I love my story, my family’s story. I come from long-time western people…fifth and sixth generation Coloradans on either side. Their stories are the hows and whys I am here today. I’m a product of the modern West and my lifestyle is unique. As a kid, my family owned a thousand-acre cattle ranch an hour southeast of our home in Denver where we ran a small herd of registered cattle, put up hay, rode good horses. Today we own a horse ranch in the mountains. I live two lives; a suburban city boy on one side, rural rancher on the other. This “dual/duel” upbringing, dual/duel lifestyle is in fact the foundation of my art.

I am also a huge fan of nostalgia in art! A lifelong fan of the art of Charlie Russell and Frederic Remington (and many others of course), theirs was the first art of any kind to speak to me. To connect with me. To capture my heart. And their work is rife with nostalgia. They both painted romanticized images of a West they only partly knew, partly experienced, relying as much on legend and myth as personal or family experience. And they obviously knew the rich history of narrative genre painting that came before them. They were late-stage visual chroniclers of a rapidly changing West and much of their work told a hyper-saturated story of a brief time in history now past. Modern West… I like that. It’s clean. It’s concise. And sellable…

It’s also grounded in the present. The West I experienced as a boy, and still experience today, it’s not that West. Not Remington’s West. I never carried a gun, roped a bear, fought a stranger over a water hole… And while I’ve lived a very Western life – ridden a thousand miles trailing cattle, run water to parched hay ground, chopped ice for thirsty livestock, wrangled dudes, and mended endless miles of fence – all my Western experiences have been of their time. Shouldn’t my art?

I’ve also watched the West strain and buckle under the pressures of relentless population growth. I’m the product of limitless urban sprawl and the decline of traditional ranch and farm ground. My whole life I’ve watched the boom and bust economy of the West roil and undulate with pitiless little concern for comfort or need. I’ve gasped in shock at what a sustained drought will do to a region. Delighted in the facility and functionality of the digital age. Witnessed helplessly as the effects of climate change distort, wrench, and reshape the West as I know it. Shouldn’t my art in some way reflect these influences?

I still join my many friends and families on some of the West’s great ranches and participate in traditional ranch work, much of it from horseback. The traditions we love are alive and thriving. And they are evolving! Adapting, morphing… in proactive, capable hands and thoughtfully guided by sharp minds with an eye towards sustainability and improvement. These are the people, the horses, the activities I paint.

They are happening now. Today.

Beardsley live-sketching at this year’s Chico branding.
Beardsley (left) roping at this year’s MP Ranch branding.


Look around. We’re a different people in a different West. We cherish our history but we love our present and hope for our future. And we’re ever-changing. I don’t care who you are or where you’re from, whether you’ve been here five minutes or five generations, if you’re wearing a Stetson or a hijab… if you live here now, if you’ve chosen the West and it’s chosen you, you too now own the legacy.

So where is this all headed? Why do we love it so? Who owns all this and who belongs to it? These are the questions that push my mind, my eye, my brush. And while I have so far chosen to center these questions around my unapologetic, childhood love of the cowboy icon, I am more than happy to say that I don’t have any answers. I’ve probably barely even scratched the surface. But I do know that for me, the answers to these questions do not live in the past.

I have this quote on my studio wall. It’s written in large blood red letters just to the right of my easel and palette, where I see it and consider it everyday.

Too many approaches to the American West hinge on the nostalgic. And the problem with nostalgia is that it’s rife with sentimentalism. And the problem with sentimentalism is that it’s boring as shit.

Woody Beardsley

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