100th Sporting Life: Works of Art

100th Sporting Life: Works of Art

An exclusive celebration of a collaboration of talent

  • By: John Gierach
My first Sporting Life column ran in Fly Rod& Reel in March of 1992. Lee Wulff had been writing the back-page column and I was asked to take it over when he died. When someone said, "I hear you're replacing Lee," I was smart enough to say, "I'm writing the column; I'm not 'replacing' Lee Wulff."

There's always some apprehension when you go to work for a new publication, so by way of testing the water, that first column included a midrange curse word and an unflattering wise crack about neoprene waders, which were considered state of the art at the time. Neither comment was entirely gratuitous, but swearing and disparaging remarks about potential advertisers are two things that will stop the hearts of overly cautious editors and a writer likes to know where he stands. When then-editor Silvio Calabi left both in, I thought, Okay, this could work.

Silvio had also said he'd get an illustrator, but I didn't know who until the issue with the first column arrived. I didn't expect much-a quick line drawing or maybe just a generic logo that would run in each issue like a trademark-but the artist turned out to be John Robert (Bob) White and the illustration was the kind of watercolor you wouldn't be surprised to find hanging in a gallery.

That first column centered on two fishermen who had come back at dusk while their partners had stayed out till the bitter end, and Bob's painting was just that scene: Two guys carrying fly rods have just arrived at a pickup parked on a rise next to what looks like a Russian olive tree. It's twilight, with a yellowish just-past-sunset sky and purple stands of cottonwoods in the near distance with faint mountains on the horizon. The fishermen look tired, as if they'd fished far upstream and had just now trudged back. It was perfect: Not just a scene from the essay, but also-somehow-the same pensive, end-of-a-long-day feeling.
That was then. This is now the 100th column Bob and I have done together…Read More »

-one of those big even numbers we feel compelled to commemorate.
I say "together" because it really was a kind of one-sided collaboration from the beginning. Bob and I do correspond and talk on the phone now and then and of course we've fished together, but we essentially communicate through our respective crafts. That is, I send Bob an essay to read and he comes up with a painting to go with it. We almost never discuss the painting and I never see it until it appears in the magazine.
I've occasionally been asked to approve illustrations for this or that project and the one thing I've learned is that if you have the right artist, you don't need approval, while if you have the wrong one, all you can do is call your editor and say, "Please get someone else." In Bob's case, I simply trust his judgment and enjoy the pleasant surprise of opening the magazine to see the finished product for the first time.
That's how it's gone for 16 years and 100 columns (or actually 99, since I haven't seen the painting that will appear with this one). Bob unerringly nails something fundamental in the story, often with a tantalizing sense of anticipation. In one painting, the two guys out in the johnboat on a rainy morning aren't casting for pike yet, but they will be as soon as they pole out to one of those weed beds in the distance. It's a placid scene, but if you were there you'd be impatient to start fishing, and you can feel the agonizingly slow progress of the boat in the wide, gentle ripples radiating from its bow.
In another, a guide in a checkered shirt stands next to his client on a big, lovely salmon river somewhere in the Northeast. It's a damp, chilly-looking day with morning mist rising from the river and an almost forbiddingly dark forest on the far bank. The client has just made a cast and seems perfectly relaxed, while the tension in the painting is all in the expectant posture of the guide, who seems to know something the client doesn't. The guide is a head taller, which not only draws your attention to his pose, but also gives him more authority.
In another painting, a wading fisherman in the process of tying on a fly has just glanced up and out of the frame at something that's caught his attention. You naturally wonder what it is, but there's no clue, although the fisherman's bearing is relaxed and only mildly curious, so we assume it's not a charging grizzly.
Even Bob's caught fish are clearly seen in the instant before they're released. They're carefully lifted for that one quick look, but as pretty as they are, they've got that open-mouthed, gasping expression that makes you want them back in the water right now.
The time of day and the weather in Bob's paintings are never static. It's morning or evening, but rarely high noon. Storms are brewing or breaking up, but it's seldom if ever just raining. Mist is either rising or burning off. His skies are often large and complicated. Something is always
happening, or has just happened, or is about to happen.
But then in the midst of everything that's going on, there's an overriding sense of calm. The landscapes have a restful, geologic permanence, the light is diffuse and the colors are damp and saturated. Canoes and belly boats float low in the water and Bob's fishermen stand flat-footed and relaxed, exuding an air of unhurried competence, casting without wasted effort and playing fish without theatrics. The sense is that the little dramas of fishing aren't exactly inconsequential, but they're not matters of life and death either, while it's the natural surroundings that really count.
The land, water and weather are main characters in most of these paintings and the fishermen-even when they're front and center in the composition-seem sunk in the landscape. In one of my favorites you don't even notice the fisherman at first. The painting is of a Midwestern lake after a rain. You're looking down a muddy dirt two-track that runs across a meadow, past an unpainted outbuilding and through a sparse stand of trees toward the lake. There are fresh puddles in the meadow and the huge stormy sky is beginning to clear and lighten, with just enough sunlight filtering through to throw a few soft shadows. It must be April because the trees aren't completely leafed out yet and all the colors are spring pastels. Finally, through the break in the trees where the composition leads your gaze, you notice a single fisherman standing on the shore of the lake about half way to the distant horizon. How you paint a single, faint vertical line no bigger than an exclamation mark that's obviously a fisherman instead of a fence post is what makes the difference between those who make art and those of us who can only appreciate it.

But then every once in a while-just often enough to keep you on your toes-there's a surprising departure. Bob's pumpkinseed is almost shocking because of its exquisite detail and brilliant oranges, blues, reds and golds and also because he's shoved this little fish right in your face to the point that only the front third of it fits in the frame. At first glance, it's reminiscent of the Op Art that was briefly popular in the 1960s.
Another shows a single rise form in glassy water rippling the reflections of a bronze-colored sky and a bare tree on the bank. Bob described it as "almost an abstract," which might explain why the magazine accidentally printed it upside down.
Bob told me he enjoys illustrating because "I paint things I never would have painted," but I quickly got over the idea that he was simply interpreting my columns. The paintings and the stories always have something in common, but the paintings don't depend on the stories. These are freestanding works of art with lives of their own.
I do know and like some of the artists and writers whose work I admire and I understand how easily that can become a kind of bias. Ernest Hemingway once said of Ezra Pound, "He liked the works of his friends, which is beautiful as loyalty but can be disastrous as judgment." But in Bob's case I liked the work first and only made a point of meeting the man several years later.
The first few times we talked face to face were at crowded fly-fishing shows where anything like a real conversation is just about impossible; but I did notice that even while standing in a booth filled with his own paintings and prints, Bob couldn't bring himself to play the Artist. In case you haven't noticed, there's an incredible amount of posing in both the arts and fly-fishing and I've always wondered why, since the few people who are fooled by it aren't worth fooling, while everyone else just wants to see the goods.
Years later, when I asked Bob the obvious question, "When did you start painting?" he seemed stumped for a few seconds and then said, "I'm not sure, but I was that one kid in grade school who could paint perspective. In high school I painted the sets for school plays." You know, that kid.
He went on to study studio art as an undergraduate at Southern Illinois University and, in the interest of making a living (always a consideration for an artist), turned to therapy at the University of Minnesota for his master's degree. He worked in the field for a while and was good at it, but eventually had the predictable epiphany. The way he tells it, he was a painter working as a therapist and "I got tired of telling clients to follow their hearts when I wasn't following mine."
So in 1984 Bob quit his job, went to work guiding at a fishing lodge in Alaska (another kind of therapy, but in nicer surroundings) and began painting seriously-if that's the word. Some of his first buyers were clients he'd guided and he became such a presence as artist-in-residence at the lodge that the place began to feature once a week evenings when Bob would show his recent work.
In 1995, Bob and his wife Lisa were married in Alaska by the owner of the lodge where they both worked. (Because of its remoteness and sparse population, any Alaska resident can get a one-time commission to perform a marriage ceremony.) They now have a daughter, Tommy, who was born back home in Marine on St. Croix, Minnesota, on the opening day of duck season. Bob stopped guiding regularly in 2000 to paint full-time, but he keeps his hand in by hosting a trip to Argentina every year and by guiding a few days a month in season for the Hayward Flyfishing Company in Hayward, Wisconsin. In my experience, there are two kinds of retired guides: those who would rather have their teeth pulled than deal with another client and those who sort of miss it.
When I got around to asking Bob how he'd describe his painting style, he didn't have a ready answer and I got the impression that "style," the way art critics use the term, wasn't something he worried about. He did say that he'd gradually switched from watercolors to oils over the last decade and a half and that his work has been getting "looser and more impressionistic."
He lists Lassell Ripley, Eric Sloane, Chet Reneson and Eldridge Hardy as important influences. (Any artist who doesn't admire the work of others has either reached a pinnacle of the craft or, more likely, has become a conceited prick.) I'd have also guessed Winslow Homer and maybe even Edward Hopper, since Bob often paints apparently static scenes that somehow generate that same ineffable sense of expectation.

Bob said he doesn't mind being called an illustrator, even though in some artistic circles that's a pejorative term. The same thing was once said about Norman Rockwell: that he was technically proficient, but still "just an illustrator." Of course Rockwell's paintings were seen and appreciated by more people than any so-called serious artist of the time, so you have to suspect jealously.
Out in the real world, there's actually something compelling about a marketplace. The craft of painting isn't all there is to a work of art, but without solid craftsmanship there can't be anything more, and the only way to learn it is through constant repetition. A steady demand for their work is all the encouragement most artists need, and the pressure breeds diligent work habits as well as creativity without temperament. Working artists complain about deadlines almost as loudly as writers do, but they both know that without them the pace would be too slow, nothing would get done and the bills would go unpaid.
In the end, the distinction between illustration and fine art (or sporting art and real art) is like the difference between a bar and a bistro, that is, a higher price for the same glass of beer. The distinction is entirely arbitrary and reflects nothing but the snobbery of the beholder. The real standard is what Susan Ewing called, "the long-wearing excellence of getting things right."

John Gierach lives in Colorado; his latest book, Fool's Paradise, is available at flyrodreel.com Books. Bob White lives in Minnesota. For a look at all of Bob's Sporting Life paintings, and to order prints, go to www.white