Through oil and watercolor, John Rhett captures the beauty of the ordinary on canvas. The subjects of his paintings are often rural Midwestern landscapes, the kind Americans too often take for granted.
On Friday, Jan. 25, Hillsdale students had the opportunity to attend a reception for Rhett’s ongoing art exhibit and discuss anything from artistic technique to the role of painting in society today. Rhett is a contemporary painter and chair of the art department at Houghton College. Hillsdale’s art department hosted Rhett to expose students to the work and reflections of a contemporary artist.
The selection of paintings exhibited, Rhett told students, were a small fraction of a drawer full of less-successful attempts to encapsulate natural beauty: “You do a stack of ‘em, and they’re in the drawer, and you know, they’re terrible”.
Art major Heidi Yacoubian chimed in, laughing.
“That’s like 90 percent of artists’ work,” she said.
Rhett’s scenes of roads, forests, and open fields, subjected to the different times of day and seasons of the year, highlight nature’s cyclical beauty.
Even for a professional painter, “clumsy handling” and “overworking” a piece can cause a simple watercolor of a Midwestern road to fail, Rhett told students.
Rhett discussed how the medium of painting fits into modern society.
“You ask anybody, they can’t name a contemporary painter, but they can name a famous movie director,” he said.
Thus, Rhett observes that the “language” of painting does not play as essential of a role in intellectual and aesthetic conversation as it did in the past. Though the medium of painting is less prominent today, Rhett’s work demonstrates how paintings can intrigue an artist’s audience.
Many students discussed how familiar Rhett’s simple outdoors scenes seemed to them, and Rhett’s work is characterized by the accessibility of his subjects. But these commonplace scenes often connect the viewer by using nostalgic memories and familiar lines of poetry.
The title of one of Rhett’s oil-on-canvas pieces, “Lovely, Dark, and Deep” alludes to Robert Frost’s poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” Other interesting titles include: “The Bridge, Hume” and “The Approach.”
Professor of art Julio Suarez said that for art students in particular, exhibitions like these offer contemporary examples of what students ought to aim for in their own artwork, so they can develop some of the skills used by visiting artists.
If possible, Bushey and Suarez stated, it’s ideal for the art department to exhibit artwork that demonstrates the techniques students are currently learning.
When asked how he connects poetry and abstract ideas to his work, Rhett said there is not a specific pattern to his literary allusions.
“Things bubble up, your mind is like a salad,” he said. “Things just come and go. I don’t think linearly, I just jump from thought to thought.”
Many of Rhett’s paintings feature roads, which he attributed to his frequent road travel.
“When you’re on the road everything becomes sort of ‘fly-by country.’ For us Americans, roads are so ubiquitous,” Rhett said.
Rhett said he finds nature creates her own beauty and variety that surpasses, in many cases, human attempts to manufacture excitement and intrigue.
“Enlightenment comes during ordinary moments. The day to day things: You come to prefer them,” he said.
Professor of art Barbara Bushey pointed out that Rhett’s roads are no different from some of the roads around Hillsdale.
“Sometimes, especially in Hillsdale, we think, ‘Oh, here we are in the middle of the cornfield,’ but there is beauty there too,” Bushey said.