- Associated Press - Friday, January 15, 2016

MULVANE, Kan. (AP) - Theodore Waddell rejects the idea that creating thought-provoking art of the caliber exhibited in museums is the province of cities and their residents. As the Montana painter and sculptor sees it, themes critical to the human condition are laid bare in rural life and landscapes.

“We are constantly confronted by our own mortality by being involved with animals,” Waddell, who has spent much of his life as a rancher, wrote in an essay. “If you do not check the heifers at 3 a.m. during calving, or make a mistake in deciding whether to pull a calf, then a living creature dies. Not only are you responsible for the resultant death, you must deal with the disposal of the remains.”

A rancher, he goes on to explain, knows what it is like to shoot a deformed calf while the animal is looking at him. By contrast, human death is “antiseptic.”

“Someone shoots someone else with a gun and people with body bags and mops clean the spot before the five o’clock news,” he wrote.

It is this perspective, one of a man who has experience ranching and hunting, that comes out in an exhibit of sculptures opened Tuesday at Washburn University’s Mulvane Art Museum. This perspective is perhaps surprising, given the content of the collection: works that not only reflect on death but also question and even poke fun at gun ownership and hunting culture, The Topeka Capital-Journal reported (https://bit.ly/1OdvJqj ).

“Hallowed Absurdities,” on view at Mulvane Art Museum from Jan. 12 through March 5, includes Waddell’s witty faux guns made of animal bones and other materials that seem to challenge their own purpose. An automatic rifle cast entirely in salt is dubbed “A Salt Weapon.”

“There’s a lot of humor involved,” Waddell told The Topeka Capital-Journal in a recent interview, “and there’s a sinister aspect, too, if you take it in.”

The exhibit also includes carefully crafted game bags that evoke the shapes of specific creatures and appear designed to jolt the viewer’s ease with the death of animals: The canvas shapes are titled “body bags” instead of game bags.

The topics and medium are a departure from what Waddell is better known for expressive, sweeping landscape paintings that capture the beauty of prairie, herd animals and sky with alluring simplicity. Yet, Waddell has a long history of sculptural work.

Waddell’s hope for the exhibit is in part to generate conversation about guns in a country where “attitudes are almost set in concrete,” he said.

“These are things that we can talk about and should talk about in a reasoned fashion,” he added, explaining that he thinks humor and fiction can help people do that.

“Hallowed Absurdities” has shown in Billings, Montana; Fort Collins, Colorado; and Idaho Falls, Idaho, so far. In two of the locations, the exhibits included panel discussions on Second Amendment issues, a combination that will continue with a discussion Feb. 16 at Mulvane moderated by David Carter, Washburn’s visiting professor of ethics and leadership.

Connie Gibbons, director of the Mulvane, describes the exhibit as at times “tongue-in-cheek,” yet centered on serious subjects.

“It’s a really great example of how an artist is kind of responding to their personal experiences and their environment during the creative process,” Gibbons said.

Waddell’s voice on the topic, given his own relationship to guns, is unique, she said.

“He’s kind of poking at it himself, and using irony to challenge our presumptions,” she said. “And sometimes you need that to be able to have civil discourse or civil dialogue.”

Waddell has studios in Sheridan, Montana, and Hailey, Idaho. Last year, he received the Governor’s Arts Award in Montana.


Information from: The Topeka (Kan.) Capital-Journal, https://www.cjonline.com

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