Sunday, January 1, 2012

George Browne at Mt McKinley - and Happy New Year!

Well, we've made it safely to 2012 with our New Year's resolutions intact.  It's hard to break those resolutions only a few hours into the new year.  Mine include painting more intelligently and with direction, all with the goal of making me a more consistent painter.  What are your resolutions?

The other night, we were watching an episode of Ken Burns' The National Parks: America's Best Idea.  It was the third episode, which has a segment on Alaska's Mt McKinley, now known as Denali.  Burns presented a movie clip of the 1947 Washburn expedition preparing to make the ascent.  I suddenly caught sight of what looked a lot like a painter standing in front of a Gloucester easel.  I had to "rewind" and watch that clip again.  Burns didn't mention a painter in the narration.

After some research, I discovered that the expedition did, indeed, take along a painter.  It was George Browne, a one-eyed outdoor enthusiast who made 23 paintings on the climb.  Above is a still from the Burns movie, and here is one of his paintings.

Coincidentally, the Anchorage Museum will be hosting an exhibition of Browne's work this spring.  I wish I could visit Anchorage to see it.  From the Museum's website, here's a little about Browne and the exhibit:
Mt. McKinley has been painted innumerable times, but nobody tackled the scenery quite like George Browne (1918-1958). Undaunted by blindness in one eye, the outdoors enthusiast not only conquered the tallest mountain in North America, he created 23 oil paintings during the climb. 
These paintings are on view in the George Browne: Art of Altitude exhibition Feb. 3 through May 1 
In 1947 Browne reached the 20,320-foot summit as part of a Bradford Washburn-led scientific expedition. It was the fulfillment of a family goal that stretched back to his father Belmore’s unsuccessful attempts some 35 years earlier.  
Most artists in the younger Browne’s place would have chosen to sketch in pencil, waiting to paint until they returned to solid ground. Not Browne. In addition to his climbing gear and food, he carried canvases, brushes, paint and an easel. 
As the group ascended the mountain, he painted during periods of good weather. He carried the painted canvases in a plywood box designed so the wet paintings wouldn’t smear in transit.  
Some of Browne’s Mt. McKinley paintings have patches missing; others remain unfinished because snowstorms obscured his view. Mother Nature thwarted him completely at 11,000 feet, when temperatures reached 20-below zero and his paint froze.  
Browne died in a hunting accident in 1958 before he could touch up his Mt. McKinley paintings. They were never exhibited during his lifetime.
I admire Browne for making that trip.  I don't know if there's a more "extreme painter" !


Steve Doherty said...

Michael, Thanks so much for alerting me to this upcoming exhibition. I've contacted the museum in hopes of developing an article. Happy New Years, Steve

Michael Chesley Johnson said...

I think Browne will be a good subject, Steve.

Mary Pyche said...

If you add "how far he would walk for a plein air workshop spot" it would certainly sque your results! Thanks for this information. It got me wondering about different mediums and how they work in various weather conditions. Notice that it looks like he dug out a spot to work in. We have it easy.

Michael Chesley Johnson said...

Yeah, that's quite a hike! And I doubt I'll be painting at -20, so I'm not going to worry about paint freezing. :)

Bonnie Head said...

After living in Alaska for 45 years I finally had the opportunity to fly up Mt.McKinley and land on the glacier last summer. It was an experience of a lifetime and the photos taken could serve as a lifetime of paintings. We spent about 30 minutes on the glacier near base camp. The weather was warm and comfortable and we enjoyed being at such a high altitude if only for a short period, I must admit that the altitude must have been a handicap while painting along with all the other logistics. You are welcome to stay with us if you ever get north to paint...Summers only. I'm still in Kayenta in the Winter. Bonnie

Michael Chesley Johnson said...

Sounds like you had a great time, Bonnie! I don't know when I'll get to AK, but I'll let you know if I do!

daniela.. said...

Thank you for once again giving us such interesting information. We don't really have this sort of terrain in Australia (wish we did) but have some so called "characters" in the past: Horace Trennery who lived like a gypsy for the freedom to paint nature, his work is outstanding and only now recognised. There was a woman called Clarice Beckett who fashioned her own paint trolley to trudge up the hills to paint, she was considered a loon, in the days when women exhibited only under the names of their husbands..I look at all these adventurer artists like the one you showcase here and just love them for their intense love of art as much as for their great work.

Plein Air Gal said...

Now THAT'S inspiring!
I can't believe that I've watched those shows several times and never noticed the EASEL - guess I thought it was a surveyor with tripod.
Sad that the paintings weren't exhibited in his lifetime - but one has to wonder if he didn't WANT them shown? Eeek.