A Conversation with Richie Carter on his Experience at the Mad Wolf ranch Artist Retreat
August 10th through the 13th, 2023 marked the first annual artist retreat hosted by Cassens Fine Art at Mad Wolf Ranch in Browning, Montana. This breathtaking locale, nestled just beyond the Eastern boundary of Glacier National Park, served as an idyllic backdrop for six accomplished plein air painters.
Among these talented individuals is Richie Carter, who is based out of Kalispell, Montana. He shares his fascination with realism and working from direct observation with every painting. In an exclusive conversation with Cassens Fine Art, Richie Carter shares his journey of artistic growth and exploration, offering viewers a chance to connect with the shared thread that runs through the captivating scenes painted during the retreat and the lasting memories created while painting with fellow artists.
Can you share your initial impressions upon arriving at Mad Wolf Ranch and experiencing the surroundings of East Glacier and Glacier National Park?
Well, it's an area I've known since my childhood. However, I'd never ventured far off the highway outside of East Glacier before. So finally having the opportunity to spend time at the ranch overlooking the park was incredibly special for me. I'd driven past this area countless times over the years, but this was a chance to truly immerse myself. When I pulled up to the ranch, I was expecting something amazing, but I was genuinely surprised by just how incredible it was. The homestead, the tents, the pathways, everything about it was like a dream. It felt like being at an adult summer camp, but in the best possible way.
What were your expectations for the retreat, and how did those expectations evolve as the days unfolded?
I've participated in various paint-outs before, whether plein air or similar gatherings with artist friends. So I came in with the expectation of getting together with like-minded artists to create some great paintings and enjoy some good laughs. It definitely lived up to those expectations, but it had something extra special. The group itself was exceptional, but the location played a huge role. Typically, we'd stay in a house and have to drive around to find the perfect painting spots. But here, everything was conveniently located on the property, which was a unique and pleasant surprise. While we did venture into Glacier Park, we really didn't have to. I could have happily painted there for weeks. What amazed me most was how readily available the stunning landscapes were.
It must have felt like an artistic playground in many ways.
Exactly, an artistic playground.
Were there any particular moments or aspects of the retreat that left a lasting impact on you?
I'd say there were several moments that are etched in my memory. That's quite rare for me, and it brought me immense joy. I felt incredibly inspired throughout the entire retreat. Normally, I'm always thinking about painting, but when I'm out in the field, I sometimes struggle to find that space where I truly understand how to represent the landscape with paint. However, during that week, everything seemed to align perfectly, and I created numerous pieces with pure joy. These paintings hold strong memories for me, and the process of creating them was a true delight. As any artist would tell you, painting can be a challenge, but there are moments when it just flows effortlessly, and you get to reap the rewards of your hard work. Those moments are some of the most satisfying in art creation. I credit a large part of this creative flow to the wonderful artists I was with. We had so much fun; I laughed to tears at least five times. The entire experience, from the landscape to the people, will stay with me for a long time.
What elements of the East Glacier landscapes resonated with you the most and served as inspiration for your artwork?
I often get teased by my painter friends because I have a thing for painting what some might call "lifeless" scenes, like dead grass and arid landscapes. To me, those arid landscapes are incredibly beautiful. East Glacier offered endless fields of that, stretching up into the mountains, and I was in my element. It's exactly what I love to paint. I enjoy highlighting the beauty in things that might seem mundane or easily overlooked. When you achieve that with paint, it can make a scene look even better than reality or capture something deeper than a mere photograph could. Landscapes with sagebrush and dead grass, they speak to me. I feel like I can draw out their hidden beauty, and it's right up my alley. So, it was a fantastic experience all around.
Can you describe the emotions and feelings you aim to capture in your paintings based on the retreat experience?
It's an interesting question because when I paint, my work often comes across as very emotive, and people can sense the underlying emotion, even though I don't set out with a specific emotion in mind. It's as if the act of painting itself evokes emotions. Perhaps there's an element of melancholy but also a sense of something gained. It's akin to a poignant, not necessarily sad, but deeply evocative song—one that stirs feelings of longing or nostalgia. So, with this particular place, I want to capture its rich history. It's a location that has seen countless artists come and go, and it's situated in the midst of land that has witnessed significant change, including the native culture. It carries a heavy and profound story, but it's also inherently beautiful. My aim is to somehow draw out those emotions or make people connect with them.
I completely understand what you mean, like a powerful song that touches you on a deeper level, even if you can't quite define the emotion it evokes.
Exactly, it reaches into your heart and pulls out something unexpected but intriguing.
Were there any specific challenges you faced during the creative process, and how did you overcome them?
Honestly, every time I approach the palette, it's a challenge. I was discussing this with Turner earlier. Painting often pushes you to the edge, mentally and emotionally. You're aiming to create something beautiful, and you have to do it in the moment, especially when you're painting on-site. Overcoming this challenge is a matter of perspective. I remind myself that if I produce a bad painting, it's not the end of the world. I think of it as just one more bad painting out of my system, bringing me closer to a good one. I try not to take it too seriously or personally. It's easy to get discouraged and think, "I can't paint anymore" after a few bad paintings in a row. But I've learned to keep showing up, let go of the bad ones, and trust that better paintings will follow. The times when I produce subpar work often coincide with periods of growth, even though I might feel frustrated with those paintings. Recognizing this helps me overcome the challenges that come with painting.
Did you find any surprising sources of inspiration that influenced your work differently from what you initially anticipated?
Yes, I actually have a painting here, a small aspen painting. I'm planning to hold onto it for myself, and I'm working on a larger version of it right now, fine-tuning the final details. This one stands out because I had never painted aspen trees before, subjects that many artists have tackled. I initially thought it was a complicated subject with lots of nuances, and I wasn't sure if I could pull it off, especially plein air. But I decided to jump in and give it a try. Surprisingly, it all fell into place beautifully. I got into the zone, observed meticulously, and captured the colors just as I wanted them. It was unexpected because I hadn't ventured into this subject matter before, and now I'm eager to explore it further. It's fascinating how one little painting on a random day can make you view painting in a whole new light or inspire you to experiment with new ideas.
How did your interactions with fellow artists during the retreat contribute to your creative process and the evolution of your pieces?
Well, Ken and I share a studio, so having that camaraderie and another artist's presence is something I'm used to. We've hiked together in Glacier before, so it's an integral part of my creative process. When artists come together, regardless of their skill levels, it's a fantastic experience. You can gain so much from painting with others and share in the energy. I've noticed that some artists are hesitant to paint around others, but I believe there's a unique opportunity in those moments, even if it feels uncomfortable. I've had the privilege of painting alongside artists I greatly admire, and initially, I was terrified, feeling like I didn't know anything compared to them. But once you let go of your ego and pride, you can learn and grow immensely. We had a lot of fun during the retreat, and that was truly amazing. It was a magical experience where vulnerability and camaraderie took center stage.
Were there any breakthrough moments or insights you gained about your artistry while working on your paintings at Mad Wolf Ranch?
That aspen painting made me realize the significance of taking chances and embracing what you may fear or have been putting off, especially if you're driven to explore it. Sometimes, you just need to take that leap and see what unfolds because you might be pleasantly surprised. This, for me, was a profound realization during the retreat.
Could you provide a behind-the-scenes glimpse into your artistic routine during the retreat, from the initial concept to the final strokes of a piece?
Starting a painting can often be one of the most challenging aspects for artists. However, during a retreat or paint-out, you don't have the luxury of procrastination. You're there to paint, so you simply have to begin. Overcoming that initial hurdle is crucial. Personally, I find great enjoyment in the early stages of a painting when you're faced with a blank canvas, and the first marks you make are free from the pressure of perfection. I usually like to tone the canvas with a light gray-brown shade, and those initial brushstrokes allow for artistic freedom. They're not about matching anything or drawing anything specific; they serve to create a neutral canvas with beautiful color and value shifts.
From that starting point, I gradually construct the painting, almost as if I'm extracting it from the canvas. Layer by layer, I build up the scene until it takes shape before me. During this retreat, I set a specific goal: to focus on texture. While many artists can depict what something looks like, I wanted to concentrate on conveying texture. One of the paintings, which I'll showcase at the upcoming exhibition, depicted a simple scene with bushes, devoid of grand mountains or extravagant features. Yet, the painting's essence was captured in the texture of those bushes.
Plein air painting typically involves working within a limited time frame, usually one or two hours, and creating one or two layers. However, the process can become quite indirect as you layer things up, even within the constraints of a plein air session. During the retreat, I felt that wonderful sense of flow where I became entirely absorbed in the painting and the scene before me. It's a remarkable feeling when you instinctively know what to apply, where, and when.
As for recognizing when a painting is finished, that's a common question. I find it's crucial not to push a painting too far within the time constraints, such as a two-hour session. I aim to stay within that time frame and accept that some pieces may not reach a more refined level. Each painting is unique, and the process of determining when to stop varies from one artwork to another.
Each artwork tells a story. Can you elaborate on the story or the additional emotions you aim to convey through your pieces from the retreat, whether it's an overall theme or a specific piece?
Many of the paintings created on-site during plein air sessions aren't necessarily intended to be masterpieces. Often, they serve as exercises or practice, akin to doing push-ups. The primary objective is to get out there, observe the surroundings, and capture visual notes rather than creating an inspired piece of art.
However, for me, whenever I paint, especially when I enter that artistic zone, I find that my emotions and experiences naturally seep into my work. Earlier, I mentioned the story of the land and being on the reservation. This particular land has a deep and profound history, not only with the people who have lived on it but also with the wildlife. I've initiated a series, which I've only just begun, but I plan to continue, to tell the story of what presided over that landscape even without human presence.
One of the icons of this landscape, for me, is the bison. Fortunately, the ranch had bison, and I want to create larger paintings that incorporate these magnificent creatures. The series is titled "I Once Roamed." Through these paintings, I aim to depict not only the majesty of bison but also the reality of their existence today. The presence of man-made elements within the landscapes signifies that these animals are no longer truly free. This series seeks to convey both the contemporary reality of the West, where wild bison are a rarity, and the nostalgia for the past.
I want to tell a story that goes beyond the historical narrative of how bison were hunted by Native Americans. Instead, I aim to shed light on our contemporary relationship with these creatures and the preservation efforts in place. It's a story that holds heartbreak and beauty, even in the face of changing landscapes.
While the smaller works I'll be showcasing may not explicitly tell this larger story, it's the narrative that Mad Wolf Ranch inspired in me, and I hope to bring it to life through my art in the future.
Were there any personal connections, memories, or experiences that you infused into your artwork, making it uniquely yours?
One example is the larger version of the trees painting that I'm working on in addition to the smaller pieces. I'm striving to capture the essence of the forest's layers, both technically and emotionally. While I don't want to simply replicate the smaller painting, as that's impossible, I aim to convey the same feeling by focusing on texture and depth.
On a technical level, I'm experimenting with layering to represent the many layers within a forest. The smaller painting, though different, evoked something special, and I'm trying to avoid copying it outright. Instead, I want to replicate the feeling through texture, ensuring the birch trees feel textured rather than appearing perfectly smooth or photorealistic.
In essence, I wish to use this painting as a metaphor for layers, reflecting how landscapes are composed of numerous strata. Painting offers a unique medium to construct these layers and convey the mystery of how a forest comes together, grows, and feels.
Looking ahead to the upcoming show at Cassens Fine Art, what do you hope viewers will take away from your artwork on display and the collective experience of the retreat?
I hope viewers will have the opportunity to see the connections between the various artists' renditions. Despite choosing different perspectives to paint, I believe viewers will easily recognize the shared thread running through these scenes, realizing that they all originate from the same captivating area.
Throughout my career, like any artist, there are moments of noticeable growth that begin to manifest in the artwork. These smaller paintings were my initial indicators that such growth was occurring. Especially for those familiar with my work, especially my plein air pieces, they may notice a significant shift in my style. Even from social media, some have remarked on this growth, and it's exciting for me to acknowledge that development. Painting in such an incredible location with inspiring people contributed to this growth. I can see it in these paintings, and it's energizing to think about the possibilities this growth will open up in my future work.
I have a busy schedule with several big paintings and shows scheduled for the next six months. I haven't even started most of the work yet, but I'm excited because I know these experiences will enrich my upcoming creations.
Is there a specific memory or moment from the retreat that you anticipate will stay with you forever?
Painting with Turner and Ken was a memorable experience. We had these moments where we found ourselves out in the early morning hours, completely delirious but in a state of camaraderie. It's the kind of experience you wouldn't typically have on your own. I rarely do it alone, but it's what I like to call "type 2 fun." In the moment, it might not feel like fun, but afterward, you realize how enriching and memorable it was.
One particular memory that stands out is our early morning trek through Many Glacier. We woke up at 4 in the morning, all feeling incredibly tired, but then we started laughing about seemingly trivial things. We painted, shared these moments, and moved on. It's these “type 2 fun” experiences that tend to stick with you.
“Stories of the Soil: Scenes From Mad Wolf Ranch” featuring works from the annual artist retreat hosted by Cassens Fine Art will be on display at Cassens Fine Art for the month of October, with an artist's reception taking place on October 6th, 2023. Gallery patrons are invited to come to the reception to view the pieces and meet the artists behind them, including Richie Carter.