A Conversation with Turner Vinson on his Experience at the Mad Wolf 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 impressionist painter, Turner Vinson. He resides in the Bitterroot Valley in Southwestern Montana and has painted from coast to coast and internationally. In an exclusive conversation with Cassens Fine Art, Turner Vinson shares his unwavering commitment to artistic growth, the power of standing confidently in your individualism as an artist, and how every moment has the power to inspire his ever-evolving and captivating artwork.
Can you please share your initial impressions upon arriving at Mad Wolf Ranch and experiencing the surroundings of East Glacier and Glacier National Park?
This was my first time on the eastern side of Glacier National Park, and I came in from the south. The drive was fantastic, with wide farmland stretching out to the east, and the iconic eastern front on the left.
As I pulled into the ranch itself, it's exactly what any artist would dream of – intriguing subjects right at your fingertips. There were countless angles to explore. You know a spot is ideal for painting when you can turn in circles, walk around one cluster of trees, then another, and in every direction, you see potential for a masterpiece. The ranch, without a doubt, had that charm. Everywhere you looked, there was a stunning landscape waiting to be captured on canvas.
I imagine, as an artist, you must have felt a strong connection to the place.
It was almost overwhelming, to be honest. I primarily work on location, spending a lot of time outdoors painting. So, when I get to a place like this for just a few days, it's a bit frustrating because I want to stay for a month. That's where you really get to spend time and you really get to dig in. It's one of those places that you can't help but fall in love with. I'm certain that when the opportunity arises, I'll be back to fully explore this extraordinary location.
What were your expectations for the retreat? And how did those expectations evolve as the days unfolded?
Honestly, my expectations were quite clear as I had spoken with Michelle extensively about the weekend. I think it unfolded perfectly. Sometimes, gatherings or events organized by galleries can feel overwhelming due to packed schedules, but Michelle managed it perfectly by allowing each artist room to breathe. She offered suggestions to explore, like seeing the bison or visiting Glacier, without imposing any strict expectations. What we all desired was freedom, as our lives as artists are characterized by that freedom. Occasionally, when attending an event, it can feel restrictive, but not in this case.
were there any particular moments or aspects of the retreat that left a lasting impact on you?
Yes and no. I can't pinpoint a single specific moment, but a scene that lingers in my mind is after we encountered the bison. We drove up to a high point, stepped out, and the view etched itself into my memory. I want to return to that spot; it's like a calling. As landscape painters, we develop deep emotional connections to our surroundings. Occasionally, not very often, you stumble upon those places that just resonate with you, and that was one such spot. I took a photograph, envisioning the incredible fall colors it would offer.
In terms of a lasting impact, most of us artists lead rather solitary lives, and we cherish that solitude. However, spending three days with fellow artists whom you deeply respect is a different experience altogether. It's not like hanging out at a co-op gallery or with artists of varying skill levels; we were all there for a reason. The camaraderie was potent and reminded me why many of us participate in events or paint-outs – to experience that sense of togetherness. It was truly wonderful, absolutely wonderful.
What elements of the East Glacier landscapes resonated with you the most and served as inspiration for your artwork?
I would say that what particularly caught my attention is the approach to the mountains from the ranch. You see, in places like the Tetons in Jackson Hole, the transition from flatland to mountains is rather abrupt, almost harsh. It can be challenging for artists to navigate this visually. They often try to solve this problem by introducing elements like bodies of water to soften the transition. However, on the east side of Glacier, the landscape leading up to the mountains is just ideal. There are hillsides that rise and fall, flat valleys, objects approaching the viewer, creating a beautiful flow toward the mountains. This, to me, is the perfect scenario.
Absolutely, it sounds like a gentler transition for the eyes.
Yes, it's a softer visual journey, and there's genuine visual interest as you make your way towards the mountains. It's not just flatlands followed by mountains; there's a captivating lead-up, and that's what I find truly beautiful.
Can you describe the emotions and feelings you aim to capture in your paintings based on the retreat experience?
Well, my goal in my art, in general, isn't particularly influenced by the event itself, but rather by the feelings and emotions I constantly seek to convey. The challenge for artists often lies in translating our inner vision and emotions onto the canvas. When that happens, it's the sweet spot, the magic moment.
What I appreciate most about the landscape is its wild, unpredictable nature. While there are natural processes at play, visually, it appears random to us. We couldn't predict the specific outline of a mountain or the shape of a creek. It changes with the rise and fall of water, and there's a wild, almost untamed energy to it. That's what I strive to capture in my paintings—the raw power and force of nature's randomness.
What's fascinating about this event, and what I think will be exciting about the upcoming show, is that we're a diverse group of artists. You'll talk to others who focus on finding quiet, calm, and peaceful stillness in their art. Meanwhile, I'm the one with guns blazing, going all out, embracing that intense energy. Doing it in a place like The Ranch, where you're visually stimulated at every turn, is the ultimate experience. Hopefully, the October show will reflect that energy.
Were there any specific challenges you faced during the creative process and how did you overcome them?
Yes, there was one huge day of complete failure. It happened when we ventured into Glacier National Park, an area I had never been to before. I'm watching the sunrise on this crazy, amazing mountain, and part of me was saying subconsciously, “Just do something simple. Do some studies. Take it easy.” And then the other side of me, which usually is more dominant, was saying, “No, absolutely go for it. Full throttle. There's no time for thinking. Let's just paint.” I totally bombed two paintings in a row, and then I overcame it by saying, “Okay, your first thought was correct. Let's calm down. Let's do some little studies. Let's take it easy.” I redeemed myself with a couple of nice little sketches.
Did you find any surprising sources of inspiration that influenced your work differently from what you initially anticipated?
Absolutely. When it comes to my artwork and how I approach it, I see everything as a potential source of inspiration. I wouldn't necessarily label anything as surprising because I'm always absorbing my surroundings. It's about taking it all in.
I think what sets my process apart from many other artists is that I want to capture a wide range of experiences. I'm not limited to one particular type of weather or season. I want to paint on cloudy, cold, rainy days, as well as during sunny days, the dead of winter, and the vibrant colors of fall and spring. I want to embrace all these facets of nature.
The challenge, especially during this event, was to work in a new area where I had no prior familiarity and try to produce my best work. That's quite a daunting task.
When you're in a specific area for an extended period, you become intimately familiar with it, allowing you to understand its visual elements and translate them onto the canvas. But in a new place, everything is expedited. You must quickly figure out how to work with the unfamiliar surroundings.
That sounds like a significant challenge.
It is. It's exponentially more challenging. What many people may not realize is the emotional aspect of trying to create something you're truly proud of, especially in a new area, surrounded by fellow artists. The pressure to perform and produce quality work can be overwhelming. You have to reach a point where you say, "Screw perfection." My personal philosophy is always to be willing to fail. Embrace it. That's where the real magic happens – when you're unhindered by concerns about perfection or adherence to nature's exact appearance. It's about creating and letting your skills develop over time to produce work you enjoy, and hopefully, others will enjoy it too.
How did your interactions with fellow artists during the retreat contribute to your creative process and the evolution of your pieces?
You know, there were moments when we were all painting scenes together, and there's a unique sense of camaraderie that comes with that. As artists, we're often solitary creatures. Personally, I usually paint alone, and about 99% of my time is spent that way. We try to avoid being repetitive in our subject matter, but at the end of the day, we're still individuals with our own preferences and tendencies.
When you find yourself painting alongside others, there's a part of you that says, "Don't let their work influence you; stick to your own vision." But then you can't help but observe what they're doing. Not only did I see fellow artists creating beautiful pieces, but there was also this wonderful sense of camaraderie in standing there together, studying the same scene and representing it in our own unique ways. There's something truly special about that experience.
Absolutely. I could sense that just from observing the times when all of you were painting together in the same area. It was really fascinating to see how one scene could be translated in so many different ways onto every canvas. That was quite powerful.
Indeed, it's incredible how diverse and inspiring the interpretations can be when a group of artists tackles the same subject. It's one of the beautiful aspects of creating art in a collaborative setting like this retreat.
Were there any breakthrough moments or insights you gained about your artistry while working on your paintings at Mad Wolf Ranch?
I did have a sort of confirmation and validation of an idea that had been cycling through my mind. This is one of the great things about interacting with fellow artists – you have these ideas bouncing around in your head, and then you see others respond to them in person, not just through Instagram or the supportive comments from your family. It's other respected artists reacting and confirming the ideas that have been brewing in your mind.
At this particular event, we set out to paint the sunset, and I brought a massive 48X48 inch canvas. In my mind, it was probably one of the dumbest ideas I've had in a while, and trust me, I've had my fair share of questionable ideas over the years. But as we stood on that hill during that hour with the sunset, I managed to make a great start on a painting that I'm now finishing up in the studio for our upcoming show.
It was during that moment, through interaction with other artists, that I received confirmation that going for that huge canvas wasn't as foolish as I initially thought. The painting I started immediately captured something I was searching for, and now I just need to complete it. Ideally, I would revisit that sunset scene three, four, or even five times within a couple of weeks, but in this scenario, it was a one-session thing. Nonetheless, it was nice to have that interaction with fellow artists and gain the confirmation that this approach can work – you can take a 48X48 canvas and create a stunning sunset painting.
Could you share a behind-the-scenes glimpse into your artistic routine during the retreat from the initial concept to the final strokes? You mentioned the 48X48 canvas, but could you take us through the process?
Absolutely. My creative process often involves looking beyond the initial scene, the obvious view that catches my eye. I'm constantly seeking ways to make it more interesting, to dig deeper than that first impression. I explore various elements – different angles, spending time walking around rather than immediately setting up my easel and starting to paint.
I enjoy taking my time. I like to meander around and find something that intrigues me. Sometimes, I berate myself, thinking I'm procrastinating or wasting too much time. But what I've learned from my years as a painter is that creativity needs time and space. When I feel rushed or confined by deadlines, my creative flow becomes challenging.
So, I give myself the luxury of time and space to consider, to explore, to look deeply. I search for something that genuinely captivates me. I try to be as selfish as possible in this regard, wanting to be so excited about my subject that I can't help but invest my time and energy into it. I believe that the love and care I put into my work translate into the painting. When others see it, they can sense that passion, and that's when they start to enjoy it. It's not just a selfish act; it's about caring deeply for something, and I believe people respond to that.
As I walk around the ranch, evaluating scenes, I consider all these aspects. I recently spoke with someone about this, and they had an "aha" moment – the painting experience isn't purely visual. It's not just about seeing something and wanting to capture it. There's a personal aspect to it. I may see something visually spectacular, but it doesn't move me. On the other hand, there might be something less impressive in terms of grandeur, but it holds a unique visual interest that resonates with me.
Once I've settled on a scene, I contemplate how to compose it on the canvas. I aim for a composition that feels pleasing and natural, yet I also seek to infuse it with energy. In my paintings, you might notice a bit of awkwardness or a sense of clumsiness, even in the way it's painted. I'm not necessarily striving for the perfect golden mean composition. I want something dynamic in the landscape.
For instance, if I paint a group of aspens, it's not just about checking off a list of criteria to make it interesting. Every scene is different, and I aspire to create unique and specific compositions for each canvas. I could paint the same landscape for a month and avoid repeating myself. I want to experience the woods in one painting, then be on top of a mountain for another, standing in the water, or on the edge with a different perspective. My compositions vary – some are vertical, some square – because I don't want to follow a formula.
I want to avoid the cliché, the predictable S-curve river, the big mountain on the right, and the little tree on the left – something you could conjure with your eyes closed. I seek to find something distinctive and specific in every canvas. That's my goal.
Each artwork tells a story. Can you elaborate on the story or emotion you aim to convey through your pieces as a whole from the retreat or any specific pieces from the retreat?
Similar to some of my previous responses, my goal is to capture this elusive energy, wildness, and randomness that nature embodies. Nature isn't flat; it's dimensional and full of texture – something I absolutely love. So, I strive to convey that in my work. I look for areas where I can apply paint in different directions, creating thick and thin textures, scraping, scratching, smudging, using my fingers, the back of the brush, and employing brushes of various sizes.
This variety of textures, shapes, and dimensions in my paintings echo the diversity found in nature, whether it's the variety of plants, textures, or shapes in the landscape. I want my paintings to feel tactile, like something you'd want to touch – an experience that goes beyond just visual appreciation. That's what really excites me, and I try to capture it in every canvas.
When you look at one of your paintings up close, you see one thing, and stepping back, you see something entirely different. It mirrors the way nature works – up close, you see details, and from a distance, you see the bigger picture. Your talent in capturing that is truly remarkable.
Thank you. When I'm up close to a painting, I want to explore every detail and savor the wild, unpredictable intricacies that come to life on the canvas. And when you step back, it transforms into a coherent landscape. Striking that balance is something I'm always striving for – knowing when the painting has everything it needs and nothing more. Sometimes I have to step back and remove excess or simplify, allowing the essence of the scene to shine through.
Were there any personal connections, memories, or experiences that you infused into the pieces you created at Mad Wolf Ranch, making them uniquely yours?
It's interesting when you're working alongside other artists, especially those whose painting styles differ significantly from your own. There's often a subtle pressure to adapt or change, to maybe calm down a bit if you're naturally inclined to be wild and unconventional in your approach. In my case, it's essential for me to remind myself to stay true to what I enjoy, even in the midst of that pressure. I must keep at the forefront of my mind the things that make life and painting interesting to me.
While working alongside others can be inspiring and might lead you to places you wouldn't have ventured alone, it's crucial to maintain your own voice. For instance, I hadn't planned on going up the hill at sunset with a 48X48-inch canvas, but when others decided to do it, I found myself joining in. Still, I had to continuously remind myself that I'm here to be influenced by others and the location we chose, but I also need to create a painting I'm genuinely proud of.
I didn't want to be peeking over someone's shoulder, second-guessing myself, or feeling the need to change my entire approach. It's about staying in your lane and capturing the elements that excite you. So, in a way, it's about navigating that connection with others while remaining consistent with your own artistic voice.
Looking ahead to the upcoming show at Cassens Fine Art, what do you want viewers to take away from your artwork in the collective experience of the retreat? You mentioned texture and experiencing nature, but is there anything more you'd like to expand on or any other messages you'd like people to glean from your art and the retreat?
I hope viewers can find a connection in these paintings. Not necessarily similarities or stylistic cohesion, but rather a sense of unity in this collection. These pieces were created by a diverse group of artists, each with their unique tastes and approaches to painting, but they share a common thread – we painted them side by side, experiencing the same landscapes together.
I often like to think that when I send a painting to someone, it's like sending a piece of Montana, a slice of nature, into their home. With this show, there's a genuine feeling of sharing a piece of Mad Wolf Ranch with the audience. I hope the collection as a whole conveys this sense of unity, not in visual style, but in the shared experience of a group of artists standing on the same land and creating. That's the outcome I'm aiming for with this show.
As an artist, how do you feel the retreat has influenced your creative journey and how might it continue to shape your future work?
In all honesty, I'd say not at all. This is something we all do. We could sit down sometime and contemplate how to make the biggest impact with this gallery. Many galleries host paint-outs and get-togethers, but not every gallery has its own ranch by Glacier. But for me, personally, it's just another day doing what I love, albeit in a beautiful place with others. I don't think I've had a particularly lasting experience from it.
I understand your perspective. It seems like you're very rooted in who you are as an artist and a person. Your environment or who you're with doesn't necessarily change your artistic expression. It's always you with everything around you.
Yes, exactly. It's about staying true to yourself even amidst different surroundings. You want to be open to new experiences, but it's still within your creative wheelhouse. The hope is that your familiarity with the process shines through in your paintings, making them feel natural and authentic.
Absolutely, your unique artistic voice is unwavering, regardless of the setting. Those moments when people truly see your art and connect with it on a deep level are the ones that keep you going.
Yes, those are the highlight moments that fuel my enthusiasm to keep going. They remind me why I'm on this path, and I'm grateful for every one of them.
Probably the best compliment I've ever received was painting here in Hamilton by the river. Someone approached me from behind my canvas. Initially they couldn’t see what I was painting–I was painting on a really big canvas. Other people had come around the corner asking questions like, “Who are you doing this for?” “Do you do this for a living or is this a commission?”
But this one woman approached me from behind my canvas. She came around and when she saw the painting, she looked at me, pointed at the canvas and she said, “This is what you do. This is who you are.”
At that moment, I thought, “Okay, I think I can retire.” Someone had just so specifically identified just by looking, just by seeing me covered in paint–head to toe, seeing me out by the river, and they got it–full package; this is who you are, this is what you do.
Those are the moments where you're like, I think I'm on the right path.
That story gives me chills. It sounds like a divine voice coming through another person and seeing you–truly seeing you and saying, “Hey, I see you.”
What's funny about that particular story is it was like, it was at Skalkaho Bend. It was about a 10-minute walk to the location where I painted that piece, and I had to do it multiple times because I couldn't carry everything. When I was making the trips back and forth between my car and the site I thought, “I didn't sign up for this to be easy. I'm okay with it being hard. I like to do hard things and I will just push through this.”
There’s also these moments where you think, “Wow, this is a lot. I'm exhausting myself. I probably could make this a little easier.”But then you have an experience like that, where this person confirmed to you that this is worth it. You should keep doing this.
What personal insights or growth did you experience as an artist during your time at Mad Wolf Ranch? And how do you see these reflections manifesting in your art moving forward?
My driving force isn't solely to produce nice paintings; it's about pushing myself to grow. At 35, I'm excited about the potential for my art in the next 30-40 years. What excites me more than today's work is what I'll create in five, ten, or even twenty years. So, painting at the ranch was about immersing myself in a stimulating environment and seeking progress with each canvas. It's not about repeating a successful formula but pushing boundaries and aiming for growth. Even when we face pressure, like painting alongside accomplished artists for an upcoming show, it helps us progress. Mad Wolf Ranch pushed us to stay true to ourselves, keep progressing, and test our abilities in new environments. It's about embracing the challenges and the pressure to keep evolving as an artist.
Is there a specific memory or moment from the retreat that you anticipate will stay with you forever?
One moment that stands out is when we were driving out to see the bison. There was this massive male bison separated from the pack, perched on a hill about 15 feet away from us. We stopped the trucks, and there he was, this wild beast against a beautiful blue sky. It felt timeless and connected to the history of bison in the area. We all snapped photos, and it's a moment I hadn't considered painting at the time, but now I think maybe I should. It reminds me of the distinction between moments we experience and those we paint. It's a unique memory I'd like to capture on canvas.
“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 Turner Vinson.