Bobbie McKibbin has been called “the best landscape painter in the Midwest.”
A flock of wild turkeys have staked out territory on the lawn in front of McKibbin’s studio and it is humbling to think I must now weave my way through them.
The still-summer sun of central Montana seems oppressive now and the dust I stirred up on the drive in is just now starting to settle.
My dog lunges at the glass on the passenger side of the car and snarls at the birds. I take a moment before getting out.
Before making the drive to McKibbin’s Stevensville, Montana, studio I sat stone-faced in front of one of her paintings in the lobby of the Stevensville Hotel asking myself the difficult question: What is it about this painting that captures me so?
This simple picture of a plain, tall, off-white fence, a slight hint of roadway in the foreground, and a row of soft green evergreens leading my eye from right to left, sends me into a memory of intense feelings.
I have seen this fence many times before, I am sure of it. I have walked alongside it at some time in my life, daring all the while to pull myself up and look over.
McKibbin, who recently retired from her teaching position at Grinnell College in Grinnell, Iowa, has been splitting her time between the rural landscapes of Montana and Iowa for years.
Never far from the academics of painting, she is quick to remind me that art is storytelling at some level. Furthermore, she wants “to be the most explicit storyteller I can be, so I can promise a viewer, ‘That’s what I saw. That’s real. That’s what is.’”
The painting of the long white fence is something real. It is what is.
McKibbin explains to me that she chose pastels because they fit nicely into her teaching schedule. She could paint right up until class time, dust off her hands, and then just walk away. Now some thirty years later, it is still the simplicity of working with pastels that keeps McKibbin hard at work in her studio.
My paintings are “facts, nothing more,” she tells me.
On the floor of her studio there is a rather detailed charcoal sketch of the Sandhills of Nebraska. After making the initial black-and-white sketch, she proceeds to “destroy it with colour.” The colour just makes the whole scene more factual and “facts are what take us places.”
McKibbin’s pastels do take me places.
Bitterroot Storm takes me to a place and a time when I had both the ambition and the inclination to sit alone in a big space and let the landscape just wash over me.
Her Carey Farm-Western Iowa pulls me down real close to the ground and serves notice that farming is all about learning to live well in hard times.
In fact all her work seems to give notice that the impulse to paint a particular place, or to live a particular life for that matter, is less about observation and more about encounter.
The encounter McKibbin wants her viewer to have is with beauty. Though beauty in her work is often little more that a roadway running off and away into a narrowing distance, or a tall off-white fence of some mysterious height, or a plume of thin grayish steam rising from warm earth, we must keep in mind that without beauty, we are forever destined to remain exiles.
Beauty grounds us immediately. It sits us down and brings us right home.
McKibbin, and Shirley, her life-long mate of 30 years, are anything but exiles. A tour of their home on the outskirts of Stevensville is evidence that once turned loose, beauty invades all of life. Beauty can awaken us and show us new ways to live amid the chaos of the world.
McKibbin talks with me on the landing that leads from her studio to the main part of the house. I listen to her but I look past her and I can begin to see just how impossible it is to separate art from the artist.
Two hours with her and I begin to see just how one can arrange a life much like one arranges a painting. By giving some things more weight, others less, we begin to compose an existence in which everything fits.
We can pick and choose aspects of day-to-day living that compliment each other. We can order our lives through sense and style, choosing to leave archaic morality, divisive politics, and economic value out of the equation.
We can learn to listen to our own voices and take our own thoughts seriously.
We can sketch our lives in black and white and then proceed to fill them in with full colour. Learning to relegate particular circumstances to the background, we pull others to the foreground.
Turkeys scatter in their own slow way when I pull out of the driveway. As I turn onto the gravel road I look back and notice they have pulled together once again.
My journey to visit McKibbin is dreamlike and when I reach the hotel my memory is veiled. I again stare at the painting in the lobby. I can imagine the charcoal sketch hiding under the bright colours and I sense that beauty is limited and tentative.
But it is also everywhere and it is elusive. In my mind I walk along the off-white fence and dream about what is beyond. This painting leaves room for me.
McKibbin’s paintings are as real as they come. They say to me, that’s what is. They challenge me to find the mystery behind the reality. The painting I am staring at is whole, complete. In shadow there is light. In simplicity and uniformity there is transformation.
Gregory Heming is a writer and optimist living in Nelson, British Columbia.