Bill Border, Artist
Draw, paint, dream, where does it come from?
How it began
Squish, squash, squish, a boy in leaking rubber boots sloshing through a vast southern Illinois prairie of six-inch deep spring flooding from the nearby Mississippi. An unmarked explorer’s pathway across a suction cup surface of mud and crushed cattails. Fronds bent from the winter’s ice, withered and pale with umber tinted edges. A few green shoots pushing forth, harbingers of the lush summer crowd to come. Concealed depressions unexpectedly allow chilled waters over his boot tops to further dampen numbed toes. All hardly noticed by the great hunter, winter sluggish crayfish just emerging for another round of life. Pockets bulging with captured prey, he continues the quest until the setting sun signals homeward. An occasional duck bursts skyward with a quack and watery spray when surprised by the intruder. A crow squawks overhead, a few not very exotic little brown and grey birds dart about; the redwings have yet to make their appearance. Cottontails sometimes dart out on high-rise ground. One time an obviously misplaced pheasant flushed. Is this an undiscovered natural habitat or only in the mind of a youthful adventurer? Miniature rainbows sporadically appear on the water’s surface. Are they caused by droplets of greasy pollutant being spewed forth from the nearby stacks of the surrounding oil refineries or are they being belched forth from the swamp land’s own digestive system? Perhaps it is a little of both. Not a pristine undiscovered place, only a momentarily overlooked backwater not currently usurped by industrial desires. Let the acrid air—that smells like “bread and butter” to plant managers—fade away with dreams of faraway places.
My First Art Studio
Shell Oil Company #2 pencils, blue-lined company office pads (nice quality paper, held up well under erasing, too bad about the lines) and shirt cardboards were art supplies. Joe Treyban’s converted garage studio with real charcoal, pastels, drawing paper, and oil paints and some early encouraging instruction provided a valuable spark to light a flame. A shadowy recollection of a three-year-old‘s visit to the Corcoran Art School on a trip to Washington, DC; watching students at work. The haunting childhood tale of Nello’s art aspirations in the story the Dog of Flanders— these archetypical primordial memories would have made Dr. Jung jump with joy.
Basement wash tubs for an aquarium, crayfish, carp, catfish, snails, turtles, earthworms, snakes—garter and black, trapped mice, wounded crows, once a fierce hawk with a broken wing provided hands-on learning. Parents often called down the cellar stairs “What’s that? What are you doing?” They were apprehensive of coming down to look. A mail-order taxidermy course actually instructs, causing the demise and resurrection of several birds and small mammals. The gross anatomy involved became a valuable source for learning structure and function.
Natural history education was further sharpened on hunting and fishing adventures with Dad, beginning along the gray gumbo banks of the undisciplined Mississippi and its tributary sloughs and ponds. The yellow-green pond algae glistening on the murky water’s surface in the midday heat, the naked branches of drowned hardwoods clawing at humid skies, snapping turtles fighting to be free of the hook, all are impressions not to be forgotten. Have you ever seen a spoonbill catfish or pulled up a stringer of fish with a water moccasin intertwined? They are hardy creatures able to survive muck and pollution, but only barely.
Then revelation with the first of many vacations visiting west to the Rocky Mountains and later the northern Maine woods. Sparkling stone-lined clear waters flowing through dark green forests, grassy valleys, sage-dotted prairies with wildlife pure and clean—these places previously only imagined. Snow-capped peaks often provided backdrops for this stage.
Illustrated magazines and books with colorful game fish, giant man-killing grizzlies, cougars, wolves, coyotes, bright orange foxes trimmed in black and white, all opening doors to a beckoning world beyond.
Dreams of a pristine wilderness beyond human intervention are brought on by inspiring tales like those of Ernest Thompson Seton, Jack London, Henry David Thoreau, and Mark Twain. How about floating free down the Mississippi on a raft and living off the land? Artist illustrators of adventure, N. C. Wyeth, William Robinson Leigh, Frederic Remington, Charles M. Russell, Carl Rungius, Harold Von Schmidt, not always the darlings of the salons, but all adding flesh to the romance of outdoor experience. Also deeply felt were the messages of John Singer Sargent, Joaquín Sorolla, Georgia O’Keeffe, Edward Hopper, and the Blaue Reiter group. Norman Rockwell versus Jackson Pollock?
At last, a real art school with the guiding instruction of master draftsmen, designers, anatomists, painters, bringing powerful direction to use and develop artistic talent. Koshrov Ajootian, Maitland Graves, Frederick Whiteman, John Groth, and many others, all driving me to bring forth my best. It was challenging work often demanding midnight hours. “It must be fun to be an artist!” remark the naive. “Ha, ha, not always.” responds the artist. Summers were spent away from the urban bustle of New York in the Maine woods becoming a licensed Maine Guide at the age of eighteen.
Upon art school graduation even more serious responsibilities took form, first, there was conscripted military service on foreign soil, then marriage, a son, mortgages, health care, taxes, sometimes just getting the lawn mowed or the snow shoveled. With their pitfalls and rewards, all were strong structural life under-painting. Hard labor and long hours spent freelance illustrating for the New York commercial market—magazines, books, brochures, reports, ads, you name it—was time well invested to develop valuable skills as an artist-illustrator. Whenever there was time to spare, rewarding adventure with fine art easel painting provided relief from deadline assignments.
Opportunity presents and up with all eastern roots for a successful move across mountains and plains to the clear blue skies of the west. A more selective work direction is decided upon by consolidating years of artistic endeavor with natural history interests. First, a degree in fine arts is obtained and then on to illustration for biology textbooks. Appreciation and knowledge of wildlife lead to specialization in animal illustration for interpretive services. National, state, local parks, and zoos provide a gallery for these displays. Recognition and awards accompany them. Humility is provided by occasional ventures into teaching painting and drawing classes. A studio is built in the mountains, raising horses and dry fly fishing for recreation, nature at the doorstep, the artwork in demand, all blends for a comfortable and interesting life with a new wife and baby daughter. Personal easel work continues all the while and just before the turn of the century becomes the primary focus for creativity.
Now, entering into an expanded world of fine art, subjects abound, surrounding nature and wildlife take to the fore, but no new vistas will be ignored. Tickle, caress, smooth, drip, slap, smack, splash, realism, abstraction, and all that lies between, let artistic challenges on the picture plain now run free.
Draw, paint and dream!