Written by Alan Kesselheim
Floyd Tennyson “Tenny” DeWitt points to his “Flight To Fantasy” sculpture of a Pegasus in his studio in Bozeman, which he said has nothing to do with a horse. (Photo by John Plestina)
(Editor’s Note: This story about renowned artist Floyd “Tenny” DeWitt, who is originally from Wolf Point, was featured in the spring 2015 issue of Montana Quarterly. We are reprinting it with permission.)
Floyd DeWitt is not a man or artist you come to know, as much as a man and artist you experience. Like weather.
As with a storm, DeWitt is unpredictable, powerful, fitful, intimidating, challenging and very real. Also, like a storm, and despite the apparent chaos of forces, he adheres to certain patterns and rhythms, themes that keep surfacing out of the mix, clear and fundamental. And it is that mixture of chaos and pattern that emerges, powerful as a microburst, in his art.
DeWitt doesn’t stick to the topic in conversation. He refuses a linear discussion, but instead veers off into stories and memories, reveals the epiphanies that stand clear in his life. He quotes Aristotle, Frost, Hesse, Twain, leaps decades, confounds chronology, employs metaphor.
“If I could tell you what it is I do,” he blurts out, “I wouldn’t have to do it!
“How a kid from Roosevelt County, Montana came to be the artist I am?” he shrugs, smiles.
“I have a kind of passion,” he goes on. “That makes me difficult for some reason. I’ve always been different, kind of an oddball, and there is a price to pay for that. It took me many years to understand. I remember even when I was a kid in Wolf Point, I was asked to leave the Cub Scout pack because I wasn’t going to fit in. The den leader talked to my mother and told her it wasn’t a good idea.
“Same thing happened in the army,” he says. “I was the one nobody urged to re-enlist.”
Now entering his eighties, DeWitt is perhaps the oldest working sculptor in Montana. His house, outside of Bozeman, is full of his work. Horses everywhere. Headless horses and horse heads, riders on horseback, a stunning rendition of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, a piece DeWitt calls “Weightlessness”. His studio is crammed with sketches, busts, nudes, a figure of a symphony conductor, his father’s old barber chair, a full-sized ewe called “Mother of the Ram,” a bust of his daughter he has been working on for thirty years.
“Maybe I don’t want to finish her, because then I’d have to let her go,” he says.
“My parents were hard-working people,” DeWitt says. “My mother was a nurse. My father was a full-time barber. I went to school. I smoked cigarettes and got into mischief. I found magazines lying around and started copying the pictures. I liked the Indians around home, mostly because they liked horses. It was all really about learning to be a man. By the way, I finally gave up on that,” he says with a laugh. “I got handy at drawing, started doing some landscapes, little studies, playing around with ideas. Like I said, I was an oddball.”
He leaps again. “You have to open the envelope of who you are,” DeWitt rounds his aged hand around his coffee cup. “Find out who you are, find your way to God, whatever you decide that is.”
After growing up in Wolf Point, DeWitt enlisted in the Army, traveled to Europe. “There was no compatibility between me and the military,” he says. “But I was in Europe and that opened my eyes. Europe is full of epiphany. The air is thick with it. You put your hand on an ancient stone bridge and think about all the other hands that have rested there. That’s something.”
DeWitt remembers visiting St. Peter’s Cathedral one time on leave. “I was walking around and not thinking much of the art. I was a young fool looking for Charlie Russell or Frederic Remington in the face of all that great stuff. There was a door marked ‘Do Not Enter’. Of course that was just an invitation and I walked right in. It was an alcove full of hedges, patterned in a maze. There were monks strolling around in robes, meditating. I sat on a bench. Gregorian Chants were playing. No one bothered me. I’d never heard anything like it, never been anywhere like that. It was a revelation. Talk about magic!”
One of the themes that surfaces again and again out of the confusion of DeWitt’s life is the edict to study nature, not copy nature. “Study nature,” he emphasizes, “not copy it. Do you see what I mean?” he leans in, intensity emanating like heat.
Somewhere in that distinction is the leap of abstraction, the quality that separates DeWitt’s work from the cliché of wildlife sculpture outside of bank buildings. That unnamable element that marries the true experience of observation, the synthesis of emotion and humanity and contemplation, and then expresses something fresh and authentic in a piece of art.
“We lack humility,” he says, reflecting on current trends in art. “There is none of that in most gallery art. There is no humility in university art schools. So much art, now, is crass commercialism. And the rich people buying art have no appreciation or understanding of it.”
On the center of DeWitt’s dining room table sits a sculpture of a baseball pitcher, caught in the crescendo of a windup, a figure about to explode, tension like the sizzling air before a lightning bolt.
“I was sitting in a bar in Livingston,” DeWitt remembers. “Just me and the bartender. There was a baseball game on, but on the other channel the news was showing troops marching into Iraq. We started arguing about which channel to watch. Finally we struck a compromise – three minutes of baseball to one minute of news.
“This piece came out of that moment. I’ve never pitched a baseball in my life. But that’s me. I became that pitcher. That’s the terror and tension of humanity. That’s the appalling realization that watching baseball was more interesting than men going to war.”
DeWitt starts to sketch the lines of the pitcher with his hands in the air, following the flow of the piece, connecting elements, noting how the light falls here and there, leading the eye, how it all adds up to unity.
“It’s not a conscious process,” he says, looking at the figure. “You begin with humility. You go out and observe, come back with material. And then there’s the magic of that synthesis coming out.
“I can’t stop. It’s in me. It has to come out.”
“Read Frost’s poem, that’s my life in a nutshell,” DeWitt says. In the poem, “The Road Not Taken”, Frost wrote, “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I – I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.”
For DeWitt, that road started with time back home in Wolf Point, working as a cop, breaking horses, drawing landscapes, seeking.
“After the army, and ever since, it’s been a swamp of confusion and enlightenment all jumbled up,” DeWitt says.
“I look at it as a series of rebirths. I was reborn when I came back from Europe. Then I went to the Minneapolis School of Art, and was reborn. From there I got a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Fine Art in Holland, an offshoot of the Beaux Arts Academy tradition in France. Reborn again.”
In Holland, where DeWitt spent six years studying, and several subsequent decades working as an artist, his art is showcased in European museums and private collections, owned by members of the Danish royal family, and has been installed in public monuments. When DeWitt first arrived in Europe, one of the first instructions he received was the life-changing edict to study nature, not copy it.
For DeWitt, the challenge, the magic, is to truly inhabit a subject, to get at its essence. His “Mother of the Ram” was provoked by a visit to a ranch in Paradise Valley. “This ewe, a really defenseless creature, was standing there, so defiant, so protective, so unequivocal. She was nature standing up for itself.”
“We all have access to the same visual experience,” DeWitt emphasizes. “An artist like Van Gogh had the ability to express that experience like a poet does. Frost said that he wrote poetry that was hard to get rid of. I guess that’s what I try to do.”
DeWitt tends to sleep until mid-day. He has a cup or two of strong coffee, something to eat, and gets to work some time in the afternoon. Then he works late into the night, often after midnight.
“I am a great consumer of time,” he admits. Much of that time is spent mulling, looking, getting at feelings, moving around through the clutter of pieces in the studio, losing himself.
“People think I’m difficult,” he says. “They say I’m complicated and hard to understand. Really, all of my work is just a big thank you. My pieces are eulogies, statements of gratitude to nature. That’s all.
“A lot of it is subliminal,” DeWitt says. “Changing perspective, working with the masses, balance, seeing where the light falls.”
As he talks he points to the details of pieces, how a shoulder leads to the torso, how lines and shapes reinforce each other, how a complex mass of running horses all rests on four points, everything building toward unity.
He notices a sculpture of a yoga instructor he is working on. “It feels like her,” he says. “I call that the music of a piece.
“I did a bust of Gustav Mahler once,” he said. “I didn’t know anything about him. I started listening to The Titan to get a sense of him. Mahler didn’t particularly like that piece. To tell the truth, I didn’t much like it either. But I listened to it, non-stop, for 14 hours a day. Again and again. I got so I could smell Mahler’s armpits.
“You don’t really know when you’re done. You just decide you’ve finally done all you can. At the same time, you can ruin a piece in fifteen minutes if you go too far. It’s a helluva tough thing.”
Late afternoon, the light gray, DeWitt stands in front of the nearly life-sized symphony conductor, a work in progress that began with a study of Bozeman conductor, Matthew Savery. “This isn’t Matthew any more,” he says. “You can make it Matthew if you want, but it’s not.” He looks up and down the figure, the upward surge from the tiptoe stance to the bent wrists, full of the tension of the symphonic moment about to burst forth. You can almost hear the rising music, like a wave about to crash.
“You see?” he says.
Written by Herald-News
The Wolf Point Beautification Committee and Optimists Club teamed up to paint the metal fence around the pine tree in the triangle downtown, and add potted plants and mulch, Friday, June 19. The Beautification Committee funded the project. Pictured are (from left to right) Larry Neutgens, Elsie Hansen, Pat Stennes and Dennis Nelson. (Photo by John Plestina)
Written by Herald-News
The Wolf Point Volunteer Fire Department extinguished a grass fire on the 900 block of Sixth Avenue South about 12:30 p.m., Wednesday, June 17. Assistant Fire Chief Dave Parsley and firefighter Chris Allen responded. A witness said people using fireworks caused the fire and left the scene without reporting it. A man living across the street from the fire called 911 after stopping three boys ages 13, 11 and 10, and a girl, seven, from attempting to put out the fire. (Photo by John Plestina)
Written by Herald-News
Police Chief Jeff Harada said 911 calls for police service have increased during recent months when he presented his activity report for May to the Wolf Point City Council, Monday, June 15.
Harada said 911 calls that city police responded to totaled 476 calls in May. That does not include calls within the city that were handled by the Fort Peck Tribes Department of Law and Justice and Roosevelt County Sheriff’s Office.
Harada said the 476 calls that city officers responded to in May were 12 more than in May 2014.
Total arrests, citations and tickets issued in May were 69.
City officers issued 64 tribal citations and five state citations during June.
Of a total of 79 criminal and traffic violations officers responded to in May, criminal contempt topped the list with 12 calls and disorderly conduct came in second with 11.
Police vehicles patrolled 5,972 miles, an average of 192.65 miles per day.
The animal control officer logged 496 miles during May, an average of about 16 miles per day.
Animal control impounded 21 dogs during May. Eighteen were released to owners after impoundment and license fees were collected. Three were euthanized. Animal control collected $330 in impoundment fees and $115 for dog licenses during May.
Written by Herald-News
(Editor’s Note: The Roosevelt County Sheriff’s Office distributes an inmate roster each week with charges and communities of residence to The Herald-News and The Searchlight to help keep the public informed and to illustrate that the jail has been dealing with overcrowding issues in the 17-bed facility.)
As of Monday, June 25, 15 inmates were housed in the Roosevelt County Jail. Fort Benton Detention Center was holding one male and the Valley County Detention Center Was Holding one female to alleviate overcrowding.
The RCSO reported that the following individuals were incarcerated at the jail between Monday, June 15, and Monday, June 22:
•Amos Bridges, 39, Wolf Point, criminal contempt warrant;
•Jason Daugherty, 37, Wolf Point, criminal possession of dangerous drugs [two counts], criminal possession of drug paraphernalia, attempted assault on a peace officer or judicial officer and resisting arrest;
•William Flynt, 36, Tucson, Ariz., fail to remain at accident scene, fail to carry proof or exhibit insurance, felony driving under the influence;
•Jason Fridge, 30, Williston, N.D., driving under the influence of any drug;
•Amelia Hackman, 32, Scobey, contempt of court from Sheridan and Daniels counties;
•Aimee Jacobs, 38, St. Ignasius, warrant for probation and parole violation;
•Nicodemus A. Kupka, 19, Watford City, N.D., criminal possession of dangerous drugs and out-of- county warrant;
•Joseph Laturell, 52, Bainville, partner or family member assault, sexual intercourse without consent and aggravated kidnapping;
•Carlos Maynard, 43, Wolf Point, driving a motor vehicle while privilege to do so is revoked, failure to have rear view mirror, bonded out;
•Timothy Oglesby, 31, Wolf Point, sexual intercourse without consent and incest, awaiting sentencing;
•Olyn Payne, 35, Wolf Point, U.S. Marshal’s warrant;
•Charles Pinner, 59, Detroit, Mich., aggravated kidnapping and sexual intercourse without consent;
•Zachery Shay, 23, Rock Springs, Wyo., arrested on out of county warrant;
• Carroll Wells, 34, Fairview, theft and Burglary;
•Patrick Tomlinson, 24, unknown hometown, Kan., warrant for parole violation out of Kansas;
•Jarod Weyrauch, 30, Wolf Point, probation violation.
•Zach Zilkoski, 23, Wolf Point, driving a motor vehicle while privilege to do so revoked, bonded out.