Looking back

Sheppard in Sheppard

Curator Bob Blesse with “Sad Ball 1962,” one of many of Craig Sheppard’s works in <i>Sheppard in Sheppard</i>.

Curator Bob Blesse with “Sad Ball 1962,” one of many of Craig Sheppard’s works in Sheppard in Sheppard.

Photo By David Robert

Ordinarily, the Sheppard Gallery at the University of Nevada, Reno focuses on contemporary artwork. This month, the art department looks back at its own history by showcasing a career-spanning retrospective of paintings by Craig Sheppard, the gallery’s namesake.

Sheppard, a rodeo cowboy from southwest Oklahoma with a fine-arts degree, arrived in Reno in 1947 to take a job as an art instructor.

“He basically made the art department what it is,” says Black Rock Press director Bob Blesse, who curated the retrospective, drawing from the university’s collection of Sheppard works. (The Nevada Museum of Art and several private collectors also have substantial Sheppard collections.)

“It was basically a one-person department in the ‘30s and ‘40s,” says Jim McCormick, retired UNR art professor and author of two books on Sheppard’s work. Two instructors were offering six classes in drawing and painting in a Quonset hut. By the end of Sheppard’s first year, there were 14 classes, and by the time he retired in 1973, eight full-time instructors were teaching 46 classes.

McCormick remembers Sheppard as a hard-working artist with a casual spirit who expected a lot from his students.

“Craig drew constantly,” he says. “He had in his pockets what he called ‘talking sticks.’ Pencils. … He didn’t like the deadly formality of meetings. But in class, he was a taskmaster. He drew with and in front of the students. They saw the master’s hand at work, and he was an incredible hand, using pencils, pens, charcoal.”

It’s clear from the breadth of styles in the exhibit that McCormick is probably not exaggerating when he says Sheppard rarely put down his drawing materials. His hundreds of paintings illustrate the meandering path of the life and career of someone with an attentive eye tuned on the world. Sheppard’s paintings started with Marlboro men gathering on horses, engulfed in sunshine and dust. They transitioned into scenic Nevada spots, where bearded prospectors fill canteens and water cattle. As Sheppard traveled to Europe and Japan on sabbaticals and endured a period of political strife at the university, he recorded his surroundings and adapted his styles to reflect his situations.

“You’ll see everything in there from Goya to Picasso,” says McCormick.

Works from Sheppard’s “Dead Horse” period are distinctly cubist. His experiments in abstract expressionism balance a colorful cheeriness with ominous, thick, black horizon lines. His experiments with architectural space echo those of mid-20th-century Swiss artists. One canvas, filled to the edges with a crust of shiny red, looks like it was painted yesterday. (It wasn’t. Sheppard died in 1978.) He also painted several hundred Japanese-style sumi watercolor paintings, which aren’t represented in this survey. Eventually, Sheppard came full circle, back to cowboys. His “Yellow Slicker Series,” depicts cowboys on the job, often in rain gear, in realistic, watercolor illustrations.

“He was most confident, most skilled and most comfortable with the cowboy paintings,” says McCormick. That’s when he was painting the part of the world he knew best.

But on the way from Point A, around the world back to Point A, Sheppard did one of the most insightful things an artist could do: He left a decades-long record of his world, including an insider’s view of the rural West and a participant’s observations of the evolving 20th-century art world, as seen from his own points of view.