ARTICLES ON THE ARTIST
But if you visit him in the wee hours of the nightwhen the rest of the world is asleepyoull find an intensely focused artist working in a small studio, a studio filled with relics from the past. Hes working on his latest paintings, creating stunningly realistic and sensitive portraits of friends and loved ones, or breathtaking still lifes that tell a story. His work is held in numerous collections around the Valley and the nation. The artist is Douglas Wiltraut and, although his work has been compared to Andrew Wyeths, its uniquely his own.
His portraits are sensitive portrayals of people he knows well and admiresas with Mourning Dove, the reflective vision of his brother mourning the murder of his hero, John Lennon; or the powerful portrait of his father called Family Man. For a still life, he might choose an old wooden washtub that, when he was a kid, served as a place to splash around in the backyard on hot August afternoons. Using watercolor or egg temperaan age-old medium that combines egg yolks and pigment to make an extremely permanent paintWiltraut captures every significant detail of his subjects.
These subjects, though born of Wiltrauts life and environment, reach beyond a nostalgic or personal sentimentality. Rose Ackerman, Director of Operations and Special Events at the Baum School of Art in Allentown, says, Douglas is a regional artist, but certainly his subjects are universal and recognized on the national scene. Peter Blume, Director of the Allentown Art Museum, adds, I admire his technical competence, as well as the wonderful spirit of his work.
Perhaps the best mark of an artist outside the realm of his own town is his influence on other artists. As the President of the National Society of Painters in Casein & Acrylic, Inc., Wiltraut has set a standard in contemporary American painting. As a juror for art exhibitions, as an artist featured in a number of art books, Wiltraut has made an impact on the larger art arena.
Says M. Stephen Doherty, Editor-in-Chief of American Artist magazine, where Wiltrauts work has been featured in the past, Through his paintings, (Wiltraut) has established himself as an important figure working with acrylic and egg tempera. He also has a great deal of influence on other artists as President of the National Society of Painters in Casein & Acrylic, and has really helped revive that organization.
Wiltraut begins each piece by drawing the essential shape and form of his subject onto the panel or paper, using photographs and slides that he has taken. His subjects are always those people and objects he finds intriguing.
Then, as his family sleeps, he paints. In the middle of the night I can create my own environmentthere are no phones ringing, no kids playing outdoors, he says. It is dark and it is quiet. I have my music on in the background, and my palette is bright under the light...the paper is in front of me, and I can focus.
When the late night hours turn most magical, he begins to lay in colors, leaving the white of the paper to make eyes sparkle or whiskers white. He studies the lines on aging skin, and stops, focusing on which colors are warm, which are cool, then proceeds with a Zen intensity.
And simply, from a flat sheet of watercolor paper, and a number of bent and aged tubes of paint and well-worn brushes, an image is formed, an image as real in its own way as the subject he portrays.
His Family Man, for example, is a stunning portrait of his father, a man who, to Wiltraut, ...is, for all, and forever, a Family Man. He built our house (in Fullerton); he worked hard and he raised five kids. I wanted this portrait to capture that feeling...so I took his picture just as he was taking a break from painting the house...just as he was merging into the light of the front-yard...and the house, his house, our house, casts a shadow across his chest...the shadow, the house, is part of him.
Wiltraut infuses each subject, whether it be his father or brother, or a basket sitting on a hutch in late afternoon light, with life. As he sits talking to me in his livingroom, he gestures to objects around him, all of which are props in his paintings.
This trunk, he says, pointing to an antique leather traveling trunk with worn brass fittings, belonged to my wifes great-grandfather. It migrated to this country with all of his belongings. When I painted it, I added this little curlew decoy on top of it...a bird, another migrator. The painting, fittingly, is called The Migrator.
In another work, Tools of the Trade, he set out to paint old rag mops hanging on a washline. One day, he spotted several mops hanging to dry on a neighbors washline. I loved the way they looked, but the image wasnt quite right, I set out to find the right image with mops.
For nearly two years, he looked at mopson back porches or washlines, in sheds and garages. I looked everywhere, and took my camera wherever I went, because I knew Id find the image. And one day, while I was on a drive (to find images to paint), I came to a crossroad...and, not knowing exactly where to turn, I stopped, and, as I often do, let the spirit take its course. I turned left, and then, there on a porch, were the mop heads! That old porch, with mops and wash rags, that would be my composition. I had to stop, and take a picture of it, so I could paint that image.
Wiltraut painted each fiber of the mop, each chip of paint, to reveal its wear from the toil for which it was made. I have to thank my instructor in painting, Tom Quirk (retired now from Kutztown University) for teaching me how to paint objects like that, Wiltraut explains. When I was a student, I remember how he told me to think about painting even the most common thing, like a doordo you kick it open to get in the kitchen form the backyard, because your hands are full carrying the tomatoes from your garden? Had the dog scratched at the door to be let in on a cold night? Did the paint blister from the heat of the sun over years and years, as kids slammed the door to run out into the sunshine to play? Wiltraut, in turn, has taught others, both at Kutztown University and at the Baum School of Art.
At bottom, one can see that he loves to contemplate the history of things, the age of things, their very essence. His studio is filled with glass ornaments, metal jewelry, bottles, fossils, and rocks, all the treasures he finds on his digs. And all of these things, these discards from old dumps and wells and fields, are precious to him, as precious as the lines in his fathers face, as treasured as the bits of rust on an old bucket he decides to paint. It is the process of aging, the process of objects or people changing with time, that he struggles to capture. It is the inescapable passage of time, the pivotal moment when seasons change and youth turns to age, that he crystallizes for all of us.
Marilyn J. Fox is a freelance writer from Fleetwood who writes frequently about art.
©Copyright 2004 Douglas Wiltraut. All rights reserved.