Before we were plein air painters

Ernie Pyle interviewed a local artist in Brown County, Indiana in the late 1930s. You might recognize a bit of yourself in him.

Sunshine and Hollyhocks, 1925, Will Vawter, courtesy Indiana Historical Society

Ernie Pylewas America’s most-famous WW2 correspondent, but before that, he already had a popular column for Scripps-Howard newspapers. Between 1935 and 1940, sick of his desk job as an editor, Pyle went out on the road to write human interest stories under the title Hoosier Vagabond. Eventually, he drove through all 48 states, the territories of Alaska and Hawaii, and several other countries.

After his death in the Pacific theater, Pyle’s American columns were assembled in a book called Home Country. It’s full of sharply-drawn small portraits, including the following, of artist Will Vawter of Brown County, Indiana.

A Sunny Day in Springville, Will Vawter, courtesy Indiana Historical Society

Vawter doesn’t call himself a ‘plein air painter,’ but it’s what we’d call him today. His lifestyle and attitude are familiar to me, and I thought you’d enjoy meeting him through the immortal prose of Ernie Pyle:

“You didn’t see artists trailing around Nashville in arty clothes. They didn’t have a favorite bar where they congregated to discuss their genius in mystic tongues. They simply worked hard and lived like normal people, and hoped to Heaven somebody would buy their stuff. And practically all of them were self-supporting through their art—which speaks for itself…

Brown County Landscape, 1920, Will Vawter, courtesy Indiana Historical Society

“Will Vawter [was] of all the artists probably the most loved by the townspeople. He was a big man, heavy, with a large head made even larger by an immense thatch of white hair. He and Schulz both looked like artists, and yet Will Vawter also looked just like somebody’s nice grandpa. Vawter illustrated one edition of Riley’s poems. He had a nice sense of sarcastic humor about himself. Somehow we got to talking about smoking. He didn’t smoke, but he chewed gum avidly and constantly, even when he was at a funeral looking at the corpse. He used to smoke cigars. He said he never could smoke halfway; he had to smoke perpetually or not at all, and it used to interfere with his art. He would load up his car of a morning with all of an artist’s necessary junk, drive out in the country and find himself a likely spot to paint, then unload everything and set it up. ‘It was like setting up a circus,’ he said. ‘I’d get out my easel and fix it just right. And then the canvas. And then get my paints and brushes all out and ready. And then my stool. And finally set up a big umbrella over the whole thing, practically like a tent. Then I’d sit down to paint, and reach in my shirt pocket for a cigar. And of course I’d have left them at home. And do you know, I couldn’t paint a stroke. So I’d jump in the car and rush back to town, taking corners too fast, killing chickens on the way, and being a general public menace. I’d lose an hour getting back to get those cigars so I could paint. So I just quit, and took up chewing gum.’

Along the Coast, Will Vawter, courtesy Indiana Historical Society

“Will Vawter talked about art the way I like to hear people talk. He said you go out and paint something the way you see it; somebody comes along to look at it, and if that scene happens to strike some memory, or cherished little scene, or a spot of appreciative beauty in whoever is looking at it, then he likes the picture, and if he’s able he buys it. That’s all there is to art. Nothing mysterious about it. When a man can talk like that, and still have no sense of time or direction whatever, and doesn’t recognize his own house half the time when he sees it, then I say he has combined the functions of artistic detachment and common horse sense to a degree that nearly reaches perfection.”