Editor's note: The following essay, with notes, was rekeyed and reprinted on March 18, 2004 in Resource Library Magazine with permission of the author, Lonnie Dunbier. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay please contact the author through AskArt.com.
Augustus Dunbier: Paint for the Love of Color
by Lonnie Dunbier
To understand Augustus Dunbier, one must begin with color. To him it was a kind of religion, only more so -- an insubstantiality that you can see with your own eyes but not touch. The reality of this intangible fascinated him beyond description. For him, color was what painters worked with, even struggled with. It came close to being what painting was all about.
His paintings are characterized by assertive, contrasting colors and bold brushwork. His landscapes are both realistic and capturing of intangibles such as season, temperature, time of day, atmospheric light, and impending weather. He completed most of them "en plein air," that is entirely out-of-doors, taking no more than several hours for each work. During many evenings, he carved and applied gilt paint to a hand-carved frame he made for that day's painting.
He was appalled by modernism, which he referred to as "screw -ball art," and yet his landscapes and still life paintings increasingly grew looser, showing the influence of some of the "isms" he so assiduously avoided.
For sixty years, Dunbier maintained a studio in Omaha but traveled continuously, seldom missing a season in the Southwest and getting regularly to the East and West Coasts and Rocky Mountains. In his early career in Omaha, he asserted that landscape away from Nebraska was more interesting. But as he painted more and more, he became increasingly committed to his native state. This willingness to "stay home" might also have reflected increasing confidence in making a name for himself in an area far away from what were regarded as centers of fine art. By the end of his career, the majority of his landscapes, numbering several thousand, were painted in Nebraska in what he called the "Great Out of Doors." His paintings celebrated his love of the hills and trees, lakes and rivers, farm scenes and cityscapes.
But his love of Nebraska did not distract him from visiting and revisiting just about every corner of North America. He painted the mountains of Montana, Wyoming, and Colorado; coasts and harbors of Texas, Florida, Massachusetts, Oregon and California; and the deserts of New Mexico, Mexico, and Arizona. From 1953 to 1970, he spent all but two winters painting landscapes in and around Tucson and Phoenix, which meant a diminishment of his popular Nebraska snow scenes.
In many ways, Dunbier was a man of paradox
Born into a virtually all-white world, he took great pleasure in his association with Indians, Negroes, and Mexicans -- words of his era. And growing up speaking both English and German, he spent fifty years trying to learn Spanish, a feat far from accomplished.
He would cuss in Spanish but was allergic to rough language in English. He made a hundred gallons of wine every year but seldom drank. He was a political liberal but lambasted every Democratic candidate for President except Harry Truman. Anti-war, he was a member of the American Legion, and vociferously anti-cleric, he was buried with a Christian ceremony and eulogized by a good friend, Father William Kelley, former president of Jesuit Marquette.
Handsome and courtly, he was six-feet one inches tall, wore a diamond stick pin and huge hand-crafted New Mexico turquoise ring, kissed the ladies' hands, and had myriads of female admirers, many of them students. Yet, once he married happily, he had no general reputation as a playboy.
But his early years with the women -- that was something else. There were snide comments about his painting of nude models, not a typical activity in early 20th century Omaha, Nebraska. With his first wife, Augusta Mengedodt, daughter of prominent Omaha business people, he had such a stormy marriage and divorce that on several occasions, the relationship of private and public fighting made the headlines of the Omaha newspaper.
But life changed for him in 1932 when he married Lou Ekstrom, a Nebraska farm girl who was one of his former students and models. They settled into forty-five years of marriage, described by many as exceptionally close and faithful, and ending only with his death. Their son, Roger, remembered their home life as happy and stimulating with his mother and father working closely together to create an atmosphere that combined hospitality with creativity.
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