Editor's note: The following text was reprinted in Resource Library on December 17, 2007 with the permission of the Tweed Museum of Art. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, or wish to obtain a copy of the catalogue from which it is excerpted, please contact the Tweed Museum of Art directly through either this phone number or web address:


From Dreams May We Learn: Paintings and Drawings by Rabbett Before Horses



Edited from interviews in September and October 2007 with Ken Bloom, Director, Tweed Museum of Art and the artist Rabbett Before Horses Strickland.
KEN BLOOM: Can you identify life experience landmarks, al--ong the path of growing up in San Francisco, that helped to form your vision as an artist?
RABBETT BEFORE HORSES STRICKLAND: Well, to answer this I have to go back to 1965 when I was in a group called Universal Joint. I had a friend who liked to drive us to our gigs. His mother was good friends with Bill Graham, so we got to play as a cover band in between the top-billed bands; you name them we met them. The same friend got us a huge Victorian [house] for the band to practice. The place slowly became a commune. It was four blocks from Masonic and Heights on McCallister and Steiner. It was up on the third floor, all the rooms were huge, I took one of the front rooms and it had a walk in closet, you had to step up into it. In the back I found [a number of] 5 by 6 foot canvases. I used these for about six months; something I would otherwise have been unable to afford at the time.
The second thing I can think of involved Marcel Duchamp and Dali. As you know Duchamp painted on glass and Dali did a lot of paintings of his wife Gala from the back of the head. One day, I was looking across the street on Geneva Avenue in San Francisco at a liquor store. The store was owned by a lady they called Anne Oakley, because she shot first and asked questions later. As I was looking I got this idea, and wondered what it would be like to be standing on the corner looking back at myself. This idea has to do with an early interest I had in relativity, that is, the relativity of position. So on glass, I painted a self portrait from the front and back. Then, I made a stand for it so it just stood in the middle of a table. That led to a two-sided canvas and the perspective that you would get from the front and then the perspective you get from the back.
KB: Were you fortunate enough to have mentors along the way? Who were each of these people and what did each provide you?
RBHS: Aside from my family, there were really none in painting. In mathematics, it would be Leonhard Euler (1707­1783), the greatest mathematician to have ever lived. In music, Erroll Garner and Bill Evans.
KB: You have mentioned that you are essentially a self-taught artist. In which artists were you so interested that you tried to mirror their work? Where did you find the art of those from whom you could study?
RBHS: [Sandro] Boticelli, Michelangelo, [Peter Paul] Rubens, Titian, [Jean-Auguste-Dominique] Ingres, Picasso, [Marcel] Duchamp, [Salvador] Dali, and Leonardo [da Vinci]. After those, then books and more books.
KB: In the case of one or a few of the most important artistic influences, what was the aspect of their influence that moved you?
RBHS: Boticelli for his lines; Michelangelo for his massive groups of people; Rubens for both of the latter and especially for his color; Titian for his space and color; Picasso for his ability to change his style; Dali for his photographic realism and Leonardo for just being Leonardo.
KB: What role did your immediate and extended family play in bringing you up into the role of being an artist?
RBHS: Being immersed in painting, having brushes in a coffee can and canvases lying around and things like that.
KB: Early in your development, was there
any question in your mind as to what kind of an artist you would be? What did you experiment with to make that choice?
RBHS: Pretty much, it was large figurative paintings, right off the bat.
KB: Over the years in which your current style of work was being developed, what particular aspects of your style, technique, aesthetic choices and such were the most important for you to refine?
RBHS: Glazing. It is essential to my style. Because of the speed by which I can color things; glazing is very important for large works.
KB: Was there ever any question in your mind as to what to choose for subject matter?
KB: What if any effect has the relocation to Bayfield had on the outcome in the making of artwork? What if anything is it about the Bayfield environment that has made such a difference in your work?
RBHS: I have been watching the leaves fall at an angle in the woods; I thought this might be something to incorporate into my work.
KB: I was very impressed with the idea of a stone becoming a butterfly. It struck me as remarkable that a dense heavy object such as a stone would, in the story, be a credible source for such weightless and spectacular forms as butterflies. Do transformative qualities belong to the objects and life forms themselves?
RBHS: Yes it is in the nature of all things to change, nothing is immutable.
KB: Are the depicted forms phantasms of more mundane objects, as if the picture were an aura around an otherwise unremarkable scene?
RBHS: Nature, you know, gives a personality to the wind, trees, etc.
KB: What is the role of the mythic natural world as it pertains to the real natural world? Is there significance to the sense of place, such that a stone from Madeline Island would
be significantly different from a stone off the mainland?
RBHS: The line between mythical and real rests in how you evaluate yourself: are you a part of the earth, or did you come from some place else, did your god put you here, or did you come in a UFO?
KB: Is there a displacement in the nature of how time is represented? Do the paintings depict invisible forces only of the past or are these forces current? Are the characters all of the past? Is present-day the consequence of the stories depicted?
RBHS: Well if you throw something in the water, the water is displaced; no two things can occupy the same space at the same time. I do not believe in taking the present and putting it into the past or the future. The characters are current, they surround us now, and we are in the forest.
KB: Throughout the current body of work, your characters are depicted with similar physical characteristics and what appear to be iconic features. Are these similarities part of a strategy or purely aesthetic choices?
RBHS: It is really not a matter of choices. I saw Picasso do a linear drawing in the sand on a beach, he did it with one line, when he was finished the water washed it away and Picasso proclaimed "now that's art." It is not about keeping the art -- it is about doing it. I try to keep that flow, that one line as much as possible. In my dreams the linear [quality] is sometimes taken out of the picture and massive stretched out colors take over so I've kind of boxed a force-not a snap shot, more like a fine exposure.
KB: With regard to figures, their faces seem to be stylistically coded, not actually life-like, but somewhat realistic as a mask is real, yet still covers the actual face. Is the stylization of the forms and figures intended to be coded as a realistic mask over actuality?
RBHS: Yes, they are an imminent front, a façade; they are the looking glass.
KB: Do you intend an overriding theme or narrative that crosses from one work to the next? How do you expect the appearance of similar stylistic depictions of characters to be understood by a viewer?
RBHS: It is a story of Nanabozho's life, but as it stands there are a lot of gaps in it. I met a linguist named Alex, an Ojibwe from Turtle Mountain who spoke several dialects of Anishinabe. He came to White Earth to put into English a 17th century book on Nanabozho stories. We talked about different names of Nanabozho and Alex explained that no root meaning for "bozho" exists. So Alex related the story of when Nanabozho met the Anishinabe people, he'd come over the hill and said "beijou", which means "I am close." The prefix "nana" refers to repeating twice. He thinks that word is actually Nanabeijou. Anyway, my work is kind of a Nanabozho revival-my contribution to the collective consciousness.
KB: I understand that you combine some degree of traditional collective imagination with your own in the constructing of narrative in some of the work. What differences are there between how you see things, so-to-speak, and the traditional imagination of the stories behind some of the works?
RBHS: I believe that I bring something contemporary to the table, just through the style.
KB: Is it expected that audiences activate the work? As with the proverbial tree falling in the forest, do these paintings need their audience to reveal their narrative?
RBHS: Well if a tree falls in the forest and there is no one around to hear it fall, does it still make a sound? Well if there is no one around how do we know that it fell? So if they are not around, will I still paint? Yes, of course.

Please click here to return to article for From Dreams May We Learn: Paintings and Drawings by Rabbett Before Horses

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Peter F. Spooner and Topher McCulloch, Tweed Museum of Art, University of Minnesota Duluth for their help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text.


Visit the Table of Contents for Resource Library for thousands of articles and essays on American art.

© Copyright 2007 Traditional Fine Arts Organization, Inc., an Arizona nonprofit corporation. All rights reserved.