Choreographing the Hills
Photography: Tim Brown & Janie Mccann
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Nine years ago, when landscape artist Carl Rowe set out to do his first commission, he was apprehensive. He’d been hired to paint a scene in the Boise foothills that had special significance to his client. “Painting someone’s favorite place is nerve-wracking,” says Rowe with appealing candor. To get a sense of the place, he went for a long hike in the area. “There were lots of big bulls around, which was also nerve-wracking.”
Rowe survived the excursion, and when he unveiled the finished canvas (a moment he describes as—you guessed it—nerve-wracking) his client literally wept with joy. She hadn’t seen his work in progress, because Rowe likes to complete a painting before calling in witnesses. “For me,” he explains, smiling, “painting isn’t a spectator sport.”
That’s a somewhat ironic statement, coming from a man whose first profession consistently brought him in front of live audiences. As a professional dancer, Rowe toured nationally with the Baroque Dance Ensemble of the Smithsonian Institute and danced in New York City for renowned choreographers Rod Rogers and Rael Lamb. He was a force in the Ketchum performing arts world during his 13 years in the Wood River Valley.
Today, at, 58, Rowe still works behind the scenes, as co-artistic director and choreographer for Idaho Dance Theatre. It was only in 1990, at the age of 43, that Rowe first picked up a paintbrush—and unwittingly embarked on a second career.
From his debut on the visual arts scene, Rowe’s work has been met with rave reviews. He won a national competition at the Cheyenne Artists’ Guild in 1994, and the following year, his paintings were included in seven shows in three states. His first exhibition, at Ketchum’s Kneeland Gallery, led to installations at the Boise Art Museum, Boise State University Gallery, and Paris Gibson Square Museum of Art in Great Falls, Montana, as well as solo shows in Boise at Galos Gallery and Brown Gallery. By 1997, he was represented in six states.
“He’s had amazing, sell-out exhibitions,” says Kneeland director Carey Molter. “His work is so appealing because [the subject matter] is so familiar to everybody here; yet his use of color, of light and shadow, is unique.”
Rowe dwells in that dramatic realm where the prairies of south-central Idaho surge up to meet the mountains. He paints in early morning or late afternoon, when bold hues saturate the sagebrush and sidelighting bestows the hills with a sense of motion and rhythm. With complementary colors and strong, fluid, often repetitive forms, he captures the constantly shifting shadows that make the foothills seem to roll and move through the day, through the seasons, like strange bodies stirring in slumber. The resulting landscapes merge abstraction with a palette-full of “-isms”: expressionism and impressionism, realism and surrealism.
New American Painting has likened Rowe’s powerful Western vistas to those of Georgia O’Keeffe, but he shrugs aside the comparison. He is modest about his niche in the art world: “I’m just lucky that I’m affected so strongly by the land. My response to the West is a visceral one. It’s where I feel at home. I grew up in Illinois . . .” He grins. “Flat isn’t interesting to me.”
After a childhood spent on the Illinois prairie, Rowe attended Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, graduating in 1968. He accepted a position as a high school English teacher in Rochester, Minnesota, where it took him all of two years to become thoroughly disenchanted with the public school system. In the meantime, he had become involved with a local theater company—and had discovered a passion.
He quit his job and enrolled in the Chicago Art Institute’s Goodman School of Drama, where he encountered another problem: He liked every aspect of performing, except one. “I never felt comfortable talking,” he says with a self-deprecating smile. “That, I’m afraid, is a liability for an actor.”
Rowe didn’t have a Plan B—or, in this case, a Plan C. Restless and naïve, he headed in the early ‘70s for the most exciting place he could think of: Berkeley, California. There, barely making ends meet with “a long list of boring jobs,” he discovered improvisational dance. Impressed by a troupe of formally-trained dancers from San Francisco, Rowe, with a characteristic desire to test his limits, enrolled in a dance program at the University of California at Santa Cruz.
In the dance world, as in painting, Rowe was a late bloomer. When he started, he was in his mid-twenties, an age when many dancers—due to injury, finances, or the rise of younger stars—start thinking about exchanging their ballet slippers for more sensible shoes. He had no intention of making a career of it. “Both of these careers [dancing and painting] were accidental,” he says. “Opportunities came along, and I took them.”
One such opportunity came when he was asked to join a dance company in Portland, Oregon. For the next few years, it paid his rent. In 1978, the troupe was invited for a weeklong residency at the Sun Valley Center for the Arts. When the director told him they were going to Sun Valley, Rowe replied, “Great! I love Colorado!”
Soon after, Rowe’s Portland dance troupe became one of thousands of casualties when the National Endowment for the Arts lost millions in federal funding. Hilarie Neely, present-day director of Footlight Dance Studio in Ketchum and then a dancer for the Ballet School Foundation, convinced Rowe to return to Sun Valley. The two had met and danced together in Portland, and for the next five years they taught, toured, and performed together across Idaho and Wyoming. Meanwhile, Rowe’s long list of boring jobs got longer. He worked in restaurants, and as a masseur at the Sun Valley Lodge.
“If Van Gogh hadn’t had Theo,” Rowe quips, “he would have been a waiter, too. Yet, of course, one of the reasons I am so drawn to dance is that it is populated by people who care deeply about what they are doing, and get almost nothing tangible back from it.”