Robert Gilmore's office on the second floor of the Jundt Art Museum is much like the office of any other Gonzaga faculty member. His windows face the Spokane River, his bookshelves are packed to the gills -- some on art history, some are fiction by Raymond Carver or Henry James. There are stacks of papers and sheets of slides, and on the windowsill stands a framed photograph.
The photo, of famed African American artist Jacob Lawrence and Gilmore taken during one of Lawrence's last visits to Spokane, illustrates one of the guiding tenets of Gilmore's work and life. While being a remarkably gifted painter in his own right, Gilmore, whose exhibit of recent work opens this week at the Jundt Art Museum, also holds a deep respect for the big-name artists who both inspired and mentored him over his lengthy career in art.
In 1957, Gilmore entered Boston University's School of Applied and Fine Arts after a three-year stint in the army. The school, with extensive coursework in classical painting and rigorous academic standards, offered Gilmore a structured and sound artistic background. While Jackson Pollock and the abstract expressionists were at the vanguard of the New York art scene, Boston still offered a more traditional education in the arts.
"When I saw a painter like John Singer Sargent or El Greco at one of the museums, this is where I got my values," says Gilmore. "I got my values early on. I looked at Cezanne and Manet and said to myself, 'These are my role models.' This was before I knew how to paint. I worked all these years wanting to be one of those people."
Gilmore also learned to examine an artist's worth by their work, and not just their reputation. "We were at one of the museums in Boston, looking at some Matisse paintings with Walter Murch, who was one of my instructors and very instrumental in my education. And he told us, 'Everybody puts their trunks on one leg at a time. You're just as capable as anybody else,' " Gilmore recalls. "And so I kept my eyes open, and I didn't buy what I was being sold. In doing that, I was able to see through who the people were who were promoted, and hyped and who had people transfixed. It was as if no one even questioned whether they actually deserved such notoriety."
Upon graduating in 1964, Gilmore came out west to accept a position at then-Fort Wright College. And while his career benefited from his Boston schooling, the landscapes, ideals, culture and the very essence of the West provided the substance for his artistic endeavors. Not far from his office is his studio, a small building near the river that could just as easily pass as a lake cabin. But in spite of the bed in the corner, the fully equipped kitchen and even the presence of a paint-speckled television, this is decidedly a working studio. A huge stack of rejected canvases weighs down the bed, and wherever one looks, there are paintings leaning against almost every single vertical surface.
One painting, The Big Sky, captures a feeling of expansiveness and solitude that could only be had on a highway in Montana or crossing a field in the Palouse. The colors are of hay and stormy skies, the strokes precise and yet liberated. And yet it's not so much a landscape as it is a metaphor.
"The Big Sky describes the type of personality that developed in the West, which was based on the necessity of independence and self-sufficiency," says Gilmore. "When I graduated and came out here, I got away from Eastern space, which is busier and more contracted. It took a long time for me to let go of that and to think in terms of Western space."
Other paintings, specifically, Nighthawks, The Black Hole, Futurist Landscape and Paper Moon, point to a Native American influence with their feathery shapes, the suggested line of a clearing of teepees and even with a pervasive feeling of loss implied by Gilmore's use of the dark reaches of the color spectrum.
"I combine metaphors, but they are not meant to be literal works," says Gilmore. "What these paintings do is represent something about the turmoil the Native Americans have faced."
Gilmore's capacity for painting in the abstract is perhaps best seen in a series of smaller paintings that evoke the stages of the 1949 Mann Gulch forest fire disaster (also the subject of Norman MacLean's brilliant and compelling 1993 account, Young Men and Fire) in Montana. In charcoal grays, fiery yellows and smoldering reds, Gilmore's oil paints and canvas become instead the blistering heat and inexorable blazes of one of the biggest disasters ever faced by the U.S. Forest Service. There is nothing representational about them, and yet they make an unforgettable and emotional impact on the viewer.
Although Gilmore has had more than 25 solo exhibitions at colleges and universities across the Northwest and the United States, he avoids most galleries for what he describes as the bureaucracy and commercialism. He doesn't necessarily enjoy schmoozing with other artists, but he does continue to focus on improving his own craft while bringing in visiting artists to work with the students and faculty of Gonzaga. And while he can hold his own in any conversation exploring everything from music to art to literature to a philosophy of life, what emerges as absolutely essential to Gilmore is the art itself.
"It was Robert Frost who said, 'I've taken the road less traveled by," and I really have done that," says Gilmore. "I don't make any excuses for myself or my work. My essential philosophy is that I speak through my paintings. If you want to know about me, you have to look at my paintings."
& & & lt;i & "Robert Gilmore: Paintings" opens at the Jundt Art Museum, 502 E. Boone, on Friday, Oct. 20, and runs through Dec. 8. The exhibit's preview opening is tonight from 7-9 pm at the museum, followed on Thursday, Oct. 26, by Gilmore's lecture "Reflections on Painting" at 7:30 pm, in the Jundt Lecture Hall. Call: 323-6611. & lt;/i & & lt;/center &