COLUMBIA — It was 1970, and a young Robert Benson sat painting outdoors alongside his mentor and national watercolorist, Keith Crown, taking in the wide-open Illinois landscape. Benson, who thought of Crown as a father figure because his own father was not interested in art, vividly recalled a conversation from that day almost 40 years ago:
“My father thinks that if you like landscape, why don’t you take a picture of it,” Benson said.
Crown continued painting. “Well,” he finally said, “people like that I understand.”
Five minutes passed in silence.
“Well, you could ask them what they see,” said Crown, still painting.
Ten more minutes passed before he spoke again.
“They don’t see a ... damn thing.”
In Benson’s view, that was the essence of Crown: He didn’t say much, but when he did, it meant a lot. Crown has his own visual language, and he began speaking it at an early age. He built a career on it, and he used it to do what every artist dreams of: He set his work apart.
“He was a wizard with watercolor,” said Benson, now a retired art professor from College of the Redwoods in California. “Even after 40 years of seeing his first painting, I still have the same feeling about the colors.”
Crown, who has made his home in Columbia for the past 25 years with his wife, Patricia, a retired MU art history professor, is among the best known watercolorists in the country. His focus has largely been on abstract landscapes and on unique use of color.
On May 29, Perlow-Stevens Gallery will celebrate Crown’s 90th birthday and his art at a gathering from 6 to 9 p.m. at the gallery, 812 E. Broadway. Several of his paintings are on display as part of a larger show through June 28.
“This is a unique opportunity that you don’t often have,” said gallery owner Jennifer Perlow. “This is a retrospective of his life as an artist and what his life has meant as an artist to the community and nationwide.”
The early years
Keith Crown was born in Keokuk, Iowa, on May 27, 1918. After one of his schoolteachers recommended it, Crown attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1936, earning his bachelor of fine arts degree in 1940. He served in the U.S. Army during World War II from 1941 to 1945 as an unofficial artist and field correspondent for a weekly magazine.
During this time, according to the biography “Keith Crown Watercolors” by Sheldon Reich, he continued to sketch landscapes and images of the war. After the war, Crown continued searching for his niche in the art world, working with acrylics, oils and other mediums before he picked up watercolors.
“One is hunting for one’s own voice and one’s own language — that is what makes his work unique,” said Fran Larsen, a watercolorist from Santa Fe, N.M., who regards Crown as one of her heroes. “There are very few artists that achieve that. Keith is one of them.”
Throughout the search for his unique voice, Crown helped others find their talents as artists. He taught art at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles until 1983, when he retired and moved to Columbia to join his wife.
Crown’s teaching was unorthodox, said Ray Kass, who took a summer watercolor class with Crown at the University of North Carolina in 1967.
“He was a true teacher in the Zen Buddhist sense, in that he could teach without teaching,” Kass said. “This is very rare and special quality as an individual.”
Kass went on to work with watercolor and teach art at Humboldt State University in Arcata, Calif., and at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, Va.
Crown didn’t have a traditional art studio; he painted outdoors.
Patricia Crown and others said his favorite place to paint was Taos, in northern New Mexico. He enjoyed Taos so much that he built a house there, which they still own but rarely visit. Because of his declining health, Crown has been in a Columbia nursing home for six months.
Crown liked the high-desert terrain around Taos and the deep presence of Native Americans; his works suggest the influences of New Mexico. Artistic influences include John Marin, Vincent Van Gogh, Henri Matisse and Paul Cezanne.
In 1969, Crown spent the entire summer at his house in Taos painting every day — producing 100 watercolors.
“What is amazing about the Taos paintings is that he saw the same subject in multiple ways,” said one of his daughters, Katie Crown, who lives in California.
Katie Crown, who is an artist working in watercolor and oils, learned from her father at home and in the classroom when she took a class from him at the University of Southern California. When she was a girl, she asked her father to show her how to paint.
“He said, ‘No, Katie. Children’s art is so beautiful. Stay a child as long as you can,’” she said.
Crown’s thinking is that children aren’t bound by what’s supposed to be, and he agrees with that. He doesn’t use traditional colors for objects — for example, making grass green — but chooses colors that would best represent the object and emotion.
“Lots of people are not visually trained,” Larsen said. “They were told when they were in first grade that the sun is yellow and the grass is green. This is what they think the world ought to be. Keith offers another way to see the world.”
Crown’s colors pop; they are uber-color, ultra-rich. He uses various means to apply that color, including brushes, razors, a water can, a spray bottle, string and nails. He also has used a tool that distinguished his art from the rest — an air brush. According to the Reich biography, Crown wrote in 1967: “No serious painter I know of has investigated sprayers or air brushes, beyond conventional usage.”
He sprayed paint through air brushes, creating lines, spots and shapes. And he went a bit further: To bring large amounts of air with him for spray painting, Crown brought a spare tire on his painting excursions.
When Crown went out to paint, he used a tremendous amount of physical and emotional energy to bring the canvas to life. He was stimulated by the natural world.
“He thought about painting all the time,” Patricia Crown said. “It takes great physical strength and energy.”
Soaking in everything around him, Crown was known to take time to prepare and fully focus. He usually sat, read some mail, chewed on some grass and sketched a little before beginning a painting. But once he began, Crown didn’t stop until he was done with the piece.
“Sometimes I would have a whole painting done before he even started painting,” Benson said. “But once he started, he would complete it. He never went back to rework anything. When he painted, he would paint the entire painting in 2½ hours. It was amazing to see him do an entire painting from beginning to end.”
Not only does Crown look at his subject straight on, but he also looks behind him and all around him to incorporate these different points of view into the painting, Larsen said. Crown has been known to sign multiple sides of his paintings to show that it can be hung various ways.
Crown’s work can be seen in galleries from the East to West coasts. There are permanent collections at the University of Southern California and at the Museum of Art and Archaeology at MU.
“He is quite an eminent figure,” said Howard Risatti, an art reviewer primarily for the magazine Artforum. “He plotted a new way on how to make art through the use of color.”
The last time Crown painted was with daughter Katie two years ago at her home in California.
“I was so delighted to paint with him, although we had to talk him into it,” she recalled. “Even though he is a little slower than he used to be, he can still turn out a good painting.”