On the edge of disaster

The war sketches and watercolors of Keith Crown tell unique tales
Sunday, November 21, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 4:48 p.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

“No art exists that doesn’t have an important subject to it,” watercolor artist Keith Crown says, “just like a novel doesn’t exist that doesn’t have a story to it.”

Whether sketching or painting, Crown has always captured meaning and substance with his work. Crown, the recipient of the Watercolor USA Honor Society’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2003, has exhibited his work in galleries from New York to California. The Columbia resident’s paintings are part of the prestigious permanent collection at the Harwood Museum in Taos, N.M.

Crown is a master of a difficult medium. The Harwood’s curator, David Witt, once described watercolor painting as “constantly working on the edge of disaster.”

“The intuitive aspects of the artist’s creativity come into play,” Witt said. “With so little time to think, the artist must instead act, bringing all the years of painting experience to bear on this one fleeting moment.”

In his biography titled “Keith Crown: Watercolors,” Sheldon Reich wrote that the word poetic “comes up frequently in Crown’s writings and conversations about his work as a painter. … The poet’s chosen medium is manipulated so all parts and means belong together in focusing on the subject.”

The sense of meaning in Crown’s work is illustrated in a painting called “The Fall of Taos.” The mountains seem to embrace the town, like a mother hugging her child, Reich wrote. To show this relationship, Crown lifted the mountain and put the town beneath it.

Crown’s work as an artist started at age 10, when his father found him sketching a Gerber baby. The elder Crown was so impressed with his son’s talent that he told the high school art teachers about it. By the time Crown reached high school, he had two art mentors. One was Alice McClain, who introduced him to the medium that would become his lifelong passion. A graduate of the Art Institute of Chicago, McClain began to prepare Crown for admission to the prestigious school.

Crown graduated from the institute in 1940 and took a teaching job at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa. He was drafted to fight in World War II a year later. After the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, Crown was sent from Fort Lewis, Wash., to Hawaii. There, a colonel called him to headquarters one day and asked him to repair a map that had gotten wet and wrinkled. Crown took a sponge, wiped over the map and dried it with a blow dryer.

Crown eventually was given the title of infantry artist. After being sent to the Philippines, he would march with soldiers to dangerous areas to sketch the landscapes. The drawings were then published and sent to units to point out positions. He recalled the time he sketched an area where a soldier had been killed by a sniper the day before. His sensibilities told him a sniper would not go after a man merely sketching the landscapes. “I knew they wouldn’t bother an artist,” he says.

Crown also completed sketches of fortification at Kolombangara, an island in the Solomon Islands, and sent them to his first wife, Helen Tally. Tally sent the sketches to Yank magazine, which eventually named Crown a correspondent.

A large collection of Crown’s World War II artwork remains in the Anne S.K. Brown Military Collection at the Brown University library in Providence, R.I.

Crown was sent home from the war in 1945. For the next 38 years, he taught drawing and painting at the University of Southern California. He retired in 1983 and moved with his second wife, Patricia Crown, to Columbia, where she became an 18th-century English painting and art history professor at MU.

Crown has not taught since his retirement, but he has produced several works, including watercolor landscapes of Kensington, England, where he and his wife occasionally visit.

He attends weekly figure-drawing sessions, splitting his time between the basics and flirting with disaster’s edge.

“Saturday, I sketch,” he says. “Sunday, I watercolor.”

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