Standing in front of grandiose vistas of mountains and sky, billowing clouds and impossible rock formations, it all fell into place.
Mark Kelso was a senior in college at the time, going to check out the Eiteljorg Museum in downtown Indianapolis one day. By chance, he came across an exhibition by Wilson Hurley, an American artist specializing in landscape scenes of the West.
As Kelso gazed upon the canvases, his focus as an artist came together.
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“I was absolutely dumbfounded by his work,” he said. “All of the things that my instructors had been trying to explain to me over the past three years, in color and composition, all of the technical aspects of good painting, it was like a nuclear explosion had gone off for me.”
The experience helped lead Kelso towards painting realistic representations of Western scenes — brown bears in mountain streams, caribou underneath jagged peaks, mountain goats perched on craggy ledges. The Bargersville resident’s work has been exhibited and sold throughout the world.
This month, his career again crossed paths with the Eiteljorg. He was accepted to take part in this year’s Quest for the West, an annual art sale and exhibition featuring brand new paintings, charcoal drawings and sculpture from today’s top contributors in Western art.
“It’s exciting seeing the work that folks out there are doing. There is talent all over, and folks are doing all kinds of subject matter within the Western genre,” said Johanna Blume, curator for the show. “It’s so encouraging to see so many people working in Western art, particularly so many younger artists who are pursuing Western themes in their artwork.”
On top of being accepted into the prestigious show, Kelso also received the Artists’ Choice award. The other 49 artists taking part in Quest for the West chose his painting, “Riverdance,” as the best of the show.
“It’s been a tremendous honor just to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with these artists in such a prestigious show,” he said in an e-mail following the announcement. “These are some of the finest living artists in the genre today. But to be selected by these same individuals — people that I’ve admired for years, and whose level of expertise I’ve aspired to for my entire career — is mind-blowing. It’s incredibly humbling.”
Quest for the West will feature about 200 pieces submitted by 50 different artists. The event is now in its 13th year, and helps showcase the exciting new pieces that Western artists are creating. An art sale attached to the exhibit is one of the biggest fundraisers the Eiteljorg has each year, Blume said.
“It’s a really great opportunity to promote and highlight contemporary traditional Western artists,” she said. “They’re keeping Western art fresh and current and exciting.”
Artists such as Robert Griffing, Michael Dudash and Heide Presse will be taking part again this year, while Kelso is one of the first-timers involved.
“Western art is much more diverse than folks seem to realize, in terms of aesthetics and style as well as subject matter,” Blume said. “What’s so great about Western art today is it’s continuing a lot of the traditions of the style, continuing to promote those traditions, but also putting a fresh spin on it.”
Even when he was a first-grader, Kelso aspired to be an artist. He used to draw pictures of Batman, Garfield and other characters for his friends and family.
Creativity was an important part of his family’s life — his grandmother had attended Herron School of Art, his mother was a dance teacher, his grandfather was a photographer. So when Kelso indicated that he wanted to become an artist, he had their support.
Despite his longtime interest, Kelso initially pursued dance and singing instead of painting.
“But given the short length of their careers, and the physical demands put on them, I thought the visual arts might be a better direction to go,” he said.
Kelso studied at Herron School of Art, bringing together widely varying influences to form his own unique style. He had always loved the fantasy-heavy art of Frank Frazetta, and later grew to appreciate Renaissance painter Caravaggio, who manipulated light and dark to create drama in his work.
Blending those aspects with moodiness, symbolism and a realistic touch became Kelso’s style.
The encounter with Hurley’s artwork pushed him further into realism. That same year would bring another source of inspiration. Kelso ended up volunteering at a Zionsville-based wolf enclosure owned by Dr. Jack Leer, a dentist who owned the animals. Kelso would spread out straw, feed the animals and generally immersing himself into the lives of these animals.
“Eventually, I had spent about nine months with these wolves. I went from painting portraits of people to having a real interest in environmental subject matter, both landscape and animal subjects,” he said. “That was because of Wilson Hurley, and Jack Lear, who owned the wolves.”
Kelso’ body of work includes stunning portraits of animals in wild locales. “Riverdance” captures the rushing whitewater and jumping salmon as a grizzly bear wades into a mountain stream. Mist rises around an American bison in the aptly named “Lounging By the Steam Room.”
An owl is portrayed midflight through snowy pines in “Whispers.”
Locations such as Glacier National Park and Yosemite National Park, as well as Taiwan and Africa, top Kelso’s favorite places to paint. But one area in the country has special meaning to him. Quinault Rain Forest, located in Washington about 20 miles from the Pacific Ocean, is a primeval natural area that is seems forgotten by time.
“It’s so lush and saturated in green. You step into this space, and forget that humanity’s technology even exists for a little while,” he said. “The part of you that connects with all of that just disappears. It’s a spiritual experience.”
With his interest in painting animals and landscapes, particularly Western scenes, he has long been a fan of the Eiteljorg. His relationships in the Western art world also helped inspire him to submit work for the Quest for the West.
He was out in California about 10 years ago when he struck up a conversation with Denis Milhomme, a noted Western artist. They landed on the subject of the Eiteljorg, which had started a new exhibition and art sale called Quest for the West.
That conversation circled back around a few years later, when the two artists met again while both were attending Quest for the West. By then, the show had grown to include some of the icons of Western art working today.
“It was really surprising to me, because usually you have to go out West to find that kind of quality of work. Yet, here it was in my hometown of Indianapolis,” Kelso said.
Kelso first applied to Quest for the West five years ago, but 2018 was the first time he was accepted. For him, it has special meaning to be showing in his home city.
“It’s really cool to be doing this show. I often think back to that experience with Wilson Hurley and the Eiteljorg, and how it really set me on this path,” he said. “Twenty-five years later, I’m back at the Eiteljorg. But instead of visiting, I’m showing there now.”
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Quest for the West
What: Quest for the West is an annual art sale and exhibition featuring brand new paintings, charcoal drawings and sculpture from today’s top working artists in the Western and Native American style.
Where: Eiteljorg Museum, 500 W. Washington St., Indianapolis
How many artists: 50 artists will showcase 200 works of art. Bargersville resident Mark Kelso will be among those artists taking part.
When: Through Oct. 7
Museum hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday.
Admission: Quest for the West is included in admission to the museum, which is $15 for adults, $12 for seniors, $8 for youth ages 5 to 17 and free for children 4 and under.