Looking at the bigger picture
Cross the threshold into Ron Radcliff's Green Bank home, and you'll find yourself in the domain of a man who has immersed himself in the realm of art.
No wall is bare in his 19th-century farmhouse. Each is a gallery of multiple paintings and drawings from his lifetime as an artist and art instructor. Even in his kitchen, original potteryﾗsome of it his, some of it pieces he has collectedﾗfills the space above the cabinets.
Even the red barn next to his house is destined to be a home for his creative works. In the near future, Radcliff plans to turn it into his pottery studio.
He onlyﾠ recently moved to Pocahontas County, following his daughter, Elizabeth Suttonﾗherself a versatile artistﾗwho relocated here with her husband after college.
Before coming to West Virginia, Radcliff spent his life in Oklahoma.
It was there during the 1970s that he become well-known as a ﾓhard-edgeﾔ painter. His paintings from this periodﾗseveral of which hang on his wallsﾗare larger-than life, measuring six or seven feet across and feature bold colors, hard, clean lines (as ﾓhard edgeﾔ would imply) and sharp contrasts. Some of his work from that time is part of Oklahoma's state art collection. By the early 1980s, his work changed. He was among the first group of painters in the Southwest who were setting the stage for contemporary Native American artwork, inspired by William S. Soule's iconic 19th-century documentary portraits of the Kiowa, Arapaho, Comanche and Cheyenne.
As an art instructor for four decades, Radcliff is not married to any one medium. He frequently works with a mix of materials in any one piece and pushes the limits of their capabilities. When working with colored pencil, he often ﾓburnishesﾔ the colorsﾗbearing down on the pencil until the color takes on an almost glass-like sheen. When working with pottery, he experiments with the smokey hues of clay fired in the Native American manner or the effects of oxidation reduction achieved through Japanese Raku technique.
ﾓIt's a process that's really exciting, because you take the pot out of the fire, while it's molten, submerge it in sawdust or newspaper,ﾔ Radcliff explains. ﾓIt smokes and causes the glazesﾗlike the coppers and so forthﾗto change and go iridescent. If you catch it at the right moment, take it out and cool it off with water, or just let it cool by itself, you get all these interesting surfaces.ﾔ
It's clear from looking at Radcliff's work that location speaks to him and through his creations. Pieces created in Oklahoma reflect Native American themes, a fascination with the smoke patterns of large grass fires, or a forgotten church on the prairie.
In a short time, his work has started to take its cues from the West Virginia landscape: lichen-covered rocks, time-worn outbuildings, weather-beaten tools and farm implements. On the table in his studio, a watercolor image of a weathered, rusty tractor engine is in progress.
It's pieces like thisﾗin a much more hand-held, intimate size than his earlier workﾗthat he has on display at the Pocahontas County Artisans Cooperative Gallery near his home.
But these aren't just images of objects. What Radcliff sees in the world speaks to him, such as the lichens found on so many rock formations here.
ﾓ[L]ichens an inch across may be 25 years old-or older. One three inches across may be well over a hundred years old,ﾔ he wrote in a recent artist's statement. ﾓAdaptation, life span, food supply, water, weather extremes, you name it; they survive with the least care.. and we ourselves are never satisfied with the status quo.ﾔ
Radcliff says he has taken a lesson from the lichens.
ﾓI'm content to stay where I am now,ﾔ he adds. ﾓIt offers me a lot of satisfaction in terms of imagery. I don't have to go far away; I can be inspired by driving up Cheat (Mountain) or wherever.ﾔ
ﾓIt affects not only the realistic things I'm doing, but what I call abstract,ﾔ he continues. ﾓA lot of people think abstract art doesn't mean anything, but all abstract is a distortion from reality. We all have distorted realities. In my case, I have something that goes along with it, and that's a philosophy and a story. If you don't know the story, all you can do is look at it visually, and whatever you take from it is up fto you. But if you want to talk to me about it, I'll tell you about it. That's something that artists need to do more of. You need to be able to talk about what you're seeing.ﾔ
What you can see in many of Radcliff's paintingsﾗfrom his early work to the presentﾗis someone who enjoys grappling with questions of mortality and the spiritual world.
ﾓIt's very personal,ﾔ he says of his work.
Walking through his living room, Radcliff comes to an abstract painting of headstones in a cemetery. Each is marked withﾠ the letter ﾓXﾔ in some form or another.
ﾓOur 'X' is our signature, in a way,ﾔ he says. ﾓFor some people, that's all they've got when it's all overﾗjust a gravestone.ﾔ
Across the room, he comes to another abstract painting of a wall across a landscape.
ﾓI was asked once by a psychology instructor, 'If you were in the forest and you came to a wall, and the path ended at that wall, what would you do?'ﾔ Radcliff continues. ﾓI said I'd climb over it. That's basically what you should do. Most people say, 'I'd just stop.' Death is something you go beyond, the way I think.ﾔ
ﾓI see art as a way of surpassing death,ﾔ he says.
The story-telling continues. He then stops at one of his early, hard-edge paintings. Around the central object in the painting, are little egg-shaped pieces that appear as though they're about to roll away.
ﾓThese little things that are falling offﾗthis is our inability to handle some situations,ﾔ he says. ﾓIt's like teetering on the edge of going insane or having a problem. Somehow or another, we come to grips with it. So this is really about becoming whole. They're all the bits and pieces that make us what we are.ﾔ
Radcliff believes it is important for artists to be able to tell the story behind their workﾗto engage their audience on more than just a purely visual level.
ﾓWhen I was in school, no one could explain non-objective art,ﾔ he says. ﾓMore and more, artists probably need to be able to explain what they're doing, if they want to educate the public. And the public needs to know those things if they're ever going to become interested in art.ﾔ
ﾓMost people just see what they want to paint,ﾔ he continues, ﾓand they paint it, and it doesn't mean that much to them, other than it's a celebration of life, color or whatever, but it can be a lot more than that.ﾔ
Radcliff also values versatility and the endless options that come with the mastery of many media. During his teaching career, he has taught scuplture, print-making, painting, pottery, design, drawing and more. Because of this, a particular subject for a painting or sculpture may work its way into other forms.
ﾓIt's all affected me,ﾔ he says. ﾓOne image might pop up someplace elseﾗsay, watercolor. All of the sudden I have an idea for that then in oil or in pottery. Many of the things I look at affect the way I treat surfaces in pottery, too. Every medium that I've had to teach, or become associated with, has affected the other. That's just the way it is for me.ﾔ
Through his artwork, Radcliff says he is more aware of the world around him, and he hopes it inspires the same awareness in others.
ﾓI'm really interested in art that makes someone look at it and ask 'what's going on here?'ﾔ he says. ﾓOr maybe it questions what they already know. Maybe it gives them something to think about that they hadn't looked at before, or it causes them to look a little more closely around them.ﾔ