The Groundwork Beneath His Feats

Drawings reveal the sources of Jim Waid's style and imagery.

The artistic process fascinates art lovers. What is the inspiration for a work of art? How does an idea evolve from the artist's mind to the canvas? The further the image moves away from realism, the more questions the artwork raises.

Since Jim Waid uses the Southwest landscape, his paintings evoke more questions about how he finds such bold colors and raucous forms in a landscape his viewers know well. Groundwork: Drawings by Jim Waid at the University of Arizona Museum of Art answers some questions about one artist's creative process while it provokes others.

The exhibition features 90 of the 200 drawings by Waid that the artist and his wife Beverly donated to the UA Museum of Art. The untitled images are rendered in black ink on paper, and they span 20 years, from 1977 to 1996. The images were originally drawn in sketchbooks, notebooks and on loose sheets of paper although all of the pages have been removed from the books to be displayed as individual sheets. The images feature everything from six sketches of a barrel cactus on a single page to six sheets assembled into a panoramic view that is a preparatory sketch for a mural.

Drawings can be many things for an artist besides preparation for a particular artwork. They can be practice to keep the hand and eye in shape, or they can be experiments in perspective, form, texture or just about any aspect of imagery. For some artists, drawing is a kind of meditation or automatic drawing intended to free the conscious mind. Of course, drawings can be completed artworks, although Groundwork is a selection of pieces showing the artist at work and the art in process.

Looking at two decades worth of Waid's sketches offers a chance to see 90 images in a medium that he has not exhibited before. Like a traditional retrospective, this collection also offers an opportunity to see what has changed and what has remained the same in those 20 years of Waid's career.

Waid's 9/30/79 simple study of six patches of grass at Ramsey Creek is rendered in fine strokes of ink. The blades of grass go this way and that, some apparently casting dots of pollen to the wind. Could something this delicate ever survive in the wild colors and dense texture of a 1990s Waid painting? Probably not. But some of Waid's late 1970s drawings are nearly indecipherable scrawls with areas of scratchy lines. Is this what the grasses became? Such literal connections do not matter because, as Walt Whitman says, even leaves of grass have something to teach us.

Waid's 4/5/81 drawing of six barrel cacti could be simply an exercise. Choose one object and draw it in six different styles. One is smudged, another transforms the thorns into spiky lines and a third is composed only of lines drawn in zigzags. Yet the next time Waid used a barrel cactus in a painting, such drawings informed his choice. Those choices, some conscious and others unconscious, ultimately add up to an artist's style and vision. Waid, who was born in Oklahoma in 1942 and moved to Tucson in 1968, had found his essential style and his subject matter by the late 1970s. The style and subjects are here in images that were drawn with everything from pens to twigs found on his treks outdoors.

A grouping of five pieces from 1991-1996 reveal Waid's growing confidence with his drawing. The 1996 drawing, like others from that year, uses assertive, energetic lines. His 1996 preparatory drawing for the 1999 public mural "Sonoran Spring," which was installed in the Evo DeConcini Federal Court House, is assembled from six sheets of paper and comprises over five feet of energetic lines. As with Waid's large paintings, there is a central focus with an oversize floral shape and archways, but it soon gives way to abstracted desert scenes on each side. Cacti and butterfly are rendered in marks, blobs and scratches.

Part of what is appealing about this drawing is what is appealing about Waid's paintings in general. While you can catalog a few of the natural elements in the drawing with some degree of certainty (two prickly-pear cacti, one butterfly, two saguaros and one aloe), most of the plant life has been abstracted. As a painting, the landscape aspect of this image would be even more obscured. The scene would be further transmuted into form, texture, light and, of course, color.

Anyone who ever doubted the drawing skills of an artist who dumps layers of paint on a stained canvas and then scrapes potions of it away, rest assured. Waid can use a pen to draw lovely, realistic carnations as well as he can use spatulas, knives, plasterer's trowels and comb-like instruments to create monumental paintings bristling with energy. Groundwork reveals something surprising: Even before the color, the exuberance of Waid's paintings is captured in the drawings in starbursts of lines and dots. Such discoveries point to why preserving archives is important. The question is whose works should be preserved and who should archive them.

The UA Museum of Art, unlike the Center for Creative Photography, the university's other museum across the pedestrian walkway, has acquired only one set of ancillary materials, the sculptural sketches of Jacques Lipchitz. The Center was based on the idea of creating photographic archives, and it now owns everything from W. Eugene Smith's shoes to recently discovered jazz sessions he recorded.

According to the UA Museum of Art's chief curator, Peter S. Briggs, who curated the Waid exhibition, the museum is considering the question of whether or not it should collect more pieces that support the actual artworks. As he points out, handling archival material involves a great deal of time, energy and money. However, the concept is something the staff is keeping in the backs of their minds as they plan the February kickoff for their campaign to fund a new museum.