Ode to Ohio
Columbus artist Michael McEwan paints his central Ohio surroundings.
By pure geographic coincidence, Michael McEwan grew up in suburban Columbus on a street in Upper Arlington located along the 40th parallel. Big jets landing on the north runway at Port Columbus airport routinely zoomed overhead, and he loved to watch the contrails they left in the sky. The youngster was fascinated with the way the sun seemed to transform the vapor trail.
“It looked,” he recalls, “like a big red cobra just hanging in the sky.” His street also happened to be adjacent to farmland owned by The Ohio State University. The open fields, dirt roads and farmhouses caught his eye, and for a boy with imagination and curiosity, the rural topography was irresistible.
“I was a city kid,” explains McEwen, “but it was great fun to have country spaces to just roam around.”
Clearly, McEwan has always been attuned to the Ohio landscape: He notices how the sun-dappled light appears in a grove of trees on a June morning. He pays attention to the lay of the land and the paths of rivers, and he delights in staring out into the sky. To McEwan, it’s a treat simply to watch the sun go down. By combining this keen sense of place with his natural talent, he’s spent the last 30 years building a successful career as a painter whose evocative landscapes capture the essence of a certain scene yet also seem transcendent. Not only are the artist’s works owned by hundreds of private collectors, museums, corporations and institutions, but McEwan also has had dozens of one-person and group exhibitions in cities that include Atlanta; Charlotte, North Carolina; Knoxville, Tennessee; Indianapolis; and, of course, Columbus, where the Keny Galleries has represented him since the mid-1980s.
McEwan’s home and studio are in Columbus, and he usually finds his subjects in or near central Ohio.
“I enjoy the world around me,” he says. “I don’t feel compelled to go to the Grand Canyon or anywhere else to paint.”
In the tradition of George Inness’ idyllic tonal landscapes, McEwan has mastered nuances of color and light to create bucolic paintings such as “Hayfields Mid-Afternoon/Holmes County” that subtly extol Ohio’s countryside and the occupations of those who live and work there. He also has a passion for rivers, especially the Olentangy and Scioto that meet in downtown Columbus. Using the naturally horizontal positioning of rivers to configure paintings such as “Fall Sundown/Olentangy River at Lane Ave.,” McEwan excels at conveying the aura of a stream — the way it looks and its relationship to the sun, the season, the surroundings — at a moment in time. The artist demonstrates his grasp of abstract pictorial structure with his depiction of trees on a hillside in “Chapman Road/Arpeggio,” yet for his portrayals of “Kelso and High/Late Afternoon” — and other urban settings in Columbus neighborhoods — he conjures the geometric forms and luminous sunlight of Edward Hopper.
Keny Galleries co-owner Timothy Keny admires the fact that McEwan’s dedication and natural ability are enhanced by his knowledge of art history.
“He has great stylistic range that shows influences from impressionism to abstract expressionism,” says Keny.
And although McEwan is a versatile artist who works in oils, acrylics, watercolors and pastels, a recurring image in his visual odes to Ohio scenery is a big sky. “I never really appreciated the fullness of the Ohio sky until I came back to Columbus from studying in Washington,” says McEwan. “The sky just felt huge to me.”
After high school in Upper Arlington, McEwan received his undergraduate training at the Corcoran School of Art and Design in Washington, D.C. He’d planned to focus on figures, but when a teacher suggested he try painting outside, the artist changed his mind. Because McEwan lived near the Key Bridge, he would walk across it to experiment with landscapes of the Potomac River. Taking advantage of the city’s free museums, McEwan also studied art by studying the work in their collections. He admired the painting of Inness, John Singer Sargent, Winslow Homer, Claude Monet, Joan Mitchell and Columbus native George Bellows. “What these artists have in common,” McEwan explains, “is that they are all observational painters in various ways.”
In 1981, McEwan returned to Columbus to attend Ohio State’s graduate school of fine arts and soon found a studio space where he relished the luxury of working in solitude. With the familiar sights and experiences around his hometown providing inspiration, the artist began creating and exhibiting his own observational paintings.
“I like the idea of celebrating our everydayness,” he says. McEwan prepares to paint a landscape by drawing sketches and taking notes about his perceptions of a subject outdoors. Then, he returns to the studio to mull over the elements of the painting — light, color, shapes, structure — and orchestrate their relationships.
“I find,” says McEwan, “that if I work everything out when beginning a painting, it gives me more freedom at the end.”
This summer has been a busy one for the artist. In addition to the adult classes he teaches at his studio, McEwan is planning to host an Open Studio on Nov. 9. The event will allow the public to visit the studio, see how an artist works and view completed paintings as well as works in progress. McEwan also is preparing for fall shows at Keny Galleries and Zanesville Museum of Art. Among the landscapes he’ll exhibit are two oils on canvas — “Path near the Marshes” (Keny Galleries) and “I-71 Sunset/July” (Zanesville) — that reveal his signature use of rich yet understated colors. Both paintings feature prominent skies done in shades of blue that ring true.
“I may be labeled an Ohio landscape painter,” McEwan acknowledges, “but I’m totally OK with that.”
For more information about the artist, visit michaelmcewan.com.
WHEN YOU GO
Sept. 20–Nov. 15
“Michael McEwan: Poetry of Place, Recent Landscapes
Keny Galleries, 300 E. Beck St., Columbus 43206
Nov. 30–Jan. 4
“Looking Through the Sky: Landscape Painting by Michael McEwan”
Zanesville Museum of Art, 620 Military Rd., Zanesville 43701