AN INTERVIEW WITH AARON SCHUERR

Written by Kim Weeks from her interview with Aaron Schuerr.

3/1/24


When we see an artistic work, be it on canvas, on stage, or on writing paper, we often appreciate a new perspective about the world at large, the country we live in, or even what is outside our back door. While many painters have a passion for expressing their artistic visions beyond the mere visual, landscape artist Aaron Schuerr successfully blends poetry, acting, and plein air painting, and he can, in fact, perform them simultaneously.

 

Thanks to a local organization called Montana InSite Theater (MIST), local artists, actors, and nature lovers perform their own artistic disciplines in a variety of outdoor locations. Most recently, Aaron participated in a program called Sonnets in the Snow, in which he performed his own original poetry while painting en plein air in Hyalite Canyon for an audience that skied, snowshoed, or hiked through the snow to watch.

 

“To me, it’s a crazy way of bringing everything together. I love being in the mountains, skiing … and writing, performing, and painting. I’m like, ‘How am I lucky enough to be able to have it all in one thing?’” Aaron said. 

 

And Aaron’s audiences are indeed fortunate that he is able to communicate, demonstrate, and educate through this unique, integrative performance, even using Shakespeare to convey his own experiences.

 

“I’m talking [to the audience] about the artistic process, and then I go right into the monologue [from Hamlet]. And I can see the audience members, and it would click [for them] at different moments,’” Aaron said. “This is why it’s universal, because the struggles that I have as an artist are not that different than the struggles that Hamlet has with trying to understand his family.”

 

Many artists cannot remember a time when they were not creating, but Aaron specifically recalls the moment he discovered drawing as a child. A local artist had come to his house with an armload of library books and was tasked with the job of drawing a wildcat mascot for his school, Eastview Elementary in Algonquin, Ill. Aaron doesn’t remember why she was at his home at that moment, but he definitely remembers her work.

 

“I’d never seen anyone draw something like that, and so I borrowed one of her books, and snuck off and did a drawing of a mountain lion on a cliff. And it fulfilled everything that you could want as an 8-year-old. It was interesting. It kept my attention and it got me attention,” he said.

 

Soon after, his mother, a piano teacher, traded piano lessons for Aaron’s art lessons, and from there he was drawing constantly until after high school when he enrolled in the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. As a budding artist, Aaron was focused on what he calls “semi-abstract” work, but when he traveled to Dundee, Scotland for what was supposed to have been a one-semester exchange program, everything changed for him. Aaron decided to transfer to Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design in Dundee to pursue what he would later come to know as plein air painting.

 

“At the start of my second year over there, friends invited me to go paint in [the Old Course at] St. Andrew’s. It is the world’s first golf course right on the water, and so I did a charcoal drawing of that landscape, and it was the happiest I had ever felt making art. It was like I was meeting myself for the first time,” Aaron said.

 

His college program was structured in such a way that a student’s degree was based on one final show that represents a fully realized body of work. But, fueled by his new passion for landscapes, Aaron, spent his final year traveling around doing charcoal drawings of the rugged Scottish countryside. In the summers, Aaron would head up to the mountains and, when he wasn’t waiting tables, he was mountaineering and painting, but at that time, he was the only person he knew that was creating art that way.

 

“The term ‘plein air’ wasn’t a thing. I didn’t know anybody who was doing that. I had some good instructors over there, but no one was doing landscape. So it was a very dramatic shift from what I was doing before,” he said. “For me, going out to paint was the only way I could get my material. I didn’t know how to work from a photo, and so the only way I could do it was to actually just go out there and stand and work from life, and I was just sort of making it up as I went along.”

 

Aaron said another “Aha!” moment for him came when he was at home for Christmas break. In the basement of his childhood home, Aaron discovered an old set of pastels that a friend had given his mother when she was pregnant with him, perhaps portending his future medium.

 

“So, I was in the basement looking for something, and I found this old set of Grumbacher pastels. They made some really good pastels back then, so I brought that back with me for my final semester in Scotland. And that was what gave me the tools I needed to be able to transition from charcoal drawings with a little bit of color to full pastel paintings.”

 

Aaron said his final grades in the art school were not what most students hope for, but he was not put off because, despite the low marks, he was able to sell most of the paintings at his final art show.

 

“That was kind of what got me to see that it was possible,” he said.

 

After he graduated and left Scotland, Aaron decided that he would not return to the Midwest but instead decided to move to Montana to be close to a girl, now his wife Lynelle, that he had met through his sister two years before.

 

“We had what I call the ‘last analog romance.’ I think it happened because a lot of the time I was in Scotland. I didn’t have a phone, and if I did, I would have to go get a phone card and go to a phone box, and we’d talk every two weeks. So, we actually wrote letters,” Aaron said.

 

Though he was somewhat unfamiliar with Montana at that time, Aaron had visited Lynelle during college and decided that it would work well for him after graduation, because the Midwest had little to offer him in terms of scenery and adventure, not to mention Lynelle.

 

“I couldn’t have found Montana on a map. I’m pretty sure I didn’t know the difference between a deer and an elk,” Aaron joked. “I had come out to Montana for the summer, and I went, ‘Okay, that’s a place I could come back to,’ because in Scotland I got involved in the mountaineering club, so that kind of introduced me to climbing, and I knew Montana had plenty of that, and obviously gorgeous landscapes to paint. So that was nice, because then I had the girl I loved, who happened to live in an amazing part of the country.”

 

Once he moved here, Aaron says he did every part-time job one could possibly do, including waiting tables, teaching cross-country skiing, and home health care. His last job was as a director for a youth program, but he soon found out that the schedule this job demanded was keeping him from fully investing time in his painting, so he left and sought something different.

 

“I assumed I would go back to waiting tables. That was the best way to just get money quick. But as it turned out, I just kept avoiding getting a job,” he said. “So my transition from working part-time to augment the art income to [working] full-time [on] art was kind of a mistake. It was more avoidance than it was an actual decision. So, I feel that, basically to me, an art career was just putting off gainful employment another month, and I’ve been doing that for years now.”

 

As Aaron was first building his career in Bozeman after college, his work was showing in another Bozeman gallery, but he often stopped by Montana Trails Gallery thinking it would be a better fit for his work. After some time, Aaron got up the nerve to speak with Tara, an MTG employee at the time who, since that time, has been tragically killed in a gas line explosion that devastated the gallery in 2009.

 

“I said, ‘Would you be at all interested in showing my work?’ And she said, ‘Aaron, I’ve always wanted to show your work.’ And she just really, immediately made things happen. I’d bring in a painting, and she’d say, ‘Oh, I know who would totally like that painting,’ and she would get them on the phone. So, that was a really good relationship,” he said. “And obviously I met Steve, and I think part of what Steve brought to the table for me is just his knowledge of historical artists, and getting to see some of that stuff that he bought in, and talking to him about it. It was a really crucial transition in my career.”

 

Aaron was in what he called the “slow grind” of building a career as an artist. Within a year of his move to Montana, he and Lynelle got married and settled in Bozeman for 10 years, then moved to Livingston, at which point Aaron had begun to establish himself.

 

“I’ve lost more sleep than I should have over the years, trying to make it as an artist. There’s so often that thought, ‘Oh, I’m in trouble now. I’m going to have to get a job or do something, because this isn’t working,’ and then something comes through and it works out. So I feel like it was a slow, steady growth, both artistically and then also just the career,” he said. “But the good side of that is that …sometimes you can fall into a trap, as an artist, of trying to find a hook; something that people are going to grab onto in the work. I have never felt like I’ve had any pressure to paint a certain way or to paint a certain subject. So, I’ve always just painted what I love to paint, and I feel really fortunate that way.”

 

For many, the pandemic represented, not just a hiccup in life’s progression, but a turning point or impetus in their careers or their lives. For Aaron, it meant he could spend more time experimenting in oil painting, and it also meant he could spend more time getting his work out on social media. He found that some of his paintings that he photographed in the field would fit neatly within the larger scenery, making for an impressive photo for Instagram. These photographs caught the attention of Kelly Clarkson, singer of American Idol fame and host of a daily talk show, and Aaron was invited to be a guest on her show, via Zoom. Aaron had not heard of Kelly Clarkson, though, so he had to do a bit of quick online research after he spoke with her representative. He had, however, heard of Bob Ross, host of “The Joy of Painting,” a PBS art instruction show famous for “happy trees.”

 

“I had to do practice interviews [for the show]. They only have a couple of minutes and they don’t want you to go off on some tangent, so I roughly knew what [Kelly Clarkson] was going to ask,” Aaron said. “And so her rep actually told me, ‘Oh she wants to introduce you as Bob Ross 2.0.’ And I just started laughing, and I said, ‘Look, it’s her show, and everybody loves Bob Ross.”

 

While in terms of shear artistry, the comparison might not be extremely flattering, but in terms of introducing people to art and helping them come to love and appreciate it, Aaron agrees that it might be rather favorable. In fact, Aaron does teach art in workshop settings and loves seeing the joy of this students as they bring the beauty of nature to their canvases.

 

“It was always just fun to take people to some of the places I love to paint and just see their faces when they are like, ‘Oh, I get to hang out here.’ And I do so enjoy that and I feel like it has made me a better artist,” he said.

 

Aaron has also done longer format instructional videos online that have allowed him to delve a bit more into his work and instruction.

 

“Just to be able to really dive in deep and talk about the finer nuances of color and composition and layering, and all that kind of stuff. Also just how do I work from plein air studies in the studio? What am I trying to get out of this? So, that was a cool experience,” he said.

 

The most recent step in Aaron’s artistic and experiential journey is that he, his wife, and his brother-in-law, built a studio in their back yard in Livingston, which has given Aaron the literal and figurative space to let his art flourish.

 

“I feel like that has put me in a head space that’s been really productive and just feeling like I’m in a period of growth right now. And when you’ve been at it for a while, you have growth and then you have long plateaus. And then sometimes there’s growth that you don’t realize that’s happened until it’s in retrospect,” he said.

 

While he is still very focused on getting outside, getting dirty, and painting, Aaron is also exploring ways to get his work seen by new communities. To that end, Aaron has done some shows and competitions in Southern California and was asked to the Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel in Laguna Beach, where he will be conducting painting demonstrations and a show for patrons of the hotel.

 

“I laughed when they gave me the award. I said, ‘Do you realize that you kind of picked the Montana dirt bag for some work?’ I have done so many trips when I stay in the desert, and I just drive and I get tired and pull over on the gravel road and throw my sleeping bag down on the ground, and wake up in the morning and paint some more. Not even in a camp ground. So, it makes me laugh,” he said.

 

It's that rough unpredictability about painting outside that appeals to Aaron, though, because it forces him to react to his surroundings honestly. And in Aaron’s collaborative way, he explains it from the perspective of being an actor.

 

“I’m reacting to what’s happening when I’m out there. I’d call it being in the moment. I do a lot of acting, and in the theater we talk about ‘being in the moment.’ Basically, you’re doing your due diligence to prepare yourselves for a play, but the magic happens when you are just truthfully responding in that moment to whatever stimulus, so every time it feels new.  That’s what I get out of it. That’s why I continue to go back to painting on location,” he said.

 

Aaron feels like some of his most honest and interesting work comes from multi-day, solo backpacking trips through trails, mountains and canyons, including those painted during a six day trip through the Grand Canyon.

 

“For me, it’s that immersive experience of being three or four days into a trip into the back country. As an artist, what I’m trying to do is find those places and those experiences that get me closest to myself; get me closest to who I am,” he said. “It’s about finding solitude and that direct communication that I get when I’m out there. It’s like no other experience.”

 

And Aaron’s work is all about sharing those experiences with the viewers of his art. He is fully aware that every individual experiences and sees everything from a slightly different perspective, whether it’s a mountain scene, a sunset, or even light glinting off of a guardrail. We may experience it together, but each person has seen something different.

 

“The way I think of painting is that I get to show you what I saw and how I experienced it. I get to distill in pigment the idea of that experience, so that you can share in it. And that’s not something we can actually do in real life, because we actually have distinct experiences. And so to me, that’s the magic of it. It’s almost like I’m starting a story and the viewer’s finishing the story, and the portal is the painting. And so when I think of it that way, it’s just a privilege and it’s a tremendous opportunity to be able to share,” Aaron said.

 

And if someone looks at one of his paintings, whether or not they have visited that location, it’s their organic sense of recognition that makes Aaron feel that he has captured the scene in the best way.

 

“Someone was looking at one of my paintings and she said, ‘I’ve been there.’ And I was really surprised, because it was a winter scene where the peaks were obscured by a storm. And I think she saw the surprise on my face, and she said, ‘Oh, no, no. I have no idea where that is, but I’ve been there.’ That’s everything I want to achieve in a painting,” Aaron said. “I think there are other artists who are more virtuosic, but I think there is honesty in my work that I prize. And I think that’s what people respond to. It’s the difference between trying to impress versus trying to communicate. And I think if I can focus on trying to do that, then the work is going to be stronger.”

 

Bob Ross could not have put it so well. 

 

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