Radiant light illuminates majestic rock formations at Turkey Run State Park.
Two boys pile up sand among the lapping waves at Indiana Dunes State Park. The late summer greenery turns golden behind a lone sailboat gliding over the waters of Summit Lake State Park. Bison, the iconic symbol of the American West, lumber through the snow at Ouabache State Park.
For a state defined by its agriculture and cornfields, Indiana boasts a landscape as diverse as any in the nation. Edinburgh artist Rick Wilson went to each of Indiana’s state parks, he looked for the scenery that defined each place in the public’s mind.
“Each park is very unique in its own right. That’s what I love about Indiana. We have one of America’s best beaches, to wetlands to plains to canyons,” Wilson said. “Everything but mountains.”
Wilson has compiled two years of work, 70 paintings of 24 state parks into a single exhibition. “The Nature of Art: Painted Parks” is a celebration of Indiana’s natural beauty, as well as a exclamation point on the necessity of conservation of the state’s unique landscapes.
While the show has opened at the Richmond Art Museum, it will be traveling throughout Indiana as part of the bicentennial, giving art and nature lovers a chance to enjoy greater appreciation for Indiana nature.
“I want them to see that Indiana has a diverse landscape, and one of the greatest state park systems in the U.S.,” Wilson said. “It’s not just about art. It’s about being responsible and enjoying the land we live on and taking care of it.”
Wilson, who worked for 29 years in the architectural aluminum business, took up painting as a hobby. After his retirement, he has refocused attention on his art.
His specialty is natural scenes. From this love of nature and the desire to capture it in his art, Wilson had wanted to do a larger project looking at the state park system for a few years.
“My wife and I enjoy camping and going to the state parks. We’d been to a few, but not all of them. So we talked for years about making it a point to visit all of them. But life gets in the way, and we just didn’t get it done,” he said.
The opportunity to realize the project came in 2013, during a conversation with Richmond Art Museum executive director Shaun Dingwerth. Wilson had been accepted into the museum’s annual juried exhibition, and while at the opening, he shared his idea for the state parks. Dingwerth loved the idea, and wanted him to send an official proposal to share with the museum’s board.
“We have a long tradition of exhibiting works by Indiana artists. We’re one of the few museums in the state to give local artists the opportunity to exhibit. This fit with our mission of providing exhibitions for Indiana artists,” Dingwerth said. “Rick is one of the top active working artists in Indiana. He sees nature in a special way, and his use of light is outstanding. You can see his love of nature and his love of art.”
With the state’s bicentennial celebration approaching, it would be an ideal time to look at the parks system, Wilson said. At the same time, 2016 is also the 100th anniversary of the founding of Indiana’s state park system. The two landmark events would pair together to give the exhibition even greater impact.
The project has been accepted as an official Indiana Bicentennial Legacy Project, meaning it exemplifies the past 200 years of state history.
“Indiana is primarily known for the tradition of painting landscapes,” Dingwerth said. “The state has a very diverse topography, and that is one of the reasons we have so many artists, because the state allows artists to pick a wide variety of topics.”
Starting in 2014, Wilson traveled around the state to find images to paint. He wanted two years of seasons to work with, having ample time to show everything from the buds on the cedars and redbuds at Whitewater Memorial State Park in the spring to the toboggan run at Pokagon State Park.
Much of the work has been scouting, finding the ideal combinations of light, color and shade then shooting photographs of what he’s seen. Later, he would use the photos as templates for his paintings.
The first painting he did was capturing the bison in Ouabache.
“We were up by Fort Wayne, and there was a horrific snowstorm. I told my wife that if we could get into the park, I wanted to get photographs of the bison in the snow, because it’s such an iconic scene,” Wilson said. “You think Yellowstone or something, but it’s right here in Indiana.”
Some of the scenes were simply natural scenes, such as summer waterfalls at McCormick Creek State Park or the brilliant autumn color at Prophetstown State Park.
At the same time, Wilson wanted to show people who interact with the parks. He painted people portraying blacksmiths and woodworkers at Spring Mill State Park.
Campers enjoy an autumn evening at Tippecanoe River State Park. Swimmers dip into the water at Lincoln State Park.
“In a lot of the paintings, I wanted to show people enjoying the parks,” Wilson said. “You want to see people enjoying the parks, not just empty landscapes.”
Wilson’s main focus was the state parks, though he also did paintings at recreation areas, historic sites and nature preserves. The snowy grounds of the T.C. Steele State Historic Site seemed natural for Steele’s contributions to landscape art in Indiana.
Sandhill cranes migrating at Goose Pond Fish & Wildlife Area features a scene of one of the most popular birdwatching sites in the entire Midwest.
While he was creating his exhibition, Wilson was accompanied out in the field by a film crew putting together a documentary for PBS. The film showed not only his process but the thinking behind his work.
The exhibition opened at Richmond on May 22, and will be on display through July 16. But Wilson has organized a small tour taking the exhibition throughout the state to let more people enjoy the paintings.
Stops are planned in Fort Wayne, Plainfield, Nashville and Indianapolis.
“I initially wanted the exhibit to travel to museums, but we didn’t get started soon enough contacting them,” Wilson said. “So we’ve sought out alternative venues such as galleries, libraries and other places.”
The exhibition has already generated buzz among both nature lovers and art connoisseurs. Wilson has enjoyed brisk sales of the works in the collection, including 20 on opening night alone.
The reaction is just as much a connection to the material in the paintings as it is Wilson’s artistic talent.
“Whether it makes them think of their grandchildren playing in the park, or their favorite times camping, this exhibition seems to connect to people’s recollections and the emotions they have had at the parks,” Dingwerth said.
“The Nature of Art: Painted Parks”
Artist: Edinburgh-based Rick Wilson
What: A collection of 70 paintings from Indiana’s 24 state parks, as well as state historic and recreation areas.
Where to see it:
Richmond Art Museum
Where: 350 Hub Etchison Parkway, Richmond
When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, through July 16
Where: 1202 W. Wayne St., Fort Wayne
When: 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, July 23 to Aug. 13
Cope Environmental Center
Where: 4910 Shoemaker Road, Centerville
When: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, Aug. 27 to Sept. 17
Plainfield-Guilford Township Public Library
Where: 1120 Stafford Road, Plainfield
When: Oct. 6 to 31
Brown County Art Gallery
Where: 1 Artist Drive, Nashville
When: Dec. 1 to Jan. 31, 2017
Indiana Landmarks Rapp Family Gallery
Where: 1201 Central Ave., Indianapolis
When: March 3 to 31, 2017