Richard Stauffacher and his Etchings

7 August 2010

            A shallow farm pond of irregular shape is the main distinguishing feature of a vast weedy field. This is a farm well past its glory days. There are scattered post oaks, a collapsed shed, and broken down fences. Low conical mounds mark a former prairie. The pond must once have had as its official business cows and horses, and maybe farm kids. Today it hosts the occasional flock of migrating Double-crested Cormorants, a few American White Pelicans, and sparrows, ducks, geese and whatnot. That’s unofficial business. I’ll bet Wild Turkeys and bobwhite quail coveys know this spot, too.

             Most of these are birds that nest well to the north of Arkansas, all across the great north country of Alaska, Canada, the northern US. During their western Arkansas stop over, they tank up on insects and fish, and then continue on--south to the Gulf of Mexico and South America, or in the other season, north. Some of them know this pond, in a big field, under an even bigger sky.

             On my wall hangs a hand-tinted etching, “Savannah Sparrows” by Richard Stauffacher of Fayetteville. That’s why I’m thinking now about that weedy field with its generous pond and welcoming sky. The small bird’s striped and streaked patterns of brown, yellow, black, and buff-white blend with the weedy stalks and leaves of smartweed. This is an aquatic plant that grows profusely in the pond shallows.

             Savannah Sparrows are as typical of the old prairie grasslands as were the 19th century herds of bison. Two birds perch expectantly on twisted stalks in Richard’s etching. It’s an intimate look, since the birds are deep in the vegetation, well hidden from view. Well, not from everyone’s view.

             Over the years, Richard's etchings have captured a host of creatures and natural environments of western Arkansas. Just a few examples: nesting Great Blue Herons on the Illinois River in early spring and maidenhair ferns dripping over lichen-encrusted sandstones. He etched a small flock of White-throated Sparrows and Dark-eyed Juncos in the snow. More subjects: Northern Bobwhites in another old field, flocks of duck-like American Coots among lotus pads at Lake Fayetteville, a single dog day cicada on the bark of an oak tree.

             He’s also been inspired by the wildflowers that arise, Lazarus-like, each spring from the forest floor: jack-in-the-pulpit, trout lily, and the majestic unfurling of hickory buds. And the massive bluffs rising above the Buffalo River.

            There is an old joke about the artist who lures a young woman to his room by promising to show her his etchings. The joke may date all the way back to the 16th century or even further, when artists discovered that an image could be etched into a metal plate using acids. It was interesting then, and now.

             Once the image is etched, thick ink is smeared on the plate and then wiped off. Ink remains within the etched portions, outlining the picture. The plate is pressed firmly onto paper. Several plates and different types of ink may be used to create complex images. Printed etchings can be hand colored in a variety of ways, using paints and pencils.

             Of course, why go to all the trouble? Why not just take a digital picture and be done with it? Good question. A typical camera image reflects what has been viewed, and little else. The handmade image is a one-of-a-kind impression. It bears witness to the artist.

             For an artist to make a living, it must be sold for a high price. That’s fine if the artwork achieves the fame of Van Gogh, but even Van Goghs had little commercial value during the life of that artist. On the other hand, what if that impression could be produced in a small edition, say 100-300 copies? Since each was printed, colored, and numbered, each would be the unique work of the artist. Each print could be sold for a modest price. Fine art then becomes available to the many, rather than just the few.

             Back in the mid-1980s, Richard sold hand-colored pen and ink drawings at Fayetteville’s Farmer’s Market. One of these was an image approximately 5 by 7 inches featuring a silver-spotted skipper perched on a rose vervain. While impressionistic in rendering, the inspiration was identifiable to species. Skippers are among our commonest butterflies; the vervain does well just about anywhere there’s sunlight. There’s beauty in life’s commonplace realities.

             This picture features a disciplined attention to detail. It projects a sense of landscape enlivened by the unique and the particular. I have wondered about the sources of this quality. Richard does not hold a degree in biology, but biologists are enthusiastic about his work. The spirit promoting this style has something to do with his growing up.

 If you visit his home in Fayetteville, you will note a dog, a cat, a bluebird house, fruit trees, vegetable garden, several sheds, an old van. In other words, typically and comfortably Arkansas. But he did not grow up here. He was born in Russellville in 1948, but almost immediately his family returned to Africa. He grew up among Africans, missionaries, and a wild fauna and flora most of us know only from documentaries broadcast on Arkansas Educational Television Network.

 His parents, Gladys and Claudon Stauffacher, were missionaries. Claudon was born in Kenya in 1910 at Rumuruti, among the Masai, where his parents were missionaries.  His father came to Kenya in 1903 and married Richard‘s grandmother there in 1906. Claudon returned as a missionary in 1933. He and Gladys were married in Kenya in 1942. 

 From shortly after Richard’s birth until 1960, the family pursued their calling as ministers and social workers in the old Belgian Congo, leaving there only because of chaos accompanying independence. The Stauffachers then moved to Kenya when Richard was 16. While kids in the US were growing up with Elvis, the Beatles, and Mickey Mantle, Richard was growing with the Masai people of Kenya’s highlands, with elephants and leopards, zebras, impalas. Richard’s mother chronicled the family’s life and work in Faster beats the drum (168 pages, African Inland Mission, Pearl River, NY 1978).

 Because his parent’s work was remote, Richard was educated in boarding schools in the Congo and Kenya. He found his own balance in a vast landscape. He took a correspondence course in taxidermy, shot birds and other small animals, stuffed and preserved them. These are typically pursuits of a scientist in the making, a modern day Audubon, or at least an active mind concerned with nature’s particulars. He learned anatomy, color, and form at first hand. He learned to work by himself, to be creative in an environment that would be insufferably lonely for people with a more regular growing up.

 Richard returned to the US in 1965. After service in the US Navy, he earned his BS in Fine Art from John Brown University in Siloam Springs (1975). He began producing work like the skipper and vervain pen-and-ink, but it was apparent that it would be hard to sell enough of them at $5-$10 a piece to make a living.

            How many of you readers remember the woman who played violin in the Northwest Arkansas Symphony—and for flowers on the Fayetteville Square? Just think back to the early 1980s, when the Square was struggling. Its heyday was the 1920s. By the 1970s, it was like an abandoned field, full of tumbled bricks, and struggling in what then seemed a hopeless struggle against shiny malls.  The woman earned some of her living playing her violin for flowers planted as an attraction, to lure and to comfort shoppers. She played in those years when old Fayetteville was rapidly changing into something different. Then, as now, the flowers represented something of hope. We learned only later that she was sick during the last year of her work on the Square.

             Do you remember the boy with her on those strolls? That woman, who called herself Free (changing her name from Lenore Mark), died when her son Isaac was 8. Before her passing, she had the presence of mind to entrust the rearing of her son to a friend who did not have children of his own. He befriended the boy, taking him hiking in the National Forest at Wedington while his mother played in the Symphony, and continued while she struggled for life against the cancer that slowly claimed her life. The man was Richard Stauffacher.

             Besides selling his drawings on the Square, Richard was framing art for Wendell Cullers at the Art Emporium on Block Street and for Jay Emerson at the Frame Place on Dickson. During this time he met several people who would have a tremendous influence on his development. Printmaker Ed Bernstein, then in the UA-Fayetteville Art Department, allowed Richard use of his studio and equipment. Another influence was Susan Raymond.

             Susan, who at this time was a regular at the War Eagle Arts & Crafts Fair, owned a small, professional quality etching press that she used to produce limited editions of her Ozarks country-inspired drawings. She owned a farm in Madison County. Richard made a trip out there to learn how the press worked. She also handed him a catalogue from Graphic Chemical and Ink in Chicago, the standard supplier for etching supplies. The rest, as they say, is history.

             Richard went from the one-of-a-kind drawings like the skipper and vervain to editions turned out on Susan’s press. One of these early etchings was a brown tone of a cloudy wing butterfly among dead leaves and twigs on the floor of the forest. While the etching measures only approximately 4 by 5 inches, it encompasses a landscape enlivened by particulars, attractively organized in a small space.

             In this milieu of frame shops and working artists, Richard’s work was introduced to Ria Foster of Island International Artists, based on Guemes Island in northern Puget Sound, Washington. Foster and her representatives travel to galleries all over the country with an artist’s work.

             Seeing Richard’s potential, Foster helped Richard buy a large press so that he could move up from the compact format of Susan’s press. With more potential to make a living, Richard expanded his production.

             In 1986, Richard and Isaac moved from Fayetteville to Guemes Island where he assumed the role of master printer for Ria’s Black Raven Press. He made a steady living and Isaac grew up. But beautiful as it was on an island in Puget Sound, it was never home. In 1993, he and Isaac returned, this time not to an apartment, but a house on a few acres in the Mount Comfort area of Fayetteville. They bought the property with Susan Raymond, her partner Liz Lester, and their daughter Gayle.

             Foster works with many artists who, like Richard, have learned to draw, but who, unlike Richard, lack technical skills in etching and printing. Ria saw in Richard not only the work of an artist with a love of nature, but a highly skilled craftsman converting interesting ideas into technically accomplished etchings. After Richard returned to Fayetteville in 1993, she shipped drawings by other artists so Richard could make the plates. She also repeatedly shipped him back to Guemes to work with the artists themselves during a series of workshops.

             Richard and Martha Whelan were married in 1999. Martha is a hospice nurse whose compassionate professionalism has carried her into the lives of folks all over northwest Arkansas. Besides a flourishing vegetable garden and fruit trees, Richard and Martha share a practical hobby and attractive living yard art: chickens. They walk the yard, inspect the garden, and generally keep the place in order.

            Richard has gotten into Ozark rocks with big format etchings. You’ve been to bluff lines like these if you’ve hiked in the Ozarks. He’s finding spots where the old multi-layered rock strata have been eroding for hundreds of millions of years. It’s too rough for commercial development. Unfettered nature has been allowed to take her course. Grapevines, fence lizards, and small secretive snakes have run of the place. Cave-like rock overhangs may once have sheltered Native Americans from a snowstorm. Deer and bears pass through this country.

             If you are out there in late March, you can just about bet there will be Black-and-white Warblers there, fresh from the Neotropics. You can also bet Blue-gray Gnatcatchers will be nearby in the old cedars. Even with its frenetic pace of growth, the Fayetteville area is still blessed with such places: it could be Lake Wilson Park, or atop Washington Mountain in Finger Park. It could be on the long rocky ridge in the Ozark National Forest at Wedington. Many such places grace the Buffalo River country.

             In his etching “Rocks In Spring,” lichens are silver-gray, moss emerald green, massive sandstone outcrops worn and rounded. The rich tangle of trees and vines is essentially leafless. Rooted in thin soils atop the rocks is a single serviceberry (or sarvis) tree, small and generally overlooked in an understory among better-known trees, the dogwoods and redbuds. It must be March, perhaps middle of the month, because the serviceberry has burst into a snowstorm of delicate white blossoms, enlivening a winter background of gray. Serviceberries bloom well ahead of redbuds and dogwoods.

             Richard’s “Rocks In Spring” contains many more details when compared to his pieces from the 1980s. We easily share his interest in this otherwise nondescript tree that now, in March, so dominates the landscape. Technically speaking, the etching’s format is large at 12 by 18 inches. The lines are complex, rich, varied, and layered. The hand coloring is refined, elegant, and delicate. Taken in the whole, “Rocks In Spring” fetches the viewer out for a last visit with winter, a first commune with spring.

            The most striking of the birds that nest here are Great Blue Herons. You’ve seen them out there along the river where they fish for frogs and minnows. I’m thinking about this while looking at Richard’s etching “Great Blue Heron.” A solitary bird stands along the water’s edge. The background is an expansive open country horizon, with masses of sedges along the water’s edge. The alert bird dominates psychological space -- a giant in the landscape, cameo of ancient reality.

             This is the bird seen as we hurry to work and struggle to be on time--at a farm pond, in the far field, along the highway. It’s at a distance, from our car windows, without binoculars--before the bird flies into its ancient space. It’s a figure in the landscape we presumably dominate.

             Another etching, “Heronry,” encompasses the nesting season’s onset. Leafless upper boughs of sycamores arch and twine into an early sky. Above, a single Great Blue Heron —could be that bird we saw as we were rushing up the highway--approaches the creek bottom with wings set and neck curled, gliding toward stick masses that seem rearrangements of the arches and twining of an old sycamore’s upper boughs. Down among the arches and twines are the stick masses themselves, attended by other birds.

             There could be a future generation of herons in the making there. It could be our vital connection with time in the far, far future. We could stop for a while and try to figure this out, but we have our own livings to make—our own versions of small fish and tadpoles to catch, our own young to rear.

             “Heronry” seems relatively simple. Taken in one way, this etching of herons nesting may be construed as an impressionistic image of nature’s annual cycle, and nothing more. The biology is covered. Underneath there’s an essential theme. The grove of trees is fishing the sky.

            Several decades of etching have passed. We have moved from the 1970s to the new millennium. I get the distinct impression that my friend Richard is headed back to his roots. I don’t mean he’s moving back to Africa. Rather, he is recreating Africa in Fayetteville. It turns out Africa has always been there. It’s just been waiting to express itself.

             Africa is sprouting up all over his studio and the three acres he shares with Martha. On his website, Richard refers to this as “the Africa connection.” Boy, it’s really getting connected. For example, Richard has recently taken a Swahili class at UA-Fayetteville. Swahili is the trade language for central and east coast countries like Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania. Richard spoke it as a kid.

             He has been almost completely focused on themes local to the Ozarks in western Arkansas for most of the years I’ve known him. Early on there were a few hints of his roots in Africa. Now I’m noticing a strong flow of Africa coming out of his studio.

             My first hint came from an early etching (1986). It was not a bluff scene or flowering serviceberries. Richard set “Two Trees” within a savannah in Kenya’s Kedong Valley. Richard’s father and other missionaries used to camp in the valley. “Two Trees” has now been joined by etchings of a fine old Cape buffalo, an elephant, and zebras. The elephant etching “In Some Brush” has been juried into a fall 2010 show featuring artists of northwest Arkansas at the Arts Center of the Ozarks.

             The Africa connection is not just etchings. Kenyan George Ndiritu, is a slime mold specialist. He and Richard hiked the Ozarks when George had time away from his dissertation research at UA-Fayetteville. After finishing his PhD, George returned to research and education for the National Museums of Kenya.

             One day while I was visiting the studio, another Kenyan, Antony Ndugo, stopped by. Antony works for Tyson Foods. He has made a vegetable garden near Richard’s studio. Corn, collards, and beans growing there would be familiar to all Kenyans.

             As soon as he entered the room, Antony and Richard engaged in a brief conversation in Swahili. Richard spoke the Congo version, which is called Kingwana, as a kid. It’s back, here in the Ozarks.

             The big pieces of life’s ecological puzzle, like Bald Eagles and Ring-billed Gulls, are fairly easy to see. Many of the smaller pieces are harder and they tend to get buried as time moves on. Invariably, we miss their potential richness. Whether we are aware of it or not, these are moments in our lives, moments from the stream of our times.

             Headed back to his roots, Richard reclaiming life he knew a half century ago. It is combined now with a rich body of work celebrating the western Ozarks.

            Joseph C. Neal is a native of western Arkansas. He is coauthor of Arkansas Birds (U of A Press, 1986) and author of the general history in History of Washington County Arkansas (Shiloh Museum, 1989). Comments may be addressed to Joe at