An artist and an alpinist, Dave McNally has made the Greater Yellowstone Region his home for almost 40 years. Each morning he enters his Victor, Idaho studio to meditate; the practice is a prelude to a day of painting works depicting landscapes and people comprising the mountainous regions surrounding Jackson Hole and Grand Teton National Park and the Himalayas.
To enter McNally’s studio and home is to be encircled by a land of perpetual snow and ice, rocky scree, emerald lakes, vast glacier expanses–as well as exquisite commissioned portraits and images of Nepal’s beautiful people. Observing and painting, keenly focusing on mountains and the cultures mountains create around them has honed McNally’s painterly skills to a level that juried his paintings into two of the most prestigious Realism competitions and salons. Last year McNally’s “Peering Through the Veil of Forgetfulness” was an International Guild of Realism (IGOR) finalist painting–several of his paintings were accepted from 4200 entries. A member of both the Oil Painters of America and the Portrait Society of America, McNally is this year submitting six paintings to the 15th Annual Art Renewal Center (ARC) competition. Regarding Contemporary Realism, ARC’s salon and competition is the world’s largest in terms of entries, with the most diversified categories and international participation.
McNally’s love of mountains and mountaineering has taken him around the world. Painting those places and their people is his life’s work and a footstep along a very personal journey. In 1870, William Henry Jackson joined the Hayden Expedition as its photographer-chronicler of the Yellowstone Territories. Thirty-two years ago, McNally received a similar calling.
“In 1988 I was invited on my first trip to Everest. I was hired as a climbing artist, and it was a whole new world for me. I grew up in Chicago, and always had this intense longing to go to the big mountains.”
The trip was a dream come true. McNally hauled all his art supplies. Accomplishing as many sketches as possible at over 20,000 feet, he completed the series of paintings post-expedition. Since that time, he has returned to lead expeditions almost every season for 32 years.
Deeply affected by Tibetan sacred beliefs, McNally practices a realism imbued with conceptualism, metaphor and symbolism reflecting the inner world. His paintings are divinity set to canvas, and while he may be painting a familiar scene, McNally approaches a work through symbolism rooted in alchemy and the knowledge that mountains are messengers in the form of living organisms.
“The whole idea of Realism,–he paints what he sees–no. It’s all an illusion, anyway. I use elements I find in mountains that represent what we cannot see. A painting of a mountain: what does it do? First, it points up. To where? To higher realms. Why do I have such an attachment to a big pile of rocks, snow and ice? Because it’s a vehicle. When I began climbing I didn’t realize it was a vehicle for me to see higher realms. After half a lifetime of climbing my body began to break. I was tormented not to be able to climb. To understand this depression I began studying the metaphysical. Understanding that the mountain is pointing up, to the unseen, has great meaning for me. That is what draws me to realism–this lasts forever.”
Alchemists, explains McNally, believed that what is above and unseen corresponds to what is below. Mankind can see what is below, here on earth, but we cannot see what is above. Of seven Hermetic principles, the final principle states that the universe is made up of masculine and feminine on all planes; no creation–mental or physical–is possible without a balance between the two genders. One cannot follow a spiritual path without this intuitive knowledge, and as McNally’s paintings are in large part about praise and enlightenment, his works are largely a manifestation of balance. Or, as he names it, an “intelligence of the heart.”
McNally’s realism, is about taking in something, an impression. Whether a sunset, a person, a building—McNally believes painting is the process of putting emotions about any subject into his art and communicating those feelings to the public. Too often, viewers of any realistic artwork will ask if a specific location is depicted. McNally’s response is that a beautiful string of mountain lakes represents both a particular place, and ALL mountain lakes. A forest scene may bring a certain aspen tree grove to mind, but the magic of that spot is the magic of all natural forests and quiet, undisturbed places. One work in his studio depicts a solitary figure making its way up a series of mountainside stone stairs. Upon seeing the painting, a number of guides swore they knew the place, and had been there. In fact, such a spot doesn’t exist. When this phenomenon occurs, McNally knows he’s nailed it.
“I managed to capture the feeling and a sense of reality of what you might find. The scene is actually a compilation of memories, people and locations from different trips. But it’s all THAT place, it’s all the Himalayas.”
Planning a painting’s subject in advance rarely works well for McNally; his best results arise from happy accidents. A painting may also be a composite of places and events folded together with a dose of revelation. Not long ago, during a stroll through Kathmandu’s crowded and frenetic square, McNally’s eye singled out a particular Hindu holy man.
“These guys are all over the streets in Kathmandu, and they are very colorful, interesting characters. I’ve never met one that spoke English, and I’ve never met one that declined a photo. They always say yes. And this gentleman’s face, like the faces of others, was painted,” recalls McNally. “He was sitting on the steps of a temple, watching the hustle and bustle, the swirl of colors, the pigeons flying everywhere. A solitary soul, taking it all in. The square itself was ancient. I photographed him from a distance, he didn’t know I was there. His attention was on the day’s events, watching everything unfold. He was a striking person, with a striking face. I couldn’t stop wondering what he was thinking. And of course, it’s a reflection of my own curiosity about everything, too. What captivated me was the intense look in his eyes, an unflinching gaze that can stare right through you. That’s what I saw. When I approached and asked him formal permission to take his picture, speaking in Nepalese, he smiled and gave me this sign: OM. It is Okay.”
As we stepped away from the painting in McNally’s studio, his partner, artist Alison Brush, swore she saw the figure lift away from the painting’s background and float toward us.
Snow and ice roll down from the peaks, bringing parts of the mountain with them. Mountains give life and take it away. As he paints, McNally works to present all sides of a subject. The flip side of seemingly barren, rocky debris is teeming, lush life.
“I am drawn to Realism because everything that is real to us is also full of symbols and mysticism, reflects McNally. “This journey, as it is for mystics, is to try and place what I learn from meditation, study and experience into the work. Somewhere in an alchemist’s laboratory is a corner kept for contemplation and sacred prayer. Keeping that space and practice, they believed, had a great effect on their level of consciousness. They brought that into their work. This is why I keep my studio the way that I do; I remain reminded. When I was young, I was much more ego-driven…but as you age and continue to learn, you realize that this is your offering to the world. It’s what you have to leave.”
The 15th International ARC Salon Competition notes that all awarded entries will be published on both the Art Renewal Center Website and in the 15th ARC Salon book, International Realism. A list of the semi-finalist artists will be posted on November 4th, 2020. A list of all finalists will be posted on December 9th, 2020. Winners will be posted on January 13th, 2021.