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Millard Owen Sheets
(American, 1907–1989)
Brule River – Minnesota
watercolor on paper, 23" x 31"
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Californian Millard Sheets spent his whole life traveling the world and recording its people and places. Although he worked in many media, he is best known as a masterful watercolor painter. His work is distinguished by its humanism and reveals the artist’s reverence for nature and its diverse inhabitants, but where many watercolorists produced subdued and sentimental renderings of similar scenes, Sheets mastered a bold and brushy painting technique employing brilliant color, held together with firm, well-designed compositions. “There shouldn’t be a quarrel between abstraction and representation,” he once remarked. “Abstraction has given the mind back to the artist.” Almost single-handedly, Sheets propelled California watercolor painting into the mainstream of the art world and encouraged his students and colleagues to experiment with and aggressively promote the medium.

Employing a quasi-pointillist style of small dots and strokes of watercolor over a loose pencil sketch, Sheets clearly delighted in depicting the spirit of northern Minnesota when he visited Duluth as the Summer Guest Artist in 1952. The central figure of a heron rises like a primitive totem over a triangle-shaped tangle of fallen tree trunks, and is flanked on either side by trees which look like half-plant, half-animal creatures rising up from the river’s banks. Two relatively miniscule figures in a canoe are the sole reminder that this is a contemporary scene, and not a completely imaginative rendering of some prehistoric forest.

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