By Bo Bartlett
The American became seared in my mind when I was rereading To Kill a Mockingbird a couple of summers ago. It was inspired by the scene in which Atticus shoots the rabid dog in the street—to me the crux of the story. The image, idea, color, and composition of The American came to me in total—it was like the moment when a songwriter gets the lyrics and the melody together. I saw it, much as it is now, in my mind’s eye. It was one of those rare creative moments when the idea was so complete that I couldn’t believe the painting didn’t already exist somewhere in some form. I racked my memory for unconscious precedents: The photojournalist Eddie Adams's image of the South Vietnamese police chief shooting a Vietcong officer in the streets of Saigon in 1968…an N.C. Wyeth illustration of a Revolutionary War solider firing a musket in profile…a George Caleb Bingham painting of “shooting for the beef”…random film stills, such as Michael Douglas as an irate worker in Falling Down (1993)…Robert Longo’s men in suits with ties blowing…my own previous paintings of men pointing or with guns, Madre Del Nene (1990) and Sightland (1993). All of these images and more are precursors.
I posed in the late afternoon light in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, for a couple of photos with a Remington rifle that was loaned to me by my friend Lloyd Lisk. I could have had someone else pose, but I didn't want to incriminate or implicate anyone else. We project. We blame the “other.” The American looks out from an archetypal stance, ready to defend his house, his property, and his family from the evils that lie in wait. The “other” is forever terrifying.
The situation with guns in America is untenable. I have protested for years at National Rifle Association conventions, at convention centers, and at gun shows, in Pennsylvania, Georgia, and on the Capitol steps in Washington after Sandy Hook. There are all types of gun owners, from normal to wacko, but I have first-hand knowledge of responses many of these individuals contribute to the debate: “Guns don't kill people—People kill people.” “The only thing that'll stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” Perhaps, to find common ground, we could begin to address the madness not as a political issue, but as a public health issue. We need to bridge the duality—and find something we can agree on. Guns are a health risk, like lead paint, cigarettes, driving while intoxicated, and driving without a seat belt. It took a while for these public health issues to catch on and for legislation to bring about changes in our habits. Lobbies had to be overcome. I realize that none of these receive protection from an amendment to the Constitution. Still, the Constitution is a living document. And even if you are a strict constructionist, there were no automatic weapons when the Second Amendment was ratified in 1791. So the word “arms” should be defined in a way that is in line with the original intention of the amendment.
The painting is a mise-en-scène. I wanted to set it in a mythical American landscape, a Last Picture Show Texas terrain, an Iowa field, a rural Georgia road, a New Jersey street, or a Bakersfield, California, setting. The street and locale are fabricated, but the scene references houses not far from my childhood home in Georgia. I wanted it to be everywhere and nowhere. A dreamland. I looked at Edward Hopper, at Andrew Wyeth, and at the light on the side of the old cotton mill outside my studio window. In the South, there is magic in the light. The light travels eight minutes from the sun—gives us life and sustains us. Late in the afternoon, the sunlight rakes from the West. All time seems to stop. Long shadows are cast. Everything grows quiet, the stillness of a waking dream. Anything is possible; it is in this moment, informed by this lucid light, that we realize that we make the decisions, that we are responsible for what happens here.