A FONDNESS FOR ARKANSAS
The family liked Arkansas, but ended up leaving when Criswell
took a job - first, with the Corps of Engineers working on the
levees on the Mississippi River, and later, learning the printing
trade, in Natchitoches, La.
It wasn't long, however, before they found themselves back in
Arkansas, where the bus broke down for the last time, and the
Criswells knew they were going to have to get off the road once
and for all.
"It was the end of our career as road hippies," he
says, adding, "Around this time I stopped calling myself
a writer and started calling myself a painter." It was 1978.
The bus they had originally named Toad Hall, taken from the book
The Wind in the Willows, was renamed "Towed Haul" when
it was towed to Benton. There Criswell had purchased land and
a trailer from up-andcoming real estate investor Jack McCray
and his father-in-law, Floyd Byrd.
"[McCray] was just a punk kid at the time," Criswell
says. "We were trying to settle down. We'd spent too much
time on the road. Jack got us a piece of property out in the
woods and we had the bus towed there."
Criswell had finally found the land he was looking for, though
by this time he was no longer going to homestead.
He had come full circle. He was painting prolifically again,
from his trailer, beside Towed Haul on his land near Benton.
"Coming back to visual art was sort of like the salmon returning
to the spawning bed," he says.
He had his first show at Cantrell Gallery in the early 1980s.
He and Janet quit their printing jobs, and he painted while she
started her own typesetting business, later adding a print shop
where Criswell would occasionally help out. Mostly, however,
these businesses supported Criswell's work as an artist.
Over the previous decade, he'd gone from a piece of wood across
the steering wheel of his bus (his makeshift studio) to a small
bedroom in the trailer to a storm cellar when a 1982 tornado
overturned the bus and razed the trailer except for the bathroom
where the family had hidden from the storm.
"It was Janet who saw the thing coming and just barely got
us in there [the bathroom] in time and who got a gash on the
head for her troubles," he says.
Piled in the small bathroom with Criswell and his wife were their
daughter Kae, their grandson Christopher (the oldest of daughter
Kim's four children) and Pete, "a friend who had traveled
with us from Florida." Pete is featured in Criswell's painting
"Pete Burning Trash" and a series of prints called
"Pete Going Out for a Smoke."
Helen Scott and her husband, Norman, owners of Cantrell Gallery
and close friends of Criswell's, rushed to Benton after getting
a phone call from the emergency room.
"I have such strong memories of that day," says Scott.
"We were just bewildered," she adds, describing the
scene of the standing bathroom among the debris. Happily, no
one was seriously hurt. The Criswells finally had the impetus
to build the house they'd been planning to create.
"My studio then became an 8-by-8-foot storm cellar,"
says Criswell. It was located beside daughter Kae and her husband
Danny's house on the property. Criswell worked there until they
finished their house, complete with a studio that runs along
one side of the house.
Today, Janet and married daughter Kae Barron
own a digital embroidery design business that continues to support
Criswell's painting. Daughter Kim, also still in Benton, is a
real estate and insurance agent, married with four children,
Christopher, Daniel, Livvy and Ethan.
Criswell's life today is different from the upper-middleclass
one he grew up resenting - at least in part.
"I've always felt, all my life, that I haven't suffered
enough," he says. "I always felt like I had to atone."
Growing up an only child in West Palm Beach, he was called a
prodigy: "As soon as I could hold a pencil I was drawing."
He was encouraged to draw and paint by his mother, Florence Criswell,
whom he calls a "Sunday painter. I learned what an oil painting
was from her. There was always paint around the house and the
smell of linseed oil and turpentine, and I sort of absorbed that
In the sixth grade, he took art lessons at Norton School of Art
in West Palm Beach.
"Everyone thought I was going to be a cartoonist,"
he says. "But I grew out of that. I was sort of a rebellious
kid. I didn't want to do what people wanted me to do. I drew
like a cartoonist, though, not from real life or nature. I drew
out of my head."
One thing he knew was that he didn't want to follow in father
George L. Criswell's footsteps and become a banker. That seemed
too staid and confining a career.
In high school, he discovered fine art in his first art appreciation
class and "was taken by the abstract expressionists [Jackson]
Pollock and [Willem] De Kooning."
He later became influenced by David Park, one of the main originators
of the West Coast school of painting, and the figurative work
of Richard Diebenkorn.
He began to emulate their work in his own, when he wasn't chasing
girls and exploring the headwaters of the Loxahatchee River with
his best friend, Ray Durrance.
"This was wilderness west of Jupiter owned by Trapper Nelson,"
he says. "We were trespassing on the property of the now-famous
Trapper Nelson. We were 15. We read Lewis and Clark. We read
The Big Sky by A.B. Guthrie. We were mountain men, only
there weren't mountains, there were swamps. We were swamp men."
Ray Durrance, who now lives in Ann Arbor, Mich., has stayed in
touch with Criswell over the years.
"He and I are lifelong buddies. We grew up in the same hometown
of West Palm Beach, Florida. His parents and my parents were
friends. We were introduced to each other practically at birth."
Durrance, who owns a library research business, says Criswell
was more than just a wonderful partner in adventure, fellow bookworm
"He had an incredible talent even at that age," says
Durrance. "He could represent anything on paper. Most of
the time, he would have a sketchpad with him."
In the late 1950s, in fear of the draft, Criswell enlisted in
the Marines. Criswell and his new wife, Janet (Seal), whom he
married in 1957, were stationed at Camp Pendleton, Calif. He
sprained his ankle and was medically discharged two years later.
"When I was discharged I thought I'd become a famous artist,"
Criswell says. "I was waiting a long time for people to
discover me painting out there in the garage of my rented house.
I kept waiting for the gallery owners to come but for some reason
they didn't show up."
A few months later, Criswell called his dad to ask for money
to get back home. He had 36 cents to his name."That was
my first real defeat in life
not the last."
Back in Florida, he worked, first as a sign
painter (which he says he was so bad at, he got laid off), then
as a land surveyor.
All the while, the artist inside was growing more frustrated.
"I wanted to do things. I wanted to write and paint, but
mostly, I just bitched about it instead of doing it," he
says. "The pressure builds up and eventually the bottom
When he quit his job as a land surveyor to go on the road, it
was the last job like that he ever had.
"That wasn't just a job, it wanted to possess my soul,"
says Criswell. "After I quit, I felt really free. Other
jobs I've had since then have just been something on the side."
Less than a decade later, most of his gypsy blood and romantic
adventures sated, Criswell settled into painting, perhaps his
ultimate fate. He also let the artist come through in his work
and became more prolific because of it.
Besides being on display at Cantrell Gallery in Little Rock and
Taylor's Contemporanea Fine Arts in Hot Springs, Criswell's work
has appeared in exhibitions across Arkansas, as well as in Connecticut,
New York, Georgia, Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina, Kansas,
Alabama, Mississippi, Germany and Taiwan.
He is in the permanent collections at the Arkansas Arts Center,
the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, Hendrix College, the
Hot Springs Arts Center, Henderson State University, the University
of Central Arkansas, the Central Arkansas Library System, the
McKissick Museum at the University of South Carolina and Capitol
Art Corporation in Taiwan.
He is having his first solo exhibit, a retrospective, at the
Arkansas Arts Center through Aug. 10. It followed a show at Cantrell
Gallery and a group show at University of Arkansas at Little
NOT THE BEST AUTHORITY
Like many artists, Criswell says, he's not good at describing
his work or his motivations for painting a particular piece.
"The artist is not the best authority on his or her own
work," he says. "I am looking at the outside now. Before,
I was inside it. It's an inner thing. You're trying to get those
things out into the world. It's sort of an exorcism."
As he grew as an artist, Criswell became inspired by Old Masters
Van Eyck and Caravaggio, eschewing the Modernism ideal for a
darker style. More recently, he says, "I fell under the
spell of Rembrandt." He was trying to challenge himself
as an artist and "make a clean break from my expressionistic
Criswell creates from somewhere deep inside his own head, crafting
narratives - from comic to nightmarish - on a canvas with intricate
precision. His muses come from literature, mythology, opera and
"His compositions are just fantastic," says fellow
artist and friend Sammy Peters, "but I don't think the composition
is the thing that he's after. There's this kind of quality the
painting has to take on - a magic point when a painting starts
to breathe and takes on a life of its own, at least for the artist.
He's really cognizant of what he wants and he knows it when he
Criswell makes his own paint, grinding dry pigments into oil,
which he refines from raw linseed oil: "Using those old
techniques to express present-day images sets up a kind of anachronistic
tension that I like."
Helen Scott adds that Criswell also makes a lot of his own frames,
"I'm talking from the raw wood," she says, adding carved
details and a gild.
Scott and her husband have been carrying Criswell's work since
he arrived in Little Rock and would come in to get things framed
back in 1979.
"From the very first [during his watercolor phase], he had
things that were executed so well," says Scott. "When
he changed, though there were times I couldn't identify with
the subject matter, he was just so good at it. He has such a
vast knowledge in so many fields. That makes a difference in
Criswell has settled into his style over the years.
"There was a time when I thought that art, to be great -
and we all want to do great art - had to be universal,"
But universal wasn't what he first thought it to be.
"Everybody sees the painting in a different way," he
says. "They see it through the filter of their own lives.
The key to the universal is the personal expression of the self
and its unfulfilled desires and frustrations. And people will
see that through their own frustrations. Within that focus, people
will see their own personal variations on the theme. The universal
is hidden inside the personal."
Some paintings are emotionally charged narratives, while others
are simply landscapes or still lifes. Each begins with an image,
he says, but its roots are in the unconscious.
According to Criswell, Robert Genn, a Canadian artist friend,
calls the rare moments where everything from light to emotion
aligns and you have to paint "Alpine moments." Genn
thinks an artist might have 10 of these in a lifetime.
Criswell says he adopts that philosophy on a different level.
"These are not outward moments but inward, emotional moments
that drive the artist's creativity. They won't appear in the
artist's biography. We don't always know what those moments are.
I don't think you could track down exactly what it is that makes
us do what we do in art."
His work might as easily be inspired by the Richard Strauss opera
Salome or the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre as by contemporary
world events. He never knows. He just lets it happen.
"I can tell a lot of stories and try to construct a narrative,"
he says. "But with art, I'm strictly impulsive, painting
a spontaneous image that I haven't really mapped out, so there's
more honesty in my paintings than you will get out of me in an