Watercolor wonders

The display helps to show how the creative mind of this accomplished artist works.
YOUNGSTOWN -- The eyes of Crow, a black girl clutching a rag doll, are haunting. A soft light illuminates the fine details of her facial features. The background fades to abstract blends of brown watercolor.
Crow, painted in 2000, is one of 85 works of artist Henry Casselli that are on display at the Butler Institute of American Art in Youngstown through Nov. 4. The New Orleans Museum of Art organized the traveling exhibition.
Not only can visitors admire the finished work of the American watercolorist, they also can see his pencil and compositional studies to comprehend the creative process.
"We set up the exhibit to show how one idea developed into another -- from pencil drawings to studies to finished paintings," explained Louis Zona, executive director of the Butler.
"This a terrific show to demonstrate the process that artists go through including compositional studies and trying to work out color. We can also see the influence of other artists including Mary Cassatt, Edgar Degas, John Singer Sargent and Andrew Wyeth," he added.
Diverse work: From the muddy battlefields of Vietnam to ornate living rooms in his native New Orleans, Casselli has created a diverse body of work. His subjects include astronauts and ballet dancers, mothers and children, and dogs and horses.
Casselli studied art in 1964 at the McCrady School of Fine and Applied Arts, where he joined the faculty by the end of his second year. He enlisted in the Marines and was assigned the duty of combat artist in Vietnam. He produced hundreds of works during his 14-month tour. The drawings are part of the collection of the United States Marine Corps Museum of Military History in Washington, D.C.
Casselli also worked as an official artist for the first space shuttle launch. The Butler exhibition displays pencil drawings of portraits of John Glenn as well as other astronauts as they trained for NASA missions. The artist painted an official presidential portrait of Ronald Reagan, which now hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington.
Subsequent subjects have included commissioned portraits of New Orleans' elite as well as everyday depictions of rural life in Louisiana.
"He had quite a varied career," said Zona. "He is a realist clearly influenced by the impressionist movement. He is challenging himself to alter the composition using large negative areas."
Tough medium: Zona admired the talent required in the technically difficult medium of watercolors. "The artist can convince us that the dancer's dress is silk and the door frame is wood."
In addition, part of Casselli's appeal is a blending of styles as well as unusual composition. He uses many contrasts and often "plays with light, uses abstract backgrounds and hones in on a subject," Zona observed. Casselli uses large against small, dark against light in unpredictable composition, he added.
XHenry Casselli will present an artist's talk and book signing from 6 to 8 p.m. Oct. 17.