Alumni Gallery: James Urbaska: Grounded in Beauty

By Susan Veatch Cantrell
  September 29, 2004

The natural landscape inspires and anchors the art of James Urbaska ’82. A Vermont painter whose work is sold in galleries from New York City to San Francisco, Urbaska explains: “The land makes itself felt very strongly in people who grow up around it. I tried other subjects but always came back to the land.”

He did grow up around it; in the wide-open spaces of Montana. Much too young to interest his older siblings, Urbaska often made things to entertain himself. In high school he dabbled a bit in painting, but when he arrived at Wabash—the first leg of his journey east—he began painting immediately. Although he majored in history, it was in those Wabash years that he first began to think of painting as a life. After graduation, he returned to Montana and took studio courses at Montana State. Next he studied with a successful cattle rancher who was also an artist skilled enough to sell his work in New York.

Then came an event to reinforce all the wisdom of the adage, “It never hurts to ask.” Urbaska was familiar with the   work of landscape painter Wolf Kahn, an artist world-renowned for his use of striking color in Expressionist landscapes. Urbaska was so moved by and drawn to them that he took the chance and wrote Wolf Kahn to ask if he could come to be near him when he painted at his home in West Brattleboro, VT. Private lessons from a master merited compensation, so Urbaska volunteered to trade his physical labor on Kahn’s farm for the privilege. The idea appealed to Kahn, so  off went the young man from Big   Sky country to woodland Vermont, where for a couple of years he cleaned stables, ran errands, gardened, and eventually befriended one of the greatest artists working in the United States.

Now James Urbaska is at home in Vermont with his wife, Diana, who is Wolf Kahn’s bookkeeper, and their two young children. No longer a struggling artist, Urbaska is nonetheless a working one.

“I work every day to make my living,” he says, and does so in his studio that is a renovated barn, attached to their house. He will never suffer a shortage of material—his inspiration remains the beauty of the land.

                                      Passing Squall, 2002, oil on linen     









Pines at Sunset, oil on linen     


Field and Big Saplings, oil on linen











Trees, Feild at Sunset, 2002, oil on linen     


Hillside in Fog, 202, oil on linen











Bend, West River, 2002, oil on linen     














Rose Grey Sky, 2002, oil on linen