In this continuation of the feature on local artist Sam Collett, the Chieftain starts at the move of Collett and his wife Susan to Wallowa County.
Collett met his future wife Susan in 1993 and the couple married in 1998, shortly before their move to Wallowa County. Collett’s wife had friends in Wallowa County and they entered some of her drawings in the Wallowa Valley Festival of the Arts, some of which won awards.
“We came up here to see what it was like, and we were staying at Stein’s Cabins. I was out doing some painting when Stein came up and asked if we wanted to buy the place,” Sam Collett said. “Sue and I started talking about it. We had this vision, you know, we were blinded by it. We had no idea what we were getting into.”
The couple tried the cabin rental business for a time, but the stress of the business took a toll on their artwork as well as their pocketbooks.
They later sold the business.
Sam Collett’s wife, Sue, was talented in her own right, both as a painter and jewelry maker. She passed away in 2015.
“She was a beautiful charcoal artist. I always enjoyed her art work. I always look at it, it’s all over our house. She started doing jewelry. We used to do our shows together, but it was pretty obvious I wasn’t selling anything, or not that much, and she was doing better with her jewelry. She’d worked for me for about five years when I painted full-time after we sold the cabins, and I owed her time, so that’s when I went to work at the hospital as a CNA to help support her.”
Rather than feeling like competitors, Collett and his wife supported and helped one another with their artistic efforts. One of the things Collett misses is having Sue’s appraisals of his work. “She was honest if she saw problems, and she would have me do the same thing. We trusted each other and respected each other’s abilities. It was a real important interaction that we had ... you can get too close to your creation and lose your perspective,” he said.
“Since I’ve lived in Wallowa County, my interest was to paint my environment. Seascapes are interesting, but it’s not where I live. It’s not always applicable, but as a general rule if you’re doing something inside your environment, you have a visual connection with it. You see it every day, you interact with it at one level or another, so you bring some kind of validity,” Collett said.
Although he has been painting and drawing Wallowa County for 17 years, the area still inspires him.
“I’ve been looking at these mountains since I’ve been here, painted them hundreds of times and still don’t have a clear idea about them,” he said. “It’s a complicated form. I don’t get connected that fast, it takes me awhile.”
Collett personalizes his art, something one of his instructors criticized him for.
“That’s just me,” he said with a smile. “Sometimes people would say: ‘We like your artwork, but it’s too personal.’ There you are, too personal to make money at art, but isn’t that what you’re trying to do, put your vision or stamp on it?”
Work versus art
To earn his bread, Collett works at Wallowa Memorial Hospital as a certified nursing assistant. Unlike many artists, the daily grind doesn’t deter his artistic vision.
“That’s what drawing does. I always take my little sketchbook,” he said. Although his job doesn’t include regularly scheduled breaks or lunchtimes, it works out so everyone gets about an hour off per shift.
“A lot of people go into a room to sleep, but I go out to my car. I need to get out. I’ve drawn and painted enough over the years, that if I get a chance to sit down, I can get in that zone in about 10 minutes. I drift right into there,” he said. “Especially this last year after Susan’s death, it’s the thing that’s kept me sane. It’s the only time I’m not thinking of her, the past, that sort of thing.”
Collett has experimented with other mediums.
“I love to do sculpture and water color, but I don’t feel comfortable enough with my painting and drawing to focus on another medium. Those are the only deviations,” he said with a laugh. “In Salt Lake I was known more as a pastelist than an oil painter. I was the top pastelist in the area.”
Other arts also play a role in Collett’s life. “I play guitar. Old-time Flamenco from the ‘50s and ‘60s. I played (harmonica) for about two-and-a-half years, and I’ve got a great blues collection and jazz collection as well as classical. The last year I’ve been listening to a lot of opera. It influences my art in a subtle way. It creates an ambiance, and every painting has an ambiance. The music is a part of the environment that painting’s in.”
Collett is as well-known as a portrait artist as anything. The artist always carries paper and constantly finds himself sketching portraits.
“I’m always drawn to a portrait of the model, not just the figure. If I have time, I go to the head and work my way down. It’s strong in me.”
Collett has since developed confidence about his skill as a portraitist and recognizes his rare gift.
“It doesn’t happen often; it’s pretty rare: draw a likeness, have the painting skills and those kind of things to do portrait work, and I can do that. When I go to Portland or Seattle or someplace, I feel like I can hold my own.”
Assessing his work
Collett doesn’t have a particular favorite piece, although he favors his recent work.
“The new paintings are always the best whether they are or not,” he said. “That just what I think.” He added that he particularly enjoyed painting Gail Swart and Tom Hutchinson. The latter painting was difficult for Collett. The subject was in the hospital dying at the time and Collett procrastinated because he didn’t have a clear vision for the painting. He brought some photographs of Hutchinson to the hospital and let him select what he liked, which included different aspects of different photos.
“I started it more than five times, and I couldn’t get it to work. I don’t force it. If it’s flawed, I go back again. I finally got it right,” Collett said.