News From Terre Haute, Indiana

April 26, 2012

MARK BENNETT: When it came to artwork, ‘Salty’ always kept it real

Mark Bennett
The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — The depth of my visual art expertise mirrors that of Neil Young.

“Art is just a dog on my porch,” the famed songwriter told a Rolling Stone interviewer in 1979. Young was sitting on his porch beside his dog, Art.

I enjoy and appreciate art in any form, but understand it best when it’s literal.

Salty Seamon kept it real. Our fuzzy memories of bygone high schools and Wabash Valley countrysides became forever clear when Salty re-created those images in watercolor and ink. Before he died in 1997 at age 86, he painted more than 5,000 pictures. They adorn the walls of living rooms, banks, dentist’s offices, lodges, principal’s offices, diners and galleries all over Indiana and the nation.

On Tuesday, organizers of the Local Legends Walk of Fame inducted Seamon and seven other notable figures into that elite Terre Haute honor group. When I heard Seamon was among the inductees, I dusted off an old cassette tape on a desk in my office. The recording from the mid-1990s featured one of my wife’s middle school students interviewing the venerable artist for a sixth-grade English assignment just a couple years before his death. He offered advice and insight on art, work and life.

As with his paintings, Seamon offered viewpoints most of us would recognize from our past — from a grandpa or a minister.

His common-sense wisdom showed in his response to a question about the length of time it took for him to paint a picture. Salty, whose given name was Denzil Omer Seamon, said it depended on the subject in the picture, and the detail necessary to depict it. A barn scene could be finished in five or six hours. People, horses, buggies, cars take longer. And, of course, with skill comes speed.

The key to creating art, Salty said, is “the same as Larry Bird with a basketball — practice. And after you’ve done something 50, 60 years, you ought to be pretty efficient at it.”

His explanation of his techniques was fascinating. If he decided to paint a barn, Seamon would go to the actual location, photograph the structure and sketch it “on the spot.” Then, he would draw it on tracing paper (to avoid having erasure marks and stray lines on the final product), and use ink to darken the lines. With the final surface placed over his sketch, he would use a metal stylus to trace the scene with indentations, before adding the ink and watercolor.

In the middle of that process, Seamon would look at his sketch turned in reverse. Why?

“A lot of your bad drawing shows up in reverse,” he told his young interviewer, “because you’re seeing it entirely different than it ought to look either way.”

Most of us could use that advice every day. We may not spot the flaws in our ideas until we look at them from a different viewpoint.

He also researched the subjects of his artwork. One of his handiest reference materials was a 1904 Sears & Roebuck catalog. Its pages displayed turn-of-the-century clothes, windmills, and equipment for buggies and teams of horses. A buggy hitch and a horse-team hitch were not the same, he pointed out. As he emphasized the importance of that information, Salty then uttered a line I understood well.

“When you’re drawing something, like writing or anything else, people’d rather find your mistakes than give you credit for what you got right,” he said. “So I like to feel like I got it right. But I make mistakes, too.”

His favorite subjects were those he knew quite well.

“I like horses, and used to keep horses,” he said, sitting in his home in Rosedale. “I like just river scenes and nature, out here walking through the woods. I’d say, rural Midwest is what I really like, and the simple things in life. I don’t paint anything that somebody doesn’t know what it is.”

That doesn’t mean Seamon painted only his ideal subjects. He earned his living as a freelance artist, which meant he often painted pictures people paid him to do. “When you’re doing this for a living and taking commission, you get into a lot of things that maybe you wouldn’t choose to do if you were just doing what you wanted to do,” Salty said. “I’ve done an awful lot of houses for people, but I’m getting tired of doing those because I’m not getting done some of the things that I want to do, and I’m going to run out of time if I don’t do it before long.”

He took those commercial projects seriously, though. “That’s the bread-and-butter part,” he said. “The rest is fun.”

Seamon listed a half-dozen artists he admired, from Norman Rockwell (“He could take any subject and make it interesting”) to Southwest painter Maynard Dixon, illustrator John La Gatta, realists Andrew Wyeth and his father, N.C. Wyeth, and Old West artist C.M. Russell. All drew unmistakable topics.

“You can’t draw what you can’t see or what you don’t know,” Seamon said on that tape. “You have to have the knowledge, somehow, of what you’re trying to portray.”

 Seamon said he’d drool at some artists’ work, “wishing I could do as well.” His reaction wasn’t the same for abstract art, which wasn’t his thing. Yet he realized others might like that art form. “It’s like Baskin-Robbins,” he said. “With 31 flavors of ice cream, you go in and pick out the flavor you like. Well, it’s the same with art.”

His tastes were rooted in his surroundings, dating back to his teenage years when he painted theater posters for Paramount Studios in Minneapolis. While serving with the U.S. Army in the South Pacific during World War II, he painted scenes of military life and native residents of the region. Eventually, upon returning, he committed to a career as a freelance artist, supporting his wife and family and illustrating the “simple things in life.”

He never stopped, satisfied that he’d completed his masterpiece. His quest to improve was a “continual learning process.”

Being less than satisfied with a task is “a good thing,” he said, “for this reason: If you did [a painting] that you said was the best you could do, you’d never learn any more about it. I mean, this is good, because it’s gonna be the next picture that’s gonna be your best one, and that’s what keeps you painting the rest of your life.”

His life calling — to be an artist — was as obviously real as the landscapes in his paintings, and that dog on Neil Young’s porch.

“There’s never been a day in my life where I didn’t realize this is what I ought to be doing,” Salty said.

His thousands of fans agree.

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or