|Online Exclusive: Wednesday, April 09, 2008
Scott Gentling poses -- sort of -- with one of his first-ever portraits, done at age 19 while studying art at Tulane University in New Orleans. The subject, Owen Minnich, was one of his best buddies.
By JEFF PRINCE
Fort Worth artist Scott Gentling lived up to his reputation as the local art scene’s Mad Hatter during an April 5 reception at The Studio, his private art house on the city’s West Side.
Needing a photograph of the reclusive artist to accompany my story on his commission to paint a new portrait of Amon G. Carter, I wrangled an invitation to the reception, marking the unveiling of a new exhibit, “The Gentlings: A Retrospective” featuring a series of astounding watercolors of Texas birds, plus various portraits, and Aztec scenes painted by Scott and his late twin brother Stuart, who died two years ago.
Coincidentally, I had stumbled across a portrait at an online auction recently. Signed “Scott Gentling, 1961, New Orleans,” the painting featured a burly fellow with a burr haircut, wearing a disheveled white shirt and holding a book under one arm. I was thrilled to be the high bidder on a painting by one of Fort Worth’s best portraitists. I described the painting to Gentling over the phone and he recognized the subject immediately – it was an old college buddy named Owen Minnich.
Gentling wanted to see the painting and asked me to bring it along.
The reception started at 5 p.m., but I showed up a half-hour early, hoping to get some time to photograph the camera-shy artist without a lot of onlookers or interruptions. However, art dealer Ralph Carr met me at the door and said Gentling was deep in discussion with an arts patron and shouldn’t be disturbed. I could hear Gentling and the other man behind closed doors in a back room, ensconced in a lively discussion.
Killing time was a pleasure – Gentling’s mind-blowing studio resembles something torn from the pages of a Greek palace, with marble accents, intricate custom moldings, gorgeous woodwork, and a courtyard surrounded by columns and grand archways. Sprinkled among the paintings were ancient pottery, sculptures, and 18th-century French costumes displayed on mannequins. The scene was extraordinary, even for grandiose Fort Worth society folk.
About 45 minutes passed, and the house was filling with visitors by the time Gentling finally emerged. I quickly introduced myself and tried to pose him for photographs before other guests distracted him.
“I don’t talk to no long-haired sons of bitches,” he said, eying my scraggly head of hair. After a small pause he laughed, put his arm around my shoulder, and said, “Do you have any wine?” I thought chances were good he’d already tried the bar here, but I told him there was plenty of wine in his reception room. “Let’s go,” he said, leading me down a hallway lined with original artwork. His shoulder brushed against a painting on the wall, knocking it slightly askew, but he didn’t appear to notice.
Then he casually dropped a bombshell – “I don’t want my picture taken,” he said.
I mumbled, “OK,” but hoped wine and revelry with friends might change his mind.
Earlier, I had set the 1961 portrait of Minnich on a table in the reception area. Gentling saw it, picked up the painting he had created almost 50 years earlier, and held it for a long time. Some of the city’s upper-crust, including boyhood friend Ed Bass, were milling around, eager to talk to the artist, but Gentling took his time examining the portrait. For a moment he seemed melancholy as he studied the face of his departed friend. Then his demeanor brightened.
“I did a damn good job on this,” he said.
Minnich was one of his dearest buddies and travel partners back in those early days. The free-spirited intellectuals met while Gentling was a 19-year-old freshman at Tulane University in 1961.
“I was playing the piano in a dorm and [Minnich] came out of his room and said, ‘That’s Bach, isn’t it?’” Gentling said. “That’s how we met. He was a big guy, about 6 feet 5 inches, and an excellent musician. He played oboe and organ on a professional level.”
Back then, Scott and Stuart would invite Minnich on road trips to scout landscapes, and they also traveled together to a primitive part of the Yucatan peninsula, where the towering Minnich was treated like a god among the smaller Mayan people, Gentling recalled.
Despite his size, Minnich was a still and patient portrait subject.
“If you ever sat for a portrait, it’s not an easy thing,” Gentling said. “About 20 minutes into the session, everyone gets this ‘I’d rather be somewhere else’ look. After 20 hours you can barely keep them in the chair.”
The portrait was a gift from Gentling to Minnich’s mother, who was always cheery and hospitable when the Gentling twins came for visits. After she died, the painting went to Minnich. He died of a heart attack a few years ago. His brother, Clint, called Gentling from Alabama earlier this year to say the portrait was being auctioned as part of his brother’s estate. Gentling gave his blessing, and the painting now hangs in my house. It means so much more knowing the history behind the painting and the relationship between the artist and the rough-looking fellow in the picture.
“I enjoyed painting that portrait a lot, but it was difficult because it was one of the very first portraits I ever did,” Gentling said. “I mostly used watercolors back then, and that was one of the rare oils that I did.”
After a few minutes, Gentling put down the painting and picked up a wine glass. The room became crowded with friends and patrons, the wine flowed, and my camera came out. Gentling donned sunglasses to cover his tired eyes, plopped a grungy gimme cap on his head to further obscure himself, and reluctantly posed for a few pictures. He allowed himself to be photographed with the Minnich portrait, although he kept placing it in front of his face each time I tried to snap the picture. Finally, with prodding, he lowered the painting to reveal its painter.
Fort Worth has spawned more than its share of quirky characters, stretching all the way back to founder Maj. Ripley Arnold and including a long stream of gunfighters, gamblers, musicians, writers, and wildcatters. Gentling fits in perfectly with that colorful bunch.
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