Kim Wiggins – Art of the West

Lieutenant Colonel George Custer has that "look of reckoning in his eyes" in artist Kim Wiggins' oil on canvas. (Manitou Galleries, Santa Fe; www.manitougalleries.com)
Lieutenant Colonel George Custer has that "look of reckoning in his eyes" in artist Kim Wiggins' oil on canvas. (Manitou Galleries, Santa Fe; www.manitougalleries.com)

‘I wanted to capture something with that look of reckoning in his eyes. Custer realizes, We’re surrounded and just have a few options here, and one is to fight heroically and do our job as soldiers

From Otto Becker and Edgar S. Paxson in the 1890s to contemporary artists like Mort Künstler and Thom Ross, many painters have reimagined George Armstrong Custer’s final moments at the Little Bighorn. But few have approached “Custer’s Last Stand” with Kim Wiggins’ vision. Like much of his work, the native New Mexican’s 60-by-48-inch oil-on-canvas Custer’s Last Stand blends Hispanic folk art with a touch of Alexandre Hogue, a splash of Vincent van Gogh, a bit of Tino Sehgal and some Diego Rivera.

It’s historical but definitely contemporary, with bold curves and vibrant colors. And it’s all Kim Wiggins.

“I’ve always been attracted to that third dimension,” says Wiggins, 53, who started out as a sculptor. “When you’re working 3-D on a two-dimensional surface, it’s very beneficial to have that heavy pasto [thickening agent] and be able to draw the people in where they don’t just see the colors but respond to it visually. They want to reach in and touch that piece as well.”

Wiggins paints landscapes and cityscapes as well as symbolic paintings, but he also tries to produce one or two historical subjects about the American West each year. “I had a couple of great-great-great-uncles who died in the Alamo,” says the painter. “I always wanted to paint the Alamo but didn’t feel I was competent enough of an artist to paint a battle scene. Then a few years ago I decided I had enough grasp to paint a night scene at the Alamo. A collector from Boston saw it, purchased the piece, and he began having his own vision for his own collection. So he commissioned me to do a series of works of last stands in the American West.”

First up, Colonel Custer’s June 1876 defeat at the Little Bighorn River in Montana Territory, more specifically Last Stand Hill, before being overrun by Indians. Yet Wiggins offers more than the rote depiction. “I’m always looking for something I haven’t done,” he explains. “I wanted to capture something with that look of reckoning in his eyes. Custer realizes, We’re surrounded and just have a few options here, and one is to fight heroically and do our job as soldiers. It has that foreboding aspect to it.”

Wiggins’ thoughts on Custer? “He was an iconic figure…incredibly brave. [But] he made some drastic mistakes that particular day.”

History and the West come naturally for Wiggins. “I love history,” he says. “Growing up, that was my favorite subject in school, especially the history of the Old West. My grandfather had the Old West magazines around. He’d sit around the stove and roast peanuts on it and read stories from them…before we’d go to the cattle auction downtown.”

Wiggins was raised on a ranch in southern New Mexico but also grew up with art. His father, Walt, was a photojournalist who worked for such magazines as Life, Sports Illustrated and Argosy. His uncle Bill Wiggins is a New Mexican modernist painter.

When Kim was 3 or 4 years old, his parents brought home some clay, and he began forming animals. When he was 12, an art dealer from Scottsdale, Ariz., stopped by the ranch, saw Wiggins’ sculptures, and said that he’d pay for the casting and, after deducting expenses, would split the profits. “That was my first exposure to the art market,” Wiggins says.

Four years later he turned to painting and became infatuated with oils. Yet Wiggins never intended to make a living as an artist. “I didn’t think that was a possibility,” he says.

Instead, he went into the Army, then did some traveling after his discharge. In 1985 he sold his first painting. A year later he was inducted into the National Society of American Impressionists as its youngest member. Around 1987 Hogue took him under his wing. “He’d put his hand on my shoulder, tell me what I was doing wrong,” Wiggins says, “and he gave me confidence to go out to the studio.”

Wiggins’ work has since been displayed at the Booth Western Art Museum, Desert Caballeros Museum, Museum of New Mexico and Denver Art Museum. He has even been invited to the Masters of the American West at the Autry National Center in Los Angeles. “I’m looking for that thing out there that causes me to stretch and become more than I am,” Wiggins says.

To see more of Wiggins’ work visit his website.

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