Bill Rane

Bill Rane

(1927 - 2005)

Here is a most intriguing chapter in the history of painting in the Southwest. Rane’s large body of paintings form a cosmic codex with stylized female figures and pictographs referring to ancient myth.

Rane sits amidst his Galisteo Murals in the Contrereas Studio

Painting as a Codex for Cosmic Truths

Bill Rane was born in Bend, Oregon on March 3rd, 1927, but grew up a few hundred miles east in the remote and idyllic hills of Garden Valley, Idaho.  As a boy, he realized he was to become an artist but it was not until after serving in the US Navy during WW II that he began his studies in earnest. He first attended Boise Junior College, then San Francisco State College, and finally the University of California at Berkeley, studying art and literature at all three.

Trips to Latin America became frequent and made a lasting impression upon his artistic soul. From the late 1940s through the early 1950s, he was living in Guatemala where he married a native Guatemalan and had three children. However, by the late 1950s, divorce had led Bill to San Francisco and Sausalito where he became part of the beatnik community. Painter, roustabout, and raconteur, he became a fixture in the early Sausalito Arts Festivals.

In 1958, Rane remarried (for forty-seven years) and had five children. The family traveled extensively throughout Mexico because Bill continued to be captivated by the mythology and culture of Latin America with its exotic ancient treasures as well as its vibrant village markets alive with flowers, textures, and colors. Stylistically, he also drew inspiration from other ancient cultures as well as the early modernists. Visitors to his studio could often be caught cocking an ear as they heard him refer to his works with a favorite phrase, “the literature of paint.” The phrase was an apt one for it revealed Bill as an avid reader with a boundless curiosity for the literature, arts, and myths of all cultures. He could just as easily delve into the Greek Classics or ancient Egyptian or Mayan mythology to create a visual metaphor. At the same time, he admired such masters as Modigliani and Picasso while remaining resolute in forging his own unique style. As an important part of that process, he demanded of himself to rework paintings over and over, typically painting with a heavy impasto as he layered oil pigments — sometimes to the point of building mounds upon the canvas. He was constantly moving in the studio, weaving about his easel, dripping, dropping, and dashing brushstrokes. The process might appear both random and obsessive to the observer yet these strokes were assuredly from the steady hand of a master. In short, his body and soul were immersed in every piece. Thus, elements both ancient and modern provided inspiration for a large body of paintings that form his cosmic codex. The stylized female figure is likely a sylph. The pictograph may refer to an ancient myth. Other recurring subjects included goddesses, mythical animals, sea creatures, geese, pelicans, and pomegranates.

Three Women, a sea wall mosaic, 72 inches tall

Rane was also a writer, tracing his spiritual development in a poetic bildungsroman novel entitled, Talfulano (New York: Horizon Press, 1976). He had also begun work on a second novel, The Diary of a Tomb Painter, the essence of which describes his life in art. In describing the book, he mused on which images the pharaoh would select for the chamber walls to aid his passage into the afterlife. In planning with his tomb painter, the pharaoh decreed:

“Paint, no battles, no accomplishments. Paint the feeling of the great river winding through the land and lovers lying on her shores. Paint children at play in the bulrushes. Paint the graceful Ibis wading. Paint fishermen in their boats catching fish and the great muscled flanks of my horse, his exquisite head with his nostrils flaring. Paint the beauty of the Queen’s sad eyes, the curve of her neck and bodice. Paint the great ocean with her sea birds. Paint the feminine — paint women washing clothes at the river’s edge, women in the market, mother with child. Paint musicians playing and villagers dancing. Paint the great mating rituals of men and of beasts. Let your brushes and your paint celebrate the beauty of life, tomb painter! It is remembrance of the light that ferries the soul to the far shore.”

On the morning of September 2nd, 2005, when the sun was just rising over Taos, Bill Rane passed away. One close friend remarked, “It’s like a great old library has burned down. The world has lost so much.” Ultimately, Bill was a seeker of universal values and cosmic truths. He believed in the concept of the “Every Man/Woman.”  In every work, we see the footprints of various cultures. We see humanity’s reach for beauty. Moreover, we see Rane’s heartbeat.

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