A Change of Plans

Artist John Rawlings opens new show in Whitefish featuring stonework he created in New Mexico following his wife’s accident

By Justin Franz
Artist John Rawlings as seen in his Whitefish studio on June 26, 2019 with a series of upright stones in which he carved patterns of whimsical spirals and circular etchings. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Husband and wife artists John Rawlings and Souheir Rawlings had two blissful months at their new home in New Mexico last fall before the unimaginable happened.

While painting a wall at their house, the scaffolding that Souheir had been standing on collapsed. Souheir fell and received a number of injuries that required an extended stay in the hospital. When she finally returned home, John didn’t to leave the house for long so that he could make sure Souheir received the care and companionship she needed.

It was a change for a couple that has never been able to sit still. Both Souheir and John are accomplished artists who split their time between Whitefish and the Southwest. John was a professor at Flathead Valley Community College until retiring in 2014. Since then, John has written a book and the couple oversees an artist-in-residence program with month-long sessions in New Mexico and Venice.

But while staying close to Souheir, John began to notice the rocks around his house. Those stones have become the core of John’s new show at the Nancy Cawdrey Gallery in downtown Whitefish. The show opens with a special gallery night on July 11 from 6 to 9 p.m.

John was born in London after World War II and moved to Australia when he was young. He began teaching art in the 1960s and later attended the University of Guanajuato in Mexico to earn his master of fine arts degree in sculpture. Afterward he taught at schools in South Dakota, Wyoming and Alaska before landing a part-time position in 1988 at FVCC, where he taught painting, drawing, design and life drawing. In 1993, he became director of the school’s growing art program. He stayed in that position until he retired in 2014, the same year he was named the Association of Community College Trustees Faculty Member of the Year for the North America Western Region.

It was at the University of Guanajuato in Mexico where John first began working with stone and developed an appreciation for its staying power.

“I spent six months at the University of Guanajuato whacking on one piece of stone and I learned so much from that experience. That’s how I built my relationship with stone,” he said. “Stones are resistant to time. Everything we have from the ancient times is in stone. The paintings and the wooden tools and all the music are gone, but the arrowhead remains while the wooden arrow is long gone.”

In the last few months, John has worked on more than two-dozen stones. Using a pneumatic die grinder with diamond bits, John carved spirals and circles into the face rock, a process that can take hours.  John likened the project to dancing with a new person. When he set up the stone in his workshop and fired up the grinder, he was never sure what the final product would look like. Sometimes he would carve a lot, other times he would carve a little and let the rock’s natural beauty take center-stage.

“Working with stone can be a humbling experience,” he said.

Rawlings’ show, titled “Spirit Stones: Southwest to Northwest, A Journey in Stone,” will run through early August at the Nancy Cawdrey Gallery. For more information, visit JohnRawlings.com or NancyCawdrey.com.