S.C. Gwynne and Katie Maratta Found the Wellspring for Their Art on the Edge of a Vast Land Ocean

Aether Magazine, Spring 2013

Writer and journalist S.C. "Sam" Gwynne grew up in Connecticut; his wife, artist Katie Maratta, grew up in West Virginia. Those places must seem somewhat foreign to them now, so tied to Texas they've become. The couple first fell in love with the West when they moved to Truth or Consequences, NM so that Sam could work on an investigative book he was writing at the time about the corrupt bank BCCI with his then-writing partner, Jonathan Beaty. If you've ever been to Truth or Consequences, you know that it is a little, depressed town, but that didn't matter to Gwynne or Maratta. It was the vastness and beauty of the place that hooked them. They both live in Austin now, and arrived here in an almost random way.

Now that they are here, they have become two of the most respected interpreters of the West working today. Gwynne, who writes for Texas Monthly, is the bestselling author of Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History. Gwynne managed to take a story–the abduction of Cynthia Ann Parker in the 1800s and her eventual, tragic return to white society– that had been written about many times before and make it seem fresh, partly because he expands the story of Parker's kidnapping into the broader history of the entire Comanche tribe.

Maratta's "horizonscapes," as she calls them, are intimate, almost eerie recreations of epically flat West Texas land. Maratta uses graphite pencils to draw long landscapes across an elongated panel that is usually only one inch high: the effect is to cause the viewer to scrunch their eyes up as they approach her art to detect the small, telling details (a run-down taxidermy store, a tiny Dairy Queen sign) anyone from West Texas would immediately recognize. Because her pieces are up to 48 inches in length, though, the feeling of Maratta's work isn't at all small. It's a canny and poetic recreation of the feeling this East Coast native gets when she hangs out in West Texas.

I talked to Gwynne and Maratta over dinner recently about why they first came to Texas, and why they've stayed.

KM: We were living in New York and Sam was a business editor at TIME magazine. You started on Tuesdays, working eight hours and then by the end of the week, you were spending the night in New York City to close the magazine by Saturday. It was a brutal schedule. We had just had a little baby and were living in Larchmont and my parents said, 'You would be getting more help if you had just checked into a home for unwed mothers.' Sam was just not around. When he got home, he was exhausted.

SG: It was the actual 80-hour work week. K M : There were many, many divorces at that magazine. SG: Alcoholism and divorces, usually both.

KM: The good thing back then was that TIME had a bunch of bureaus and you could walk in and say, 'The New York thing isn't working for us' and in Sam's case, they said, 'We have Houston' and we said, 'Okay, we'll take Houston.' And then all of Sam's friends said, 'If you're going to live in Texas, you need to live in Austin.'

SG: The only issue TIME had was, 'How quickly can you get to a plane to cover a story?' They said yes, so we showed up here, sight unseen. We drive in through Palestine and then we come down and we drive in on I-35, driving south, and we said, 'Oh God, what have we done? It's just like south L.A. or Detroit.'

KM: That wasn't the way we should have come into town. We had lived in Truth or Consequences, NM for about six months while Sam was working on a book about BCCI, the "outlaw bank." It was a little sabbatical out there. It was so fun, we just thought, 'Anything that gets us closer to there would be a good thing.'

SG: [My writing partner at the time] Jonathan and I had an office on Main Street where we wrote our book.

KM: At one point, I took the dog for a walk and I get back to the house; the yard is full of police cars. I'm like, 'What is going on?' And they said they couldn't find Sam or Jonathan. TIME magazine couldn't find them.

SG: This was a story about a bank that killed people.

KM: There was a certain nefarious side to this and they'd gone to their office downtown and there was hot coffee in cups, cigarettes burning in ashtrays, doors unlocked, computers on. But no Sam and no Jonathan.

SG: And what happened was, we'd been working closely with Robert Morgenthau, the New York district attorney, on this story and Morgenthau pulled the chain. Morgenthau is a big deal. We got a big advance on this book and Jonathan bought a boat with it and he shows up at the office with this brand new Wellcraft and he's dying to show it off and we just got in the car to go see the boat.

Sam started working on The Empire of the Summer Moon in 2005. They describe their mutual love and fascination with West Texas as a kind of aesthetic accident.

KM: We ended up covering a lot of the same ground.

SG: I'm writing about West Texas and she's making art about it. It was not planned. Didn't even occur to me until a few years ago.

KM: It's not just Texas, it's mythic Texas. It's everybody's iconic Texas.

SG: I'm sure Nacogdoches is somebody's idea of iconic, but it doesn't seem that way to us. For us Yankees, it's West Texas.

KM: It still gets to me, the landscape and the sky.

SG: Katie grew up in a vertical land and I grew up near the ocean. It's the opposite of where she grew up and it reminds me of the ocean. Joe Ely said that in Lubbock, it's so flat that you can see 20 miles in any direction and if you stand on a tuna fish can, you can see 50.

KM: I realized I'd never really seen the horizon until I got to Texas. It doesn't exist on the East Coast unless you go to the ocean. The ocean is stunning, it's pretty powerful, but it's better when it's land.

K M : When Sam and I go out to West Texas, Sam's my chauffeur but I go out by myself too and we head out on these roads and just head out in a direction. It's great to have GPS and AAA to tow you out of ditches. I make photographs and sketches. I can't tell you how many people have come up to me and said [about her finished artwork], 'That's my grandmother's house.'

I'm pretty sure it's not but there's a certain style, early ranch style, boarded house with a porch, a couple of trees. It is all over West Texas. Sometimes it has its own water tank, sometimes there are cows in the front yard. These places are so eternal. They're very poetic. They're extremely powerful little moments on the edge of this nothing. It's just miles and miles of nothing and you see this little porch light and you see this little house with the wash in the side yard. It's really evocative.

SG: But what you get, what you end up with, in the artwork is an idealized landscape. Elements exist–that fence line exists, that field may exist sort of, but Katie modifies things, too. I watched her do a tumbleweed from scratch, from nothing. What happens is you get a recombination of things. That silo was not next to that fence line, which was not next to that cow. So you get an idealized landscape. It is idealized because people in Texas who grew up there see it that way.

KM: And I'm not doing portraits. I came out of cartooning out of college and I was doing a lot of cartooning professionally and after the newspapers started to tank and I got out of cartooning, I thought, 'What am I going to do?' I knew I was going to do art, but what kind of art? I did some sculpting and painting classes and it's so funny to come all the way back around to a black-and-white horizontal narrative, which is basically what cartoon is only it's a little story line with punch lines.

I always had to put the punch line at the end in a cartoon but it's basically the same format. That's what I like about these pieces. I'm not restricted to a certain 1-2-3; I can have nice, long spaces where nothing is happening. I find all those broken-down ranch houses to be enormously appealing.

Claiborne Smith is the Features Editor at Kirkus Reviews and the former literary director of the Texas Book Festival.