Ortlip Gallery presents “Self-Evaluation: Selected Work from 50 Years in Art” by John Rhett

October 27, 2023

The determination to know a particular place, in my experience, is consistently rewarded.  And every natural place, to my mind, is open to being known.  And somewhere in this process a person begins to sense that they themselves are becoming known…This reciprocity, to know and be known, reinforces a sense that one is necessary in the world.

Barry Lopez in his essay “The Invitation”

The Ortlip Gallery presents Self-Evaluation: Selected Work from 50 Years in Art by Houghton University Professor of Art, John Rhett.  This exhibit will be on display in the gallery on the Houghton University campus from October 27th through December 15th.  All are invited to attend the opening reception on October 27th from 6:00-7:30 pm in the Center for the Arts atrium. The artist will be giving brief gallery talk at 6:30 pm that evening.

With a Bachelor of Fine Arts and a Master of Fine Arts (1979 and 1995, respectively) from the Virginia Commonwealth University, Rhett began teaching at Houghton in 1995.  As Houghton’s primary Graphic Design instructor, he also teaches Drawing, Introduction to the Visual Arts, Modern & Contemporary Art History, and Asian Art History Survey, among other courses.  “Rhett is a dear friend, a valued colleague, and a person important in the building of an excellent art program.  Houghton has been lucky to enjoy his many gifts and expertise,” said fellow Art Professor, Ted Murphy.

Rhett’s exhibit is particularly fascinating because, as its title alludes to, it is a deeply personal and reflective show spanning decades of work.  Featuring landscape oil paintings, it also includes charcoal sketches, stark black-and-white ink studies, watercolors, and never-before-seen self-portraits.  Rhett demonstrates through these works that life as an artist is a journey of becoming, a constant learning process.  While viewers will be impressed by the sheer scale and beauty of Rhett’s works, he emphasizes that some pieces in the exhibit are not necessarily what he considers his best works but rather important for the lessons he learned making them. For example, one of these—a hallway scene from his childhood home in Virginia—taught Rhett the difficulty, and reward, of realizing the importance of light and shadow.

Several other themes emerge from Rhett’s exhibit: his fascination with forsythia, his aptitude for plein air (outside) painting, his interest in capturing the night sky, and his ability to see beauty in the overlooked scenes of everyday life.  Rhett’s vision was influenced by Fairfield Porter, whose career was born in the modernist movement of the 20th century yet who remained a representational painter (albeit tinged with abstract techniques).  Porter was notorious for turning his easel away from the stunning view of his friend’s expansive yard and pond to paint the mundane driveway scene behind his house instead. Similarly, Murphy explains that Rhett’s “eye for subject matter” allows him to find “great beauty in the edges and margins—parking lots, street lights, roadway intersections…he finds transcendent the quotidian.”

Ortlip Gallery director, Linda Knapp, adds that the exhibit is impactful not only because of Rhett’s artistic adroitness but also because he has lived in our corner of western New York for nearly 30 years now.

There is a certain mutualism between an artist and his place.  In a sense, John’s presence and his craft defines ours.  His perspective and representations of our landscapes provides meaning for us as we move about our lives in this place.

Linda Knapp, Ortlip Gallery Director


In one of his essays, Barry Lopez’s describes the Navajo concept of hózhó, or beauty. In Navajo art creating, maintaining, and restoring hózhó is the goal of the artist.  According to Lopez,  “hózhó is not about perception, is not in the eye of the beholder, but is the outcome of the artist’s relationship to the world.”

Ultimately, Rhett’s exhibition provides a window into understanding his relationship with our world.  His process of knowing this place—as he paints our corner of the Allegany plateau with its rolling hills, meandering streams, potpourri of people and parking lots—has significance for our lives too.  The reciprocity of knowing and being known that Lopez writes about emerges from Rhett’s work as an invitation to acknowledge our shared experience in this place and time.

Houghton art professor John Rhett standing in the Ortlip Gallery in front of his paintings.
John Rhett standing in Ortlip Gallery.
John Rhett painting of yellow forsythia by the side of the road. Oil on panel.
Forsythia, There!, oil on panel.
John Rhett painting 'Up Tucker Hill.' Oil on panel.
Up Tucker Hill, oil on panel.