In the French city of Lyon in 1944, a United States army infantryman named Clayton Rippey patrolled, traded English slang to French teenagers for food and made small talk with his friends on whether they would even make it home.
Rippey would not only survive a harrowing career in the army, but return home to immediately marry and live for nearly eight decades after his homecoming. Rippey spent his remaining years amassing a nearly incomprehensible catalog of artistic creations, traveling and impressing everyone he met.
The night before the opening of his final collection, “Organized Chaos” Rippey died at age 97 in Cedar City.
“Organized Chaos” opened alongside the Southern Utah University Art and Design Faculty Exhibition on Jan. 13.
Rippey’s paintings have drawn relatively high attention from SUMA’s visitors, Steve Yates, Artisan’s Gallery owner and a friend of Rippey’s said.
“SUMA’s curator called me up and told me Clayton’s pictures were getting more attention than anything else in the museum,” Yates said. “Abstract work doesn’t usually get as much attention, so I’m glad to see people like his work.”
Yates said Rippey’s inspiration of natural patterns and his own dreams provide the access point for an audience– the aspect that makes them stop and stare at the paintings. He observed that several of Rippey’s paintings were like Rorschach inkblots to him.
Clayton Rippey’s daughter, Barbara Rippey, said the hook for Rippey’s work was its “lyrical” nature.
“He had such a keen eye for little patterns, and they’re all over his work,” Barbara Rippey said. “It’s lyrical or musical in that way.”
Rippey’s abstract paintings typically featured bold colors and patterns or features that radiate from the center of the canvas or paper. Rippey’s work also tended to use “expressionist” representations of objects as well, which Yates referred to as another point of access.
One piece that Yates pointed to is called “The Axe that Gently Cuts,” which features a yellow blob shaped like the bit of an axe with a music staff emblazoned along the blade. The axe-bit-blob is painted as if it’s passing through an expressionist saxophone at the bell. This scene is set against a dark background, almost as if the axe-bit and saxophone were floating through water together.
Expressionism is a distorted representation of an object from the real world. Rippey often used these to illustrate his dreams, Yates said.
John Rippey, Clayton Rippey’s son, said that his father’s attitude and history provided him with the eye to make his particularly fascinating work.
“He wasn’t afraid to live,” John Rippey said. “He traveled everywhere, survived the European front [in World War II], and he would make art out of anything he could find.”
John Rippey recalled that Clayton Rippey had carpeted the floor of his studio with free swatches and scraps of carpet with installers from the supplier.
“The carpet guys seemed put out at first,” John Rippey said, “But by the end of the project, they were loving it. They had these big funny smiles. That’s what happens when someone gives you permission to be creative I think.”
Barbara and John Rippey agreed that Clayton Rippey’s work was also the product of an incredibly prolific artistic career that included some metal work, carpentry, architecture, ceramics and even some written fiction.
“Did this man ever even sleep?” Barbara Rippey remembered thinking as she sorted through piles of her father’s remaining unfinished work.
Clayton Rippey’s mother provided art supplies when he was a child in La Grande, Oregon in the 1920’s and ‘30s, John Rippey said. As an adult, Clayton Rippey would carry a small clipboard and paper with him wherever he went and sketched whatever he saw and thought of.
“I think of a musician who is always humming or playing music in the air,” John Rippey said. “When I think of the way my father would just sketch all the time.”
Barbara Rippey said her father’s abstract work was always influenced by imagery he found in his environment like cracks in asphalt or the patterns in polished rocks, which were images that inspired Clayton Rippey to make a series of paintings.
“He started with natural landscapes, animals, things like that,” John Rippey said. “Then he started doing more abstract work.”
The army drafted Rippey for service in 1943 while he was studying music at Northwestern University, he said in an interview with “Veteran’s History Project.”
Naturally, he couldn’t help but create, so he constantly drew and found his way into an 18-piece band as a clarinetist during his service, he said in the interview.
“It was a really great band,” Clayton Rippey said in the Veteran’s History Project interview. “And they were all top-notch musicians from all over.”
Clayton Rippey’s time in the army wasn’t all clarinets and cartoons, however, and he “shipped out” to France in the fall of ‘44, according to the Veteran’s History Project. He recalled that he and his compatriots’ small talk was usually on whether they would survive the conflict, and struggled to recall which instance of combat was the first one he encountered.
“Near the end, this show was really what kept him going,” Yates said.
Rippey’s final collection,“Organized Chaos” will be displayed at SUMA until March 13, and other of Clayton Rippey’s pieces are available to view at Artisan’s Gallery in Cedar City.
Story by Janzen Jorgensen
Photos by Steve Yates