Volunteer dentist finds art in the everyday
Richard Schilling paints a landscape. Photo by Jafe Parsons Photography
Richard Schilling has visited six continents as a cruise ship dentist and volunteer on dental missions. But his deft touch extends beyond his skills with drills: A master watercolorist, Schilling fills gallery exhibitions with his landscapes. His Watercolor Journeys: Create Your Own Travel Sketchbook, a blend of how-to book and travelogue, is awash with images of the Mexican Riviera, European plazas and shipyards, and Tanzanian mountains.
For his most recent project, Schilling, a member of the Rotary Club of Loveland, Colo., USA, looked homeward to the Great Plains. Portraits of the Prairie: The Land That Inspired Willa Cather (University of Nebraska Press) was chosen by Publishers Weekly as a top 10 art and architecture title for spring 2011. Ted Kooser, a former U.S. poet laureate (and, like Cather, a Pulitzer Prize winner), wrote the forward to the book he hails as a “beautiful tribute” to the area. In an email, Kooser notes, “Schilling has managed to capture not only the color and mass of Cather country, but deftly conveys its movement as well.”
The book depicts the locales that Cather, a celebrated early-20th-century author, documented in her tales of settlers. “I wouldn’t say that this land is that beautiful or inspiring,” Schilling, 78, notes with a Midwestern bluntness that belies the charm of his lushly rendered paintings of the textured terrain – the rutted roads and shimmering fields of grass – and skies both fair and tempestuous. It’s the heritage of the pioneers, he says, that makes Webster County, the focal point of his book, so alluring. “My mother grew up in the town of Red Cloud, Neb. – the same place that Cather spent her formative years. European immigrants came over in the 1880s and eked out a living on the prairie.”
Schilling tried to pinpoint the possible locations Cather describes in her books, even if some of the scenes rendered, such as a graffiti-tagged bridge and a street scene with cars, are far removed from her era. “Although they are novels, what drew me in was that they were about real people and real places, the struggles and hardships that they went through, the strong values,” Schilling says. At times, the paintings are tinged with whimsy, such as a scene of fence posts capped with old cowboy boots. He believes Cather would have approved: “She was a free spirit, and she loved art in uncommon places,” he says.
At age 12, Schilling was invited to join Saturday art classes at the University of Nebraska. He was amazed by the “unexpected happenings, the things that watercolor would do when it is wet. It’s kind of an impromptu medium, because you can’t always plan the results.”
He later earned his dental degree from the university and ran a practice for several decades before selling it in 1992. The next year, he spent three months as a Rotary Volunteer at Tenwek Hospital, a mission outpost in western Kenya. “It was different from in the United States, with the usual cleanings and fillings,” he notes. “You never knew what you were going to see,” including maladies “only briefly touched on in a textbook years ago, a lot of pathologies I had never seen before.” Schilling and his wife, Marlene, then did a 10-year stint tending to the dental needs of the crews aboard Holland America Line ships, while finding time for volunteer trips to Africa, Nicaragua, Mexico, and the Russian Far East, among other places.
In 1998, Schilling teamed up with fellow Loveland Rotarians Ron Hogan, a civil engineer, and John Turnage, a Baptist pastor, on an initiative that is now the Smiles Without Borders foundation. “Our mission is to enable dentists to provide care to needy children in their schools,” Schilling says. “We provide all the portable dental equipment, and the country provides the dentists.” Through Sonrisas Sin Fronteras, the initiative’s sister foundation in Mexico, dentists in Tehuacán have treated about 5,000 children since the program, which now has 22 dentists and 12 clinics, began.
“Dick is a tremendously caring person who is always thinking of somebody else before he thinks of his own comfort or convenience,” says Lynn A. Hammond, a Rotary Foundation trustee and Loveland club member who has known Schilling for more than 50 years. “He represents everything that The Four-Way Test tries to instill in people.”
Even on his dental missions, Hogan says, “he always has his sketchbook along and does his watercolors. When we were in Nicaragua, he would find somebody who would make an interesting picture. Sometimes he would give them the sketch.”
Linda King has represented Schilling at her Loveland gallery for the past dozen years. “His paintings take people back to someplace special they remember,” she says, “or forward to where they’d like to be.”