We’ve all met people who are amazingly kind and generous.
You feel good around them. You want to celebrate them. Well, in the process of
researching my forthcoming book on the history of visual art in the Wind River
Mountains (Taking Root in Rocky Soil),
I came to know Mary and Joe Back. It started something.
Sadly, I did not meet them personally. This was mostly
through their archives, which are stored in an upstairs room in Headwaters Arts
& Conference Center, in Dubois, Wyoming. Joe died in 1986; Mary died in
1991. I came to them through their life story, not their personalities. And let
me tell you, their lives bordered on the epic.
Joe grew up in Missouri but ran away from home after 8th
Grade when a mischievous drawing of his teacher earned him expulsion from
school and additional wrath from his stepfather. He found work as a chore boy
on a ranch outside of Douglas, Wyoming. Meanwhile, Mary was growing up in
Vermont under better circumstances. She attended Berea College in Kentucky, then
earned a slot at the Art Institute of Chicago. Back in Wyoming, Joe was working
on a dude ranch near Togwotee Pass, and sketching in idle moments. A visitor
with connections got him into the Art Institute of Chicago, and he bumped into
Mary while she was sketching a grizzly bear in the Field Museum of Natural History.
That was it for them. She named her pet crow after him, they got engaged, and
sooner rather than later, they made their way out to Wyoming.
The Backs ran the Lava Creek Ranch before World War II
pulled them to the West Coast for a bit of war-effort work in factories. Once back
in Wyoming after VJ Day, they continued with the ranch until age and declining
health suggested a calmer lifestyle. They sold the ranch and bought some land
east of Dubois right on Highway 26, and built a roadside gallery and a house
and studio a little ways off he road. That’s when Mary ramped up her efforts in
art … and perhaps more importantly, art education.
Mary traveled across the better part of Wyoming teaching art
on the Wind River Reservation and in other locales. Her efforts earned her
awards and honors from the governor and a host of other admirers. In Dubois,
the Backs were much loved, and a visit to the Back home meant long, lively
conversations and an inevitable sketch or two. Mary was the Johnny Appleseed of
painting and drawing in the Winds, and Joe was the real deal: A bona fide
cowboy artist, with tales to tell.
How could I resist writing a book on them?
Actually, I will mostly be editing their writings and
retelling their story, which is covered quite well by Mary’s niece, Ruth Mary
Lamb, in her book, Mary’s Way. My
book will be a companion piece, with unpublished short stories by Mary and Joe,
interviews with friends and family, quotes from old letters, and other tidbits
I have uncovered. It will be my second book with a focus on Wyoming, but it
feels more like a second book focusing on the indomitable art spirit.
I spent 11 days in Wyoming in April gathering material for the as-yet-untitled book, and now I am truly on fire to start. While there, I didn’t get much painting done, but that was almost to be expected. It snows in April in Wyoming, and the wind is ever blowing. I’m no plein air hero.
But I am a big fan of Mary and Joe Back. And I feel like I might be able to do them justice with a book. So off I go… Ω
Actually, it was trip filled with stormy nights, plenty of wind, rain, snow, and plenty of wind. Plus, it was windy.
Although I spent 11 days in Wyoming, I only came home with three paintings. I was there to do research, so the challenging weather was actually sort of a good thing in terms of keeping me on task.
Anyway, here they be. As usual, I focused on painting on unstretched canvas that I taped to a board.
I painted this painting below when I got home based on a photo and experience I had one morning while eating breakfast. I’m not done yet–I’m not satisfied with one of the tree trunks, I want more yellow/orange/brown in parts of the grass, and there needs to be some very light grey texture in the background to signify the bare branches of the cottonwoods. I may lighten the doe as well.
I have more photos from the trip that will inspire additional paintings. Ω
Through plague and
the lax drag on,
the proud puff chests.
some have heated seats.
They cut back on their meat
and wean their hunger with milk
made from beans.
Wise counsel suggests
that crocus break soil
despite the cold wind.
Jut your chins. Jut your chins!
The day is yours.
In sooty rooms
the educated brood,
the papers pile,
the poems mold.
Wake ears hear the goings on,
the treble static of patrons with thin pride
buying bottles tableside
down the street from a shut library.
Wise counsel suggests
that the prudent cut their wine
with tap water and contaminants
easing the disease
so it can feed in peace.
grass blades grow erect
songbirds grow bolder,
grey snow gives way
to new life.
Precious now, as we make last arrangements for the changes.
When I lived in Astoria, Queens, I passed an ornate (for Queens) building with a handsomely engraved sign saying “Maltese Center,” everyday on my way to the subway. I loved it, because it reminded me that I lived in a global city that has enough immigrants from a tiny country 11 hours away by plane to justify having its own center.
Then one morning, as I walked past, I noticed (how could I not?) that the sidewalk was spraypainted, with two-foot letters declaring “FUCK MALTA.” Now I realized that NYC was so big and global that not only could it sustain a Maltese Center, but it could also sustain an active anti-Maltese faction.
This was the extent of my thoughts on Malta until about four years ago, when I became acquainted with two painters in Malta, Andrew Borg and Anthony Weitz. Both became Facebook friends of mine, with Weitz becoming quite a familiar person to me. I enjoyed both of them as people, and I admired both of their work. (They know each other but I don’t think they are close.) As a curious journalist, I did some superficial research on Malta and liked what I found. Malta is currently on my bucket list.
In December, Borg contacted me because he wanted a quote from me for a poster advertising an exhibition of his work. I was happy to comply. The poster is above. LONG LIVE MALTA! Ω
One of the most remarkable persons I have met is an art teacher in Dubois, Wyoming. Dubois is considered by some to be the most isolated town of reasonable size in the Lower 48. Its population is about 975 people. It is a great town. But it is small. And the weather and terrain is tough. Here’s what kind of person that attracts and forms.
The teacher’s name is Danita Sayers. She is a smart cookie. She hunts for her own meat. She knows several grizzly bears personally (and warily). She knows what plants cure what ills. This topic, call it what you like–herbal medicine, ethnobotany (much of Sayers’ knowledge comes from area tribes), naturopathy, simple common sense–is what my latest article is about.
In September 2018, at the Susan Kathleen Black Foundation’s Artists Rendezvous & Workshop, Sayers took the stage for a presentation that came in well under her 30-minute timeslot, and she covered 30 times what some people do in 4 times as much time. So add succinctness to her skills.
Now that the numbers are out of the way, I’mma give you the link to the article. But first, a few more words about Danita.
She is physically striking, with a very small frame and very long brown hair. Her mind is always turning and you can see it happening, but she is patient in answering questions and helping people. Her students absolutely dominate the statewide arts competitions, and they admire and respect her. To get to work, Danita sometimes has to use a combination of walking, ATVing, and driving, down from the grizzly criss-crossed top of one of the Wind River Mountains just west of town. Her stories will make you cry with laughter.
I heard she was planning on writing a book about her experiences with grizzlies. I presumptuously offered to help. She shared a two-page excerpt of her manuscript, and I quickly realized that she needed no help. Her prose sings.
I have no doubt Danita Sayers would be prized in any community (even as she seems to remain a mystery to more than a few Duboisites). She could take Manhattan, rock LA, intoxicate New Orleans and straighten up Philadelphia. She will do none of those things. Danita likes it just where she is. So perhaps one of the most remarkable things about Danita is that her pride is seemingly reined in to the perfect balancing point of self-assurance and utter indifference toward recognition, praise, fame. Ω