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
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
Beauty is an experience. Beauty is subjective. Beauty is a kick in the pants.
The definition of beauty is elusive, but for many artists, beauty is a siren song, a guiding star, a raison d’être, a passion. The three artists participating in the exhibition “Along the Hudson River: Three New York Artists,” on view at the TNC (Theater of the New City) Gallery March 20 through April 30, all have different ideas of what beauty is, but those views are sympathetic, consonant, mutually supportive.
“Skyline,” by Robin Kappy
Robin Kappy actively seeks beauty. It’s not just what she finds in nature, fodder for her artwork. It’s also what she sees and responds to in her clients. Kappy’s day job is working as a psychotherapist.
“I used to struggle, going from painting and drawing to the different perspective of being present and listening to clients,” says Kappy. “But I slowly integrated myself as a therapist and an artist. In a way, it’s the same thing—listening and observing, looking for and seeing what is beautiful in the model in front of me and the client in front of me. I have discovered that this is what my clients come to me for, though they may not realize it: I find the beauty within them.”
“Woman,” by Robin Kappy
But what is beauty? “I think about that all the time,” she says. “It’s a complex question. Beauty is an experience. We can think of what’s beautiful and what’s not, but if we open ourselves up… there is beauty all around us, every day. By not being open to it we miss balancing ourselves, we miss seeing that there’s beauty all around us. I did have this fleeting thought that we are all moving toward beauty, even if it is a movement, a quest for something, toward making a perfect gadget, for example. We strive to reach our highest potential. That is beauty.”
So what is the role of artist for her? A means of expressing this beauty?
“I don’t know that I’m trying to communicate anything other than I love to draw and paint, and I think it’s because it gives a language to something that doesn’t have words,” she says. “That’s my experience of whatever it is that I’m painting. Kids act out their feelings. They don’t say ‘I’m angry,’ they act out their feelings. They giggle when they see something they like. It’s experiential, not yet put into words. It’s an expression of someone’s felt sense.”
“Dyckman Fields,” by Robin Kappy
Kappy points out that Eugene Gendlin is the origin of this concept of “felt sense,” which says that our mind and body experiences the awareness of progress or a next step based on a feel that is beyond the five senses. Perhaps this is the land where true beauty resides–a land that encompasses the entire universe, if we are willing to focus on it.
I, the writer of this post, am another of the trio featured in the show “Along the Hudson River: Three New York Artists.” In my paintings I try to suggest the way a scene feels to me, a way that sometimes demands exaggeration.
“Autumn Bridge in Triangles,” by Bob Bahr
Sometimes a scene seems to call for a representational reading, and in those cases, I paint more tightly. But over the last year, I’ve often found myself breaking down scenes into triangles. Working on location, I try to accurately capture the colors of the landscape in front of me. The basic shapes are blocked in, but within them, I find the sub-shapes breaking down further into triangles. It is an exploration of how light (and thus color) is fractured, refracted, reflected, and suggestive of movement. Triangles signify many things for me, including directional arrows. Triangles have served as symbols for humans for millennia. I leave that additional research to anyone who wants to explore it, as I did when this natural urge to paint triangles took over a painting back in March 2017… and I wanted to figure out why.
“Winter Light,” by Bob Bahr
I want my paintings to communicate the harmony and beauty of nature—and also to explore the intersection of human-made elements and natural forms, the place of humans in nature, and conversely the role of nature in the human world. Where I live, at the confluence of the Harlem River and the Hudson River in Inwood, Manhattan, nature and monumental structures (bridges, buildings, shipping channels) live in peace. I hope my paintings suggest the energy, movement, light, and peacefulness that pervades a nature-kissed Manhattan.
“The GWB and Amtrak,” by Bob Bahr
Tony Winters is the connector of this trio. In demand internationally as an architect, Winters has a keen interest in the Hudson River School of painting. His dedication to painting has taken him through the acclaimed Grand Central Academy, and he was the recipient of a Hudson River Fellowship. (His friend Kappy lives in Chelsea, in view of the wide Hudson; Winters lives south of her in the West Village. Winters and I are painting companions.)
Whereas Kappy is intent on presenting the beauty in both people and places, and thus is represented by many of her portraits in this show, Winters selected landscapes for “Along the Hudson River: Three New York Artists.” He, too, is concerned with the beautiful, and from another direction, making this show three views of beauty.
“Saranac River Morning,” by Tony Winters
“I am trying to convey a feeling–a feeling that elevates the spirit,” says Winters. “Nature teaches us we’re part of a much bigger world, way beyond human culture, and that is inspiring. The world of rivers, mountains and trees has a magic I’ve loved since childhood. Part of that magic comes in the form of beauty: You notice nature never makes an aesthetic mistake, whether in the shape of mountains or clouds, ripples on water, color combinations on a beach – it’s always harmonious. To convey that feeling of connection and harmony is the height of artistic achievement in my opinion.
“Where does the experience of beauty come from?” Winters asks. “Our brains and our minds have evolved, so a lot of it goes back to instinctive survival mechanisms—the search for food, reproduction. But we also have an aesthetic response to something a tree or flower is doing. Why would that be? Why do we respond aesthetically to signals from plants? It seems that nature, having endowed us all with free will, uses emotions to guide our actions through persuasion. We’re not just stimulus-response robots, nor are other living things. If we were, we’d all live just by reflexes, we wouldn’t need strong emotion. But we do, and plants and animals provoke it–nature decided to give us a kick in the pants. Fear, obviously, has a survival value for our bodies, but what about beauty? I believe we are more than our bodies, we have an inborn need to feel wonder and awe, and beauty is our gateway to that experience.”
For Winters, making art is an antidote for the stress (and illusions) of daily life, but once he’s there–making art from life, from nature–art becomes something more than a mere antidote.
“Adirondack Geese Rising,” by Tony Winters
“Human society is so charged with primate responses like aggression, territoriality, sex and pecking orders we easily get overwhelmed and pulled into that familiar state of mind, rooted in survival instincts, basically. Nature, like meditation, gives us a chance to disconnect from that mindset for a while. And when we do, suddenly the world seems much bigger, and we see our place in it from a different perspective. So art is not just an antidote—it’s an active way of connecting with dimensions of life we may fail to notice, day to day. We are part of nature. We constantly forget that because we make our living as a species by controlling nature. But nature is our ancestral home, and when we connect, it’s like discovering long lost relatives. Practically speaking, painting is a great way to connect–we like to be out in nature, but we also like to be doing things. Painting, fishing, hunting–in all these situations, we have to adapt to the pace of nature as opposed to the pace of human society. Nature is slow and cyclical. It lends itself to meditation and slow contemplation. Painting is well suited to this pace; it matches up well with that. The meditative quality of painting is a chance to really slow down and connect.”
So we are left with a premise that sounds like the start of a joke: An architect, a psychotherapist, and a journalist walk into the world of art…
And each of them discovers that beauty is beyond the literal elements. Each of them does something different with this topic. And each of them brings with them an ongoing, personal encounter of “the rat race,” day jobs that inform them and allow them to explore how humans truly move through the world, a path that encompasses both raw nature and human constructs and hierarchies.
# # #
TNC Gallery is located in the Theater of the New City, at 155 First Avenue between 10th and 11th streets, in New York City. There will be an artists’ reception for “Along the Hudson River: Three New York Artists” at TNC on Tuesday, March 20 from 5:30-7:30 p.m. For more information, go to theaterforthenewcity.net.
I grew up in a house that backed up to the 14th Tee of a private country club golf course. My family didn’t belong to the club. My parents weren’t about to spend that kind of money on a club membership, raising six kids.
A lot of my friends in the neighborhood did belong, though. I was a frequent guest of them at the country club pool. In fact, I was so frequent a guest that I was always brown as a biscuit by mid-July, and became so strong of a swimmer that the country club coach asked why I wasn’t on the swim team. The shit hit the fan when he found out that this kid he saw all the time wasn’t even a member.
At times I wished we were members of the country club, but not often. Some of my best friends were. They and their families seemed like really good people for the most part, from what I recall. But there was a fairly large contingent at the club who were boorish. The dads were overweight, the moms were underweight, and both were often drunk. It was good fun to watch certain members zoom up in a golf cart, drunkenly chop at the ball on the 14th tee, curse, and veer away down the fairway, while we ate dinner and watched out our window. And let’s not talk about the clothes. Yeesh.
In high school, I was in the Spanish Club my sophomore year, but as far as my parents knew, I was in the Spanish Club my junior and senior year, too. But those weren’t Spanish Club meetings that were making me come home late. They were detentions.
In college I despised the Greek system because in my freshman year I watched my best friend be humiliated over and over by his “frat brothers” who hazed him as a “pledge.” I couldn’t understand why he accepted the abuse. If somebody slapped my head and called me those names, I would have given them a nice Hawaiian punch. I mercilessly made fun of the fraternity at my small liberal arts college, via a humor column in the student newspaper, and on more than one occasion, I went to frat parties at UofL and flipped the breakers on the fuse box, yelling into the dark, “Frats suck and you all buy your friends!”
So I guess you could say I’ve never been a joiner.
I don’t feel a need to formalize a friendship with other people, pay dues, go to meetings. I would feel pretentious putting letters after my name. I’m a registered Democrat, but I was an independent for years before aligning myself with a party.
But in September, I joined something. Not just a club, but a GUILD. Now, the word “guild” is a dirty one in my vocabulary. I hate the idea of excluding someone from a trade organization until they meet the real or imaginary standards of the establishment. Always seemed elitist, exclusionary, and bullshitty. Nevertheless, Tammy Lucas offhandedly asked if I wanted to be a member of the Wind River Valley Artists Guild, and I found myself immediately saying, “Sure!”
I don’t know.
I imagine that I won’t be terribly active in the organization. After all, it’s located in Dubois, Wyoming, and I live in NYC. It’s not that I’m super close with a lot of the members. I’m sure I know a few because I have experience and connections in the Dubois art scene, but I have no idea who is on the roster. But I’m proud to be a member of the WRVAG nonetheless.
Is it the quilts that members sew, some with depictions of birds so wonderful, each square could be its own piece of art? Is it because their yearly painting and sculpture show is surprisingly big and of good quality even though Dubois is a town without a stoplight?
I think it is for two reasons. First, I love the Wind River Valley. I am eager to make permanent connections there. I’ve already made some good friendships with people in the town of Dubois, and elsewhere in Wyoming.
The second reason is related to the first. Life can be hard in Wyoming. Most of the people I know who live in the Dubois area have more than one job. The high school football coach has a bead store and carves art out of moose antlers. A real estate agent is also a trout fishing guide. A rancher also works at the Bighorn Sheep Interpretive Center. But the artists in the area do all that they need to do to make a living, AND they put together a show and support each other. That’s my kind of club.
I won’t be putting “WRVAG” at the end of my name on papers, letters, or paintings. It’s funny even to type that. But I’ll be paying my annual dues and stay a member in good standing.