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
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 on 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
Here’s the link.
I took notes last Fall when a few professional artists and industry leaders discussed frames for paintings. Here is a summary.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
“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.
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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.