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.

charcoal sketch by Mary Back for a now destroyed mural depicting Wind River Mountain history

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.

typical view of the Wind River near the Lava Creek Ranch

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