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
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.
While doing research in Wyoming, I reported on this weeklong event, which was great for the participating kids–and extremely edifying and helpful to me. The Boys & Girls Club of Dubois, along with Traci Jo Isaly, put together a team of instructors that included local historian Stephen V. Banks, backcountry guides and Sheep Eater experts Meredith and Tory Taylor, geologist Johanna Thompson. Tom Lucas, a Dubois artist and arguably the premier craftsman of traditional Shoshone items, taught drawing. Isaly guided the roughly dozen kids through the making of figures that explored local history and their own inner histories. The Susan Kathleen Black Foundation underwrote the program, which is called PLACE (People Land and Community Education). It’s programs like this that make me proud to be a part of SKB.
I just returned from a great trip to Wyoming, where I was working on two writing projects. I had two tasks–to report on an event sponsored by the SKB foundation, and to do research for a writing project on the history of visual art in the Wind River Mountains and their adjacent valleys.
Wyoming feels like home to me, especially Dubois. I started most days with a 5×7 painting, often before 6 a.m. My research took me to Cody, Jackson Hole, Dubois, and Pinedale, and along the way, I visited friends, ranches, restaurants, and a little patch of land called Yellowstone National Park. The Grand Tetons impressed as usual, the wildlife made my heart beat faster, and the research was fruitful. Most days I cooked my own food, as I was staying at a friend’s vacation home.
Here’s the lowdown, by the numbers:
• 3,700 miles in the air going from NYC to Wyoming and back
• 1,197 miles in a rental car driving around the state of Wyoming
• 11 days
• 14 in-person interviews
• 1,174 photos
• 3 videos
• 6,620 words of note-taking
• 13 paintings
Work like this makes me feel alive.
The 5x7s I painted in acrylic while in Wyoming. (I gave away the 13th one.)