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
My last two paintings have been higher key than my usual paintings. The colors are brighter and a bit more saturated. I think I know why. I wore sunglasses during the block-in stage for both of them.
It was an experiment prompted by two forces. One, I had noticed that the cheap sunglasses I had bought at the Jackalope Gas station made colors look more intense. I wondered what would happen if I painted while wearing them. Two, about a month ago I was painting in Maine and I set up facing the sun, because the crazy glare on the ocean was so cool looking. I painted right into the sun, and yeah, it gave me a headache. I’m lucky it didn’t snowblind me. I posted about this on Facebook, and within hours, I received an email from my optometrist insisting that I promise to never do that again.
He’s not your typical optometrist. Macular degeneration runs in my family, so my eyes most likely are especially susceptible to damaging UV rays. So he had good reason to rattle my cage. But the email also made sense because he and I do not have a typical patient-doctor relationship.
On my first visit to his practice, I asked him a few questions about his job. That’s typical; I’m curious how other occupations are. Anyway, he was doing that doctor thing they do at the beginning of an appointment—getting things out, turning things on, reading papers, making notes. I asked him if his floor was bamboo. He said no. Then he asked me why I asked. I told him that I had noticed long lines running down the wood, so I thought maybe it was bamboo. He smirked, sat back, and said the floor looked that way because it was installed incorrectly. He had contacted Home Depot and paid for a consultant to come to the office, examine the rooms and halls, and recommend flooring. He purchased the recommended flooring, and continued on to hire the installation team at Home Depot. The installers arrived, looked at the flooring that had arrived at the jobsite, and told my eye doctor that this flooring was absolutely the wrong thing for the office, and they were going to have to remove the previous flooring to put this kind down, and it was going to cost and take time.
It took even more time when they found asbestos under that old flooring.
Meanwhile, he was audited by one of the insurance companies. Who knew this was a thing? The insurance company didn’t believe something about one of his claims and opened up the investigation to include all claims filed by my dear optometrist. That insurance company was my insurance company. I can’t remember the name. That’s not my fault. The name of the insurance company is so incredibly generic, it does not deserve any capitalization. One shouldn’t capitalize generic terms. I’m not joking—the name of the company is something like Vision Care.
So vision care or whatever audited my poor poor optometrist and he almost just shut down the whole practice. Or commit suicide. I think and I hope he was joking about that last part.
Anyway, so that was my first visit. About 20 minutes of discussion regarding optometric office management, and 20 minutes of determining how out of focus my eyeballs are.
The second visit ended in confrontation.
We were talking about macular degeneration, and discussing the efficacy of some of the OTC drugs/supplements that are designed to address it. (He agreed with my choice.) He reiterated that I should always protect my eyes outdoors. I asked if I could wear a hat instead of wearing sunglasses, and he said sure. I told him I wondered because of bounce light. After all, isn’t snowblindess caused by bounce light? He refused to acknowledge the existence of bounce light. He became indignant. I dropped it.
The last time I went, we discussed contact lenses. My prescription wasn’t a problem, but the shape of the contacts—well, of one of the contacts—was unusual, possibly a special order. Doc explained that most eyeballs are similar. One unit of measurement is the axis of the eyeball. He told me I have crazy axes. I said what. He said that they are shaped weirdly, almost nubile. Nubile eyeballs.
I was sort of at a loss for words at that point, and the appointment was wrapping up. I told him that I thought maybe Crazy Axes would be a good prison name for me. He was startled, stumbled backward slightly. He asked if I planned on going to prison. I responded that I had no desire or plan to go to prison, but I feel better about the whole thing now that I have a prison name, should I need it.
Doc was perturbed. That was the last time I saw him, but after that I did get the email. Which prompted the sunglasses today. Which explains the high key of my 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.
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.)