American Sabbatical 022: 9/27/96


9/27... And then it goes UP.

After a good night’s sleep the world looked less tilted. We did housekeeping on Festiva. Jiffy lube and vac. Top the liquids, check the rubber. Did a laundry with coffee, tea, and muffins. Shipped excess baggage home (all those puter manuals I haven’t needed.. yet). Repacked and headed uphill. The bright sunny morning had grayed over by the time we left Sheridan, and the Big Horn Mountains that stand like a gigantic stage set behind the town had disappeared into storm clouds.

We drove out of September into January as we rose into the clouds. At 7000 feet Festiva began to lose her head and suffer from oxygen deprivation, but we were in no hurry anyhow. Lucky thing. Coming round a bend at about 8000 feet there was a Bronco in the other lane with his hazards flashing, and the driver was waving a red flag out the window. Wide load, I figured. Then around the next bend came a herd of cattle filling the narrow road from cliff wall to drop-off. Three cowboys on horseback and one in a stock truck herded the doggies past, into blowing sleet, as we zigged and zagged through the livestock.

Loose Stock

A great country, where the national parklands have “Loose Stock” signs, and the deer and the antelope play. We saw a lot of them, too. Pronghorns grazing by the highway. The early travelers reported them too easily spooked to stalk, but they could be tricked into range by lying on the ground and kicking your legs in the air. Their curiosity was just too much for their better sense. They must think Detroit’s best are the strangest thing yet, and don’t spook until you slow to point a camera at them.

We didn’t point the camera too much today. Not that the vertiginous switchback weren’t spectacular, but the view off the edge into empty clouds only made us hang on tight, not grab for the Olympus. At 9000 feet we chatted up a flag woman in her 50’s who held us at one end of a construction zone. She said the last snow had been in June, so they’d had an average roadwork season, two months of summer.

Spire in snow

After two hours on the Big Horns we descended into plunging valleys on the western slope. Throughout the mountains there were roadside information signs identifying the rock formations alongside, Cretaceous, Jurassic, Precambrian. Go looking for history and you get 450 million years worth. At Shell Creek Falls the feds have provided a paved overlook and walk, so we stretched our legs in the chill wet air. The signs talked about the big horn sheep that have been “reintroduced”, and there was a telescope to watch them. They were busy watching tourists elsewhere. All we saw was a soggy baby rabbit hiding under a mountain mahogany bush

Blowing off


.The west slope of the Big Horns spits you out through a dramatic cleft in the eons into an even drier landscape, approaching high desert after this year’s drought: the Big Horn Basin. As we moved out onto it, all we saw was a vast flat expanse of sagebrush and sparse grasses without horizon. But then the clouds began to lift like a curtain, to the west and southwest, and the shining mountains rose up to enclose our vision. The Absarokas, black and white with snow, and glistening under the silver skirts of the stormclouds. The contrast between the sear brown hills in the foreground and the leaping black and whites beyond had us weaving all over the road as we rolled down into Cody.

We’d been told that there was a superb museum at Cody, but no one had warned us about the western art collection. Breath-taking. Catlin, Bodmer, Miller, Remington, NC Wyeth, Bierstadt, Moran, Henry Jackson, and on and on. I take it back. You can paint the West. Granted, most of the artists chose big canvases to tell a big story, but some of them caught the light and the sweep without raising their voices. We could only take an hour’s worth of eyefill before we had to go out and try our hands at the sunset. And what a setting. Mountains jumping out of the plain all around.

Absarokas (Bryce)

Peggy's Cody
We goggled into a motel and asked for a room with a view. “We’re sorry, none of our rooms have views.” Hah. You could sell the picture out this window to hang on the walls of motels all over America.. in fact, I think they do. And it kept changing, as the bad weather moved out and the westering light painted the remains gold and salmon. Now a full moon is riding the sky fields. Last night we watched the lunar eclipse over the Wal*Mart in Sheridan. Tonight she’ll set behind the Absarokas.

(Memo #22)

Sept. 27. - Western Art, Buffalo Bill Center, Cody, Wyo.

Who? Buffalo Bill Cody, Western artists

What? Buffalo Bill Historical Center 4 museums (western art, Plains Indian, Buffalo Bill, firearms)

Where? Cody, Wyoming (NW section of state), eastern gateway to Yellowstone

When? 1900s to the present

How? by museum collectors

Topics: Western art, museums.

Questions: What makes a great museum? What is Western art? Is Western art taken seriously in the art world?

Ol Bill

Debouching onto naked plains
We drove into Cody, Wyoming, after a first foray into the Rocky Mountains. There was snow flying up there and hairpin turns and beautiful views. A road crew was getting a last stretch paved before winter closed in (!). One worker said they’d had snow once on the 4th of July. We crossed the Bighorn Range into the high dry basin in central northern Wyoming, endless sage-dotted flats with pronghorn antelopes. Cody sits at the eastern edge of the next Rocky chains, a lovely small city in the foothills with spectacular mountains views in three directions. Several e-mail friends, and a trucker, had said we MUST get to the museum in Cody.

The Buffalo Bill Historical Center sits on the western edge of town and is four museums in one - a Western art museum, a Plains Indian museum, a Buffalo Bill museum, a firearms museum. There is also a contemporary art gallery. The building itself is beautiful - gray stone with occasional sets of huge windows looking to the mountains and two green sculpture courtyards with mountains, plants and trees. The four museums have individual spaces. It was obvious that the buildings were made for the collection not vice versa. Some museums give you the impressions of artifacts crammed into awkward preexisting rooms, this was spacious and comfortable and appropriate to the specific collection.

Trappers Dancing
(Alfred Jacob Miller)

Medicine Man
The Western art gallery has a large collection of the artists identified with the West: Frederick Remington, Henry Jackson, George Catlin, Thomas Moran, Alfred Bierstadt. Each has a distinctive style and role. George Catlin was one of the earliest explorer-artists recording the vanishing cultures - his paintings of Mandan villages especially are in most American History books. He was the first white to see the quarry where the Plains tribes got the stone for their pipes.The museum shows posters and books from the European exhibition tour of Catlin’s paintings. Thomas Moran was in the first official expedition to Yellowstone and his paintings helped convince Congress to create the park. His paintings are vast mountain landscapes in great detail and color, a Hudson school approach to the west (although the canvases are not huge - as some Hudson school works are). “The Golden Gate” is his best known picture of Yellowstone. Bierstadt also did grand views in realistic detail in oil. The collection is big enough to have variety of subject and media. In preparation for the oil paintings Moran made watercolor sketches that are really lovely.

Remington and Jackson are both artists who are labeled “illustrators”. Both did, in fact, produce works of art for magazines and books. Remington illustrated two of Theodore Roosevelt’s books on the West. The pictures tell a story in vivid detail: breaking a horse, eating by a campfire, standing nightwatch on a cattle drive.

Cowboy Mail

Night Crossing
The gallery tackles the controversial roles of illustrator and artist this way: “This type of art has sometimes been criticized as ‘merely’ illustration, implying a lack of creativity on the part of the artist because he did not necessarily originate the subject matter. Yet the best illustrators can stand on their own as works of art. These artists use the elements of art to make strong visual statements while following a long tradition of storytelling through painting”

There were Western paintings by several other famous illustrator-artists: N.C. Wyeth and W.H.D. Koerner. Many of these artists had trained with Howard Pyle (best known for his Robin Hood illustrations).

There were a number of sculptures, mainly in bronze. One Henry Jackson sculpture shows a berserk bronco with rider. The contorted figures “stand” on one of the horse’s legs. President Ford apparently gave a copy of this to Queen Elizabeth to celebrate the American bicentennial!! Did she take offense at the implication?

Setting Traps

Mandan Medicine
There was a whole section of animal paintings. The New York Zoological Society funded work to preserve animals in nature and art, much as ethnological societies were funding artists to preserve vanishing cultures. The museum also has two full artists’ studios - Remington’s had many western artifacts on the walls and floors - cowboy hats and pottery and bows and skulls and blankets.

In the Western art gallery and contemporary gallery, the people and landforms of the West are presented in every conceivable medium and technique - there are impressionist views of Indian villages in lovely pastels, mixed media collages, formal portraits of Indians in traditional dress and modern attire. I think you can apply any standard of great art to the works we saw and they would stand the test.

The Medicine Robe
(Maynard Dixon)

Beaded Hightops
The Plains Indian museum is wonderfully built. You walk up a long solarium toward a real tipi which fills the entrance space. There are fullscale figures of Indians and horses with traditional adornment throughout. Galleries are devoted to individual subjects like “personal adornment” and “religion”. The display cases do not seem crowded. Each object has its space and importance. One had a display of Plains Indian toys, another of cradle boards and other child gear. Even a ceiling high case with over forty pairs of beaded moccasins did not seem cluttered. The emphasis is on the craftsmanship as well as the cultural details. A huge space at the back of the museum with three “balconies” overlooking has a fullscale settlement with three fully stocked tepees, staked hides and outside structures. It is terrific!

The gun museum and Buffalo Bill Museums have impressive collections that are well displayed. Buffalo Bill was a showman who took his Wild West Show with a number of Plains Indians to Europe many times. He merchandised the west in ways that are still being done - for example, we met a man who leads week long wagon train trips for tourists.

We loved the Cody Center and kept revisiting specific paintings or objects on our two visits. I wonder if I would have liked the museum as a child. Or would I have wanted to join a museum activity, trying to embroider with porcupine quills or eat pemmican? Do we appreciate museums differently at specific ages? Could we design a Freeport retail museum? What makes a great museum? We’ve seen a variety: indoor, outdoor, diorama, display cases, recreated dwellings, digs. Some are great, some aren’t. I’m still trying to figure out what makes the difference.

Impressionistic Remington

9/28.. Cody.

Bryce's Cody
A full moon peeked in the motel window in Cody this morning, and by the time dawn turned the thin clouds salmon we were munching on cereal and plotting another assault on the Buffalo Bill Cody Museum . A stiff breeze was snapping the flags, but, for a change, it was a mild westerly, and the big red bluff west of town glowed in the morning sun. Damn, but Wyoming can seduce you.

Now, you might expect a Buffalo Bill museum to be a lot of glitz and gewgaws. After all, Cody was the greatest self-promoter since P.T.himself. The consummate showman. Which makes the superb quality of this museum, out here under the stage-set mountains, even more stunning.

There are few public spaces that are truly welcoming, and the air of importance in most of them spoils the greeting. Not so this time. The open airiness inside matches the vistas outside, and the inner courtyards and the huge glass wall looking out at the mountains keep you in the landscape. The presentation is uncluttered and without pretension. That may be because ‘Western” art is the idiot stepchild of American ART. Which patronizing is absurd, of course. Here again is a regional art that mirrors a place, and needn’t apologize to anyone about its mastery.

(Statue by Henry Jackson)

Yesterday we soaked up to our necks in the Morans and Remingtons, the Catlins and Millers, and a lot of unfamiliar painters (to us) who managed to grab something of the critter. Now don’t get me wrong. There’s lots of bronc-busting, sixgun toting, peacepipe passing, ten-gallon hatting in this stuff. We are talking about Cowboy Country, pardner. And the tall tale, all that schmaltz about man and horse, and the edgy mix of frontier bravado and vanishing native culture.. that’s part of the landscape, too. Where else would a painted bronze statue of John Wayne as The Marshal galloping into the sunset grace the lobby? But the mix in this collection walks that affective tightrope between iconography and insight. Story and study. All the expected symbols are in evidence, but they don’t overwhelm the graceful watercolor that tells of the high plains with a few strokes, or the impressionist Indian who stands before that glowing western sky. And the charge coming off the earliest records of discovery is telekinetic. Particularly the group scenes by Catlin in the Mandan villages. They have an almost pictographic style (unlike his familiar portraits), which almost approaches the traditional native pictography. As though Catlin was touched by the culture he was recording, and we are gripped in turn.

Artifacts (Bryce)
But we’d immersed ourselves in those waters yesterday, so we indulged in the Plains Indian Collection for starters, today. I’ll let Peggy describe the effectiveness of it as a cultural exposition, but from an esthetic angle it’s a knockout. For me, the hair-raiser was the display of ritual objects. While I was alone in that space, it was full of corner-of-the-eye creatures. Figures lurking just out of sight. The investment of spirit energy in objects, in the making, and in the using, leaves a charge that is palpable to a sympathetic imagination. But it wasn’t a heavy charge, there’s a lot of sacred laughter in Native American spirituality, and there were echoes of laughter in the collection as well as chanting voices, and ghost dancers.

It was encouraging that the collection included contemporary Native images and objects, like school mascots and beaded sneakers. And the contemporary Western art exhibition had some wicked goodies.. often by women taking a poke at the cowboy macho.

Then we went back into the art collection to revisit the masters. After trying our hands, unsatisfactorily, at this landscape, it is very discouraging to see it done with such apparent ease, but we had to taste the chocolates one more time.

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