Painting the Park

Exhibit at National Museum of Wildlife Art fetes Grand Teton National Park during National Park Service centennial.

By Mark Huffman

When Americans flooded westward in the first half of the 19th century to explore, to trap and hunt, to settle and build, people with other things in mind arrived right behind them.

Those people came to draw and paint. They made images of a place that before then had been the home of indigenous Indian nations but had never been seen by most of the people of the United States.

And among the places those early artists wanted to see and record, Wyoming was among the most impressive and popular.

“It’s amazing how important Wyoming is in American art history,” said Adam Duncan Harris, the Petersen Curator of Art and Research and the National Museum of Wildlife Art. “And the role that the Tetons play is a very big part of that.”

The museum is taking advantage this summer of the centennial of the National Park Service to note that importance by presenting “Grand Teton National Park in Art: Painting the Park from Thomas Moran to Today.”

The show, to run from May through September 5, exhibits the work of artists who found inspiration and subjects in the Tetons, from the first who arrived with brush in hand to their artistic descendants who are still at work today.

“We’re celebrating the park and Jackson Hole,” Harris said, “and it’s a perfect time to bring out some those paintings.”

Work on “Painting the Park” began nearly three years ago. Curators looked at available art of the Tetons, and from more than sixty possibilities chose thirty-five pieces to display. Though the museum is devoted to wildlife art rather than landscapes, it has enough views of scenery that most the work is from the museum’s collection. The show is filled out with early paintings by Thomas Moran and others on loan from Grand Teton National Park’s collection and individuals.

Moran was an Englishman drawn to the western United States and who was most famous for his early watercolors of Yellowstone. Work he did in the 1870s inspired a Teton art rush, even though “he saw the Tetons only from the Idaho side,” Harris said.

Moran had traveled all over the West and around the world, but his reaction to his visit to the Tetons showed for the first time that the mountain range would quickly seize the attention of artists.

The Tetons “loomed up grandly against the sky,” he wrote in his diary after one day of scouting for scenes to paint. “From this point it is perhaps the finest pictorial range in the United States or even North America.”

“Moran’s work really kickstarted this whole genre,” Harris said, though the growth from that beginning was slow until after World War II, when the road trip became part of American life and caused a surge of tourism and a “big rise in the number of people who might see all of this and then buy a Teton painting.”

From the hundreds of artists who followed in Moran’s steps, the museum chose works that “cover the span from when he was in the area in 1879 until the artists working here today,” Harris said.

After Moran was John Fery, the first to paint while in Jackson Hole and whose works set the stage for the traditional style of big views of the Tetons viewed over Jackson Lake. Fery, working for the Northern Pacific Railroad, also was a pioneer in the tradition of mixing art with tourism promotion.

Another artist in the show is Conrad Schwiering, who lived at the base of Shadow Mountain and spent nearly forty years until his death in 1986 making semi-impressionistic Teton views that became the standard for his era.

Among those who took the same artistic route were Greg McHuron, who was mentored early by Schwiering, and naturalist and writer Olaus Murie, the Hole’s most prominent environmentalist.

The Teton tradition as it continues today will be represented in the show by Jim Wilcox, who works at a gallery just north of town and who created the Teton image used on Wyoming’s centennial U.S. Postal Service stamp; Tucker Smith, who grew up in Pinedale and still lives and paints in the area; and Bill Sawczuk, a partner in Trio Fine Arts in Jackson with another represented artist, Kathryn Turner.

The devotion to the Teton Range and its surroundings continues in odder ways, to be represented by modern day artistic outliers such as Annie Coe and Travis Walker.

The art of the Tetons played an important role in letting people know what was here, even when photography was young—and in black and white—and a trip to Wyoming was for most Americans something like a trip to the moon.

The paintings first showed the outside world the beauty of an area that relatively few could actually visit. In spreading those images, the art of the Tetons “really contributed to the idea that this was a place worth saving,” Harris said.

Now that much of it has been preserved, the show will still appeal to many visitors, Harris said, giving them a chance “to experience and see the beauty here and then have a great chance to see really powerful representations of those things.”


More at the Museum

Yellowstone National Park: Though the Lens of Time
// May 1—August 28
Jackson Hole News&Guide photographer Bradly J. Boner followed the trail taken by William Henry Jackson through Yellowstone in 1871 to take photos from the same vantages, showing how things have stayed the same, how they’ve changed and how the Park Service is trying to preserve the landscapes of the world’s first national park.

Vintage Park Posters
// June 18—August 18
Among the millions of posters commissioned by the Depression-era Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project were a series designed to promote the national parks. This exhibit will feature some of the original posters and modern reproductions of others. An open studio related to this exhibit will give people of all ages a chance to try their hand at art.

Yosemite 1938: On the Trail with Ansel Adams and Georgia O’Keeffe
// June 10—August 28
Adams is the godfather of 20th century nature photographers and O’Keeffe was among the most avant garde of the century’s painters. The two friends, with others, including a couple of Rockefellers, took a 1937 camping trip in Yosemite National Park. This show features the 47 photos Adams took during the trip.