Neltje, great-granddaughter of book publishing mogul Frank Nelson Doubleday, was claimed by the glamorous life of New York’s wealthiest from her birth in 1934 until she fled the East Coast at the age of 32, packing up her children and moving to a ranch in Wyoming. Neltje, newly divorced and seeking a life where she could spread her creative wings, quickly claimed Wyoming.
Neltje’s westward journey was not unlike Georgia O’Keefe’s, who found herself drawn from New York to New Mexico the same year Neltje was born. O’Keefe remained entranced by the pastel-layered landscapes of New Mexico until her death at the age of 99. Neltje, soon to be 80, has lived entranced on the flanks of Wyoming’s Bighorn Mountains for more than half a century.
“All of us loved this country,” she writes in her memoir North of Crazy, referring to when she moved west in 1966, “the wildly varied landscape, from mountains to deep arroyos and on to the Power River Breaks: the vast space and far horizons; the way of life; the light on the landscapes….”
The love flowed both ways. Wyoming quickly fell under Neltje’s spell. Rural neighbors offered cattle-buying advice, carpentry services, equipment, home canned goods and, more importantly, “…the swapping of a story or a recipe. With this small bit of conversation came a sense of belonging in a community.”
Raised by nannies as a girl, shipped between Manhattan townhouses and country estates, knowing the privilege of private schools but never the security of a parent’s love, Neltje had always yearned to belong, to be more than a belonging. Once, in the Swiss studio of artist Oscar Kokoschka, she felt that sense of belonging and kinship. She carried that yearning with her to Wyoming, splashing her own passion for life across every canvas she would paint.
Long considered one of the state’s premier artists, in a 2010 interview for the UWArt Museum, Neltje confided, “I could not have developed the way I have as an artist if I had stayed in New York. I came to Wyoming, and I found home. My passion is a Wyoming passion. I would live nowhere else. I come down on the plain and my heart goes, ‘Ah, I am home.”
For years, I had admired Neltje from afar, from when I first moved to Wyoming and learned about the Frank Nelson Doubleday Award (for writing by a woman), and the Neltje Blanchan Memorial Award (for writing informed by a relationship with the natural world). In 1991 and 1993, I received honorable mentions for both awards, but it wasn’t until my 2003 residency at the Jentel Artist Program, located on her 2000-acre ranch, that I met Neltje.
When I first arrived, she was standing on the sidewalk of the main residency house. She shook my hand. “I just about finished reading In Search of Kinship,” she said, and then she touched her hand to her heart. “You love the land the way I do….” Her words remain the greatest endorsement I have ever received. (In the photo above, I am standing with fellow resident Leslie, an artist from Milwaukee).
Neltje’s love of the land is vividly evident in her memoir’s Prologue, when she speaks about her cabin at the base of the Bighorn Mountains, and about the waterfalls and the vast canyon walls where she wants her ashes one day scattered. Look closely at her abstract paintings, or listen to her speak about her art, and you will sense this belonging.
“All these works are drawn from Nature,” Neltje tells us, “and my love of Nature, and that’s Nature with a capital ‘N.’ And don’t ask me to define that because I can’t. It’s the wide-open spaces. It’s the air we breathe.”
Neltje’s confidence in herself, as a woman and as an artist, rises from the pages of North of Crazy whenever she speaks of Wyoming, and of her art. This confidence, lacking when her life was defined by her relationship to her tycoon and alcoholic father, and her often heartless and distant mother, can be intimidating. But just as she gazes out her cabin window wondering if “butterflies mate in flight,” you will peer inside the carefully crafted pages of this book and feel wonder. Just as Neltje delights in the wild flight patterns of a pair of swallow-tails, readers will find delight in the patterns of this tumultuous but beautiful life.
NOTE: Doubleday Publishing (founded in 1897) is now part of the Knopf DoubledayPublishing Group (one of Penguin Random House’s 250 imprints). Since Doubleday’s founding, the publishing houses have been swallowed up like a whale gulping krill until only “the big five” now remain (Hachette Book Group, HarperCollins, Macmillan Publishers, Penguin, Random House, and Simon and Schuster). This consolidation makes literary supporters like Neltje even more vital for writers. Doubleday was once the largest publishing house in America. NOTE: Read The Washington Time's book review of North of Crazy. NOTE: Watch the UW Art Museum's video interview of Neltje.