ALL THINGS LITERARY. ALL THINGS NATURAL.

A blog for those who desire a more creative relationship with the natural world.

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Monday, January 30, 2017

NORTH OF CRAZY WITH NELTJE, Wyoming’s Devoted Patron of the Arts



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 CrazyNOTE: Watch the UW Art Museum's video interview of Neltje.  

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Let the Force Be With Us: George Lucas and Ted Conover Make Real the Unreal


In 1964, in the dead of a bitter Russian winter after waiting with my family for hours in a long line at Moscow’s Red Square, I stood next to the body of Vladimir Lenin. The only thing that kept me from reaching out to touch the Soviet leader’s yellowish hand was the glass tomb in which his body (lifeless since 1924) was encased.  The corpse is now 146 years old, but thanks to the cosmetic efforts of Russian scientists, the leader doesn’t look “a day over 53.” Appearances are everything.

Meticulously crafted appearances (as president-elects, journalists and filmmakers also know), can transform reality into fiction, and fiction into reality.  

Two days ago, with my own imagination running wild (as I remembered Lenin's tomb), I stood beside a glass display case gazing at a photo of George Lucas and his creative team gathered around a desk cluttered with Storyboard sketches. Dozens of other action scenes and costume sketches hung on the wall behind them.

The display, part of the Star Wars and the Power of Costume exhibit at the Denver Art Museum, includes more than 70 original costumes. In the article “George Lucas and the Origin Story Behind Star Wars,” the online magazine Biography quotes a young Lucas back in 1971 as saying, “The reason I'm making Star Wars is that I want to give young people some sort of faraway exotic environment for their imaginations to run around in.”

When creating the earliest concepts for Darth Vader, George Lucas told the artist that he "wanted Vadar to look like a ‘dark lord riding on the wind,’ with black flowing robes, a large helmet like that of a Japanese samurai warrior, and a silk mask covering his face."

Actor Samuel Jackson, when he saw his Jedi costume, told fans: "At last I had an idea of who I was, how to carry myself... I had a way of being."

Costumes, as the Star Wars exhibit reminds us, bring characters to life because they help the actors immerse themselves in the characters' inner lives.  

But before the costume comes the vision.  Had Lucas not immersed himself in the environment of his own imagination when he drafted the original script, his creative team would not have been able to manifest his vision on the big screen.   

George Lucas immersed his imagination in a fictitious world so that our imaginations might believe the reality of that world. Even beloved Carrie Fisher could not always separate her life from that of Princess Leia's. 

But for writers, immersion is not just about making real an imaginary world.  It is also about immersing ourselves in what is already real so that our imaginations might come to know that which is strange.  For journalist Ted Conover, immersion writing (as he tells us in the Introduction of his newest book Immersion: A Writers Guide to Going Deep) has the "huge potential for sowing empathy in the world. It's a way to introduce readers to strangers and to make them care, a way to shine a light into places that need it."

For Conover, this meant hopping a freight train in the St. Louis rail yards and riding the rails with America's hoboes, as he did for his book Rolling Nowhere. Or it meant journeying with illegal immigrants across the borders between Mexico and the United States for Coyote. Or most notably, it meant putting on the "costume" of a prison guard and for a year, day after day, immersing himself in the brutal world of New York's most notorious, maximum security prison facility. 

I once presented with Ted at an adventure writing symposium in Wyoming, and I remember Ted telling the audience (referring to his book Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing) that when he got home every night, he had to strip off his uniform and shower before even thinking of hugging his wife or children. Writing Newjack (winner, National Book Critics Circle Award) required deep entrenchment in an unsavory world. Wearing the uniform (the "costume" of his disguise) contributed to an immersion that went more than skin-deep. 

"But that doesn't mean these books are about us," Conover writes. "In immersion journalism, there is always a subject beyond the narrator herself, something the writer sets out to investigate. Immersion writers may draw on their own experience (often they contrive it as a form of research) but they focus on the larger world." 

Immersion:A Writer's Guide to Going Deep gives us an intimate look at how Conover has, for more than thirty years, imagined new ideas, gained access to the unknown, gone undercover, researched, written, and dealt with the aftermath of a journalist's often exotic life.  

Whether writers choose to make real imaginary worlds, or immerse ourselves into the center of what is already a real world, the New Year promises to offer itself up to our imaginations in unimaginable ways.  Let the Force be with us as we navigate these uncharted waters. 

NOTES:  Read “The Cost of Keeping Lenin Looking Like Lenin,” The Atlantic, April 2016.