Travis Walker, Abbie Miller, Tony Birkholz, Kelly Halpin and Todd Williams (who divides his time between NYC and Jackson Hole) presented their work and perspectives at March 27th’s Culture Front, hosted by Meg Daly. The evening was fascinating not only because of the art we viewed, but because of the ensuing conversation.
The evening’s topic was interpreting the West. How did young contemporary Jackson artists experience what it is to live here? How are their observations and emotions materializing in their art? I, in my relatively elder-generation way, expected context—a discussion and comparisons. I wondered how the artists made the leap from absorbing Western representational history to transmitting in a contemporary manner. After Walker, Miller, Birkholz, Halpin and Williams made their presentations, Q&A commenced.
“I’d like the artists to talk about the West,” said one audience member.
I remember thinking the same thing, but I recognize that “talking about the West,” for this generation entails a different vernacular. As all new art generations do. Culture Front’s format is liquid; discussions can and do “fan out.” In more formal settings a presentation’s format is set, the program specific. Two different flows, both enriching.
Abbie Miller’s art is greatly influenced by her east coast and mid-western art schools; her talk focused on those early projects. Perhaps her most “Western” art product is her giant red vinyl piece, “Squeezed Arch,” which resembles Utah’s desert landscape. But Abbie’s roots here run deep; she is a product of our West.
For some, the West is a little short on milk and honey. It can be frightening and unexpected; buffalo are slaughtered, forests succumb to fire and invasive insects, wolves are shot and moose run over. Wildlife collides with mankind, people plummet from the peaks. Ultimately, this place is indescribably beautiful. Our involvement and caring about injustices and environmental imbalance is part of that. The West is “free” in spirit–we come here to throw off the shackles from our early lives, from the city, from wherever. We have unmatched space, but overcoming the inevitable struggle to survive is difficult. We’re trying everything we can think of. Three local artists with arts day jobs have opened their own space elsewhere in order to bring messages from non-Western cultural centers to Jackson Hole. Artists share space and split up again.
March 27th’s gathering included laughter and tears, humor and angst. One audience member, an artist, was the most openly vulnerable I’ve ever seen her.
The evening turned into a therapy session of sorts. The majority of young panelists, as well as several audience members, are experiencing the West as a complex maze of creative, financial and venue challenges. We have great expectations, and we smack into walls. Two people admitted experiencing foreclosure. And, as Travis Walker put it, living here “is not as easy as Ansel made it seem.”
Rob Kingwill, multi-titled professional snowboarder and son of one of Jackson’s most dedicated teachers and plein air painters Fred Kingwill, expressed great pride in his dad. Fred’s work ethic and dedication are a huge influence on his son. You may need two jobs, you do what you have to do—you are still here. What’s important, said Rob, is what we learn by being in Jackson. Do whatever is needed, daily, to reinvigorate that passion and your work.
We stay. We choose our muse. All places have their up sides and down sides. We search out the best balance for ourselves.
We struggle, but there are cultural and gender-based dramas in Teton County we often barely consider. Supporting our economy is a substantial Latino population, one attendee pointed out to me. What have they been through to get here? Where are they in this room? What is their West?
I expected to write more about each artist’s work in this post; but I digressed. Many times I’ve opined on the remarkable quality of our young artists, and their tenacity. It’s a proud new group, and it’s growing.