Music is not about a musician telling you about how their music should make you feel…you should feel like you have the opportunity to create your own story with a painting. I have my own story with it. ~ Connor Liljestrom
I dream of painting, and then I paint my dream. ~ Vincent Van Gogh
A visit to rising star Jackson Hole artist Connor Liljestrom’s New West Fine Art Gallery wound up bringing tears to my eyes and dropping me back in time to a childhood when I yearned for my very own pony.
Liljestrom is awfully young to be so wise. He turned the interview tables when I asked what was on his mind as he painted “Rock All Night,” an intimate portrait of a man and woman silently communing by light reminiscent of a campfire’s. Below these figures Liljestrom has painted in a pair of toy ponies.
“Well, what does it say to you?” Liljestrom asked. “You don’t have to be rushed by this, you can have a moment…but my telling you my response potentially robs you of your personal experience. You don’t have to say it out loud; just feel what you feel from this piece. That’s what art is. Music is not about a musician telling you about how their music should make you feel…you should feel like you have the opportunity to create your own story with a painting. I have my own story with it.”
My heart begins to pound, are my cheeks flushing? These little horses take me back to a Southern California childhood spent riding in the canyons. Back to desperately wishing for a pony, of writing the word “pony” on my mother’s grocery shopping lists and in letters to Santa. I conjure up the real life little red pony that used to leave a friend’s stall over a mile away and clip clop up our driveway to spend the morning. We’d ride him bareback around the hills and across the pastures until his owner came for him.
Out loud, I suggest to Liljestrom that his miniature ponies signify childhood, or that they were real toys in the young lives of these two people who are now adults. Maybe the couple are a brother and sister, talking and remembering–making peace.
“There’s definitely similarities between what’s going through your head and when I painted it, and yes, those things create a feeling of intimacy, in the way those two figures are seated together,” says Liljestrom. “There is nostalgia. These toys might represent unrealized dreams. As a kid you play with toys and you promise yourself that one day the toy will become real, you’ll have a real pony. But more often than not, that doesn’t turn out to be the case. With these two there’s a moment of reflection. It’s a pensive painting, and I hope it gives people a platform to think about dreams that have gone unrealized from their own childhoods; and from there, to wonder if those things are still as important as they once were? Can we recommit to those dreams or should we let them go and accept what has come true in our lives, make new dreams?”
Liljestrom’s art references mythology, Hollywood and Pop culture, natural history, colonialism and the canons of Western-centric art history; a hefty thematic combination to challenge the sagest creative. In his young life, says the artist, all those elements are already a part of his upbringing and formal arts education.
In recent conversation with gallerist and curator Agnes Bourne, Liljestrom displays incredible depth of understanding of his own art. In clear, non-apologetic terms (and how many of us creatives find ourselves, at least sometimes, apologizing in some way for our work—either to ourselves or to someone else?) he tells viewers that art is a documentation of our existence and actions in the moment we are creating. A painting is the story of making the painting. Successful art must be truthful—not preconceived or predictable—to move viewers. Art, Liljestrom feels, is largely about making something too many in the world feel is non-essential, essential. As if to prove his point he paints big, throwing his entire body into the act, rather than using “just his hands.”
Born and raised in Jackson, Liljestrom graduated from the University of Wyoming’s art program just over a year ago. That very same summer, he was juried into and sold out at two Art Association summer art fairs, events known for drawing the best in local talent as well as from surrounding states. He’s witnessed first hand the mushrooming co-existence of traditional histories with what he describes as a Hollywood-esque ‘understanding’ of the West and the intensive marketing of that lifestyle-brand.
By the end of last year he was on gallery, collector and designer radars. In 2020 he established a partnership with New West Knife Works , opening his own adjacent gallery space. Whenever someone enters Knife Works they have the opportunity to move through and step directly into Liljestrom’s gallery. The setup creates a warm, active, egalitarian space. Browsing is encouraged, as is conversation. Energy is friendly and communal.
Too often we’re culturally encouraged away from creativity, but we have to resist that.
He does not show anywhere else, and with art dealers and galleries crossing back and forth into each other’s markets he may never feel the need. His large-scale paintings already command up to $21,000. Very quickly after that sell-out summer Liljestrom began taking on large commissions and working with interior designers who are having a hard (but lucrative) time keeping up with new construction demands and a flood of new home buyers coming into the Jackson market.
“We’re creating a place for interesting art viewership right here,” says Liljestrom. “We want to establish this as a stop people make to comfortably see and experience upmarket art in person. You can’t really grasp, on a phone screen, what an 8-foot painting looks like. So, we do have an emphasis on trying to open that experience to people who aren’t just art buyers—even kids are excited to see it!”
Of the themes he incorporates into his paintings, Liljestrom says they are all woven into his upbringing and formal arts education. A true local, he’s witnessed first hand, with full attention, the tidal wave change in Jackson’s culture. Standing side by side are the intensely Instagrammed, chic interpretations of the West and old, multi-generational homesteads, ranches and personal histories.
Steeped in both worlds, Liljestrom is a modern-day guardian of what came before. He also received a great deal of support of his interest in art from family and community. That doesn’t always happen, he acknowledges, and surprisingly he received lesser support from arts education venues.
“As is often the case, kids are drawn towards art and have creative inclinations, and I certainly did. I was supported, and I kept at it. There can come a point where one discovers that either it’s not in you anymore…or it can be educated out of you. Too often we’re culturally encouraged away from creativity, but we have to resist that. Even with support from my parents and art teachers, there were still a lot of tamping down messages. ‘You should teach.’ ‘Go tech, design websites.’ ‘Be realistic.’ Even in art school, in college–which was just a couple of years ago–it was not as common as you might think to be encouraged to become a professional artist. Those are all honorable pursuits, but encouraging having the goal of becoming an independent artist wasn’t a common thread in art school.”
At one end of Liljestrom’s gallery hangs “Fit for a Queen,” an incredibly lush, colorful and multi-layered painting packed with the artist’s symbols. Spend time in front of this sweeping work (it measures over six by six feet) and artists like Picasso, Basquiat, Braques, Nieto and Rufino Tamayo come to mind.
That’s intentional. In the painting, a coyote bears a cowgirl riding sidesaddle on its back. One of his eyes is ringed in lavender, a possible reference to a purple shiner Liljestrom sustained earlier in the year. In the background is a checkerboard pattern, and slices of watermelon hover near the coyote. Above this procession floats a crown.
This is a fairytale moment right now.
The painting depicts a mystical, fantastical, royal escort. “Fit for a Queen” is Liljestrom’s homage to Coyote’s mythical intelligence and cunning. The woman is primarily visible from the waist down, legs dangling.
“The painting makes the statement that the escort chosen for this high personage is the Coyote—it’s an homage to his intelligence. The crown signifies royalty and it’s also a shoutout to Basquiat, one of my favorite artists. The watermelon are a kind of double entendre for Nature’s bounty and a bow to Rufino Tamayo, another one of my favorites. I love looking at his work.”
Liljestrom nods vigorously when told his art resembles high graffiti, cave paintings and street art.
“Yes, and those art forms are still misunderstood in many ways,” the artist affirms. “People denounce graffiti as vandalism and defacement. Writing nonsense on someone’s window is not art. That’s just destruction of property. But art created on a wall that was bare, abandoned, or on the side of a train — art brings a blank surface to life. Artists painting on trains are having a dialogue with each other from opposite sides of the country! Those trains are going back and forth in conversation, and viewers–listeners–are spread out across the nation.”
We talk about Jackson’s gallery scene. As a lifelong Jackson resident, Liljestrom recalls many enjoyable visits to galleries, but he also had visits that left him feeling snubbed, as if he wasn’t supposed to be there.
“When I was younger I obviously wasn’t going into galleries as a collector, but I knew how to behave, and I was honoring the art, expressing full admiration for what was on view. In our gallery we want to make sure we encourage everybody to enjoy the art. We’re not here just for collectors. Of course I am supported by people collecting my art, and I’m able to make a living doing this full time. But, again, just as music is for everyone, this art is for everyone. Nobody should feel like they can’t walk through a gallery door because they don’t have an arts education. And for some reason there’s still a hang up about that.”
Gallery manager Allison Liljestrom agrees, and adds that they welcome many people who might never have crossed an art gallery threshold before. Visitors come for a pocketknife and discover the art, she says. Often she and her son engage in conversations with people who are having their very first discussion about art.
“Just having people in here, and knowing they enjoy it, is a huge honor for me. Time is a valuable resource, and people are able to use their time looking at anything they want nowadays,” says Liljestrom. “They could be anywhere in town, but they’re choosing to spend time here, having contact with us. Part of their day was looking at this art, and that’s so important!”
Gazing around at his artwork, the gallery and its visitors, Liljestrom intones, “This is so exciting. This is a fairytale moment right now.”