Out West

The Essential West

Charles Russell artwork

All cultures evolve with new generations, and the American West is no exception.

Charles Russell artwork

The American West is more than a region. For many it’s a way of life that is synonymous with America—a root-based culture, if you will. But like anything that will evolve, it needs care and looking after.

Recently, I re-read a passage from Tom McGuane’s foreword to photographer William Albert Allard’s glorious 1982 book, Vanishing Breed. In it, McGuane wrote, “The West vanished for the Indian and the drovers; it vanished for the cowboy. Simultaneously it reappeared in all the same places, and in movies and rodeos. It’s like fire. Hollywood, calf tables and depreciation schedules can’t kill it.”

The book, as Allard describes it, is a “love affair with a place and its people. It’s a photographic tribute to the cowboy and the West—subjects we all love here.” When I thought of what has happened in western culture since that book was published, to quote a line from the classic cowboy song “Home on The Range,” I stood there amazed. Allard’s volume came on the scene in the early 1980s when so many iconic cultural moments were taking place in the cowboy world, such as Kurt Markus’ and Jay Dusard’s books, Ian Tyson’s albums, cowboy poetry festivals, gear shows and a strong reemergence of the vaquero culture and the California school of horsemanship. The revolution had started and this time, it would be televised.

Today, the culture remains strong and continues to evolve as it responds to new generations that will mold it into what suits their current vision of the region and its cultural importance, sneaking backwards looks to remember the romantic parts of the past, whether true or not. In the 1950s, Western-themed museums started emerging as places of solace and melancholy for those who remembered and respected that romantic West of Russell, Remington and others. Family collections of art, sculpture and ephemera were donated or acquired by a growing number of these institutions to protect and celebrate those who came before and pioneered a fenceless West.

Lest we forget.

Famed Montana artist Charles Russell saw the importance of the romantic vision of the West as a catalyst for future generations to be inspired by the region and its legacy. “Cinch your saddle on romance,” he wrote in a 1919 letter—taking liberties with his spelling—to his friend Frank Linderman, “He’s a high headed hoss with plenty of blemishes but keep him moovin an theres fiew that can call the leg he limps on, and most folks like prancers.” Print the legend.

Charles Russell understood the importance of depicting the American West

The West is an enduring part of our American DNA, whether one lives in it or simply understands its sense of place for those who do.  Russell’s book of stories, Trails Plowed Under, posthumously published a year after his death in 1927, continues to inspire and entertain.

“Nostalgia colored Russell’s writing as it colored his art,” wrote Russell scholar Brian Dippie in a recent edition’s introduction. But Russell’s romantic remembrances, whether in words or painting or sculpture, were intended to be more than simple memories of times and places past. They were benchmarks of moments within a culture that Russell, as many that came after him, are driven to depict and celebrate as being generationally inspirational.

Russell’s book, his art and the creative works of so many others within the genre (including Western Horseman) have been and continue to be created by a driving passion that the West is more than a place. More than a painting. More than a book or a movie or a poem or a saddle or a pair of silver spurs. It is an invitation to try and build a life and a “better” West, to see what is just over that rise, to be the best one can be, to discover what is possible and to pursue it. That is the essential West.

Writer Wallace Stegner may have put it best, writing in his book, The Sound of Mountain Water, The Changing American West, “One cannot be pessimistic about the West. It is the native home of hope.”

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