Story update, June 23, 2020: Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Jackson Hole Historical Society and Museum will keep the show open through October 2020. The museum, which is open for appointments, plans to release an online version of the exhibit this summer.
It’s been a significant couple years for women. Between the historical “Year of the Woman” elections in 2018, the 150th anniversary of women’s suffrage in Wyoming in December and the centennial of both the first-in-the-nation all-female town council in Jackson Hole as well as women winning the right to vote nationally, The Jackson Hole Historical Society and Museum was inspired to get creative.
“Mountains to Manuscripts: Women’s Writing in Wyoming, 1900-1950,” an exhibit showing at the museum through April 4, is the result of that inspiration. The exhibit focuses on four women writers influenced by Wyoming: the visitor, the resident, the storyteller and the naturalist.
“We thought it was a good time to fill in the historical record and highlight some overlooked accomplishments of women,” said the museum’s communication director, Kirstin Corbett. “We focused on that period because it was a time when women’s voices weren’t normally heard.”
Museum staff knew they wanted to portray an aspect of Jackson Hole’s history through the written word, said Museum Director Morgan Jaouen. “What better way to get a sense of the past than through the words of those living at that time?” she asked.
The museum partnered with Christy Smirl of Foxtail Books & Library Services in Jackson, who curated the show. Smirl selected four books that became the anchor of the exhibit and the story of how women experienced life in the valley around the turn of the 20th century.
The show goes beyond just displaying the books, however. The museum also invited Jackson Hole artist Katy Ann Fox to create original paintings of the Wyoming landscapes that inspired the writers’ stories. Fox’s palettes for the four oil paintings that resulted successfully depict the pastels of the Wyoming prairie and shades of wide blue sky in each of the four seasons.
“The stories of each of these four artists reflect heavily on the climate and demonstrate that the weather, then as it still is now, is an important part of our lives. We live so close to nature here,” Fox said.
Fox visited the Wyoming locations that she and Smirl selected based on descriptions in the authors’ books, Corbett said. The paintings add depth, color and beauty to the exhibit and a bit of a contemporary feel. “I think the visual images help us all relate to the historical stories,” Fox said.
Fox puts Elinore Stewart, “The Resident” — and the author of “Letters of A Woman Homesteader” — on a red stool milking a cow on a summer day in front of her homestead cabin.
Stewart’s writing places the homestead in Burnt Fork, Wyoming, 60 miles from the Utah border in southwest Wyoming. It was from that setting in 1909-1913 that she penned the letters that comprise her book, describing in light-hearted style both the grueling work and small joys of homesteading.
“I have done most of my cooking at night, have milked seven cows every day, and have done all the hay-cutting, so you see I have been working. But I have found time to put up thirty pints of jelly and the same amount of jam for myself. I used wild fruits, gooseberries, currants, raspberries, and cherries. I have almost two gallons of the cherry butter, and I think it is delicious. I wish I could get some of it to you, I am sure you would like it,” Stewart writes to a penpal in September of 1909.
The painting is a straightforward portrait, full of detail, with a wide-open prairie behind and emptiness spanning to low mountains on the horizon. Behind Stewart, Fox layers on the oils for rich texture and transitions to a looser style.
The lovely palette, loose style and rich textures are again evident in the winter landscape that Fox composed for the work of Katharine Newlin Burt, “The Storyteller.” An exhibit quote pulled from Burt’s novel, “The Branding Iron,” is almost enough to make a reader shiver.
“There is no silence so fearful, so breathless, so searching as the night silence of wild country buried five feet deep in snow. For thirty miles or so, north, south, east and west of the small, half-buried speck of gold in Pierre Landis’s cabin window, there lay, on a certain December night, this silence, bathed in moonlight.”
Burt wrote 30 novels in her life. For many years, she also operated the Bar BC Dude Ranch in what is today Grand Teton National Park with her husband Burt. “The Branding Iron,” published in 1919, is one of her earliest novels. It describes domestic life and strife in a Western frontier outpost.
Grace Gallatin Seton-Thompson, “The Visitor,” was an early travel writer. Her book, “A Woman Tenderfoot,” published in 1900, describes “roughing it” in the Teton range and other parts of the Rocky Mountains.
The exhibit text explains that the earliest tourists to Jackson Hole were wealthy hunting parties from the East Coast, accustomed to the luxuries of European vacations. Seton-Thompson describes how “roughing it” pays off in the “charm of the glorious freedom, the quick rushing of blood, the bounding motion, of the wild joy of the living and doing.
“Though I am still a woman and may be tender, I am a Woman Tenderfoot no longer,” she writes.
Fox’s painting of “The Visitor” conveys, unsurprisingly, spring. Snow lies on the distant mountains, while sagebrush fills the canvas in hues of green, mustard, purple and gold.
The fourth author, Sally Carrighar, “The Naturalist,” was a nature writer before it became a trend in American nonfiction. “One Day at Teton Marsh” depicts her observations. She wrote books “about the creatures she encountered in one specific, wild location, making wildlife biology accessible and interesting to any reader, according to the exhibit.
Fox’s autumn landscape is a little tighter in style — clearly inspired by Carrighar’s writing pulled for the exhibit. “And then the peaks along the Teton crest were white, as freshly bright as if the shine of the blue September sky had crystallized upon them.”
The selected four books are also included in the exhibit. The style and graphics of the book covers convey a time past. The cover of “A Woman Tenderfoot” is in itself a work of art. The texture of the creamy linen cover compels one to touch. I wanted to trace with my fingers the shiny gold type of the title, which is embedded in a black cloud with a golden moon shining from behind.
The exhibit concludes with a statement by the curator that puts the accomplishments of these women authors in historical perspective.
“History is built on the written word, making books invaluable to the historian, but publishing has always been expensive and exclusive. Most voices in print before 1950 were those of white men. While publishing has become more accessible in the decades since, it continues to be limited and discriminatory in its perspective on life in the West.”
Studio Wyoming Review is supported in part by generous grants from the Wyoming Cultural Trust Fund, a program of the Wyoming Department of State Parks and Cultural Resources and the Wyoming Arts Council with funding from the Wyoming State Legislature and the National Endowment for the Arts.