Void of foothills and jutting to the sky, the Tetons have long inspired artists from around the world, challenging their skills with brush or pen to render a likeness that captures the essence of the famous mountain range.
Kathryn Turner, who grew up on the Triangle X Ranch near Jackson, can’t remember a time the Tetons didn’t inform her art.
“Being born on the ranch was the most influential thing about me becoming an artist,” she said. “The mountains have a spell on me. They are always calling to me and my paintings are an answer to that call.”
Turner isn’t the only one. A new show opening today at the National Museum of Wildlife Art near Jackson features work depicting the Tetons. “Grand Teton National Park in Art,” will hang through Sept. 9.
The mountains’ influence on western art goes back to 1879 when Thomas Moran first rendered their likeness in paint and wrote in a journal, “The Tetons have loomed up grandly against the sky. From this point it is perhaps the finest pictorial range in the United States or even [North] America.”
The exhibition includes four Thomas Moran watercolors of the Tetons from 1879 normally held in storage, and two of his paintings of Mount Moran from private collections rarely shown publicly.
For decades people couldn’t easily access the Teton area. But after World War II when people started traveling the country by car, painting in the park took off, said Adam Harris, the Petersen curator of art at the museum. “From the time people first started seeing them, they were just struck by how dramatic and perfect they were as a mountain range,” he said. “If you were going to sit down and draw a mountain range, you’d draw peaks like we have.”
Work inspired by the Tetons drew more artists and tourists to the park. Turner sometimes jokes there are sirens in the mountains.
“And anyone who sees them is never quite the same.”
She’s painted the peaks her entire life and still finds them an inspiring and challenging subject. The Tetons are constantly changing.
“This morning I woke up and the fog had obliterated the mountains. Now they are peeking out from behind the clouds in the most coy way, almost coquettish,” she said. “Sometimes they are sort of heroic. Sometimes they are bashful and sometimes they are romantic. They really are sort of a universe in and of themselves.”
Turner watches the mountains change throughout the day with the light and weather. They are dynamic. She notices subtle differences in only a few moments. Every angle from which she watches them presents something different in their architecture she might not have noticed before.
“That’s why I never tire of them,” she said.
Turner’s work hangs alongside Moran’s, as well as other artists, such as Conrad Schwiering, Jim Wilcox, Tucker Smith and Travis Walker.
Harris consciously chose artists with different styles, so that while the subject matter is the same, the exhibit is diverse. There are an infinite number of ways to capture the Tetons, a reason why artists like Turner keep returning to the mountains for inspiration.
“Travis Walker has a much different style than Thomas Moran,” Harris said. Walker is a contemporary artist whose work often captures Jackson scenes away from the Tetons, or where the famous range is simply part of a backdrop, while Moran’s work is that of a classic landscape painter with the mountains front and center.
Anne Coe creates whimsical paintings, like the one of ravens interrupting bears picnicking along the Oxbow Bend of the Snake River, which will hang in the show.
For Turner, the show is a reminder of the importance of the national park system and protecting pristine places.
“Because America chose to create these parks, we can create very specific art related to them that other parts of the world have lost,” she said. “Our art can still be about wilderness and wildness.”
“Grand Teton National Park in Art,” officially opens at the museum today. Along with the paintings, there is a time-lapse video of Turner painting en plein air in the park, showing the landscape that inspired her work, and also the evolution of her canvas.
The exhibition is one of three the museum is hosting this summer in honor of the National Park Service’s Centennial. On May 21 it opens “Yellowstone National Park Through the Lens of Time,” featuring images taken by William Henry Jackson in 1871 and Bradly Boner who re-photographed the same scenes more than 140 years later. “Yosemite 1938: On the Trail with Ansel Adams and Georgia O’Keefe,” opens June 10. The three exhibits will overlap for part of the summer.