Book Review: Brushstrokes and Balladeers

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Brushstrokes and Balladeers is the first volume of a two-volume set compiled by C.J. Hadley and published by the Range Conservation Foundation and Range magazine. The second volume is Reflections of the West and both books cover the same territory, a compilation of poets and painters associated with the American West. And that covers a lot of ground, you should pardon the expression, in every way you can think of. I will write about both volumes as the single set they are.

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The artists C.J. Hadley has selected range from familiar old masters of the American West, such as Remington, Russell, and Dixon to modern masters most of whom, thank God, are still very much with us today: think Tom Quinn, William Matthews, Karen Myers, Tom Browning, Jason Rich, Nancy Boren, the recently deceased Bill Owen, Don Weller, S.C Mummert… I’m tempted to go on, because there are so many fine artists represented here, but instead I will just say that Hadley’s choices wisely cover all aspects of that vast and varied area that runs from the high central plains to the Pacific, and from Mexico to Canada, the area that is home to a lifestyle that is the best part of America. Most of the paintings show glimpses of cowboy and ranching life, from the iconic (gathering cattle in all kinds of terrain and all kinds of weather; a tired cowboy and his horse both drinking from a stock tank; mending fence) to smaller and more intimate moments of the same lifestyle (a cowboy whose eyes and mind may be focused elsewhere, but whose hand is absently stroking the ears of the dog who makes his job possible; a group of ranchers sharing memories and gossip over coffee at the counter of their local breakfast joint) but there are also portraits of men and women, cattle and horses, as well as the exquisite portraits of wildlife captured by Tom Quinn’s extraordinary brush. And through it all, dominating it all, is the magnificent, breathtaking, unforgiving landscape of that part of America many of us are so proud and happy to call home.

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And while these volumes are intended as a celebration of the American West, Hadley has wisely expanded her choice of poets to include some who captured part of what our West means even as they lived in other places and other times. The great Persian poet, Omar Khayyám never even dreamed of America a thousand years ago, but he managed to express some of what we find here today. Andrew “Banjo” Patterson never set foot in America, as far as I know, yet some of his famous poems sing of the cowboy experience as evocatively as if he had been born and bred pushing cattle out of arroyos filled with prickly pear.

There are some famous names here, men and women who are well known as cowboy poets (Red Steagall, Baxter Black, Wally McRae, Waddie Mitchell) and there are also some names that might surprise you (Wendell Berry, Robert Frost, Pulitzer Prize winner and United States Poet Laureate Ted Kooser), but it is the new poets—new at least to me—that really caught me by surprise. I had never heard of Bill Jones, but his Five Days Home affected me like a punch in the stomach. I had never heard of Joel Nelson, even though he lives in my favorite part of Texas and has been awarded a National Heritage Fellowship, but his The Breaker in the Pen is the only cowboy recording ever to be nominated for a Grammy. I had never heard of Wyoming Poet Laureate Patricia Frolander, but her Married Into It captures two entire lifetimes in forty-eight lines. I had never heard of a dozen others, award winners, Hall of Fame inductees, poets laureate past and present, men and women hailed by the Smithsonian, NPR, PBS, and—more importantly—by a public better educated than I.

And that’s the point of buying anthologies like these: these paintings and poems will give you insight into a world most people only think they know from movies, and they will give you infinite pleasure, reading or looking.

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