Masterworks by Dubois’ Lesser-Known Artists

Danita Sayers bustles about the rooms of the Dennison Lodge, tacking treasures to the folding screens and carefully placing the pieces of artfully painted furniture.

“We paint on whatever we can find to paint on,” she says, as I pause to admire the portrait of a horse standing in a swale. It has greatly elevated  the status of an ordinary TV tray the artist found at the Opportunity Shop.

A giant glider, a sliding bench made from horseshoes and wagon wheels, dominates the room. It’s the creation of a 6th grader.

Danita has spent the month transporting these artworks and displaying them statewide, bringing back the honors and the ribbons that prove their worth. Of 40 pieces submitted to the State Art Symposium this year, 21 won awards.

The Governor’s wife picked 2 from our little school for the First Lady’s Choice Awards. This year, Danita told me, the Dubois school got Congressional Artistic Discovery awards in both the 2D and 3D categories, and one was for a photograph, which is rare. These will go on tour for a year, and then hang in a gallery in Cheyenne.

Now she’s putting them on display, 166 artworks chosen by herself and her pupils (except for those award winners that have been held back elsewhere), during the annual school art show.

The owner of a local curio shop is helping out, while scoping the show for items she might be able to purchase resell in her shop. In other years, Danita says, art dealers and art professors have come from far away to look for acquisitions at this show.

The annual Dubois K-12 Youth Art Show has gone on for decades. This was the first time I saw it–someone who, like most parents, once thought her own young children were truly exceptional artists. What most takes my breath away here are the works by children who are just learning to read.

Dubois has more than its fair share of top-ranked artists and photographers, but its youngest don’t get much publicity and have no commercial websites. Danita, who is the art teacher in our school, bursts with pride in her students and the passion to share how special they are.

The student who created this sculpture was blind, she tells me. Would I believe that?

This peacock was the seventh-grade artist’s first oil painting. “She doesn’t even know it’s good,” Danita says with a smile, and repeats herself.

Slowly, I come to realize why so many locals like to point out the works by their favorite school-aged artists at the national art show that comes to the Headwaters in mid-summer.

These artists are growing up in one of the most remote towns in the lower 48. Some of them go home to ranch chores after school. and think the biggest event of the year is branding the calves.  The  parents are contractors and bank clerks and restaurant owners — precious few with a strong history in the liberal arts. Their home town is a place where kids waste time on a lazy summer Sunday by tooling around the main street on their bikes doing wheelies.

Unlike my children’s classmates three decades ago in New York City, some of these artists may find the thought of even visiting a city a bit frightening. Many have ridden a horse, shot a gun, been to a rodeo, and camped out overnight, but very few if any have seen a renowned painting by a great artist in an art museum.

What they do see every day is the mountain landscape and the wildlife. Instead of visiting galleries, they go on camping trips with botanists to study wildflowers.

In the primary and middle school my children attended, a short distance from the Brooklyn Bridge, the distinctions between the tough guys, the future CEOs, and the arty kids were clearly defined.

Walking past these panels, it is clear that it’s not an issue. Everyone does art, and many do it exceedingly well.

“A lot of our best artists are ranch kids, wrestling club guys,” Danita says.  She points across the room to a landscape. “The guy who made that painting was in wrestling and football. He won a blue ribbon [for the painting], but he also excels in sports.”

My guess is he knows the terrain quite well because he probably goes hunting up there in the fall.

As Danita puts it, at this school art is not placed in a “gentle” category alone. The school mascot is a ram. Clearly they can paint them as well as they can butt helmets on the field.

© Lois Wingerson, 2019

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Skip Ewing Gets to the Heart of Dubois

The famous song writer could live anywhere. He moved here.

What’s the force behind the magnet that draws people to Dubois and holds them here?

It’s no challenge to capture part of it:  the spectacular wilderness landscape. Photographers capture that all the time, and scenes from this valley are  all over Instagram. Another pull is the history, from the tectonic collisions to Indians and cowboys and Butch Cassidy, from mountain men to homesteaders and lumberjacks.

But there’s one special pull which is nearly impossible to describe. You have to feel it for yourself. Tourists responding to a survey last year said they liked the people, and called Dubois “friendly.” A hiking buddy told me that she retired to Dubois because the people here had grabbed her and held her close.

Skip Ewing, the country singer and songwriter, calls it the “heart.” He should know, because the heart is his business, and his passion.

Skip says he felt that tug most strongly in 2004, during his benefit concert for the new medical clinic. He decided to auction off a shirt that cowboy Ty Murray was wearing when he won a rodeo championship. Skip suggested that people in the audience might pool their bids and donate the shirt to the clinic, rather than one lucky bidder taking it home for bragging rights.

rodeo shirt
Ty Murray’s shirt
hanging in the clinic.

Together, for no personal reward, people gave away $5,000 for the shirt to benefit the community. It now hangs in a frame in the clinic.

“That gave me a sense for the kind of heart, the generosity of people here,” he said. “That’s the same kind of heart Dubois had when I first came here.”

“If we can be part of that heart,” he added, “I’m about that.”

So Skip and his partner, photographer Linda Gordon, have settled down in Dubois.   They’re in a position to live anywhere in the world they want to, Skip told me. And they’re here.

Skip doesn’t throw his credentials around (which wouldn’t gain him many fans here, anyway). But they’re impressive: Five of Skip Ewing’s country love songs have placed in the top 20s on the country-music charts. In 2000, he was named Songwriter of the year by Broadcast Music Incorporated (BMI), and he’s won the Country Music Association Triple Play Award for three number 1 songs within a year.

They’re the kind of love songs that somehow grab you where it hurts a bit, like “Love, Me” and “Little Houses.” (The announcers wouldn’t credit Skip, the songwriter, of course. They’d mention the singers, names like Kenny Rogers, Willie Nelson, Conway Twitty, Merle Haggard, Kenny Chesney, and Reba McIntyre. )

I ran into Skip and Linda at the Perch coffee shop sometime around Thanksgiving. He looked vaguely familiar, and I was puzzled to see him chatting with the locals as if he knew them (which he did). I felt I ought to recognize him, but I didn’t (it’s my failing to have a poor memory for faces as well as names). Someone introduced him as Skip Ewing and, city girl though I used to be, at least I recalled his name.

Probably about a decade ago, I had heard Skip at a concert in the back room at the Rustic Pine after one of his retreats for song-writers. But I had no idea that his was the creative mind behind some of the songs I liked best, after I began listening to country music on the radio.

The workshops (he called them “Horse and Writer” retreats) brought would-be songwriters to the Lazy L&B Ranch up East Fork, which he first visited when he wanted to give his five-year-old daughter a good place to ride horses. They went on for about a decade. I never saw Skip after that one concert, but he had been coming back to Dubois, whether there were retreats or not.

Skip Ewing and Linda Gordon

As the child in a military family and then a country singer, Skip Ewing has traveled widely. Quite a while ago, he sold his home in Nashville. He and Linda had multiple homes and were traveling a lot when Linda got a job offer that made them consider settling down somewhere.

They asked themselves whether that was what they really wanted. Skip had this dream that involved horses, which he isn’t ready to talk about yet. Eventually, they decided to settle here.

Grandson of a thoroughbred rancher, Skip learned to love horses as much as he loved country music. “The more time I spend on horses, he says, “the happier I am.” He hints that horses will have an important part in the next phase of his life’s work, but for the moment he intends to use his music to help the town.

Just after I ran into Skip and Linda at the Perch, they began shooting the first of five videos about Dubois that he has posted on Facebook. They are long, leisurely conversations with people in the town.

“This is Dubois, Wyoming, my home town now. I love it here,” he opens in the first one. “I love it here!”

From Skip’s first Dubois video

He was already booked for his early December Christmas concert at the Dennison Lodge, which attracted fans from as far away as Texas, Utah, Louisiana, and California. His goal seems to be not so much self-promotion as planting firm roots in this new ground.

Skip told me that, when he first visited Dubois, he knew he’d come to the right place almost as soon as the plane landed. This brought echoes of one my Skip Ewing favorites: “You Had Me From Hello.”

“… Your smile just captured me.
You were in my future far as I could see
And I don’t know how it happened but it happens still.
You ask me if I love you, if I always will.

Well, you had me from hello…”

© Lois Wingerson, 2019

You can see new entries of Living Dubois every week if you sign up at the top of the right column at www.livingdubois.com

Escape from the Jingle Bells

The strolling tourists depart. Town is quiet, the summer houses are dark and empty, and the Thanksgiving turkey is all gone. Nighttime sets in during late afternoon.

I resign myself to the thought that the slow, sleepy period has begun. Then, with surprising speed, another busy season is upon us.

Back East in the city, it arrived like an invasive weed. At some point,  and far too soon, I’d be aware of background music with the sound of jingle bells. Before long, it was everywhere on the shopping streets. The sound made me literally agoraphobic: afraid of the market. Shoppers seemed stressed out. Carols intended to make me reverent made me want to flee.

The holidays are also busy in Dubois, but with a notably different feel. This is, after all, a town of 1,000 permanent residents with a reputation for friendliness, and about 50 nonprofit organizations, many of them devoted to charity.

My first sound of the season this year was the barely perceptible strain of classical background music in the Opportunity Shop (which raises many thousands of dollars each year, all of it given back to the community).

“Oh, yes,” I thought. “Christmas is coming.” And then quickly forgot about it.

Songwriter Skip Ewing, who used to hold workshops here and moved to town last spring, took it upon himself to open the season formally with a concert in the Dennison Lodge on December 1.

I wasn’t in the spirit at all when I bought tickets–not to celebrate the season, but to listen to Skip.

The Dennison was decked out for the event, and was packed for both performances. Here, we are waiting for him to start the first one.

Skip began by saying that he had brought us there to get us into the Christmas spirit, and warned that eventually, like it or not, we would all be singing too. After a long series of his county favorites (some of them top of the charts in their day), he segued into his new holiday songs — some silly, some sentimental, others solemn.

“In the meadow we can build a snowman,” he croons,
“and pretend he’s Santa bringing toys.
When he asks us ‘Are you naughty?’ we’ll say No, man,
’cause everybody’s nice here in Dubois.”

His last was “Silent Night.” Skip began simply and quietly, and sure enough some of us began to sing along. Gradually his voice grew softer and ours louder, until all that came through the microphone was the sound of his guitar. Then that fell away too, leaving nothing but our voices–and the spirit.

It’s the season of open houses now, at the bank, the phone company, the museums and the community centers. There’s no need to go far to find Christmas cookies.

People don’t speak of being stressed out by the shopping. We can gift shop online, of course, and the FedEx and UPS guys are visibly busy. We can find Western-themed gifts at Olsen’s, or a handmade item at the Christmas extravaganza in the Headwaters or at Anita’s shop, Wyoming Wool Works. Or we can treasure-hunt at the Opportunity Shop, which is actually fun.

The other day I sat on a stool in Superfoods wearing a silly elf’s hat and now and again ringing a little bell. At that very moment, some unlucky folks were certainly standing in front of Bed, Bath, and Beyond next door to my former office building in Manhattan, ringing their bells without a pause. In that context, it was another irritating noise of the season.

Just one particle in a floodstream of pedestrians, I used to pass by without paying them any attention at all. They rang like automatons, and looked cold and miserable. I didn’t know them or the people they helped. I supported other causes.

Superfoods graciously allows us to sit indoors next to the shopping carts. Most of the Salvation Army bell-ringers here are volunteers affiliated with other nonprofits.

This year I’m ringing on behalf of the Dubois Museum. Shoppers pass me one by one as they enter the store. I greet them all, and many are personal friends.

About half of the people drop something into the bucket on their way out, and now and again a rather large bill. I love their generosity. Almost everyone greets me again upon leaving the store. A few apologize for not contributing, or say they donated last time.  The sum of donations seems to increase every year.

As the sign beside me says, all the funds remain in Dubois. I know the person who runs Salvation Army here, and I have met some of the people that it quietly helps: Cross-country backpackers who have had a turn of bad luck in this remote location. Travelers stranded after a breakdown without enough funds for a motel. Impoverished old folks without the skills to navigate the social networks.

My favorite part of this gig, other than the obvious charitable benefit, is watching the banter and chatter that goes on in Superfoods.

“The way you mumble and with my hearing problem, we could probably start World War III,” jokes one guy.

“Let’s leave that to the oligarchs,” says the other.

Fortunately, the oligarchs are very far away. What we have is peace on this small part of the earth, and plenty of good will to go around.

© Lois Wingerson, 2018

You can see new entries of Living Dubois every week if you sign up at the top of the right column at www.livingdubois.com.


An Exhilarating Farewell to Summer

Live. Jam. Funk. Free. This looked promising.

PerfectFallDayPark“I’m so sad to see the end of summer,” friends will say, as the fields turn to gold and the air grows crisp. Not I.

The smoke has cleared. Most of the tourists are gone. The skies are blue and the days are warm.

September is the most wonderful time in Dubois, and I do not dread the end of summer. I begin to think of the brilliant beauties of winter.

Last Friday, I was musing about how so many others elsewhere would be spending their Labor Day weekends: Dressing light on account of the humid heat, getting out the suits and shovels for a trip to a beach somewhere that would deposit sticky sand in every crevice, packing food to keep the ants out of the picnic. Here in Dubois, we added another layer to the T-shirts to prepare for the cool of evening and headed off for Coyote Blue, where Alli and Noah had set out a gift for the entire town in the back yard of their coffee shop.

SneakyPetePosterThe text and look-and-feel of their poster said it all: Live. Jam. Funk. (Free.) Nothing like our usual laid-back country music band strumming away as a few old-timers shuffle around the dance floor doing the two-step. This looked promising.

We arrived right on time, which of course is not the coolest time to arrive. Sneaky Pete and the Secret Weapons were still warming up on the platform behind the coffee shop, as people slowly began to filter in across the blocked-off side street.

It brought to mind our annual block party in Brooklyn, one of the few things I miss about the city I’ve left behind. There’s something special about reveling to music outdoors on the street with your neighbors, who aren’t the people you usually choose to get down with on a weekend evening. You never know who will turn up. It felt like that.

We nursed our beers and watched the band or gazed across the highway at the foothills of Whiskey Basin, talking about not much as the shadows lengthened. Small children were chasing each other around on the lawn behind the building. Parents felt no urgent need to be vigilant.

EarlyCrowdAllie and Noah were briskly selling brisket from a food van at the back, which quickly ran out — but nobody seemed to care. There was plenty of the crucial element: beer.

Somehow the funky jazz enhanced our wistful sense of general goodwill as we savored the slow decline of a beautiful thing–the day, the summer, the season.

Then the sun went down, and the feeling changed. Many older folks got chilly and went home. Many younger ones finished their workdays or the left the bar and dropped by to check out the scene. The canopy of strip lights went on. And as it got darker, the band got hotter.

Eventually, almost nobody could resist the growling bass line and the beat. This band was really remarkably good. The dance floor filled to capacity and spilled over onto the gravel and the lawn. It seemed that every body–young, old, inbetween, or small enough to carry–was literally moved by the music.

Dancing1For a brief few hours, we all shared a remarkable sense widespread exhilaration. This is not something I’ve experienced before in Dubois. I may witness others’ joy in beauty, often a sense of relaxation or the peace of rest after hard work, the pleasure of a good, hard hike–but never anything quite like this. Not here.

For all that everyone did a year ago to make an even bigger thing of the total eclipse in our tiny town, this event was more memorable. Alli told me that she and Noah decided to create the evening simply to celebrate the end of a summer of hard work. She added that they intend to do it again next year.

I heard others that evening express my feeling that we must find ways to offer more small free outdoor dance events that bring out all ages and all tastes, and give us us a chance to enjoy a collective sense of good-natured abandon. The few tourists who stopped by seemed to have a good time also.

The Irish poet Seamus O’Sullivan captured the feeling:

A piper in the streets today
Set up, and tuned, and started to play,
And away, away, away on the tide
Of his music we started; on every side
Doors and windows were opened wide,
And men left down their work and came,
And women with petticoats coloured like flame.
And little bare feet that were blue with cold,
Went dancing back to the age of gold,
And all the world went gay, went gay,
For half an hour in the street today.

The tide of the music. Let’s find a way to do this again. And often. Please.

© Lois Wingerson, 2018
You can see new entries of Living Dubois every week if you sign up at the top of the right column at www.livingdubois.com.

On Quilts, and the Respect They Deserve

Why it isn’t enough to call them art.

IMG_1367Entering the annual quilt show at the Headwaters, I used to pick up my ballot and dutifully try to choose my favorite. But I’ve given up on that.

Decide which I find to be most lovely or finely crafted? It’s impossible. Besides, who am I to judge?

The show crowds the large room at the Headwaters with masterworks of stitchery —  an overwhelming display of artistry and skill.

IMG_1362 (1)The sponsors of the show, and creators of many of the quilts, are the good women of the Never Sweat Quilt Guild. Making one probably doesn’t entail sweat, but it is certainly labor.

It requires a special space, a large collection of fabric, many special threads, and a special kind of creativity and discernment. Not to mention lots and lots of time.

I’ve spoken to some quilters who were actually afraid to start.

I file my digital pictures of quilts in the folder on my laptop named “Art.” From my first visit to the show, when I saw the magnificent display of quilts by artist Mackie d’Arge and her mother, I considered these creations to be works of art, and thus well deserving of the price tags (on those available for purchase).

But I’ve recently decided that art isn’t really what we’re buying in a quilt — nor is it all of their value. Like many quilters, Mackie and her mother created them largely for the pleasure of working together, not in order to make a few extra bucks.

BlueTorontoQuiltMy husband bought this simple blue patchwork as a gift for me during our first year of marriage, knowing I wanted a quilt. It’s faded and rumpled, and the edges are frayed. I believe he paid $10 for it.

For years I used it casually, until I noticed the meticulous, even parallelograms hand-stitched across the machine-joined patchwork. Someone actually put a lot of effort into it. Now I treat it with more respect.

Quilt_BlanketsThe quilt on the guest bed came from a tag sale at our former church in Brooklyn, where I was working as a setup volunteer and therefore entitled to purchase items ahead of the sale. I had wanted a larger, finer quilt for our guest bed in Dubois.

“What do you think this is worth?” I asked the woman in charge.

She shrugged. “Oh, I don’t know. Ten dollars?”

Umbrella Girls QuiltSome years later, a friend of mine who is a quilter pointed out what I and my fellow parishioner never noticed in our ignorance: It is entirely hand-stitched. (I sent a substantial additional donation to the Brooklyn church.)

I used to think that the simple blue patchwork quilt was the first one I ever owned. I had completely forgotten about these little girls, who sat folded and zipped inside a plastic bag in my linen closet in Brooklyn all the years we lived there. I found the quilt again when we packed to move to Wyoming.

My grandmother, and heaven knows how many friends in her small Mennonite village, pieced it together, and she gave it to my parents when I was born. Of course it later came down to me, being mine in the first place.

After hanging this charming quilt in our Dubois house, I began to view the two blue quilts in my guest room differently. They aren’t just bed coverings. They are stories to me now. And I wonder about the other stories behind them that I will never know.

IMG_1361At the quilt show, I’ve begun to inquire about some of the quilts that are marked “NFS” (not for sale). Are they being reserved for someone in particular?

There is value in the skill and the artistry of a quilt, indeed. But what the buyer also gains is a piece of history, often unknown, and a semblance of family devotion. That was what I wanted as a young bride — not realizing I already had it.

What’s in the beauty of a quilt? I think of Carol, working out her grief by making quilts from her late husband’s shirts. Or of Helen, who makes a different one for each of her grandchildren, piecing together her joy. And of my own grandmother, patiently stitching away as she hoped for me.

© Lois Wingerson, 2018
You can see new entries of Living Dubois every week if you sign up at the top of the right column at www.livingdubois.com.

Of Music, Longing, and Mysteries

Nostalgia for things never experienced?

StameyCowboys roping in baseball caps, and empty spaces on McNally Maps. Dry creeks and history on the page. Sycamores and prickly pear. Barrel racers with great big hair. Horses swishing flies out in the sun.

Those aren’t my words. They’re Dave Stamey’s words.

It seems like the whole town has come out to hear the cowboy songwriter, and not just because it’s the best thing going on right now. Nearly every seat in the big room at the Headwaters Center is taken. He has us in the palm of his hand.

“It’s a place, it’s a feelin’ and sometimes it’s just a state of mind. It may not be what you were lookin’ for, but it’s here in what you find. And it’s all these things. It’s the West.”

I get just a bit choked up at that, and I’ve only been here for 10 years, for crying out loud. The words and the music reach down somewhere to grab at me the way a good song can.  Somehow I feel a longing for something that I haven’t yet lost. In fact, I’ve barely begun to experience it.

Stamey takes a pause to take several jabs at a popular old song, “Riding Down the Canyon” by Smiley Burnett, which has featured in Western films and in recordings by many famous country singers. He recites a few of those lyrics.

“When evening chores are over at our ranch house on the plain, and all I’ve got to do is lay around,” he quotes. “Well, I don’t know where that ranch is, but when evening chores were finally over at our ranch, the very last thing you’d want to do is saddle up and ride down a canyon to watch the sunset.”

There’s a knowing chuckle from the audience, and I join in — not that I’ve ever done a single chore at a ranch. My only experience at ranches was as a dude, where I relaxed while others did the chores. To folks at their radios or in movie theater seats, the song  evoked a longing for a laid-back, heavenly way of life that didn’t actually exist.

DadatPiano“These songs were not written by cowboys,” Stamey adds. “These songs were written by little bald men at their pianos back in New York.”

Well, I do know a thing or two about that. My Dad was once a guy at a piano in New York.

There he met my mother, a lovely young classical singer trying to make her way in the big city, having grown up on a farm in Nebraska. She would have enjoyed Dave Stamey.

When they met, Dad was making his living by working for a Broadway composer (who probably was a little bald man with a piano). As time went on, Dad wrote many fine songs of his own, although they weren’t cowboy songs. He had sense enough not to write about what he didn’t know.

They include this one, ironically called “City Longing,” which is actually about longing to leave the city. The frenzied, self-promoting feel of New York disenchanted my soon-to-be parents, and they left to teach at colleges in the Midwest.

FiddleMando_editedI’ve always found it ironic that New York is where I ended up spending most of my life. Being the only child of two classical musicians, of course I grew up loving that kind of music. I learned several instruments. I used to play in string quartets and orchestras.

That is one of the very few things I miss about New York. In a small way, I do long for it. Watching an orchestra performance now is a sort of bittersweet torture. Nonetheless I crave it. So I impose it on myself, when I can.

A few days ago, I took a lovely ride over Togwotee Pass to Teton Village near Jackson, to watch the dress rehearsal of Mahler’s 3rd Symphony at the Grand Teton Music Festival.

Musicians crowded the stage: 9 string basses, 10 violas. Two sets of tympani. Lost in nostalgia, while I listened I watched them at work and relived it all: the feel of the tremolo on the string, the sound of counting bars inside my head, the sense of eyes flicking up to the conductor over the top of my glasses.

This kind of nostalgia I can explain. Other feelings puzzle me.

TableMountain3

When Mahler wrote his third symphony, he  was living in his mountain retreat in Austria. He used to go there in the summer to escape the pressures of his daily work life. We lived in Germany for a few years, so I speak both his language and his language of music. And now I live in the mountains, having retreated here from the pressures of our daily working life in the city.

In the third symphony, Mahler said, “the whole of nature finds a voice.” He described the final passages as “the peak, the highest level from which one can view the world.”

In Mahler’s music, I felt I could hear him speaking from the grave. He wrote pictures in sound: deep, rich, and complex–sometimes ominous and foreboding, at other times whimsical or light-hearted, with the strains of forest birds and distant trumpets. Sometimes he launched into the bouncing chords of a Tyrolean oompah band.

In my work as a science writer, I learned that neuroscientists have found that music touches the same nerves in your brain (I’d rather say “strings in your heart”) that trigger deep emotion.

It’s one of those things that scientists find out which you sort of knew all along.

MahlerI truly don’t miss living in Germany at all, but (as for many people who admire Mahler) the music overwhelmed me with feeling. He swept me back to Germany and into the mountain woodlands, leaving me with a feeling that I had experienced and gained something profound. (But what?)

A few days earlier, alone on the stage strumming on one guitar, Dave Stamey had evoked the feel of the entire American West with a few simple words and quiet melodies. And he had demonstrated how music can also evoke a longing for experiences that people haven’t even experienced.

No doubt a musicologist could parse way these two different musical languages differ in their grammar. But that wouldn’t explain how they can speak so distinctly inside my one little brain, somehow triggering those little hairs inside my ears to play on my neurons in ways that can summon up two entire worlds, separated by years of time and thousands of miles.

I might start pondering that again next time I look up at the stars or out over the valley. But of course I won’t ever figure it out.

© Lois Wingerson, 2018
You can see new entries of Living Dubois every week if you sign up at the top of the right column at www.livingdubois.com.

Of Dubois, New York, and Hollywood

One up-side of remoteness: The high cost of production.

IMG_0140Back when I first lived in New York City, it really used to trouble me that there was so much violence in films set in my home town. But as time went by, I stopped caring about that.

In decades of living there, I never personally witnessed gun play or other violence (setting aside 9/11, of course). The French Connection was released way back in 1971, the same year I fell in love with my husband and his home town. Starting then, I grew accustomed to ignoring the bad rap about violence and crime that frightens so many tourists about New York. So what? I know better.

These days, I really enjoy watching films set in New York. It’s fun to recognize the intersection the cops are running through or the exact spot where the lovers are kissing. I enjoy trying to figure out whether the housing project on the screen is in the Bronx or on the Lower East Side. For absolutely nothing, I can get a free trip back to the city.

A few days ago, trolling around Netflix, I gave a little gasp. “There’s Wind River,” I said, seeing the icon for a film I always wanted to watch but never ran across in a cinema. (Well, I don’t “run across” films in a cinema any more. I have to travel an hour and a half to visit one. With Netflix, YouTube, and TCM, why bother?)

100_0141 (1)

I vaguely recalled someone telling me not to bother with that film. But there I sat in front of the TV. Why not?

It was off to an interesting start, with a woman’s voice reciting a poem as what seems to be a Native American woman runs across the snow. But the fact that the film is set in our beautiful valley in the dead of winter, always with whistling winds and deep snow, should have tipped me off: This was not going to end well.

The scenes are a snowmobilers’ dream, because our protagonists in law enforcement get to sled everywhere at high speed, passing spectacular stands of evergreens. They remind me of the footage our winter visitors like to put on YouTube after their trips to Togwotee Pass.

But the plot entirely robs the landscape of its beauty. A story of brutality against women by ignorant drunken men (not drunken Native Americans, I hasten to add), it ends in a shootout with high-powered weapons. The cinematographer revels in the contrast of the bloodbath against the pure white snow.

100_0724“So much for the image of our valley,” said my husband as the film ended.

This isn’t actually our valley, because the film was set down-county in the reservation. But the river that runs through our town has the same name, and if you Google “Wind River” today the top results, of course, link to pages about the film.

As to our town of Dubois, my son (who still lives in New York) commented in a recent visit that the village looks like a movie set. True West magazine endorses that view, having given Dubois its 2018 award for the best architecturally preserved Western town.

HonorGuardBut the only film ever set in Dubois wasn’t a “Western,” and it wasn’t actually filmed here. I’m gratified to say that Taking Chance, starring Kevin Bacon, was the deeply affecting true story of the return of a fallen Iraq soldier to Dubois and his burial in our local cemetery.

This image is not from the film. It’s an actual honor guard at the actual Dubois cemetery, on Veterans Day. Even though locals including Chance Phelps’ family worked hard to bring production here, the Western scenes were filmed in Montana.

The business incentives in Wyoming weren’t as good as elsewhere. But also, the costs of bringing the production to this remote area were too high to be practical.

This used to trouble me, but as time goes by, I have changed my view. Dubois was extraordinarily fortunate that the one film to feature it gave an accurately positive image of its character–even though the images didn’t actually show our town or our landscape. But it may be a blessing that it is a challenge to bring film producers here.

There are many reasons to value our remoteness in this valley. That it discourages the media that might send the wrong message about us is one of them.

© Lois Wingerson, 2018
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