During my trip to Arizona last month, I spent a good deal of time visiting several “Western” museums, looking for something…a connection I suppose, with the west—past and present. I didn’t have a particular goal in mind, except to enjoy an afternoon of art as I immersed myself in the western way of life. It turned out to be a field trip for the girls.
One of the museums on my “must visit” list was Wickenburg’s Desert Caballero Museum. Each year they hold an event entitled: “Cowgirl Up”. The exhibit features women artists from all over the country showcasing their work that, as you might expect, features a uniquely female POV of the western culture.
As I toured the amazing museum, Cheyenne wasn’t far from my mind. She arrives in Dry Creek as a clueless city girl who sees the land as something to be rid of, and the western life as something to endure. As I moved through the exhibit, I came to see that Cheyenne doesn’t simply make the house her own because she loves it (and Reed and River), but because she makes a spiritual connection to it. She comes to understand and appreciate the beauty of the land and the lifestyle which provides a balance in her life that she lacked before. This revelation came as a bit of a surprise to me. Had I skipped the museum, I’m not sure I would have come to that particular idea on my own. Touring Monument Valley was extremely helpful and a spiritual experience in its own right, but there was something about seeing the west through the eyes of these wonderful women artists that will allow me to realistically infuse Cheyenne with a deep sense of appreciation and love for her land.
Which brings me to the Scottsdale Museum of the West. I visited the museum three days after it opened, and being new, apparently the crowds hadn’t found it yet. I had the place to myself and took a leisurely and thought-provoking tour of the galleries. One particular gallery: The Inspirational Journey: The Story of Lewis & Clark, caught my imagination but not for the reason you might think.
It wasn’t the subject matter I found most intriguing, but the process and pain that painter, Charles Fritz endured to ensure that he accurately portrayed the Lewis & Clark story. He read the journals left behind by the explorers, but instead of using the words for artistic inspiration, he used the journals to guide him as he retraced their steps. Not only that, he segmented the journey so that each leg coincided with the time of year (and the exact day when possible) the explorers reached each point. In other words, Fritz:
“…interpretes the landscape as he finds it, painting it true to the conditions, atmosphere, and characteristics of the location on that particular day. For him, each place is imbued with its own spirit and atmosphere. Working on locations and directly from life he persistently pursues this objective, producing paintings that, like their subjects, each having an inherent uniqueness.( http://charlesfritz.com/about.php)
This blurb brings me to the advice: “write what you know”. Most of us have fairly routine lives that would bore the pants off of our audience if we stuck to just what we knew. To hold the reader, we must create an entertaining world that provides a means of escape, if only for a little while. That means researching different times in history, cultures, locations, and so on, but for me it also means recreating a feeling that a particular place or experience evokes. Books and first-hand accounts are good methods of researching what I don’t know about say, electricity, but to convey a feeling, I find I must experience it myself. Interestingly, I’m finding art a satisfactory stand-in for experience (in some cases) for evoking emotions or feelings.
How do you approach research? In your view, is first hand experience necessary? How do you decide what can be researched through traditional means and what must be experienced?