"Visions of the Big Sky: Painting and Photographing the Northern Rocky Mountain West"
University of Oklahoma Press
Dan Flores' "Visions of the Big Sky: Painting and Photographing the Northern Rocky Mountain West" begins with a premise so elegantly simple that it prompts wonderment that so few authors have addressed it: Why have some regions become known for visual art while literary or musical arts flourish in others? Specifically, he asks, why so many writers in Montana?
To his credit, Flores — a historian rather than artist or art historian — takes an open-minded look around and realizes that there is more here than great writers. Montana is rich in visual artists and has been for generations. Why, then, is the northern Rocky Mountain region not identified by this glittering triumph to the same degree that, say, the Southwest is?
It is from this wellspring of regional pride and, frankly, bewilderment over a curious circumstance that Flores begins. He gives us a volume that is unique in the literature, and thoughtful and personal in its reflections. His viewpoint has the freshness that often results when thinkers cross disciplinary boundaries.
This engaging, highly readable book, a High Plains Book Award finalist in the art and photography category, is organized into chapters, each pivoting on a single important artist's responses to Montana and its environs, from painters George Catlin to Maynard Dixon and from photographers William Henry Jackson to Ansel Adams. The illustrations are well chosen if not plentiful. Flores establishes a premise for each chapter. As his arguments develop, each chapter contributes to his theories about the nature of Montana's aesthetic traditions and how we came to be rich in assets that too often escape wider notice. His argument begins — symbolically — with Lewis & Clark's team, which did not include a professional artist (unlike later government expeditions). From there, Flores fruitfully develops the themes of wilderness and its aesthetic legacy as well as the theme of what he terms the "charismatic wild animal." Both ideas are developed convincingly as part of what distinguishes Montana's artistic identity relative to other regions.
Art draws upon every sort of life experience and is more often than not "about" something more than just itself. Thus it's easy to be drawn into discussions of art that have nothing to do with critical analysis, centering instead on subject matter, artists' biographies, or art movements that arise to pursue goals that are not aesthetic (nationalist, for example). Many books about the art of the American West do just this, offering little aesthetic critique and still less discrimination with regard to artistic quality. Flores rises above this tendency to give us a study that combines the historic and biographical facts with reflections on how the first-rate artists he discusses related to the art movements of their times. He humanizes his topic beautifully and describes well the challenges that artists faced in the northern Rockies.
We hope that one day soon Flores will write a companion volume that brings the discussion into the present, asking recent generations of artists "why here?" and helping to craft an understanding of the aesthetic character of this region as it continues to evolve.
Robyn G. Peterson has been executive director at the Yellowstone Art Museum since 2006. Previously, she held curatorial and administrative positions at Turtle Bay Exploration Park in Redding, Calif., and at the Rockwell Museum in Corning, N.Y., where she pursued special interests in vintage photography, ecological art and the art of the American West.