CASPER, Wyo. — Painted Wyoming views fill the museum gallery with wide blue skies, sunsets, golden foothills, mountains, riverbanks, historic sites and back roads along the miles that artist Jim Curkendall has traveled for decades across Wyoming.
The exhibit, “Impressions of Wyoming,” features more than two dozen of his paintings on display through April 20 at Fort Caspar Museum. Curkendall has been a longtime museum volunteer and board member of the Fort Caspar Museum Association.
But Fort Caspar Museum staff recently learned he was also an artist. It turned out many of his paintings would be a natural fit for the museum, so its manager, Rick Young, invited him to show them. Many people have come to the museum just to see his show since February, he said.
“We never knew he painted, and we found out about it, and we had a spot for a traveling or a temporary exhibit,” Young said. “So we thought it would be fun to show some of his work.
Natural and historical inspiration
Curkendall moved from Colorado to Wyoming in 1965 and worked in the Wyoming Department of Administration and Information for many years as a computer systems analyst.
The Michigan native has created art since childhood. He spent three years in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve and studied art education at Adams State College in Alamosa, Colorado, before landing a scholarship to attend the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center at Colorado College. Later he went to business school in Denver and moved to Casper shortly after graduating.
He started taking art classes in the mid-1970s at Casper College with teachers he credits with helping develop his skills, including Jim Gaither, Fred Hudson and Richard Jacobi, he said.
He took anthropology classes as well, and for many years volunteered for the Wyoming Archaeological Society. He helped with excavations and surveys, including searches for the 1865 Battle of Red Buttes site. He’s continued to learn through through Casper College’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute classes in art, history and other subjects, he said.
One painting in his Fort Caspar exhibition depicts a rabbit and a skunk near one of the reconstructed buildings of the 1860s fort.
Other historical areas include a road to the outlaw hideout at Hole in-the-Wall country. Many people tell Curkendall they recognize the road when they see the painting. In impressionistic brushstrokes in another painting, he depicted a man on a tour of the area listening to a story about a shootout.
“So his brain was back in those days,” he said. “That’s what he was doing, so I captured him.”
‘These paintings will tell me what to do’
There were no interstates when Curkendall first moved to Wyoming. Instead, drivers could take in the views along highways 85 or 87, he said.
“You could drive with the windows down and hear the red-winged blackbirds along the Platte and in some of these marshes and things,” he said.
Many of his pieces feature the North Platte River, including one he painted from memory of a moonset view from his back window using only three colors in a technique known as limited palette, he said. A painting of someone fly-fishing at Morad Park is among one of several of his paintings that have won ribbons at the Central Wyoming Fair. A few of his pieces are on regular display at the Greater Wyoming Federal Credit Union where he’s a board member.
The Fort Caspar exhibit is Curkendall’s first gallery show, which is something he’d never planned, he said. Some of the paintings at his home were covered in so much dust that he didn’t recognize them.
“Because they were oil and it takes a while to dry,” he said, “So I’d just stack them up and maybe forget them.”
He made his first painting sales since his show has been on display and started reading books about the business side of art, he said.
Most of the time he paints from photographs he’s taken over the years, though a few come from memory or feature imaginary elements. A few are made up, like one of rain clouds looming over buttes in a piece inspired by scenery along the highway to Cheyenne, he said.
His paintings always have been inspired by the landscapes and history around him. But sometimes even he doesn’t know what they’ll become when he picks up a paintbrush — or what objects and creatures might turn up in his outdoor scenes. It could be a heron, an owl or he might decide to add a crystal-shaped livestock brand symbol in honor of a credit union employee who’s given him a hard time about having not signed many of his paintings before the show.
His paintings always come from some kind of feeling of a place.
“Sometimes,” he said, “these paintings will tell me what to do.”