SHERIDAN, Wyo. — At the end of a red dirt road, between Ucross and Banner, lies Jentel, a unique juxtaposition of an artist residency program with a working cattle ranch.
Surrounded by hills topped with sage and sweeping views of the Bighorn Mountains, Jentel offers a stimulating yet relaxing environment to four visual artists and two writers each month.
Each artist is assigned a studio; the visual artists work in airy rooms with gleaming white walls and high ceilings in a renovated barn, while the writers’ studios, located in a small log cabin, are cozy, warm spaces, complete with a welcoming armchair in front of a crackling fireplace.
Each morning, the residents commute the 20 yards to their respective studios from their shared home, a large, colorful and eclectically decorated house, a mix of the antique and modern that Mary Jane Edwards, executive director of Jentel, describes as “Neltje-ized.”
Neltje, the local abstract artist known for having rescued the Sheridan Inn in 1967, founded Jentel (an anagram of her name) in 2001 with the aim of creating the ideal artist residency program that she would want to attend.
She will occasionally pop by the residents’ house, not far from her own home, for a cup of coffee or a Scrabble match.
Neltje remains the sole benefactor of the Jentel Foundation.
“It’s a very generous gift of time and space,” said Edwards, who describes Jentel as “a safe place where you can make (artistic) decisions that are not safe.”
“I for one can’t believe I’ve been given this opportunity,” said Karen McAlister Shimoda of Missoula, one of the April/May visual artists.
She hopes to further her play on the concept of the macro and the micro with media experiments on a larger scale, such as with panels.
“This has felt like a gift since we walked in the door,” said visual artist Lisa Buchanan of Seattle.
Edwards said every generation of residents has a unique culture. This group, which arrived April 15 and will leave May 13, “instantly clicked,” Buchanan said.
The six women, ranging in age from 30 to 64, had developed a harmonious daily rhythm by the end of the first week. Each rises early, makes her way from her bedroom to her studio, eats lunch on her own, enjoys more studio time, adventures the rugged Jentel grounds (Wyoming weather permitting), works in her studio, and finally reconvenes with her fellow residents for dinner, which the artists cook together with groceries purchased on Thursday morning outings to Sheridan with their weekly $100 stipends.
The evenings vary from more studio time to bonding with fellow residents in the common areas, which include a living room furnished with couches, board games, and wine glasses; a television recreation room with dozens of movies on VHS; and a library fully stocked with artsy books.
These artists are not simply “lucky” people who stumbled upon the “gift” of this ideal creative environment. Admission to Jentel is very competitive.
The application consists of a proposal of what the artist wants to do at the residency program, a description of how the residency will affect his or her work, and a work sample — 15 to 20 images for visual artists or up to 20 pages for writers.
Edwards and other staff members process the application in a renovated ranch house that now functions as an office and reception area.
The application is then sent to a panel of jurors for a “blind jury process,” which Edwards describes as an application without the applicant’s name, experience, or notoriety.
“That way, we have people who are new or experienced and internationally known or unpublished,” Edwards said. “It levels the playing field and de-emphasizes any sense of entitlement so that everyone comes to Jentel open to sharing the experience — nobody really has an edge.”
After the rigorous application process, an artist is not required to further prove herself. Her time in the residency month is left entirely to her discretion.
Days blend together as each artist determines what works best for her and why. Such realizations will help her art long after she leaves Jentel.
“When we first got here, we were all, ‘I am never going to have this time again! I need to get stuff done!’” said Jennifer Baker-Henry, a writer in residence from New York City. “But Mary Jane and Lynn (Reeves, the residency program manager) just said, ‘You don’t have to do anything. This can just be about re-energizing yourself. You can write a book, or you can read a book.’
“But you know, I’m here. It’s so quiet, and I have so much natural light. There’s no pressure, and it helps me be productive.”
Baker-Henry plans to finish her collection of short stories, some of which are published. She has been working on it for three years.
Joyce Ely-Walker measures her time and progress with small daily paintings that reflect both the weather and her mood, which often coincide.
Ely-Walker, a plein-air painter, or an artist who primarily paints outdoors, said the drastic shift from the landscape of her native Florida to the rugged terrain of Wyoming is the most obvious and direct way her work has been influenced by the experience.
A 2006 veteran of Jentel, Ely-Walker is among the 5 percent of Jentel artists who reapplied and returned at the conclusion of the program’s requisite five-year waiting period. She said she is interested to see how her work will be transformed this session.
“I can tell you that almost every bit of my work has been affected by Jentel,” said Beena Kamlani of New York City, a writer who stayed at Jentel in October/November and is already excited to reapply in a few years.
Kamlani, a book editor at Viking Penguin, was shocked by the amount of writing she completed at the isolated Jentel, work she continues to draw on today.
The Sheridan community shares a mutually beneficial relationship with the artist residency program.
Toward the end of the artists’ four weeks, the work and experience they have garnered are offered to the public at “Jentel Presents,” an event often held at the Sheridan Artists’ Guild, Et al.’s space at the Historic Train Depot in Sheridan.
The Jentel residents, typically from metropolitan areas, can meet and question honest-to-goodness Wild West inhabitants, and Sheridan residents can meet and question big-city artists.
The Jentel Artist Residency Program accepts applications until Sept. 15 for the winter and spring residencies and until Jan. 15 for the summer and fall residencies.