BIRTH OF THE AMERICAN COWBOY


“RUSS ANDERSEN, Cattleman ” Watercolor by kayti sweetland rasmussen

“CORRALLED” watercolor by kayti sweetland rasmussen

In the mid to late 1800s, some 10 million cattle would be driven north out of Texas, in the greatest forced migration of animals in human history. It was the birth of the American cowboy.

Though romanticized in book and movie, the life of the men and boys who drove cattle was dirty and hard, sweating in the heat of the day and freezing at night. The miserable conditions in rainstorms bear no description, and certainly take the romance out of the working cowboy.

Cattle had been trailed from Texas to Missouri as early as 1842, and to California as early as 1854. Although the maps depicting these routes suggesting an orderly branch of roads, on the ground the paths taken were often circuitous as the drovers needed to provide water and grass for the herd along the way. This meant following rivers and creeks and tracing the routes of old Indian and buffalo trails.The earliest endpoints were the railheads of the Union Pacific and the Missouri Pacific railroads, which were gradually extending their tentacles of track westward now that the Civil War was over and capital was available for their expansion.

But nothing about this trail driving scheme turned out to be quite as easy as it looked on paper. The first challenge: a cattle drive required horses, but freely roaming mustangs needed to be roped, corralled and broken by a skilled broncobuster.It typically took five to six days to properly break a wild mustang. And to trail cattle north, a journey that could take three to six months, drovers needed four to six months, drovers needed four or five horses per cowboy.

Cattle drive

The second challenge: the behavior and temperament of the wild Texas Longhorn itself. It was a challenge for cowboys to round up these wild cattle. Texas Longhorns hid in the brush during the day and did most of their foraging during the night. Only briefly in the summer, when the tormenting mosquitoes were out in force, did they spend the daylight hours in open areas, where they hoped to find a breeze. Most of the time the cowboys were compelled to ride into the thorny brush to flush the cattle out. But a cow with a young calf was prepared to gore a horse to protect her offspring and the Longhorn bull was notoriously ornery, sullen, morose, solitary and pugnacious, as one cattleman put it; “The longer he lived the meaner he became.”

“HOME ON THE RANGE” oil painting by kayti sweetland rasmussen

Once a herd was assembled, the profit-seeking Texan faced his most grueling challenge: the trail drive itself, since railroads throughout the south had been badly damaged during the Civil War and had never ventured far into Texasl It required a minimum of eight men to drive a thousand head of cattle. The trail boss usually rode a few miles ahead, scouting out water holes and good places to graze the herd. The cook followed on the mess, or chuck wagon. Two cowboys were positioned at the point of the herd, and two along each swing, or flank. The two most junior cowboys brought up the rear and were known as drag riders. Their job was to keep the slow and lame cattle moving along. They were constantly subjected to dust and spatterings of the herd’s manure. They took the full brunt of its noxious odors. One staple of the diet was known as son-of-a-bitch stew, concocted from leftover cattle parts.

On a good day, a trail drive would cover fourteen or fifteen miles, usually with a break at midday for lunch. The greatest threat facing the drovers was a stampede. It didn’t take much to spook the jumpy Longhorns: lightning, the appearance of a wolf, the snap of a towel.

In the spring of 1867, some 35,000 headed up the trails,the next year, 75,000, the year after that 350,000, and in 1871, some 600,000. The great migration of Texas Longhorns, the largest forced migration of animals in human history, had begun in earnest. In all, some ten million cattle would be driven north out of Texas, accompanied by half a million horses and some 50,000 cowboys.

Exerts from “Cattle Kingdom” by Christopher Knowleton

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HOW FANTASY PARALLELS REALITY



Grusha Russian circus bear

The gift of friendship is unparalled, and I received a warm and fuzzy gift from our dear friend in Niles, singer/songwriter Michael McNevin, who gave us an impromptu performance of his new song about Grusha the Russian circus bear. Michael is a storyteller, whose songs reflect the human experience in a kind and deeply thoughtful way.

Grusha attached himself to Michael’s heart some time ago, and as fantasy bears sometimes do, he wouldn’t let up until Michael agreed to tell the world a musical rendition of his story.

It’s a smple story which some of you may remember from my previous blog of May 7, 2012, about Grusha, he was a bike riding attraction in the circus who longed to return to his home in Siberia. Going round and round, doing the same job every day, with no hope for his future, he seems familiar somehow. Michael first saw my painting of Grusha which lives in the small Haus in our garden. and then in pure serenditity, as things often do, bear mind control took over and Michael saw my blog. The result is a charming song sure to delight all ages.

As a friend of Michael’s said “Aren’t we all Grusha?” No matter what we do, or for how long, we are “all peddling our bikes to get back home”. Home is where warmth is, where love is, where family is. Gusha is readily recognizable.

Michael’s joyful song shows Grush’s excape and his journey back to his home in Siberia. His story fills us with hope and joy in the celebration of his freedom.

CREATVITY


Virginia Woolf was ahead of her time when she wrote that everyone needs a room of one’s own. What you do in that room is up to you. Sometimes I simply sit and think. It has the sound of silence which is missing in so much of our lives today.

My room is filled with things which have meaning for me. There is a tiny painting a neighbor man gave me when I was eight, a larger painting which hung in my Grandma’s crowded bedroom, sn old sewing machine head made into a lamp, books on Indian crafts, more books, lots of things other people might have thrown away; my mother’s jacks, the flag they gave me at my father’s funeral, a few tiny dolls tucked on a shelf, jars of paint brushes, a pallete fo watercolor paint, a shelf of acrylic paint, stacks of canvas and watercolor paper, an old pink elephant, trunks full of photographs, and another filled with old report cards, letters, my husband’s block sweater from high school. etc. The walls are crowded with pictures; one of my Tai Chi class, another of a tap dancing class, a family portrait of my best friend’s family. Things that I have made and things others have given me. Looking at what I have written it seems like a chaotic mess but everything is connected to another, and together they form a pattern to my life.

The room of one’s own is special because no one can predict what you may do in it. Various rooms are meant for certain activities, ie the kitchen is not where you sleep and vice versa. Living rooms don’t seem to attract a lot of attention these days, and not a lot of people have actual dining rooms. But the room you have chosen to be your room doesn’d come with a label, it’s a place to let your imagination run wild.

When we lived in Connecticut as a child, there was an old abandoned house next door which I used as a playhouse. I spent hours there making up games, arranging found objects into decorations. In retrospect, the house was an early example of the nesting instinct. I do think some things just come naturally. The old house was my first expression of free will. It was uninhibited imagination, or creativity, if you will.

What is creativity anyway? Is is a conscious pre-planned activity which results in something new and possibly wonderful? Or is it a spontaneous gathering of grey matter suddenly colliding? Some of the most fun pieces I have made came about by accident. During a process of “one thing led to another”. On the other hand, some of the pieces which were planned with deep emotion were never what I called “creative”.

As a child, Grandma insisted that I was “gifted”. What did that mean to a child? A gift was something current and profitable. I had received neither. I was given singing and dancing lessons because Great-Aunt Corinne was a well-known opera singer in Canada, which stood to reason that the talent was in the genes. It wasn’t. The houses I drew in school were shown to the class because they not only had the correct number of windows and doors and chimneys, but I had drawn people on mine. I obsessively copied the faces of movie stars from the movie magazines. Nothing creative about that; in both cases a matter of good observation.
I have become complacent these days and have stopped waiting for that A-Ha moment, when I have accidentally dropped a blob of paint where it shouldn’t be, and it makes me wonder why I didn’t think of it before?

One’s imagination is like any other muscle; it needs to be exercised or it will rust. The room of my own enables me to exercise a certain amount of that muscle. Sometime it may become a great notion.

THE GIRL FROM ISLETA


“GEORGIA ABEITA OLIVER” watercolor by kayti sweetland rasmussen]

“What color would you call my hair?” I asked her once. “Mouse”, she quickly replied, so I made her a giant wire sculpture of a rat. We found that we could laugh at each other until the tears flowed down our cheeks, and not remember why. She was a girl from a village I never heard of and a culture I only guessed at.

I painted pictures of Indians I had never seen, in landscapes I had never traveled, until she became my daughter’s teacher.

On “Back To School” night I met Georgia Oliver, fifth grade teacher, and as my daughter had told me: “A REAL Indian”, as opposed to what I had painted.

Georgia Abeita, by photography class at University of New Mexico

Georgia and her husband, Emmett Oliver, became extended family over a period of time, and together introduced us to Native America. Georgia Abeita came from Isleta, a small pueblo in New Mexico, and Emmett, a Quinalt, from Washington state. Both became teachers and there are untold numbers of former students who are grateful for having had either as their teacher. Their son, Marvin Oliver, has carried on the teaching profession as Art Professor at the University of Washington, and has become famous as a North Coast artist.

A turning point cor me as an artist came when Georgia invited me to spend time with her at her home in New Mexico. From that time on, I no longer had to look for pictures to copy when painting an Indian.

More important, I found a very special friend.

BIRD BRAINS


We were awakened in the grey dawn by the frenzied barking of an angry Jack Russell, announcing the return of Henry, our semi-resident crow. Henry and his pals come to scrounge our yard and annoy us periodically. Our prejudice is reflected in our language; after all, a group of crows is called a murder, which seems a good idea, and their relatives, the ravens, are called an unkindness. Is it their color, their loud voice or their aggressive behavior?

It is too bad that these glossy black corvids have aroused the same suspicions as black cats, black sheep and black hats. A sexy little black dress might elicit some suspicion as well. I think it has everything to do with the voice. When the crows come to town, their raucous cawing announces their arrival. I have the same opinion of certain politicians. Their aggressive behavior can be frightening, as well.

The same sentiment is reflected in art: American realist Winslow Homer’s iconic 1893 painting Fox Hunt depicts the popular nineteenth century notions of crows as symbols of doom. In the painting, two low-flying crows harass a red fox as he makes his way over a snowy landscape, while in the background more crows lurk ominously. In the painting the crows are chasing and frightening the fox, and the viewer wants to shoo the birds away. And despite the fact that the most famous quote of his writing career is attributed to a raven, even Edgar Allen Poe considered the whole crow family grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt, and ominous.

In 1989, the British House of Lords rose in outrage that corvids should receive some sort of protection like other birds. But one lawmaker cried out “What if the ravens left the Tower of London?” Legend warns that this would mean the fall of the Kingdom, and to prevent such a catastrophe, the nation employs a royal raven keeper.

But these birds aren’t a gang of nasty villains. They are really just birds who are among the most family-oriented birds in the world. Crows and their relatives are expert tool users. They actually make tools to help them accomplish their goal, and they can use two different tools in succession. They frequently work as a team.

When in Alaska visiting many fisheries, Dr. A often witnessed ravens working together to steal shrimp off the large trays in the packing houses. The shrimp were covered with tarp, and the crow army assembled in well rehearsed formation. Some on the ground, a couple on the tarp, and of course, watchmen to announce human arrival. As the ravens threw the tarp off the shrimp, they threw them onto the ground, where waiting ravens took them away.

In the city, crows go even further; they manage to use human tools to their ends. Walnuts are a crop new to Japan, but lately groves seem to be springing up everywhere. Crows find walnuts tasty and nutritious, but the shells are hard to open. The solution; crows pluck the nuts from the trees, then fly to perch on the traffic signal at the nearest intersection. When the light is red, they fly down and place the nuts in the front of waiting cars. When the light turns green, the cars run them over, cracking the hard shells. when the light turns red again and the cars stop, the crows fly down to safely eat the nutmeats.

The answer to facing up to these efficacious winged intruders is don’t get mad, get smarter.

ANCIENT SCRIBBLERS


“WAVE ACTION” Handmade paper by kayti sweetland rasmussen

Drawing is a primal urge. Caveman depicted what he saw by drawing on rock walls. Children, from the earliest years, draw on anything made of paper, but drawing only became a standard art form when paper became available. At the beginning, paper was of poor quality and expensive, and parchment was too difficult to erase. You couldn’t dash off a quick sketch and it had too low a standard to use for serious art. But by the the 15th century, paper quality had improved to the point of opening the possibility of the sketch.

Renaissance artists sketched out their work before they drew, painted or sculpted it. This new ability to plan and toy with an idea raised their art to a new level not known before the Middle Ages.

Just as today, artists came with varying degrees of skill. Leonardo da Vinci was legendary for his skills as a draftsman. Michelangelo was equally brilliant, and many art historians consider him to have been the greatest draftsman who ever lived—though most of his drawing was scribbled chaotically on sheets of paper not intended for public view. The story is told of a sketch by Michelangelo that was displayed in the Palazzo de Medici for art students to copy. Since the sheet, like most of Michelangelo’s sheets, had a variety of sketches on it, students started tearing off pieces of it and they became scattered over many places. Those fortunate students who ended up with a remnant, treasured it.

Michelangelo used a great deal of paper–and almost any piece of paper he used contained a great many sketches. Only a few are finished drawings. A stunning drawing of the resurrection of Christ is also marked with a shopping list. Masterful drawings were folded up with notes of his neighbors comings and goings on the other side. Michelangelo may have been the first to jot down ideas for himself. Letter writing is another practice that blossomed with the widespread use of paper.

Leonardo was notorious in his lifetime for his inability to finish projects. Fortunately there was paper to capture his genius. Though he is usually thought of as a painter, only fifteen paintings, some unfinished, have been found, along with two damaged murals. He also attempted some sculpture, though he never finished one piece. But he left behind thirty bound notebooks. Unlike Michelangelo, he did want people to see this work on paper, including the notes he made in his mirror-image script a curious response to being left-handed. He left drawings depicting all kinds of inventions, and notes on literature, arts, mythology, anatomy, engineering, and more of all nature.

Leonardo also left behind four thousand sheets of drawings of staggering beauty. He was the first artist to be recognized for his drawings on paper. Leonardo’s work became the standard for art in Renaissance Florence. Studying art now meant working on paper, learning to draw. Leonardo had learned art that way himself, in the workshop taught by Andrea del Verrocchio. Artists have been trained on paper ever since.

PERSPECTIVES OF A CHURCH


“Ranchos de Taos”
watercolor by kayti sweetland rasmussen

It’s entire name is “San Francisco de Asis Mission church and it has stood in the plaza in Ranchos de Taos, New Mexico since 1816. Possibly one of the most photographed churches in the Southwest, its rear view has attracted the attention of artists from all over the world because of its smooth sculptural adobe form.

Ansel Adams used the church as part of his Taos Pueblo art book Georgia O’Keeffe described it as one of the most beautiful buildings left in the United States by the early Spaniards. I have been fascinated by its colonial era beauty since I first came upon it in the 1960’s. I have painted it many times in watercolor, oils and acrylic and it changes each time, and each time I paint it, I love it more.

Front view of Ranchos de Taos Church