John Clymer, an Artist's Rendezvous with the Frontier West

by Walt Reed

 



 

Turning Point

WITH THE DECISION to concentrate on painting, John's career turned full circle. While the path had been round about, everything he did seemed to better prepare him for the time when it came.

John described how it happened.

"For several years previously I had exhibited with Grand Central Art Galleries in New York. In the early years I had almost always painted wildlife subjects for them because I so much enjoy watching and painting animals out of doors in their natural surroundings. In addition to the Alaska trip and the trips with Frank Dufresne, we made several camping trips to the Canadian Rockies for settings and material. Banff and Jasper National Parks are regions of mountain splendor where animals are protected and where there is every kind of wildlife to be seen. Now that the Galleries were asking for history paintings, however, our western trips came more and more to be history treks. Instead of looking for Post cover ideas or animal subjects, I was now looking for history subjects.

"We began by following the Oregon Trail. It was more or less on the route we drove along on our trips to visit the family in the state of Washington. Doris also wanted to retrace the route over which her great-grandparents had traveled when going west. Six of her great-grandparents had traveled west on the trail by wagon, and all of them had eventually settled in the Kittitas Valley in Washington and were among the early settlers there. One year Doris had found a book on the Oregon Trail that named points of interest and told interesting events that occurred along the route. We took the book along with us, and as we rode along she would read about the events that happened and the landmarks that were located in the area we were traveling that day. Occasionally we would find old wagon ruts, or a place where the wagons had been let down steep inclines with ropes, old graves of people who had died along the way, Oregon Trail camp sites, and rocks where early travelers had inscribed their names. We saw landmarks like Court House Rock and Chimney Rock that could be seen for miles by people journeying along the trail in Nebraska. A little farther on we came to Robidoux Pass, the old pass that was used before the trail went through Mitchell Pass at Scott's Bluff. Whenever we would come to a history marker along the road I had to stop the car so we could read it. Doris would never let me pass up one ot these. Every year there would be more markers pointing out landmarks, historic sites, or where changes in the trail had been made from time to time.

"Part of the fun in the early years, though, was in searching for the places we read about. We found such well-known places as Split Rock, Sweetwater Crossing, Devil's Gate, Independence Rock, and South Pass in Wyoming were marked, but we had to find for ourselves Register Rocks and the wagon ruts in sandstone near Guernsey, Wyoming, and also Massacre Rocks and Three Island Crossing in Idaho. The more we traveled the old Trail the more interested we became. One cannot study the Oregon Trail without learning what a large part of Western history took place along it. First came the Indians following the game trails, then the early trappers and mountain men looking for furs and bringing supplies to rendezvous, next the wagon trains of the settlers, the Mormon pushcart brigades, the missionaries, the gold seekers, the Army and Army posts, the Pony Express, the Overland Stage, the telegraph. Many famous travelers and names well known to history are associated with sections of the old Trail; the Astorians, Robert Stuart party, Jedediah Smith, William Sublette, Jim Bridger, Joe Meek, Captain Bonneville, Sir William Drummond Stewart and Alfred Jacob Miller, Narcissa and Marcus Whitman, Eliza and Henry Spalding, Father DeSmet, John Charles Fremont, Jesse Applegate, the Donner party, Caspar Collins, numerous Army commanders, and a legion of other frontier personalities too numerous to mention. Many summers were spent traveling dltterent routes to follow other trails through the Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington, absorbing and searching out history as we went.

"After our first trip to Fort Benton and the Great Falls area we realized we wanted to see more of the Missouri River, which had been a major artery of travel for .. many of the early adventurers journeying from Saint Louis to the northwest. In the summer of 1966 Doris and I embarked on a float trip on the Missouri River from Fort Benton to the Robinson Bridge at the James Kipp State Park. There was a party of four of us and two crew members aboard The Chief, the outboard-powered, pontoon platform boat. It carried us for four days, one hundred and forty-four miles down river, during which time we camped out at night and often stopped along the shore to explore. Our route passed through the white cliff area so vividly described by Lewis and Clark and other early and later day travelers on the river. It was also the subject for several of Karl Bodmer's paintings. Along this section of the river are old Indian camp sites and buffalo jumps, Lewis and Clark camp sites, sites of old forts and military posts, and well-known rapids and bars where early day steamboat wrecks occurred. This section of the river winds through an area where great buffalo herds once roamed. In the days before the settlers there were also large numbers of deer, elk, prairie wolf, mountain sheep, antelope and the formidable grizzly bear described by Lewis and Clark. I was inspired to do a number of historical paintings based on our exploration of that area. The pictures were exhibited at Grand Central Art Galleries and quickly sold. I was so pleased by this response that from that time on I painted more and more history and fewer animals. Fortunately, my two favorite subjects often combine, for there is also an opportunity to include wildlife in the Indian and mountain man subjects.

"On our western journeys we kept crossing and recrossing the route of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, and I became interested in their story, too. Later, we followed their route from Saint Louis to the Pacific as follows: up the Missouri River to Three Forks, from which they followed the Jefferson and Beaverhead Rivers, to Lemhi Pass where they acquired horses from Sacajawea's people. This enabled them to cross the Continental Divide and follow the Bitterroot Valley down to Lo Lo Trail, which they followed over the Bitterroot Mountains down to the Clearwater River. There they left their horses with the Nez Perces and traveled on by boat down the Clearwater, the Snake and the Columbia to its mouth, where they wintered just a few short miles from the shore of the Pacific Ocean. We have visited their winter headquarters at Fort Clatsop and followed their route to their salt works, and we walked on the beach where Clark and party went to see the whale and Sacajawea first saw the ocean.

"The trail of Chief Joseph converged with and overlapped this trail in a number of places during the retreat of the Non-Treaty Nez Perce out of Idaho toward Canada in 1877 when the Army was after them. After the battle at White Bird Hill they too crossed the Lo Lo Trail going east into Montana, where they came down through the Bitterroot Valley, crossed and re-crossed the Continental Divide and headed for Yellowstone Park, having engagements with the Army as they went. We have visited the battlegrounds at White Bird Hill, Big Hole, and Camas Meadows. The Nez Perce then crossed Yellowstone Park on an old Indian trail emerging finally through an area now known as Sunlight Basin. Then, with all their people and large horse herd, they gave the Army the slip by turning north along the Clark Fork River. They continued up into Montana, crossed the Yellowstone River a second time, continued north and finally crossed the Missouri River at Cow Island. Cow Island was one of the places where we had camped on the Missouri River boat trip and was familiar territory to us. Once across the Missouri, the band was heading north toward Canada where they hoped to escape the Army that was pursuing them. I think they would have made it, too, had not some of the leaders decided to stop to rest and have a buffalo hunt. Of course, they did not know that General Miles had been informed of their whereabouts and would soon be overtaking them there at the Bear Paw Mountains.

"Three years ago when I was up in Montana, I drove north a few miles from Fort Benton to the Bear Paw Mountains to the location of the battlefield where the Army finally caught up with the Nez Perces and Chief Joseph surrendered. The place is now marked out with stakes to show where Chief Joseph's tent was, White Bird's tent, and the whole layout of the Indian camp. Up around the perimeter were low-lying hills. The Indians would dig rifle pits, a hole big enough for them to conceal themselves in while shooting, and they also dug shelter pits for the women, children and old people to hide in. Vestiges of these are still visible.

"Being on the spot where an event occurred is much different than just reading about it. Going and seeing the actual places makes history come alive for me.

"Over the past few years we have also encountered, crossed, and traveled along a number of the other old trails such as the Bozeman Trail, that went from Fort Laramie to Bozeman on the way to Virginia City; the Whoop Up Trail from old Fort Benton to Fort Macleod in Canada; and the Cheyenne Deadwood stage route which leads eventually into the interesting country in the Black Hills that most people driving on the main highway never see. A few of the old stage depots or stage stations are still standing. Another time we had followed the old Chisholm Cattle Trail from Texas through Oklahoma to Abilene, Kansas, and have also followed a part of the Texas Cattle Trail north through Wyoming and Montana.

"In the early years as we made these trips not many places along the roads relating to history were marked. But every year now there are more markers. Many little towns we go through have a little museum --- a history museum. Some of them are quite elaborate, with a lot of exhibits. Others are very small -- the size of a one-car garage. Sometimes we find something interesting; other times not, but every so often we find some special thing that we hadn't seen before. I make little drawings or take photographs of the items that interest us.

"Over the years I have noticed quite a difference in the whole West. When I say 'West,' I mean the Rocky Mountain West and the Pacific Coast. After these areas had been settled for about a hundred years, everybody started being interested in their history or heritage. Previously the old buildings, old wagons, old household goods and utensils that their grandparents or parents had used didn't mean much, other than it represented the struggle their forebears had had to make a living. And they'd let this stuff go to rack and ruin; let the old buildings fall down, the wagons and furniture fall apart. But after things were around a hundred years old, they all of a sudden started to look different. It was now part of history. The old implements and objects they had considered junk had become antiques -- an interesting, integral part of Western Americana.

"I think it is the accumulation of all these experiences, the research and the old stories, the trips on the old trails to actual places, the visits to history museums, large and small, that make it possible to do pictures that are real and believable and have the feeling of the place and the time. I have always tried in both wildlife paintings and historical paintings to take the viewer to an actual place and make him feel he was really there."

Evidence that John has succeeded in that purpose is clearly apparent in this book. He has also presented a faithful record of a colorful historic era that left little contemporary record beyond rusted traps, axe heads and gun barrels, some letters, diaries, and the stories of legendary feats passed down. His own lifetime of experiences: growing up in a western mountain community, hunting, fishing, camping, studying and painting wildlife has given him the insight to recreate the period. His creative imagination has brought it to life.

A selected portfolio of his paintings is presented in the following section.

 



About the author

In 1974 Walt Reed founded Illustration House, a gallery devoted to the art and history of illustration.. In addition to authoring John Clymer, an Artist's Rendezvous with the Frontier West, Walt Reed has written other books on the history of American Illustration including The Figure: The Classic Approach to Drawing and Construction; The Illustrator in America: 1860-2000; The Illustrator in America, 1900-1960's; Visions of Adventure: N. C. Wyeth and the Brandywine Artists, and Great American Illustrators.

About the book

John Clymer, an Artist's Rendezvous with the Frontier West, by Walt Reed, contains 141 pages with more than sixty color plates and numerous black and white reproductions of the artist's pen and ink drawing. ISBN: 0873581512 (right: front cover of John Clymer, an Artist's Rendezvous with the Frontier West)

 

About Northland Publishing

Northland Publishing was founded in 1958 by Paul Weaver as a commercial printer, Northland Press, and is now recognized as an award-winning publisher of finely crafted books that capture the spirit of the West. Northland specializes in non-fiction titles with American West and Southwest themes, including Native American arts, crafts, and culture; regional cookery; women's history; popular culture; interior design and architecture; and regional guidebooks. (text courtesy Northland Publishing web site)

 

Resource Library editor's notes

The above chapters, without illustrations, are excerpted from the 1976 book John Clymer, an Artist's Rendezvous with the Frontier West, and were published on July 12, 2005 in Resource Library with permission of author and Northland Publishing.

The excerpted chapters and page numbers from John Clymer, an Artist's Rendezvous with the Frontier West are:

If you have questions or comments regarding this book, please contact Northland Publishing directly through either this phone number or web address:

Resource Library extends its appreciation to Ms. Claudine Randazzo and Mr. Eric Howard of Northland Publishing for their help in securing permissions for reprinting of these chapters.

An essay by Walt Reed from the book Visions of Adventure: N. C. Wyeth and the Brandywine Artists can be viewed via Amazon.com

Also, the National Museum of Wildlife Art has in its galleries a recreation of John Clymer's studio which includes his art supplies as well as the many artifacts and specimens that he collected for props and research. The museum has produced a Clymer Studio Virtual Tour on its web site.

 

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