JACKSON HOLE, Wyo. — City workers prepared for the opening of the annual 12-day Fall Arts Festival last week in a distinctly Western way: They reattached loose boards on the wooden sidewalks outside downtown stores, galleries and restaurants.
Those walkways, as well as such historic businesses as the Wort Hotel and the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar, continue to lend a rugged Western appeal to Jackson. Tourists flock to the town center to take selfies in front of the antler arches on the corners of the town square park or sit on the horse-saddle seats at the iconic bar while locals grumble about out-of-towners who buy multimillion-dollar homes that they live in only a few weeks of the year.
With its steep slopes and proximity to such national parks as Yellowstone, the area attracts outdoors enthusiasts year-round. But it’s after Labor Day that people come to experience Jackson’s artsy side. The Fall Arts Festival, now in its 31st year, includes multiple gallery walks, a QuickDraw event in which artists create a work in 90 minutes and then sell it, a ranch tour and a “Wild 100” show and sale at the National Museum of Wildlife Art.
Several years back, another event moved to town that increased the festival’s overall clout. The Western Design Conference is a juried exhibit and sale of hand-crafted clothing, home furnishings and decorative accessories created by 130 artists from around the country.
The event, which kicks off each year with a VIP preview party, fashion show and auction, challenges people to think about what Western design is today, sayid Allison Merritt, executive director.
“It’s a hard thing to define, but there are common threads,” Merritt said. “First, there’s the spirit of the West, which I think of as individuality and the freedom to create one-of-a-kind works.”
Exhibitors also share a dedication to and skill at craftsmanship and use of materials in striving to make pieces that have a timeless quality. “These are things that will get handed down in a family or can be donated to a museum,” Merritt said.
A walk through the exhibit hall dispelled the notion that Western furnishings are heavy and rough-hewn. Instead, fine woods were used in innovative ways, sometimes inlaid with tile or other materials. David Stine of Dow, Ill., crafts dining tables using native hardwoods like walnut or cherry with “live” natural edges, rather than cutting them in straight lines.
Brian Boggs’ chairs in such woods as Honduran mahogany, curly maple and cherry are all smooth angles but have ergonomic carved wood seats and rounded backs that encourage sitting.
You can’t go to a show of Western design without seeing antlers, but the ones in Jackson were anything but ordinary. Jenny Booth does carvings on naturally shed antlers. Ashley Tudor puts hers on brass European mounts. At North Rim Studio in Crawford, Colo., glass chandeliers are inspired by antlers. Even arts-and-crafts types get into the act. At one of the crafts booths during Sunday’s Taste of the Tetons, an artist covered an antlered elk head in glass beads to create a funky, whimsical take on the theme.
Also inside the WDC exhibit was a “showhouse” featuring six rooms decorated in the neo-Western style.
Rush Jenkins and Klaus Baer of WRJ Design created the foyer, which blended rustic and contemporary elements — chairs covered in fur throws, a coffee table with a glass top and iron base, a slim wood side table, all set against reclaimed wood walls.
“Living here, you’re inspired by nature,” said Jenkins, who relocated his business to Jackson Hole from Manhattan several years ago. “What we like is a more eclectic mix of elements.”
The same is true in the fashion at the exhibit. Designers like Andreas Tsagas of Denver had items in the fashion show and at his booth that had an edgy rather than traditional Western feel — white deerskin jackets with hand-cut fringe and uneven edges, full-length skirts. “I like Western mixed with rock ‘n’ roll,” said Tsagas, who also makes such accessories as hats, necklaces and bracelets in leather.
Fanciful custom outfits from such designers as Gossamer Wings of Santa Fe and Montana Dreamwear were standouts, but more subtle works made an impact, too. Jesse Call creates her Westerngrace collection at her home in Cimarron, Colo., between Montrose and Gunnison.
She sews long, tiered skirts one at a time, and silk gingham blouses, among a variety of other items. Some skirts have hand-tooled leather yokes done in collaboration with John Blair Saddlery of Douglas, Wyo. “Growing up, I always loved Western design, but didn’t like Western clothes that were over the top,” said Call, who’s 34 and worked at Cruel Girl and for Manuel, the Nashville tailor-to-the-stars, before starting her own collection.
While the Snow King Center was full of designers, galleries around town were eagerly touting their fall art exhibits, and people travel from all over to see what’s new. The festival’s second weekend ranks as the No. 1 weekend for private planes flying into Jackson Hole, according to Maureen Murphy of the Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce. Last year, there were more than 400 bidders and about 2,000 people participating in the QuickDraw auction she said.
All styles are represented, from traditional to modern takes on Western art. “The fine arts have flourished to serve this community,” said Mark D. Tarrant, whose Altamira Fine Art carries the work of Howard Post, R. Tom Gilleon and Fritz Scholder, the subject of a Denver Art Museum exhibit this fall.
“First-time visitors are surprised to discover the quality of performing arts, art galleries and restaurants,” he said. “It is remarkable that a small ski town in remote Wyoming ranks at the top for the fine arts.”
Altamira also represents Billy Schenk, whose art is featured on this year’s festival poster. Schenk, who’s often referred to as a “pop” Western artist for his vivid color palette and contemporary drawing style, is the first to be a repeat artist: His work was on the Fall Arts Festival’s 1985 poster as well.
At a poster signing earlier this week, Schenk said returning to Jackson as featured artist was an honor, and that his inspiration continues to be “the landscapes and the cowboys.”
Suzanne S. Brown: 303-954-1697, firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter.com/suzannebro