My friend and mentor, Alice Fuller, died in a nursing home during the shutdowns of 2020. Her memorial gathering last month in Sheridan was attended by many artist friends, including Beverley Kleiber (granddaughter of Hans Kleiber), who created the "Artists of the Bighorns" documentary film series that The Brinton Museum released last year. Alice’s video played during her service, reminding us what a treasure these local artist films are quickly becoming.

It was good to see Alice’s family and friends, many I’ve known since my youth in Bighorn County, Montana. Alice grew up along the rivers of the Crow reservation, a contemporary of my grandparents in the "best cattle country in the US,” according to my grandpa Smith. Alice was an old-time cowgirl, part of that generation who witnessed major changes, from the Great Depression, to man on the moon, and major advancements of technology that changed the way we get information.

Alice married and raised three girls near the ranch where she grew up. Even as a child, Alice was a very talented artist. As a busy ranch woman and mom, she was often in the saddle all morning, then cooked a noon meal for a crew. When she saw the paintings she did in those days, Alice always reminisced about how she snatched time to paint, while waiting for lunch to simmer or rolls to rise. Paintings from her busy years were powerful visual reminders of what was going on in her life as she carved out time for art.

If you just moved to the area and are not familiar with Alice Fuller’s art, you’re probably visualizing highly detailed scenes of ranch life, or maybe the “Cowboys and Indians” scenes you see by many artists today, who get their ideas and reference material at re-enactment photo shoots.

You must see her work! Though Alice could easily paint photo-realistic representations of western scenes at a very young age, like Picasso, she sought to paint the emotion under what we see on the surface. She encouraged painters to break rules. She used watered-down acrylics and painted loose, purple and red hills and green horses with swipes of gray green that represented a draw or grassy bench completely, honestly, while still being fun — fun was very important to Alice!

At the Russell show in Great Falls, Montana last month, I saw a lot of good art created from photo shoot references, done in detail with tiny paintbrushes. I spoke to artist friends who spend 40 hours a week in their studios, and I felt lazy because other things in my life prevent me from putting that kind of time into my craft. Some artists market themselves as an old-time recluse or an outlaw to sell or validate their work. Alice never painted to sell; she never saw art as a job. She painted what she saw and knew, in joy and utter amazement, abandoning rules and having fun. I know more about the red dirt of the hills looking at an Alice Fuller abstracted landscape painting than I do seeing every blade of grass remanufactured for my convenience.

I compared my art to others at the Russell show and wondered whether it’s a fit, as I paint loosely and express feeling for my subject rather than trying to replicate what I can do with a camera. Like Alice, I could paint the old West with an authentic voice, as I lived that lifestyle as a girl, but I don’t. Then I look at Charlie Russell’s work; he already painted the life I know on the wagon. What’s more, he did it with bold brushwork and color — white horses that are green and yellow and purple when you look closely. Charlie saw light and color, like Alice. It’s funny to think that his style is more contemporary, in my opinion, than a lot of the work at the show which bears his name.

Life is busy. I treasure the time I get to spend with people, and I also treasure the time I get to paint. I hope I remember what Alice taught me about the reason for art-making and hold that with me as I paint and remember her. I hope I don’t change my style or subject matter to fit into a show or a trend. I hope that in years to come, I can look at paintings from this time and remember details of my busy life now. I hope that like my dear friend Alice, I’ll be remembered for much more than being an artist.

Sonja Caywood is a local artist in Dayton.

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