“This is not a whining thing at all, but just the facts, Jack.” That’s how Rachel Warner sums up the project that brought her together with three like-minded painters, that introduced her to a history of women painters in Glacier National Park, that instigated a panel discussion for the main stage at the upcoming Plein Air Convention & Expo (PACE).
Warner and the other three artists involved in the development of the Glacier project — Carole Cooke, Kathryn Stats, and Linda Tippetts — were asked to provide a contemporary counterpart to the historical component of “A Timeless Legacy — Women Artists of Glacier National Park,” and they came away strongly affected by what they learned and experienced.
“It was one of the most interesting and exciting things that has ever happened to me,” says Warner. “It’s the story of 100 years of women who painted in Glacier. A board member of the Hockaday Museum of Art [in Kalispell, MT] saw some paintings by Nellie Knopf, who traveled to Glacier National Park in 1925 to paint. She thought it would be cool to show her art and other women painters who were working in Glacier, and then the Hockaday decided they would do a now-and-then thing. It kept snowballing, and it turned into something extraordinary.”
It turned into a public television documentary, a major exhibition, and a book. “It’s a unique story for these women who had the charisma and desire to come out here and hike in rough country and do the work the men were doing,” Warner continues. “But the story, in general, is about women dedicating their lives to painting. That could be any town, any city, now or then. It is herstory. And it goes back to the Renaissance. There have always been women painters, but for a long time, they were either privileged or outliers.”
“Snake River Rider,” by Rachel Warner, oil, 34 x 34 in. Studio painting
“Flathead River,” by Rachel Warner, oil, 16 x 20 in.
Warner goes on, “The project was a collaboration that came together over the course of a year and a half for the four of us. The four of us met on a dark night in a funny little cabin in Glacier, and they threw us this huge bag of biographies. Here are all these women who painted there, and I’m wondering why I haven’t heard of all these people. I have lived and painted here all my life, how could I not know about them? We pored over this stuff and found that this was much bigger. The male painters had grants, but women hiked in against all odds, with no funding, and painted. They studied the Blackfeet tribe, they worked under tough conditions, and they were written out of history. We were really surprised to find out how many of these gals were out here and how much work they did in the park. We found all this art and all these crazy stories of women painters in Glacier.
“This isn’t any different than a black person or a gay person realizing that history is hidden. But occasionally you have to stand there and look at it, look what is happening, and think about it. It never crossed my mind that my career would have any kind of feminist agenda. I just always knew that I would paint. That’s all, since high school.”
The documentary film crew filmed the foursome as they painted Glacier, and then, near the end, they interviewed them on camera in another cabin. Something strange happened. “We were interviewed separately, and when we saw the footage, it was profound, shocking,” says Warner. “The stories haven’t changed at all. These are the same stories among us and among some of these gals from the ’30s and ’40s. We had almost the same quotes, and that was really beautiful. No one is standing on a stool being a chest-beating feminist. We don’t wake up in the morning thinking that we are women standing at the easel. But the story often doesn’t have a happy ending. This became this blossoming, beautiful, heartfelt book — and movie, and exhibition. The documentary has no feminist edge to it, but the underlying story is that there was no funding for them, and yet they made just as good work as their male counterparts. And they were forgotten. You can’t read that over and over again without looking at your life a little bit differently.
“Again, this is not a whining thing at all … but, just the facts, Jack.”