The Artist, the Writer and the Yurt
The most notable thing about Kelly, Wyoming, is its dramatic view of Teton peaks. The second most notable is a scattering of yurts, a dozen of them, in the cottonwood trees.
I visited artist Wendell Field and author Alexandra Fuller there in October to talk about books, reading and life in their yurt. Happy for an outing from the office and a chat about books, I drove towards Grand Teton National Park, then turned east alongside the Gros Ventre River, for a few miles past bison and sagebrush. I parked and took a pathway that leads through the village of yurts to Wendell and Alexandra’s site.
The home is surrounded by elements of outdoor living: a firepit with seating made of scavenged wood, rounds of firewood to be chopped, a horse peering over from the garden. A yurt is a single round room made of canvas stretched over a wood frame. This one is heated by woodstove, with a skylight above a high bed and a ladder-accessible sleeping loft for Fuller’s 11-year-old daughter. The scene that I came upon at Wendell and Alexandra’s home felt straight off the page of a children’s picture book, and would have even without the dramatic mountain backdrop. It felt like a place where imagination and ideas grow like weeds.
Most of these yurts have been here for decades (Field inherited his from a friend 11 years ago and pays to use the land). But the structures are reminiscent of their origins in the nomadic lifestyle of Mongolian sheepherding communities. They have a feeling of home, but also speak to impermanence and change. So does Kelly: this unincorporated community of fewer than 150 once rivaled Jackson Hole in ammenities and population, until--who would have guessed?—A landslide created a lake in the mountains above the valley floor in 1925. It took two years for water to fill and burst through the natural dam, wiping out the town and killing six residents. Kelly reminds us that to make one’s home in Wyoming, whether in 1918 or 2018, is to accept nature, challenge and change as part of life.
Field has built his career here, facing the Tetons. Many of his paintings depict mountains with villages or structures in the foreground, some recognizable to us here in Jackson Hole, others inspired by the artist’s international travels. He catches the seasons and the weather on mountains as only someone who sees them daily for a decade could. In scenes with yurts or cabins, details like a leaning shovel, wood being chopped, or a worn fence portray the simple pieces of his life. Though Wendell mostly paints larger pieces in his studio in town, he works on smaller paintings here, outside, in Kelly, when the weather tolerates.
Just over a year ago Fuller, best-selling author of memoirs like Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight and most recently the novel Quiet Until the Thaw, joined Field in Kelly full time. Her story of a young man’s life and death in the Wyoming oil fields, The Legend of Colton H. Bryant, is an essential title for any bookshelf exploring the modern west, the oil industry, and the American blue-collar worker. Her writing is beautiful, never overdone, sometimes controversial. Writing and living in a yurt go very well together, she told me. “Every writer knows procrastination is part of the job. In the yurt you’re forced to retrieve water, chop wood, dump water. Then it feels like you earned it.” It was only recently that they got internet access, and life without it had been a welcome period of detoxification the writer describes as “critical to my ability to write, rather than being in an incessant echo chamber.”
We talked around a table that sits in a nook beneath the loft, with a bench rich in pillows against the round wall and a low hanging lamp above. I could hear the strong October wind outside, and occasionally the sound of yellow cottonwood leaves hitting the roof. Also another sound, unfamiliar to me, which turned out to be Sunday, the horse, giving a snort. While she developed Quiet Until the Thaw, Alexandra read many versions aloud to Wendell. She seemed pained at the thought of this experience for him, but his response made it clear he would not have had it any other way: “It’s so dense and the writing is so beautiful that I can read it over and over.” In the yurt, his current painting-in-progress sits on an easel across from the bed. This is a room where two people take their perception of the world and labor to create things, side by side, that tell a story.
When we talked about the books in their home, Alexandra told me that “The reason we’re together is because I looked at his bookshelf and went ’Oh! I’ve got that, I’ve got that, I want that, I wrote that…’” We agreed it’s the first thing to look at when entering someone’s home. “I get especially judgey,” she said, “if I go in and there are no books, when there’s a lot of material stuff minus the books. It says ‘The life of the mind is not privileged here.’”
Fuller finds herself diving into writing by Native American and black writers of late. “The best guides for collective liberation are coming from black women.” She finds herself returning to historian and social activist Howard Zinn and playwright and poet Bertolt Brecht because “We need a rudder right now in this country.” One volume she described as sacred to her recently was Mitakuye Oyasin, a photography book by Aaron Huey, whom she was on assignment with on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. She explained that the book is “worn and loved because I’ve been living with it.” Pakistani author Mohsin Hamid’s 2017 novel Exist West was passed to me across the table with high praise. She spoke of long-held favorites, new discoveries, poets, philosophers and photographers. Frankly, I could not type fast enough. The woman is a living card catalog of literature.
Naturally the painter and printmaker in the household is more visual in his reading: the couple explained that Alexandra thinks in words, Wendell, in images. Against the back wall of the yurt is an antique bookcase with paned glass doors, the bottom shelves just the right height for taller books. Wendell’s most prized titles are his art books, many of them well-loved, worn and specked with paint. He thinks of them as an investment in his own art. One favorite is a 1940s edition that belonged to his grandfather, whom Wendell was named for, called Wildwood Wisdom, “all of these Native American traditions, edible plants, how to make a canoe.” Other than art books, he tends to peruse books on health and cooking, Ayurveda, or the occasional gardening catalog. At this mention, Alexandra piped up “You do, it’s like being married to a character out of a Jane Austen novel.” He often returns to classic favorites like Wendell Berry. Recently he has been reading about Japanese print making.
Both were effusive about David Hockney’s recent A History of Pictures, the artist’s telling of art from ancient times to the modern era, which sits within reach and is referenced often. Before bed, the two might look at a piece of art in a book for 15 minutes, or read to one another from a book of Buddhist quotes. “We read lots and lots of Rumi and we only understand it three or four years later,” said Alexandra.
If there were a fire, Wendell knows that he would grab his most beloved art books, the ones that are out of print, and of course his journals. Alexandra thought she might be paralyzed with indecision in such a scenario. An agreement was struck on the spot that she would help him with his haul.
As a forest dweller, I, too, find myself paralyzed by the question of what I might grab were flames approaching. There are always more books, and even a different edition can transmit some of the sentimentality and intellectual stimulation of one's original beloved. Books are only objects. Yet they are also more than just their paper and ink. They are the words we have lived in and learned in, so precious.
As a private librarian, it is often my role to help people acquire, collect, and care for books. I also assist in other parts of the books’ life cycle (though we all know books have many lives -- sometimes I simply help them on to their next one). One cannot talk about the nature of objects in our lives, particularly things we love like books, without considering their vulnerability as things that can be lost, sold, taken. In declaring what matters most to us in the physical world, we remember the impermanence of it all. The magic of books is that we retain them, they stay with us, even when we rid ourselves of them, damage them, loan them away, sell them off.
Outside the yurt is a sheep wagon, a vehicle originally designed for sheepherders; It looks like a very small covered wagon, but better sealed and insulated. It has a wooden door with an old-fashioned iron doorknob, and inside is the smallest wood-burning stove imaginable. For now, Fuller uses this as a writing space (“a room of one's own,” she jokes) until her daughter is old enough to need a bit more privacy. I notice now that the scene of wood rounds in front of the sheep wagon is the same as in Wendell’s painting-in-progress facing the bed inside. The horse named Sunday watches through the fence nearby. The Tetons impress as they do, even having gathered some cloud cover. This is a place of grand simplicity and simple luxury at once. No wonder these two storytellers choose to create, to read, to live and to love here.
For more about Wendell Field's work, visit www.WendellField.com
Alexandra Fuller's recent Quiet Until the Thaw, as well as her other books, can be found at Teton County Library, Jackson Hole Book Trader, and Valley Books.