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Ted Waddell Applies Artistic Touch to ‘Cheatgrass Dreams’
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Sunday, December 5, 2021
 

STORY AND PHOTOS BY KAREN BOSSICK

Ted Waddell is a man who can look out on snow drifts on a bitter cold day when the temperature is 20-below and see beauty worth preserving.

“I’ve always had a hell of a time understanding green,” he says.

That is undoubtedly the reason so many of Waddell’s impressionistic landscapes of the West showcase broad brushstrokes of white with ambiguous cows caught in the relentless white of a Montana winter.

Many across the nation have come to know Waddell through his paintings, which grace countless galleries, including Gail Severn Gallery in Ketchum. Now, his book, “Cheatgrass Dreams,” offers insight into what frames his art as it describes the hardscrabble life of a rancher in central Montana.

The book paints a fascinating picture of a landscape where dreams wax and wane between drought and good moisture, where nature can be cruel and unrelenting.

And, then, Waddell observes, “it gives us a pass.”

“The austere struggle of living in unforgiving cheatgrass country made Ted Waddell something of a philosopher and the delightful book that has resulted makes for a fine read,” writes Aaron Parrett, professor of English literature at a university in Great Falls.

Waddell, considered one of the West’s most celebrated contemporary artists, works out of a studio north of Hailey. But he grew up in central Montana where his father walked across the street to paint boxcars for the railroad.

Waddell loved hitching rides on the neighborhood threshing machine.

“I worked two weeks for $13 driving a tractor and thought that was good,” he recounted. “I hoed beans for $7 an acre.”

As satisfactory as that appeared to be for a growing teenager, Waddell was quick to join his friends when they told him they were headed to Eastern Montana State University in Billings.

There he took an art class, which introduced him to fine art beyond his father’s paint-by-number paintings. He studied art at the Brooklyn Museum of Art School in New York and in 1968 received a Master of Fine Arts degree in sculpture and printmaking from Wayne State University in Detroit, Mich.

He joined the University of Montana’s Art Faculty in 1968. But he was torn between his love for art and his love for the land. And in 1976 he quit a professorship at the University of Montana to take over his first wife’s farm.

“We had an income of $22,000 but we didn’t know the difference,” he recounted. “The nearest neighbor was four miles away. The kids were fed. We loved it. And I loved the winters because it afforded me time to paint.”

Waddell ran both cattle and sheep, sneaking time for his art when he could find it.

“I’d even paint for a couple hours in between calving,” he said.

And in between painting, Waddell writes, there was “hard ass snow blowing down from the north. Ear losing, tail freezin’ snow. Dead calf snow. No-mistakes-or-somebody-dies snow.”

“Tough goddamn country—terse and cleansed by hard wind, hard times, hard people, hard lives, hard winters and hard lies,” he adds.

“Nobody said it’s easy but most of the people on the ground love it,” he said.

Waddell presents a short but interesting history of the land in Big Sky Country in the book from the Big Bud tractors that eroded the fragile soil to Cornerbar, the center of life in cheatgrass country. Complete with pictures he’s sketched, of course.

“Cornerbar was the nerve center of the town. People would stop in five or six times a day, pull up and have a beer to see what news is. It was a community center of sorts--someone having their car fixed would leave their keys there,” he said.

And cheatgrass country had its characters, too. Among them, Louie Nelson, who sorted cows with a broom and got out of a traffic ticket by arguing with the patrolman that he was going faster than the 90 miles per hour the officer accused him of.

Waddell came to the Wood River Valley in the 1980s, lured by Anne Reed Gallery and Sun Valley Center for the Arts when world renowned artists came from around the world to teach.

But he can’t turn his back on his love of the land and a slower pace of life. And, so, he often retreats to his studio in a century-old house on an acre of land near Sheridan, Mont.

“I love to go there because there’s nobody there I know,” he said. “I call it ‘wilted lettuce country’  because I know when the lettuce gets there it’s going to be wilted.”

Waddell wrote “Cheatgrass Dreams” over a 20-year period. His memory was sharpened by 60 years of journals now archived in the Yellowstone Art Museum and by the 3-by-5 cards he was always dragging out of his pocket to scribble on.

“I wrote down whatever struck me, and I would make scratch and spit drawings on those cards, too,” he said. “Someone would ask, ‘How much for a drawing? And I’d say $2. They’d say, ‘Give me four now and I’ll buy you a drink.’ As for the journals, “One of my college professors would require us to turn in sketchbooks, sketches and thoughts. I just wrote what was going on.  Russell Chatham, Jim Harrison, all these guys showed up in Livingston in the 1960s.”

Waddell offers that he has another good book in him and he may just put it to pen given the reception he’s received for “Cheatgrass Dreams,” which was a finalist for the 2021 Western Writers of America Spur Awards

“People were surprised I could write. And they were surprised at the stories,” he said. “Over there, people are storytellers. There’s an oral history that’s everywhere if you listen. And I’ve always appreciated that.”

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