Montana has long attracted and produced writers and artists. In the late 1800s it drew “Cowboy Artist” Charles M. Russell and painter Joseph Henry Sharp, who rendered portraits of Indian survivors of the Little Bighorn. Need more examples of writers? Theodore Waddell is happy to provide. “In the 1950s and ’60s writers like A.B. Guthrie Jr. and Dorothy M. Johnson were celebrating the West in their writings,” he says. “Tom McGuane and others arrived in Livingston. In 1968 Richard Hugo arrived at the University of Montana. He hired William Kittredge, and the show was off and running.” To the list of homegrown artists one should add Waddell [theodorewaddell.com], whose art book/memoir Cheatgrass Dreams was honored by Western Writers of America as a 2021 Spur Award finalist for contemporary nonfiction. His 2019 canvas Monida Angus # 23, the cover illustration for Cheatgrass Dreams, is representative of the modernist painter’s work.
The painting is described as oil encaustic on canvas, but Waddell calls that a misnomer. “I use a cold wash using Dorland’s Wax Medium, because this allows me to see many of the brush strokes underneath the surface,” he says. “Painting is like our history—it accumulates.”
“Nearly all my works have a geographic reference, places where I have seen something that inspired a painting,” Waddell says. “Between studios in Hailey, Idaho, and Sheridan, Mont., I’ve probably traveled over Monida Pass over 100 times. I saw something special on one of those drives, so I painted it, because it just kept resonating in my head. No idea about how long it took for me to work on that piece, and when someone asks that question, all I can answer is, ‘A lifetime.’”
Born in Billings in 1941, Waddell studied at the Brooklyn Museum of Art and received a master of fine arts from Wayne State University in Detroit. His work is exhibited at such museums as the Booth Museum of Western Art, the Buffalo Bill Center of the West and the Denver Museum of Art. His wife, Lynn Campion, is a writer and photographer who teaches at the Sun Valley Art Center.
Waddell, like C.M. Russell, was drawn to the Western lifestyle, but where Russell cowboyed, Waddell turned to ranching. Waddell dedicated Cheatgrass Dreams “to cows, who have changed my life.” “I quit my tenured faculty position [at the University of Montana in Missoula] in order to take over a family ranch,” Waddell explains. “With no experience, I had to learn everything. We had 200 mother cows on the first ranch. I quickly learned that if I took care of them, they would take care of me. And they did.”
‘The cows were an important part of my life. They still are, but through a more distant lens, where I can observe them in my travels back and forth to Montana’
But cattle aren’t the only animals Waddell is drawn to. He has illustrated a series of children’s books about a Bernese mountain dog named Tucker and is working with Campion on the latest volume, Tucker Plays the Back Nine.
“Dogs, cats and horses have always been a part of my life,” says Waddell, who doesn’t sketch first and paints only with oils because he likes the fact oil paint takes longer to dry than acrylics or watercolor. “In the past 25 years I have slowed down a bit with cattle, but we live with Bernese mountain dogs, horses and a Maine Coon cat. I love to paint these animals. And because of where we live, elk are grazing or moving just outside our kitchen window almost every day. Adding to that are the bands of sheep that annually move through our valley in spring and fall. A wonderful history, and great painting.”
In Cheatgrass Dreams Waddell notes that ranching and art are about problem-solving. “When you are looking at your herd or a field of alfalfa, there is always something that requires your attention and demands a solution,” he explains. “When standing in front of a canvas, there are also problems to solve—color, composition, subject matter, the dryness of the medium, etc.”
Since giving up ranching, Waddell says, he does miss cows. “Sometimes a great deal,” he admits. “But as I remember the amount of work involved and the state of my health as I grow older, I have to let it go. Art dominates my life now, as does writing. The cows were an important part of my life. They still are, but through a more distant lens, where I can observe them in my travels back and forth to Montana.”
Would he be the same artist if he were in Arizona or running cattle for 30 years somewhere other than Montana? “Probably not,” says Waddell, “The Arizona terrain is nothing like most of the land in Montana. I paint what I see and have spent my life studying the landscape in Montana and Idaho.” WW
This article was published in the December 2021 Wild West.