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Wild land artistry: Thomas Cole exhibit comes to Ravalli County Museum

Ravalli County museum director Tamar Stanley is proud that Hamilton will be home for an impressive National Endowment for the Humanities exhibit on the father of American landscape painting, Thomas Cole. The exhibit officially opens Saturday at 6 p.m. and will run through August 11.

Everyone knew it was going to be something different on the day the exhibit arrived at the Ravalli County Museum’s front doorstep.

There were 14 crates in all. The heaviest neared 500 pounds.

“We started packing them in with two weightlifters and a couple of us old guys,” said Bill Whitfield, the museum’s archivist/custodian. “That lasted one case.”

And so they enlisted four stout men from the Ravalli County Sheriff’s Office to pack in the remaining cases containing the National Endowment for the Humanities “Thomas Cole: Wild Land and Birth of the American Landscape” exhibit.

“This exhibit is a big deal for us,” said the museum’s director, Tamar Stanley. “It’s the kickoff to the kind of high-caliber exhibits that we would like to be able to showcase once a year.”

“I can assure you that there is nothing like this in this part of the state right now,” she said. “That’s for certain.”

The final touches on the exhibit are underway to prepare for its grand opening on Saturday, June 22 at 6 p.m.

Housed in the courtroom, the expansive exhibit will offer visitors a chance to take a step back into a time when wilderness was still considered a frightening thing for most.

It was around 1825 when Cole’s paintings of the natural world began to encourage people to leave the relative comfort of city life to explore the beauty that nature had to offer.

“Back then, they wanted to build forts around themselves to protect them from the wilderness,” Stanley said. “Many didn’t want wilderness to be part of their lives.”

But then this relatively unknown English immigrant revolutionized the field of American landscape painting with immense images that captured nature in a way that inspired a whole new vision of the nation’s landscape.

“He captured the diversity and immensity of it,” Stanley said. “Americans began to realize what a treasure they had in their own country.”

Considering that people who call the Bitterroot Valley home live with wilderness almost on their doorstep, Stanley knew this exhibit would make an immediate connection.

So she wrote an essay to the National Endowment of the Humanities and explained that Montana’s population of one person for every seven square miles still qualified it as a wilderness state. She talked about the connection people still have for the land and everything wild.

“It just seemed like such a natural fit,” Stanley said.

In the end, the Hamilton museum was one of 50 selected in the nation to house the display. Stanley was provided a scholarship to travel back to the Midwest to learn about the exhibit and talk with other museum directors and curators about its possibilities.

The exhibit offers visitors a chance to understand the challenges facing early day artists like Cole, learn about his life and see his famous artwork displayed in a series of silkscreen reproductions.

There are a number of interactive stations where parents and their children can learn together. An electronic touch screen offers additional opportunities.

In July, a number of Hamilton businesses plan to collaborate with the museum on that month’s First Friday and offer a variety of shows that will feature photography, paintings, books and various other items with ties to American landscape art. The Bitterroot Public Library will add its own programs.

The exhibit will run through Aug. 11.

Stanley said it will be staffed as much as possible to provide visitors with additional insights.

“We’re always looking for fresh ideas to make the museum fun for the whole family,” she said. “This exhibit offers just that. We hope a lot of people will come and take advantage of this wonderful opportunity.”

Reach reporter Perry Backus at 363-3300 or