Teton Lessons


“We live in a time when cameras are pretty good, so I don’t need to duplicate what you can see and take a photo of,” says Jim Wilcox. Sitting with Wilcox in his Jackson Hole gallery, Wilcox Gallery, looking at his oil paintings of the nearby Tetons, it’s difficult not to agree. Wilcox would never say this, but his renditions of the Tetons might improve upon the originals. In some ways. Definitely for those collectors that might never make it the eight miles back into Paintbrush Divide, deep in the heart of the range, or up Garnet Canyon, which climbers aiming to summit the Grand Teton must hike.

Without Wilcox’s help the Tetons are among the most iconic and recognizable mountains in the world, their serrated summits and ridges soaring 7,000 feet skyward with not so much as a foothill to moderate their rise. “These are what mountains should look like,” Teddy Roosevelt said upon first seeing the range. The Tetons are beautiful, and overwhelming. With Wilcox’s help, the range isn’t made any less powerful, but is made digestible. Wilcox edits these mountains into scenes where the grandeur is more comprehensible and approachable than in Mother Nature’s version. Standing on Grand Teton National Park’s Inner Park Loop Road, gawping up at the Cathedral Group — the five peaks that are the range’s granitic heart — it’s nearly impossible to appreciate the purple glow cast by the setting sun on Mt. Owen’s southeast snowfields. Or the steeply arêted walls of Garnet Canyon. There’s just too much else going on. Wilcox’s paintings edit the vastness and allow viewers the pleasure of soaking in the smaller details.

“The difference between photographs or reality and painting has to do with design, light, composition,” Wilcox says. “There are all sorts of tools I can use to capture people and make them respond to or see a scene in ways a photograph, or even reality, might not. I say artists are in the business of tricking and trapping. We’re tricking someone into thinking that it is rock and trees and water they’re looking at and then you’re trapping them with a focal point and circulation that takes them back to the focal point you selected.”

Wilcox is one of the most awarded Western landscape painters working today. Over the course of his 60-plus year career, he’s won the Prix de West Purchase Award, Arts for the Parks (both overall and regional classifications), the Fredric Remington Award and the Masters of the American West Purchase Award, among others. His very first award was for car design, though. It was the 1950s and Wilcox was equally interested in architecture, car design and art. He entered a 3-D model car design in the annual Fisher Body Craftsman’s Guild contest, a regionally and nationally held design competition sponsored by GM’s Fisher Body Division. Wilcox never won the top prize, but did receive runner-up awards.

Even with that success, five summers during college spent working at Jackson Lake Lodge sold him on a career as an artist. “Those three areas — architecture, design and art — were equally interesting to me, but two of them sounded like working in a smoky office in a big city,” he says. “Painting sounded like sitting on the edge of Jenny Lake. I knew it wouldn’t be easy, but I just decided that lifestyle was more important than money or a steady paycheck. I was willing to be poor, if need be, to be an artist.”

After graduating with a degree in art from Brigham Young University, Wilcox moved to Seattle to teach art at Bothell High School. He did that for two years. “I was willing to be poor as an artist, but not starve,” he says. “Teaching gave me my summers free to test the water selling my art.” During these summers, he returned to Jackson Lake Lodge, renting a conference room and using it as a makeshift gallery. “The first real success was when a man came in and bought six of my biggest and best paintings in one stop,” Wilcox says. “A year later he came back and bought a couple more. That was when I thought maybe painting would work.” It wasn’t long after that Wilcox moved to Jackson full-time so his favorite subjects were always right out his front door.”

“When I first started painting, the only interest I had were in the peaks of the Tetons,” he says. “I didn’t even like foregrounds and I wasn’t interested in other mountains. I was in love with the Tetons.”

Last year, Wilcox won the Masters of the American West Purchase Award with Moki Canyon Reflections, a painting of a side canyon off Lake Powell, hundreds of miles from the Tetons. “It was a subject I wouldn’t have paid any attention to when I first started,” he says. “I have interest in different subjects today. Things that I would have driven by without a second glance 50 years ago stop me cold now.” Still, every summer, Wilcox is out painting the Tetons two to three days a week. “Expanding what I’m interested in painting hasn’t made me less interested in the Tetons,” he says. “They’re magical.”

Driving, whether around the Tetons or to see his grandson get an academic award in Salt Lake City, Wilcox pulls over when he’s captured by a scene. Sometimes he’ll take photos for future reference. Other times, he’ll whip out his Soltek easel, one of the most popular plein air easels around which Wilcox himself designed, and begin painting. “I can’t not be an artist,” he says. “I see the world as paintings.”

Increasing his stable of subjects supports Wilcox’s idea that one must always grow as an artist. “It’s impossible to avoid growth if you keep painting. I’ve painted close to 3,000 paintings now.” Wilcox says everything he’s learned in painting — going back to what he was taught in college — he continues to relearn, just on different levels. “I understand the ideas better.”

Not all of Wilcox’s learning comes from painting itself. “Sometimes it’s something that seems unrelated to art — knowing how bark smells on a tree, touching or hearing the environment — any time you sense your subject adds to your knowledge of it,” he says.

Wilcox says, “Learning is linear, it’s execution that is like a roller coaster. It basically goes up, but there are dips along the way.” With every painting he does, Wilcox aims to make his next best painting. “The longer I paint, the more time I spend thinking and the less time moving a brush.”

“You can always see that it’s possible to execute something better … Once in a while, I think God lets you have a glimpse of what could be,” he says. “My painting that won the Prix de West in 1987 was something that just fell off the brush. I’m still learning from it.”

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