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Au Natural

Volume 15 | Number 1 | September 2013

By Steve Kiggins
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Lacey Pfister sits in the grass, legs crisscrossed in front of her, and states at the world beyond through an old barbed wire fence.

As the occasional vehicle zips behind her on U.S. Highway 287—undoubtedly, a few drivers had to wonder what she was doing out here in the dilapidated ghost town of Bosler—Pfister uses her brilliant selection of watercolors to paint what she sees.

“When you’re outdoors,” the young woman from Lusk says between strokes of her paintbrush, “everything is more beautiful.”

That’s the idea behind one of the University of Wyoming’s truly unique courses—an outdoor studio class designed to stir the creativity of senior art majors through experiences at locations around the state. From the Red Desert to Vedauwoo to Grand Teton National Park, UW students enjoy this class in a room without walls, where the earth is the floor and the sky is the ceiling.

“When I started the summer outdoor studio in 2000, my intention was to break the confines of the classroom and allow students to experience the wide and varied landscape of Wyoming as their studio,” says Ricki Klages, head of UW’s Department of Art and creator of the class. “That’s what makes this course so special. It’s not a landscape painting class. It’s a class that allows students to respond to the variables of an outdoor setting to inspire their creative process.”

While Pfister paints a broken-down trailer that sits in front of the Bosler Consolidated Schools building, Calee Dunlap works on a watercolor of her own across the highway. Perched on a fallen power pole, Dunlap studies an abandoned, graffitied Union Pacific railcar on the tracks in the distance.

“I was closer,” she says with a smile, “But I got kicked out.”

Dunlap applies color to paper. She paints for a few moments, then stops to again examine her subject.

“So much of our education is based on being in a studio,” says the aspiring artist from Jackson. Dunlap stretches her arms wide to both sides, looks around and adds, “That’s why this is so awesome!”

It’s equally exhilarating for Patrick Kikut, an academic professional in the art department who succeeded Klages as class instructor. A painter who takes great pride in making art that represents his life—”That’s why I always have a sketchbook with me,”  he says with a smile—Kikut regularly travels to work in the splendor of Wyoming’s outdoors.

His passion for this place we call home blossomed in the late 1980s, when Kikut drove to Laramie for the first time on one of his many searches for compelling landscapes.

“I knew the university was here, but I was just exploring that day,” he says. “When I came to the art department, I was really turned on by what I saw on campus and by the location. I liked it. It felt exciting to be here.”

Since he had just begun his undergraduate studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder, Kikut dismissed his first thought of transferring to UW. His second idea?

“I thought to myself, ‘Maybe I could teach here someday,’” he recalls.  Today, Kikut savors the seemingly limitless art opportunities in and around Laramie. It’s an ideal place, he says, for artists to push their creative boundaries.

“Using the outdoors as a studio requires students to be adventurous, organized, focused and resilient,” he says. “Those are truly important qualities for any artist.”

In front of one of Bosler’s many withered wooden buildings, Alpine’s Jade Baker sits on a tractor tire that’s been overgrown by weeds, a hardboard on her lap.

“I’m looking through the doorway,” she says as she explains her sketching.

Inside that doorway, surprisingly, is a thriving green plant. It’s one of the few signs of life in the remains of a town that once had a post office, retail stores and a dance club that provided limousine service to and from Laramie.

“There’s so much to see when you get outdoors,” she says. “Look at this place. You wouldn’t be out here unless you had a class.”

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