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Published December 06, 2022
Five residencies for University of Wyoming students and faculty members this fall have kicked off a new UW center for the arts and humanities named for a famed Wyoming artist who was one of the university’s most generous benefactors.
As envisioned, the Neltje Center for Excellence in Creativity and the Arts will distinguish the university as a leader in the education and development of visual, literary and performing artists -- and as a catalyst for Wyoming’s creative economy. In addition to residency programs, the center will offer a variety of events, workshops and other educational opportunities.
The new center is named after Neltje, a renowned painter and philanthropist who, in 2001, founded the Jentel Artist Residency Program, located in the Piney Creek Valley near the Bighorn Mountains. Neltje, who died in 2021, bequeathed a major estate gift to UW.
Along with an allocation of $1 million from UW’s Board of Trustees, the Neltje gift is the cornerstone of the new center, which is part of UW’s College of Arts and Sciences. The Neltje Center for Excellence in Creativity and the Arts has two key initiatives: the Jentel Artist Residency Program in Sheridan County; and innovative arts and educational programming across the state for UW students and faculty, as well as Wyoming community members.
“Although we were sad to say goodbye to Neltje, we are grateful for her gift and the possibility of a new beginning that permits the growth of the creative arts at UW and connection to the state’s creative economy,” UW President Ed Seidel says. “The Neltje Center will enhance the education of our students in the visual arts, creative writing, music and other fields; enhance opportunities for our faculty in creative activity, research and collaboration; and provide an extraordinary lift to UW’s reputation.”
“Speaking on behalf of Neltje’s family, it has been a great pleasure working with the university. Ed Seidel, the academic and museum staff, and the trustees have put in a tremendous amount of effort to put together a plan that is both workable and true to the intent and spirit of Neltje’s wishes,” says John Sargent, Neltje’s son and one of the trustees of her estate. “We can clearly see the possibilities for her gift to have a large impact on the arts in Wyoming, something she worked so hard for during most of her adult life.”
Dozens of UW students and faculty members participated in the five residencies this fall. Students and faculty engaged in conversations about their artistic crafts and entrepreneurship with Jentel artists. They visited local museums such as the Brinton Museum and other artist residencies at Ucross. They spent their time immersed in art and engaging with professional artists and writers from around the country.
Additionally, they engaged with colleagues and students at Sheridan College and have begun to foster closer ties with the Sheridan community.
“By spending time with artists, writers and a diverse collection of art and breathtaking natural beauty, students and faculty have engaged in their own creative work by creating art and creative writing projects that will launch their own creative careers in Wyoming and beyond,” says Scott Turpen, interim dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. “The residencies provide UW students the opportunity of time to develop their skills as creative thinkers and future contributors to Wyoming’s creative economy.”
During two of the residency programs in late October and early November, students and faculty members in UW’s metalsmithing, printmaking and painting disciplines enjoyed spending time at Neltje’s home and studio; at the nearby Brinton Museum and Ucross Foundation property; and in the beautiful natural setting of the Bighorn Mountain foothills.
“During this trip, my classmates and I had a substantial amount of studio time to really immerse ourselves in the space to get in the mind of an artist in a residency. The studio space provided optimal freedom for creative work and experimentation,” says student Ryann Koivupalo, of Lander. “As an aspiring art educator, I recognize the opportunities from this experience are immense with lesson planning, art history, collecting and creating.”
“Having the opportunity to visit this extraordinary location was amazing. I am forever thankful to the University of Wyoming for allowing the Arts and Sciences students to have such an unforgettable experience,” says student Amanda Chism, of Thermopolis. “As a studio artist and a future art educator, I believe the Neltje home embodies why living with art is a human need. Being able to soak in this environment allows creativity and new ideas to form.”
Additional programming is planned in the spring semester, including additional residencies for students and workshops with well-known artists and writers. Two exhibitions also are planned, one on the UW campus and one at Neltje’s former home in Sheridan County.
Since its inception, Jentel has awarded fellowships to 835 visual artists and 418 writers from Wyoming, the Rocky Mountain region and throughout the United States. Many of them produced work during residency that subsequently received national critical recognition, such as Sarah Broom’s “The Yellow House: A Memoir,” which won the 2019 National Book Award. Jentel is now becoming a nonprofit organization in association with UW. Over the next year, there will be increased opportunities for student engagement with Jentel artists and alumni.
Through Neltje Center programming and the Jentel Artist Residency Program, UW students will have opportunities to create, develop their practice and improve their entrepreneurial skills by participating in residencies, workshops and concerts -- and engaging with world-class artists and writers in Sheridan and Laramie. Digital platforms will be used to increase access to the center’s programming.
“At its core, the Neltje Center will be centered on the success of all students. The concepts of creativity, opportunities for personal growth, development of critical thinking skills and study of the arts are valuable to all UW students, regardless of their majors,” Seidel says. “These ideas are fundamental to a college education, are at the root of why students choose higher education, and are crucial to forming the leaders of the future. There will be opportunities for students across UW to benefit from this center.”
Additionally, the Neltje Center will give UW faculty members the opportunity to advance their creative activities and research; develop ambitious cross-disciplinary projects; engage more broadly with Sheridan County and other Wyoming communities; and thereby foster the region’s creative economy.
“Neltje established an expansive vision in making this gift to the university, and we are intent upon realizing that vision. Part of that vision was her desire to enhance the creative economy of the region and the state,” Seidel says. “After a year and a half of sustained work, we are delighted to be moving forward -- and we are excited about the opportunities that will be made possible by the Neltje Center.”
Among the first steps for the new Neltje Center is the hiring of a director, who will report to the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. A nationwide search for this position will launch soon.
“The Neltje Center helps position the arts and humanities as central to the mission of UW and essential elements in the success of the state of Wyoming,” Turpen says.
Neltje was born in New York City and raised in Oyster Bay, Long Island. In 1980, she took a few classes at the New York Studio School of Drawing and, from 1979-1980, she took a few classes at the Art Students League in New York. She was essentially self-taught.
In 2005, she was recognized as one of Wyoming’s preeminent artists with the Governor’s Arts Award. She received an honorary Doctor of Arts degree from UW in 2018. She also received an honorary degree from Rocky Mountain College in Billings, Mont., and was the founder and benefactor of the Neltje Blanchan Literary Award in memory of her grandmother. She served on the board of the Wyoming Arts Council from 1985-88.
Neltje’s work has been featured in collections at the Smithsonian, the Yellowstone Art Museum in Billings, Mont., the IBM Corp. in Denver and the Wyoming State Museum in Cheyenne, among others. Additionally, her work is in private collections in California, Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, New York, Pennsylvania and Wyoming.