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Exhibition Highlights UW Research on Hunting and Fishing

July 15, 2014
Man holding fish
Fish taxidermist Al Darlington of Thermopolis is one of the artists featured in the new Wyoming State Museum exhibition, “Art of the Hunt: Wyoming Traditions,” produced by the UW American Studies Program and other partners. (Peter Gibbons Photo)

Having worked as a public folklorist in the Intermountain West for more than two decades, Andrea Graham knew something about Wyomingites’ connection with the outdoors and the state’s strong hunting and fishing heritage.

But since arriving at the University of Wyoming as a research scientist in the American Studies Program in 2009, Graham has learned just how deeply hunting and fishing are ingrained in the state’s culture.

For the past five years, Graham, a folklife specialist, has led a project to capture Wyoming’s hunting and fishing lore and traditions. She and a number of UW American Studies master’s degree students have criss-crossed the state to meet with gunsmiths, fishing rod makers, fly tiers, bow makers, saddlers, decoy carvers, knife makers, guides, outfitters, taxidermists, trappers, camp cooks and others to document their work and tell their stories.

Their findings are featured in a new exhibition, “Art of the Hunt: Wyoming Traditions,” that opens at the Wyoming State Museum in Cheyenne Friday, July 18. It will run through June 30, 2015. An opening reception scheduled Friday, Aug. 1, from 5-7 p.m. will include many of the 50 or so Wyoming artists whose works are featured in the show. The project is a joint effort of the American Studies Program, the Wyoming Arts Council and the State Museum.

“We’ve found some really amazing artists around the state, many of them not all that well known outside their communities,” Graham says. “I’ve developed such an admiration for the craftsmanship of these people, and how this very strong, rich culture is such an important part of Wyoming.”

Graham says the project tackled the “enormous topic” of Wyoming’s hunting and fishing culture, including how those outdoor activities provide a pastime for many residents, jobs for some people, and an economic pillar for the entire state. The researchers explored how the tradition is handed down from generation to generation and interviewed dozens of storytellers, songwriters, artists and those who practice occupational skills associated with hunting and fishing.Taxidermist J.R. Butler works on a mount at his workshop in Hulett. Butler is one of the featured artists in the “Art of the Hunt: Wyoming Traditions” exhibition at the State Museum in Cheyenne.

Because the State Museum’s gallery space is limited, the exhibition was narrowed to focus on big game hunting and fishing, and the items associated with those activities, Graham says. Hand-made objects on display include fishing flies, bamboo fishing rods, taxidermy, pack saddles, engraved firearms, knives, recurve bows, carved fish, leatherwork and beadwork.

“We found that most of these items have an important, practical use, but also that a great deal of skill and creativity goes into making them,” Graham says. “The knowledge and skills have been passed from generation to generation. These are all great folks who are passionate about what they do, and when we showed an interest in their work, they were very excited and happy to demonstrate it.”

Graham, who took a Wyoming Game and Fish Department hunter safety course to become more familiar with the hunting culture, says some of the craftspeople interviewed expressed concern that younger generations are less interested in learning the skills. Still, there’s little indication of an overall decline of hunting and fishing as an important part of Wyoming’s identity.

“So many people hunt and fish in the state, and so many people come here to hunt and fish. It’s what we’re known for,” she says. “It’s just something that people do, and in a way we take it for granted. Open space, wilderness and wildlife are an important part of life in Wyoming, and I don’t see that changing.”

During the nearly 12 months the exhibition will be in place at the State Museum, a number of public programs are planned to highlight the research project’s findings, Graham says. The first is Saturday, Sept. 20, from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. and will include artist demonstrations, hands-on activities and gallery talks. The Wyoming Humanities Council helps sponsor those events.

In addition to conducting fieldwork for the project, UW American studies students have helped plan the exhibition and taken photographs that are used in it. One student is working this summer to develop educational activities for museum visitors and study units for school classes tied to educational standards.

“In addition to making major contributions to the project, the students have gained practical experience in producing public programs,” Graham says.

Eventually, all of the materials gathered in the “Art of the Hunt: Wyoming Traditions” project will be archived at UW’s American Heritage Center.

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