The art of the hunt

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“Peaks to Plains”
By Kelsey Dayton

Republished courtesy of WyoFile

Jim Blair of Glenrock is an engraver people hire to ornately decorate their firearms. (photo by Peter Gibbons)

Jim Blair was 7 years old when he received his first gun, a .22 caliber rifle — a rite of passage for many Wyoming boys and girls. A few years later he bought his own hunting rifle.

Guns and hunting were a way of life for Blair, who grew up in Lander and now lives in Glenrock. He learned to care for his guns and became fascinated with the engineering and manufacture of firearms. While learning checkering — creating the texture boxes on guns that provide a more secure grip — in the 1970s, he watched an engraver work on a gun and knew that was what he wanted to do.

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He became an engraver.

Blair augmented his self-schooling by studying under established engravers until he opened his studio in Glenrock in 1993. A master engraver, Blair engraves coiling scrolls and detailed bird and animal scenes on rifles, shotguns and pistols.

His work is a classic example of when craftsmanship takes functional items and makes them working pieces of art. A rifle and a knife Blair engraved are part of an exhibit at the Wyoming State Museum in Cheyenne that explores the art that originates in Wyoming’s hunting and fishing heritage

The show, “Art of the Hunt: Wyoming Traditions,” is the culmination of five years of collaborative research between the Wyoming Arts Council and the University of Wyoming American Studies Program. The exhibit opened July 18, and runs through June 2015.

It features more than 70 objects crafted by more than 50 artisans. Items in the exhibit include fishing rods, bows, and taxidermy mounts. All of the pieces were made in Wyoming, and many are functional. Others have always been revered as art, such as a set of framed flies meant for hanging on a wall.

In Wyoming, hunting isn’t just a past time or part of the economy, it’s a piece of the state’s heritage, said Anne Hatch, a folklorist with the Wyoming Arts Council. Children learn from family and friends to hunt, fish and prepare the fruits of their labor. Stories are shared about the big fish, the perfect shot and the one that got away. Many communities have a taxidermist, meat processor and expert fly-tier. The tradition of hunting and fishing is handed down orally, and through tools like bows, firearms and rods.

Andrea Graham, a folklife specialist who works as a researcher in the American Studies Program at the University of Wyoming, conducted interviews with people around the state about how hunting and fishing are a part of their lives. Her goal was to look at hunting as a cultural and creative activity. She focused on the technical skill of occupations tied to hunting, like outfitting and making equipment like saddles and boats. Many of the people who make the gear began out of necessity but developed into artisans and rightfully see themselves as artists, she said.

The exhibit weaves in storytelling from people who talk about their first hunt, how game meat fed their family, or the pride of a family known for its one-shot kills. There’s a place for the public to share stories too, on a bulletin board. Craftsmen and women also share how they learned the trade and their creative process.

Al Darlington of Thermopolis is a fish taxidermist. Some of his work is part of a display showcasing Wyoming’s sportsmen heritage at the Wyoming State Museum. (Photo by Peter Gibbons)

Milo Mills learned to become a taxidermist through a correspondence class he took in the early 1900s while living in Tensleep, said his grandson Mark Whitlock who was interviewed for the exhibit. It cost $25 — a lot of money at the time — so he kept all his lessons. Years later his grandsons, including Whitlock, discovered the coursework. While his brothers eventually got “real jobs” Whitlock became a taxidermist, following in his grandfather’s footsteps.

The Worland taxidermist is mostly self-taught and has been working for more than 20 years. People often want to commemorate their hunting milestones, such as their first kill — even if it’s a two-point mule deer — as well as the record-breaking trophy they might get later in life.

Whitlock says he receives requests from people all over the country, and sometimes works with homeowners in designing pieces that fit specific spaces.

“You don’t just get a deer skin and slap it on the wall,” he said.

Whitlock also works with museums, creating exhibits and displays. He’s currently working on an exhibit headed to Asia on prairie dogs. That involves mounting prairie dogs along with wolves, deer and other animals that live in the same habitat, while creating a realistic looking setting for the mounts.

Whitlock recently hired a man who wants to learn the business, and who also had a grandfather who was a taxidermist. He’s happy to share the tradition, and some of the work. The worst part of the job is it cuts into his time to hunt.

See the exhibit: The exhibit opened July 18 and will remain open through June 15, 2015 at the Wyoming State Museum in Cheyenne. An opening reception featuring game meat prepared with some of the recipes in the exhibit will be August 1, from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. The exhibit may be redesigned to travel once it closes in Cheyenne.

The artists:

Dan Galloway, Afton

Pat Rentsch, Aladdin

Kim Olson, Baggs

Kirk Rexroat, Banner

Marvin Nolte, Bar Nunn

Jim Warner, Basin

G.K. Fraker, Buffalo

Herb Meland, Casper

Robert Stone, Casper

Dale Storey, Casper

Leroy York, Casper

John Aurzeda, Cheyenne

Gary Koc, Cheyenne

Charles McCall, Cheyenne

Tom Mulhern Cheyenne

Von Ringler, Clark

Dick Castle, Cody

Brian Robertson, Cody

Don Schmalz, Cody

Tim Wade, Cody

Susan Fandek, Daniel

Elizabeth Dolber, Dubois

Kurt Gordon, Dubois

Lyn Gordon, Dubois

Tom Lucas, Dubois

Karen Mott, Dubois

Anita Thatcher, Dubois

Glen Miller, Evanston

Glenda Trosper, Ft. Washakie

Wayne Baker, Freedom

Jim Blair, Glenrock

Fred Pickett, Green River

J.R. Butler, Hulett,

Carla Snook, Hulett

Jay Buchner, Jackson

Scott Sanchez, Jackson

Tex Frazier, Kinnear

Dale Frazier, Kinnear

Amanda Alley, Lander

Jack Mease, Lander

Jerry Andersen, Laramie

Jerry Johnson, Laramie

Janie Van Oss, Laramie

Rob Vogel, Laramie

Crystal Vogel, Laramie

Rich Wormington, Lovell

Audra Draper, Riverton

Mike Draper, Riverton

Ed Fowler, Riverton

Elizabeth Capozza, Rock Springs

John Jones, Rozet.

Don Butler, Sheridan

Don Gould, Sheridan

Barry King, Sheridan

Al Darlington, Thermopolis

Wade Stoll, Wheatland

Mark Whitlock, Worland

— “Peaks to Plains” is a blog focusing on Wyoming’s outdoors and communities. Kelsey Dayton is a freelancer and the editor of Outdoors Unlimited, the magazine of the Outdoor Writers Association of America. She has worked as a reporter for the Gillette News-Record, Jackson Hole News&Guide and the Casper Star Tribune. Contact Kelsey at kelsey.dayton@gmail.com. Follow her on twitter: @Kelsey_Dayton