(Riverton, WY) The love of painting, of the Wind River, and of the history of Riverton and the city itself are all a part of the mornings, daily life, and lifestyle of plein air artist Dan Weeks, whose works are now exhibited in a gallery at the Riverton Museum.
“It’s the Greatest Show on Earth.”
Every morning, about an hour before sunrise, Weeks packs up a chair, a tripod, painting materials and a coffee thermos, then walks down Railroad Avenue to the river. He sets everything up, “…and then I just sit back and watch the sun come up.”
“To see that sun come up with the big sky and a new day… there are no phone lines, no towers, no helicopter traffic, no airliners going over. I’m the only one there…it’s a beautiful view of a pond and a riparian paradise behind the trees. It’s all the animals there. It’s the river…you can hear it rushing by. It’s the greatest show on Earth.”
At some point, Weeks starts to paint. “I never have a plan,” he said. “I don’t know what I’m going to do, it just sort of happens as it goes along. Since the sunrise unfolds over a period of time…you have about an hour of twilight that changes, the planets might be all out, sometimes clouds come in…I just wait and see what happens.”
A part of it…New York, New York
In 1973, Weeks was a volunteer for the Peace Corps and was stationed in Ecuador, Nepal, Niger, Columbia, then Washington, D.C. He made a film in Ecuador where Lillian Carter, the mother of U.S. President Jimmy Carter, was the narrator.
“She had been a volunteer in India, so she helped me put this little film together,” he said. “From there, I knew I was going to be a photographer because I never graduated from college and I didn’t want a job, I wanted to do my own thing. So I learned how to do 19th-century process photography…figured out how to take that look and style and adapt it to the New York City advertising world.”
After living overseas for many years, Weeks came back with a portfolio and showed it around to the New York City design scene. The portfolio got into the hands of Milton Glaser, designer of Esquire magazine, “…and he said ‘okay, you’re doing Scott Fitzgerald’s last unpublished story for us,’ “ Weeks said. “And they put it on the cover. Back then, magazines were ‘it’…there was no Internet.”
In 1979, Bloomingdales did a show that included Week’s photography from South America. Coincidentally, film celebrities Warren Beatty and Diane Keaton came through the show, and at the time, they were working on the pre-production of the 1981 film, Reds. Beatty and Keaton said that Weeks was the guy they needed to illustrate the movie because the film was about the Russian Revolution and they wanted historic photographs.
“They said, ‘This is him, this is the guy we need to illustrate the movie,” Weeks said. “So they hired me, and that went on for 2-3 years. That got me into the whole industry.”
Weeks specialized in bromoil, which is a transfer process that makes a photo look like a classic painting. New York City design firms had Weeks working on projects for celebrities such as Barbara Streisand (Yentl, 1983), posters for Sally Fields, a record album for Billy Joel, and “the whole commercial world,” he said. “It’s all past history now, but back then, it was a pretty big deal for me.”
Then, after ten years, “the digital world started coming in,” he said. “Adobe, Adobe Photoshop…it was out for years, and at first, it didn’t work very well. But then, when it worked? Put us all out of business. They were paying me a ton of money to do my photos because I was the only one who could do it…then all of a sudden they could hire some kid for $15/hour to do a good enough copy that the corporations didn’t care…they saved money, right? People don’t appreciate it now because they don’t know it even existed…the film, the paper, the chemistry, the time.”
Weeks said that a lot of photography artists tried to adapt to the digital world, which meant paying tons of money for digital cameras and software that “weren’t very good.” He had been used to big-budget projects, and now budgets were smaller. So he decided that he would get a CDL and be a truck driver, and he moved from New York City to Casper, Wyoming.
“I drove a million miles of road with flatbeds,” he said. “Missoula, Montana…North Dakota…didn’t even really pay the bills, but it was enough to keep me running. And I did that until I retired about five years ago.”
Down by the riverside…
As a retired truck driver living in low-rent senior housing, Weeks said that he walks everywhere. “I don’t have a car, so I decided to save money by not driving,” he said. “I can walk to Smith’s or to the local market store down the way…that’s where I get all my food…and I walk to the river.”
Weeks said what he really wanted to do was learn how to paint.
“There were no teachers, and I wasn’t going to take a class; I wanted to do it on my own,” he said. “What’s fascinating about painting is that there’s no end to it…you just keep learning more and more and experimenting. Since I had that background in chemistry with photography and adapting process work, painting fits right into that. I found that I could walk a mile down to the river…it’s right there, it’s beautiful…a perfect pictorial paradise. So I’ve been doing that every day ever since, for the past five years.”
Weeks was dedicated to oil paint, but had discovered casein paint, which is made of milk protein and is considered to be the oldest paint on earth.
“There were tools in South Africa painted with casein, one definitely dated from 40,000 B.C.,” Weeks said. “It’s milk-based and has a wonderful aroma to it, and it dries fast.”
For the love of Riverton
With vast experience in bromoil and nineteenth-century process photography, Weeks decided to visit the museum to find out if they had any photographs of what the river used to look like back in the day. Riverton Museum’s Site Manager Nathaniel Griffee helped him find some good photos, “…and then I was like, wow…now you see what the layout was like,” he said. “A power plant with a big chimney, all these short line railroads, stacked and finished ties…Riverton was an active, bustling town. All of that went on until the 1940s.”
“I love Riverton…nobody else wants to come here,” he laughed. “So I pretty much have the whole place to myself. Everybody wants to go to Lander…it (Riverton) doesn’t have all the frills and fancy bells and whistles and whatever else, but down by the river? Since I’ve been down here every day for five years, I’ve slowly picked up on some of what was going on, and the history of it all…the railroad went through, the creosote plant was right there, the logs came down the river, into a canal…it was a major industry here, and it was the main thing for the river for years and years. And here I am right here, every day,”
Weeks creates at least one painting per day, and over the course of the past year and a half, has accumulated over 450 oil and casein paintings, several of which are now hanging in a gallery at the museum. He uses several other mediums “toys and tools”…various brushes and a pallet knife to achieve a different look and feel…colored pencils, and artist-grade crayons.
“I like the palette knife look,” he said. “When I was painting with oils, I used a brush. Oil takes a long time to dry, and if you mix it up too much, it turns into mud…Or I’d say ‘this is too dark’, and I’ll look at it for a while, then figure it out. Maybe I’ll want to add some other color or texture. But you don’t have to do very much to get some results. It’s pretty pleasing…to me, anyway. It really is about learning your own way, your own process. You spend as much time as you want or as little time as you want. I’m here at the river every morning, and as far as I know, I’m the only one painting here…so anyone is welcome to come here and have some fun.”
Known as the ”Wind River Daily Painter”, Weeks’ website reads that his “only goal is the willingness to complete a new oil sketch every day; which is no easy task! So far, I’ve completed over 400. Carl Rungius said they get interesting after the first 3,000! No awards, no special events, no art memberships…just love and gratitude.”
“It’s a small town and it can sometimes feel limited,” Weeks says about Riverton. “But I don’t want to think about what it doesn’t have, I want to concentrate on what it does have. And it has the river.”
The Riverton Museum is located at 700 East Park Avenue, and is open Monday through Saturday from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Admission is $6 for adults, $5 for seniors and students (elementary to university), and children ages 5 and under are free. For more information and updates on events and activities, visit their website or their Facebook page.