Cheyenne, Wyoming. Railroads and rodeos, cattle and Colts, mining and military: A decidedly rugged history has long played out here in this town once called Hell on Wheels that lies 6,200 feet high on the edge of the Great Plains. And now…art Mecca?
This truly modest-sized state capital of 65,000 souls in the least populated state in the Union has launched what in a larger urban environment might be an equally modest project. But here, Cheyenne’s compact 19th-century grid-platted landscape is being transformed into nothing less than a walkable outdoor gallery of huge and captivating murals covering old frontier-era brick walls to go along with block after block of delightful street corner statues.
Cheyenne’s art explosion becomes immediately apparent as you drive into town and bright murals pop right and left off of downtown business façades. Truly wacky and cool, The Buffalo by muralist Jordan Dean shows a blue bison in shorts playing guitar while an eagle soars above and various other critters fill the scene. It takes up most of the wall of a tall building behind the popular Paramount Cafe. Elsewhere in town, there are walls filled with kraken, cherubim, and comic book figures, as well with horsemen, of course. Some are spray painted, some graffito style. There’s a handy app to guide you to them all too.
A dozen years ago, art gallery owner Harvey Deselms was inspired to add some wildlife statues downtown. In a true community effort, he and others collected donations to put up a few works at a time along the city’s historic 17th Street. Eventually they added humans to the bronze mix as well. And of course, a cowboy.
Ultimately, a task group was formed, and taking cues from a popular arts program in Sheridan Wyoming, the city began commissioning works for the Capitol Avenue Bronze Project. In the last two years, the program has really taken off and was officially dedicated this past June.
While Jackson Pollock may have been born in the opposite corner of Wyoming, we’re talking here mostly of more traditional straight up figurative representations. And bronze statues have a long tradition in the West, after all. In addition to the state’s rich wildlife being honored, so too are historic figures, both pioneers and indigenous, such as Shoshone leader Washakie holding a pipe by sculptor Guadalupe Barajas and Arapaho leader Yellow Calf immortalized by sculptor Tanner Loren.
Cheyenne is small enough to wander all downtown, and as you take in the popular view that stretches from the capitol building to the historic and handsome Union Pacific train depot, you could literally trip over most of the works.
Most pieces are less than a few feet tall, including their stone pedestals created by local masons. Some are stoic, some are whimsical. Quite a few are colorful as well (remember, the Greeks painted their statues too). Most are unrubbed so far, but that will change as people can’t help but touch figures like Hare Raising, artist Tim Cherry’s cute little hare that’s standing upright.
You’ll encounter a Noah’s Ark of other animals too: bronze mule deer, bear, moose, cougars, sheep, fox, mustangs and draft horses, and of course, bison. A delicate meadowlark perched in a thicket and sculpted by Cliff Hollestelle goes by the charming title of Meadow Maestro.
And you couldn’t ask for a better introduction to Wyoming state history. Depicted by sculptor Loren, a Lewis and Clark Expedition member named John Colter was more famous for an 1807 winter journey into what became known as Yellowstone and the Tetons. Union Army officer Granville Dodge went on to become chief engineer for Union Pacific, and, just as sculptor Barajas depicts him in surveying mode, was responsible for plotting Cheyenne.
A great number of Cheyenne works honor many firsts among women. One of the early city bronzes, sculptor Veryl Goodnight’s A New Beginning has stood in front of the Depot Museum since 2011. Holding a bag in one hand and an umbrella in the other, a woman is in full Victorian splendor, but decidedly modern nonetheless. She represents Wyoming having been in 1869 the first state to grant women the right to vote.
Sculptor Joel Turner has honored a number of Cheyenne’s leading late-19th and early-20th century women as Wyoming gained statehood. Given that in 1870 she became America’s first (albeit briefly-serving) justice of the peace, his Esther Hobart Morris looks very determined. So too does early suffragette Therese Jenkins in another work. In 1924, Nellie Tayloe Ross became the first woman to serve as governor of a U.S. state; Turner shows her standing proper in an elegant blue dress.
Yet more Turner works depict early photographer J.E. Stimson who chronicled the Union Pacific and much early city history; architect George Rainsford for whom a whole historic district of Victorian homes is named; and WWII Admiral Francis X. McInerney who stands tall in his blue uniform, his rows of insignia painted brightly.
Cheyenne was a pioneer in aviation. On one street corner, sculptor George Lundeen’s dashing early aviator leaning on a propeller blade honors the Murray brothers of early airmail pilots.
And then there’s the Cheyenne’s Big Boots project of eight-foot-tall fiberglass boots, covered in colorful and often whimsical images of town history. With some thirty in all, you can’t miss them placed outside of civic buildings and businesses. One in front of the library depicts, naturally, book stacks. Right in front of the Wyoming State Museum, junior high kids created one covered in historic license plates. Another shows famous gunman and outlaw Tom Horn whom Steve McQueen portrayed in one of his last movies. A PDF is available to preview Big Boots works.
Cheyenne is a boom town once again. A booming art town.
For much more on public art in the city, visit Arts Cheyenne.