Art Begets Art in Wind River Country Art Community

“Certainly there was a good art community before,” said Lander blacksmith Willy Cunningham of his impression that NOLS’ presence has injected a strong art presence into the town over the years. “There were a lot of old timers that we’ve lost that were here for decades before we ever showed up that still influence the art in the county.”

Willy Cunningham in his office

Willy sits at his desk and shares stories about his projects and collaborations. His fellow artists’ works hang on the walls behind him.

Cunningham, who is immersed in the local art scene, believes artistic inspiration feeds off itself in his community. The art on his walls is evidence of just that: drums covered in paint of varying style.

“What I’ve been doing lately is I’ll make two drums for someone. I’ll give them both drums and tell them, ‘I want one back with your original art. You can do anything you want to do, whatever you want to do and you get to keep the other drum,’” Cunningham explained of his new venture creating drums and collaborating.

He walked around his office space in his home, pointing to each of the many drums on his wall:

“Everybody claims that they like painting on it, that it’s a fun medium. We’ve got two Tonya Peppers, Stacey Wells, and then a couple that I’ve done, a Nancy Ebert. They all get inspired and do something different.”

He finds each of these joint efforts continues his inspiration in multimedia including wood, metal, paint, rawhide, bison skulls, and more. He employs this lift of inspiration on a foundation of Lander’s history: his workshop is a renovated barn from the early days of Lander. No longer home to cattle and chickens, the barn houses works in progress, works completed, and tools essential to Cunningham’s craft like anvils and hammers.

Leaning up against a work bench is a burl of Russian olive that brings an eager grin to Cunningham’s face.

POWR poster

The Lander Art Center often features the collaborations of local artists in its shows.

“I admit I don’t play well with wood,” but just down the street is fellow artist Tim Hudson who will work with him to incorporate blacksmithing and wood to create beautiful tables. That’s the future he has in mind for this stunning piece of polished wood. In the same way, Cunningham designs custom handles for local potters like Byron Seeley of Jeffrey City. In fact, his handles were on display as part of the Potters of the Wind River exhibition at the Lander Art Center in October.

As much as Cunningham enjoys sharing his varied works that decorate his home and make his workshop run (I noticed at least one custom hook holding a compressor hose on the wall, and he pointed out his personalized blacksmith’s shaving kit in the house), he really enjoys bragging up his community.

“There are a couple of world-class knife makers in Fremont County,” he says. Audra Draper is the only master bladesmith in the country, and she calls Riverton home. Kurt Hahn of Lander is a knife maker of international renown, as well, Cunningham shares.

Cunningham says artistic energy feeds on itself, which has resulted in the rich creative presence in Wind River Country. As much as art walks to the beat of its own drum, it seems we have found a percussionist keeping beat in the heart of Wind River Country’s band of artists.

armored bison skull

Willy calls this piece his steampunk bison.