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WyoStrong: Artist talks overcoming struggles and Wyoming's influence on her

WyoStrong: Artist talks overcoming struggles and Wyoming's influence on her

"All of us loved this country: the wildly varied landscape, from mountains to deep arroyos and on to the Powder River Breaks; the vast space and far horizons; the way of life; the light on the landscape, which altered the vision in seconds; and the play of light on the waters of Lake DeSmet and on the creeks that flowed clear, or that cast shadows on the rolling foothills of the Bighorn Mountains."

— Neltje, "North of Crazy"

Neltje at a recent reading at Sheridan Stationery Books and Gallery.

(Wyoming) — Born in 1934 into a life of Manhattan glamor, Wyoming artist Neltje eventually shed the social hierarchy of the East Coast to shovel sheep dung in Wyoming.

And as we Wyomingites know, this was a good choice: Life anywhere else pales in comparison.

"My life wouldn't be as rich and wonderful if I hadn't come to Wyoming," Neltje says. "When I was 12, and I fell in love with the idea of wide open spaces, the horse, the smell of leather and smoke and cowboys."

Neltje, an abstract expressionist painter who has had solo exhibitions at the University of Wyoming Art Museum and the Yellowstone Art Museum, and was the 2005 recipient of the Wyoming Governor's Art Award, has written a new memoir, "North of Crazy."

An heir to the publishing fortunes of Nelson Doubleday, Neltje, now in her 80s, says she did not grow up with her parents. Instead was raised by nannies, aunts and uncles and tutors, ricocheting from one rich party or person to another.

"When I was 12, I faced my mother and I said, 'Why did you bother to have children if you keep sending us away?' And she couldn't reply," Neltje recently said in Sheridan.

Her memoir spans her time in a Switzerland boarding school, including a run-in with Princess Elizabeth — now the Queen of England — to her life as a debutante, mother and, finally, in Wyoming.

When she came to Wyoming in 1965, Neltje no longer had to be the proper socialite known for her famous family.

"When I moved out here, I spent my time moving sheep s***," Neltje says. "In our backyard, the grasses were up to about my waist, and there were a lot of bones ... there were elk and deer, you name it."

It was in the decades after 1965 that Neltje made a new name for herself, saving the Sheridan Inn from demolition, taking up painting and showing her work around the state.

"Eventually I became an alcoholic. I had to recover from that. I learned to become an abstract expressionist painter, which means — you put a mark down. You put your brush down, and you can get really dark ink and put a mark right over it, but that original mark will stay there. You can't take it away," Neltje says.

"That struck me so strongly. That was like life. You do something, good, bad or indifferent, and it is always there. That is the exciting part of it, and that is the bitch of it. It is both."

She started with a canvas little bigger than her palm, but now paints on 10-foot by 30-foot panels.

And for the rest of us, those struggling within a creative process, those with a message to share or mark to make, Neltje says to do just that: Start. Create.

"Make yourself some space. Give yourself permission to be who you want to be. Give yourself a room, give yourself the time," Neltje says.