With a bottle of bear spray hanging from his neck and dressed for harsh weather in neon yellow, Dwight Cushman stood by the side of the North Fork Highway, admiring Holy City in the Shoshone National …
With a bottle of bear spray hanging from his neck and dressed for harsh weather in neon yellow, Dwight Cushman stood by the side of the North Fork Highway, admiring Holy City in the Shoshone National Forest.
At first it’s hard to see what he is up to, but on closer inspection you’ll notice a canvas attached to the back of his SUV and a large, messy painter’s palette perched on his thumb. His happy face is partially hidden by a loosely tied blue balaclava topped with a fuzzy, black chapka. You’d have to look past his friendly smile and deep dimples to see the 45-year-old’s red and silver beard.
On this day the thick oil paint — in gobs of brown, green, blue, yellow and dabs of red — were hardened by freezing temperatures, challenging Cushman. When he first attempted painting outdoors his art blew away in a gust, so he now uses a bicycle rack to mount his canvases securely to the back of his vehicle. The large off-road capable SUV also assists in blocking the wind. But at this point, weather doesn’t factor into his decisions to paint. Plein air art is both his passion and much needed solace. Cushman said he heads to the mountains when “it’s been a really bad day,” and the stress just melts away.
Like many artists, Cushman has a full-time job that allows him to support his family and his artistic pursuits. He decided to be a mortician, a career where he could use his artistic talents to “commemorate” those passing in the community and comfort their families. By the time his work is done, he needs a break. So he heads to the hills as often as possible.
“Most people would probably expect me to paint on the subject of death. But I get enough of that at work,” said Cushman, who has a degree from the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California.
“Painting outdoors is a kind of stress relief — it’s like my therapy to go out,” he said. “I spend a day outside and I come back and I’m a normal person again.”
Immersing himself in the beauty of the mountain ranges and rock formations of northwest Wyoming gives Cushman the peace he needs to be a good husband, father and to continue his intense work in “the back of the house” at Ballard Funeral Home.
“I need to be in the presence of something eternal like a mountain, something that’s greater than myself that inspires me,” he said. “This place brings out the best in people. It’s close to my heart and makes me just want to sing out and experience the glory while I’m standing there.”
Cushman’s impressionistic paintings are fresh and full of life. He travels throughout the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and the Big Horn Basin finding inspiration. And then he begins to paint.
He often returns to the exact spot to continue working on a painting. The bitter cold or uncomfortable heat, a busy schedule as a family man and curious folks rolling up to inquire about his artwork all take time. He doesn’t mind; he enjoys sharing his inspirations and loves to be among the living.
Cushman answers all who enquire about his art with enthusiasm. They are falling for his trap.
“The artwork is a byproduct of my desire to inspire people to notice where they are. Because it’s unbelievable here,” he said. “This is the most beautiful place on earth.”
Plein air painting is about leaving the four walls of your studio behind and experiencing painting and drawing in the landscape, according to Courtney Jordan, a teacher for the Studio Foundation Department at Massachusetts College of Art in Boston. “The practice goes back for centuries but was truly made into an art form by French Impressionists,” Jordan explained in an article for the Artists Network. “Their desire to paint light and its changing, ephemeral qualities, coupled with the creation of transportable paint tubes and the box easel — the precursor to the plein air easels of today — allowed artists the freedom to paint ‘en plein air,’ which is the French expression for ‘in the open air.’”
Cushman organized plein air group events in Great Falls, Montana, but has found it hard to organize a group in Park County. The area once had a rich tradition of the style — so much so that Sue Simpson Gallagher built her Cody gallery around plein air painters.
She has always admired plein air painting due to the immediacy of the style and the artist’s response to the landscape.
“I love how spontaneous and fresh it is,” Simpson Gallagher said. “It’s just so wonderful when you see something painted on the spot. There is this feeling that I’ve always felt — like I got a little closer to the artist by getting a sense of their response to their environment. And I feel like I was part of the process.”
Yet, despite building her gallery on the style, many of the original artists she represented have transitioned to studio work. Now, thanks in part to the same pandemic that brought Cushman to the area, there is a resurgence in the tradition of painting outside, Simpson Gallagher said. “On-the-spotters are what they’re called.”
Most plein air artists in the area paint alone, she insists. “There’s not a great cohesion to the art community here.”
Considering the many great artists in the area, few are duplicating styles, Simpson Gallagher pointed out.
Cushman said northwest Wyoming is one of the few places near national parks that doesn’t have an organized plein air club.
“It doesn’t make sense,” he said. “We have all the good stuff here.”
The Wyoming Arts Council, in partnership with Wyoming State Parks, holds various arts activities in parks across the state, including Plein Air in the Parks. The annual event pairs talented artists with beautiful locations — Buffalo Bill State Park was featured in 2020 and 2021 — and the competition is open to artists of all ages, offering cash awards to winners in adult and youth classes.
Powell’s Linley Richardson won first and second in last year’s youth contest at Buffalo Bill State Park, with Sebastian Jessup, also of Powell, taking third. Emmalee Nordland from Powell also was an award recipient, winning first and second place in the teen contest.
There will be two Plein Air in the Parks events this year: at Curt Gowdy State Park in Cheyenne Sept. 15-18 and at the Trail End State Historic Site in Sheridaan Sept. 22-25. Contact the Wyoming Arts Council for more information.
As for Cushman, he wants to paint with folks, no matter their skill level.
“I want to encourage people to get out there and make art. And if they feel like they want to go out with somebody, they can call me up,” he said. “I’m more than thrilled to go out with people excited to paint.”
Cushman currently has a plein air painting of the Devil’s Backbone — a hogback rock formation near Clarks Fork Canyon — on display in Cheyenne after winning a spot in the 2022 juried Governor’s Capitol Art Exhibition. He also has an online gallery at www.CushmanStudio.com, complete with contact information if you wish to join the fun.