Intersections with Neltje




So life imitates art? Yes, there’s probably some truth to that. After all, it’s the intersections in each — and of each — where things get interesting.

For the painter, the convergence of two individual strokes on an otherwise blank canvas represents a sentient experience, one the artist strives to capture and share. For the photographer, the chance encounter between a horizontal ray of light emanating from a background and the vertical profile of a subject in the foreground may be the point of intersection, an occurrence revealing its own truth in a composition.

And what if the paths of that painter and that photographer intersect? Well, that’s where life truly imitates art, and it’s where things get interesting.


Neltje isn’t one for coloring inside the lines, figuratively or literally.

In third grade, she received failing marks in art because of her refusal to do so, a glimpse of the defiant spirit that has guided her throughout her 82 years.

The mononymous Sheridan-area artist hitched her wagon to that “I’ll-do-it-my-way” attitude in 1966 when she left the comforts and security of high society on the East Coast (she of the Doubleday publishing company family) and travelled west to Wyoming with her two children, where she cattle ranched, purchased and refurbished the historic Sheridan Inn — that of one William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody — and fell in love with a land that to this day ignites her soul.

“It comforts me, it excites me, it enlightens me, it makes me breathe deeply,” she said of the hold Wyoming has on her. “The scope of the landscape never ceases to awe me; it’s a landscape of wonder.”

Neltje began dabbling in art at age 30 — first charcoal sketches of her children, then sculpture, collages, and painting. Along the way, her passion became more than a hobby; it became a calling she couldn’t ignore. By 1985 she was working as a full-time artist, and over the past 30 years, she has explored her emotions and creativity as an abstract expressionist. Her pieces are noted for their bold colors, depth, and innovative incorporation of papers and texts. Neltje’s paintings grace museums — including the Smithsonian Institution, Wyoming State Museum, and Yellowstone Art Museum — as well as numerous galleries and countless private collections.

She is also an incredibly generous benefactor of the arts. Her philanthropic pursuits are equal of her artistic abilities. In 2001 she founded the Jentel Artist Residency Program to support creatives with multi-month residencies at her ranch in the Lower Piney Creek Valley, a property which will be gifted after her death — along with artworks and assorted financial holdings — to the University of Wyoming, the largest bequeathed estate in the history of the university. The UW Neltje Center for the Visual and Literary Arts will be an outreach center for the university’s MFA Creative Writing Program, the Department of Art, and the Art Museum. Her legacy cemented as a painter and a patron, it’d seem reasonable if the octogenarian slowed down a bit. But be certain: Neltje isn’t content with comfortable and easy. She is in constant pursuit of her next challenge.

Penning an autobiography? Now there’s a daring endeavor, so that’s just what she did. The details of a life incredibly-lived are exposed in Neltje’s recently-published memoir, North of Crazy. In telling her story via the written word, the painter-turned-author ultimately found common ground between what she initially viewed as two entirely unlike processes.

“I’d thought of them as simply different because you have much more of an immediate possibility of understanding and evaluation and gratification in the visual arts,” Neltje explained of the similarities between painting and authoring. “Writing a book takes three-and-a-half years,” she laughed.

“They each tell stories, but they tell them in very, very different ways,” she said of the two disciplines. “I’d gone to some writing workshops because I always wanted a way to express my story and looking back — well, there’s the answer: even in looking back, it’s on a moment-to-moment basis, and painting is a moment-to-moment recording of how you feel.”

The past several months have been a whirlwind of touring, signing, and selling, during which time Neltje happened upon an idea: commissioning an artist to create a short film that would visually promote her story and her book.

That filmmaker would end up being Robin Layton.


Talk about an intersection.

“I was 15-years-old, and I was sitting on my mom and dad’s couch in Richmond, Virginia. My mom was watching TV and I was looking through a National Geographic magazine. At the time I had a 110 camera and I would take pictures of rocks and ducks and flowers, and so I was interested in photography but didn’t know much about it,” Layton remarked.

She continued, “I was flipping through the magazine and I said out loud, ‘Wow, I’d love to be able to take pictures like these,’ and my mom said, ‘You know, you can do that for a living if you want,’ and I took my hand, and I slapped it on the magazine on my knee, and I said, ‘This is what I’m going to do.’”

“Ironically — this is my life in a nutshell — a week later, I’m at my guitar lesson and the owner is there, who was never there. He was stringing a guitar, and he said, ‘Robin, your teacher’s running a little late, he’ll be with you in a second.’ Then out of the blue, he asks, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ and I say a National Geographic photographer.”

“He goes, ‘You’re kidding? Did you know that one of my student’s dad is a National Geographic photographer?’ And right then — I’m not kidding — right then the shop door opened — one with the bells on it — and he says, ‘In fact, here comes his wife right now.’ That’s my whole life. I’m very blessed.”

Layton — after fortuitously meeting and then mentoring under that National Geographic photographer — went on to become a Pulitzer-nominated photojournalist, world-renowned freelance photographer and highly-sought-after artist and filmmaker.

That “whole life” she referenced? It’s included some pretty remarkable moments that she never could have fathomed while she was sitting on that couch in Richmond, Virginia.

She has published three books, taken celebrity portraits — including those of Jennifer Aniston, Felicity Huffman, and President Barack Obama — shot weddings for the stars, and created nine films for the Oprah Winfrey Network (Oprah has 24 of Layton’s art pieces gracing the walls of her Maui home).

Her mother — who planted that “of-course-you-can-do-that” seed at age 15 — was also Layton’s inspiration for exploring her talents as a fine artist, which she has pursued full-time over the last nine years.

“When my mom passed away, and as I was holding on to her in Powell, Wyoming — she was the most talented artist I’d ever known — I realized at that moment that she never did anything professional with her art, and I thought, ‘Gosh, I’m not leaving this planet without finding the artist inside of me,’” she explained of her decision to steer her career in a different direction, a new heading which eventually led Layton to Neltje and Sheridan, Wyoming.


This particular intersection is comprised of two narrow dirt roads at the base of the Bighorns, but there’s no need to slow down: traffic isn’t just light out here, it’s nonexistent.

Except for one massive diesel pickup truck inside of which another intersection is occurring, this between a pair of artists. Life and all its wonderful undulations have brought together two beautifully strong-willed, talented souls from different worlds to share in a vision together.

The project-at-hand will be a visual representation of Neltje’s life told through the passing of the four seasons. Layton pitched the concept prior to seeing the series of four, 10’x30’ season-inspired paintings hung in the artist’s home during her recent visit to capture images of her subject and video the Wyoming landscape — with the assistance of drone pilot Josh Law of Flood Marketing — for the winter portion of the film.

“There was a magic synergy when we met. It was a wonderful connection between us, a wonderful energy. We just felt that we were meant to work together,” Layton explained of the quick bond between her and Neltje. “She’s kind and generous. She’s a special soul, just an extremely talented artist. It was easy to work with her.”

Layton will return to Wyoming in the spring, summer, and fall of this year to continue her work with the painter and author, who looks forward to continued collaboration with the filmmaker.

“There’s a comfort in being able to talk the same language,” Neltje said of the simple bond between her and Layton. “It’s like any artist on the whole. You just feel at home and you can say, ‘Oh, my God, look at that,’ because you’re both visual. It’s a matter of belonging you come away with, a sense of community.

“It’s a camaraderie of creativity; we all pull from the same stream.”

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