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Pure Quill: Photographs by Barbara Van Cleve

“Just give me my horse and saddle, some great open country, cattle, and working cattle people, and I’ll do my work quietly, in all conditions, from pure perfection to rain, mud, dust, and freezing blizzards.” Barbara Van Cleve

The best storytellers, according to an adage attributed to Mark Twain, are those who write about what they know. The implication is that the storyteller has a depth of understanding from firsthand knowledge and experience that results in candid realism. In the vernacular of the American West that concept of authenticity has been called pure quill.

Barbara Van Cleve has been telling stories about what she knows since she was an adolescent. Born and raised on a working Montana cattle and horse ranch, she found inspiration in the land and sky, animals and people that were a part of her daily life. Rather than using nouns and verbs, however, Van Cleve’s storytelling tool has been the camera lens. For seven decades, she has focused that lens on subjects that have enriched her life, everything from the vastness of the landscape, to a line of cattle paralleling the lay of the land, working ranchers, her favorite horses, and more intimate slices of life pursued through her never-ending curiosity.

Rather than cluttering her work with colorful adjectives, Van Cleve has chosen to tell her stories in black-and-white photographs whose subtle values speak to the mind, heart, and soul. “Black and white is such an intellectual medium, with lines that allow the eye to travel beyond the frame and value gradations that engage the imagination and stimulate the memory,” she says. Indeed, through the medium of black-and-white, Van Cleve removes much of the myth associated with the American West, while conveying its real-life adventure and compelling drama.

Many people are familiar with Van Cleve’s work because of her 1995 book Hard Twist: Western Ranch Women, which was also an exhibition that traveled to museums for a decade. In this first exhibition featuring the breadth of Van Cleve’s subject matter, viewers experience the other themes she addresses, including her Rodeo as Dance series, her striking portraits using the moon and stars as a light source, and her documentation of the Spanish Mission Trail in Baja, California, which she has recorded over more than two decades.

Van Cleve’s photographs, which are admittedly documentary, rise above the everyday because of her masterful eye for riveting compositions, complemented by the photographs’ physical size. Using a variety of large formats that invite a partnership between viewer and subject, she conveys the immensity of the western landscape and the archetypal people and symbols associated with western life.

Pure Quill contains 65 framed photographs ranging in size from 22” x 28” to 38” x 48”. Label copy and wall text is provided electronically. A fully illustrated, award winning publication of the same title accompanies the exhibition.

Listen to a clip from Montana Public Radio about the exhibition!