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Ucross Foundation celebrates 40 years and looks toward the future

Big Red Ranch House
Hugh Cook
Wyoming Public Radio
Big Red, home of the Ucross Foundation Art Gallery as well as a large performance space/conference area sits prominently at the end of the Foundation's driveway.

Celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, the Ucross Foundation has welcomed a few thousand artists, musicians, painters, playwrights, along with many others from the artistic world to the Clear Creek Valley in southeastern Sheridan County.

Part of a working 20,000-acre cattle ranch, the experience that it offers residents differs from many artist retreats elsewhere.

Sarah McKenzie is a painter from Boulder, Colo. She's back for her third residency at Ucross and while she's participated in other artist residency programs, she said Ucross is somewhat different.

"I think Ucross is fairly unique for artist residency programs in that it's completely free, which is often unusual," she said. "A lot of residency programs charge a fee or ask you in exchange for the residency time to do housekeeping or some other kind of job."

Though both of her first two residencies at Ucross were independent, McKenzie is back this time as the recipient of the Marion International Fellowship. Named after Jesse and Cathy Marion, it provides an opportunity for recipients to partake in residencies at The Circle Members, a group of institutions that have been supported by the Marions.

For her project, McKenzie has combined the penal system and architecture.

"My proposal for the Marion Fellowship was to do an artistic project exploring the architecture of the U.S. prisons," she says.

Hugh Cook
Wyoming Public Radio
The Foundation's offices are houses in the old Ranch House dating from the early 1880s. The Pratt and Ferris Cattle Company was once one of the largest operations in northern Wyoming.

McKenzie is also involved with a prison arts program at home in Colorado. Her fellowship at Ucross will be for two weeks this summer.

Rob Melrose is the Artistic Director of the Alley Theatre in Houston, Tex. He, too, is back for round three at Ucross. The Alley's board of directors offers opportunities for several playwrights to come to Ucross and either work on original plays or translate existing works for possible production at the theatre.

Melrose said his two-week stint will be spent translating plays from foreign languages into English.

"There's a play in Italian, very meta-theatrical play, famous meta-theatrical play called, Six Characters in Search of an Author. It's a play where you come into the theater and a rehearsal is going on, so it doesn't look like a finished set and there are actors rehearsing and a director working with the actors and all of a sudden these six other people come on stage," he explained. "And it turns out they're fictional characters and they're just waiting for someone to write their story and they try to tell their stories."

By his own account, he can translate works in Italian, French, Swedish, and German. He's also learning several other languages, including Spanish, Japanese, Arabic, and Latin.

While many of the Ucross Foundation's residents are from out-of-state, local artists are also welcomed as well.

One of these 'locals' is David Brock, a professor at Sheridan College. He teaches courses on drawing, painting, art history, and color theory. He's no stranger to Ucross, having visited several times, though this fall marks his first time as a resident. It's given him an opportunity to work on projects that have often had to take a backseat to his other responsibilities.

"It's been a long time truthfully since I've had time to actually work on my own work since graduate school, and I left that in 2006," he said. "So, it's been a while where I've been able to focus on work, which has been really nice and it's been nice to give myself that opportunity or space."

Clear Creek
Hugh Cook
Wyoming Public Radio
Clear Creek flows on the east side of the Ucross Foundation where it is joined by Piney and Coal Creeks.

He's working on honing some of his existing skills while experimenting with new artforms while at Ucross. Primarily a painter, landscapes have been a favorite of his, which he likes to infuse with color. In addition to teaching, he also holds exhibitions to showcase his talents.

"I'm working on a couple things, one of them is to build a body of work for a show that I'm going to have in Eau Claire, Wisc.," he said. "And the other is, I'm just trying out newer media that I haven't really worked with before."

Sharon Dynak, the President and Executive Director of the Ucross Foundation, has been at Ucross for more than half of its existence. A Wyoming transplant from New York City, 2021 marks her 25th year at Ucross. While this fall has not seen too much snow in northeast Wyoming, it was a different story when she came in 1996 as a blizzard greeted her shortly after she arrived.

Dynak has seen the program grow through the years and expand its offerings for different kinds of artists.

"The residency program started small with four individuals at a time and then we grew," she said. "We brought the Clearmont train depot over and were able to go up to eight artists, built the music studios and were able to go up to 10 artists—four visual, four writing, two music."

She said this is a good number to have for a full class of residents to maintain a small community feel.

"We kind of think that 10 is a really good size," she said. "It fits around our dining room table where they all come together, but it gives you the chance to have real conversations."

Like with much of the art world during the pandemic, the Foundation closed its doors for several months in 2020. Now fully open again, Dynak thinks that places like Ucross are integral for those in the arts.

"I really feel that programs like Ucross, that are around the country, that it's become more important than less," she said. "That being able to find that period of time when you don't have outside pressures on your mind you're not distracted, I think is becoming more and more valuable."

Productivity and time are two significant reasons that artists seek out the kinds of opportunities that places like the Ucross Foundation offer. Whether by design or not, there is often no reliable cell phone service there. It really is a place removed from the rest of the world.

Hugh Cook is Wyoming Public Radio's Northeast Reporter, based in Gillette. A fourth-generation Northeast Wyoming native, Hugh joined Wyoming Public Media in October 2021 after studying and working abroad and in Washington, D.C. for the late Senator Mike Enzi.
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