A Birthplace, a hidden Story and a Rebel Painter
By John Clayton
It was January 2019. I had just bundled off to my editor the manuscript for my book Natural Rivals: John Muir, Gifford Pinchot, and the Creation of America’s Public Lands. I was free to investigate new projects—ideally smaller ones! For example, somewhere I’d picked up the piece of trivia that famed Abstract Impressionist painter Jackson Pollock had been born in Cody, Wyo. Was there a story there?
I will always remember leaving the library at Montana State University-Billings, and starting my walk back to the car. I’d been stymied in my quest. I looked up “Wyoming” in the index of several Pollock biographies. Most confirmed the piece of trivia: he was born in Cody on Jan. 28, 1912. A few mentioned that his family had soon moved away. But that was it.
As a journalist and historian, I’m always looking for a story. Not a piece of trivia. What was Pollock’s relationship to the state of his birth? How did it evolve? What did it say about the man and his character? Might it even say something about his art? And the biographers were saying: No. There is no story here. Pollock never returned to Wyoming for the rest of his life.
I was halfway across the university’s quad when I suddenly stopped in my tracks. Why then did Pollock mention Wyoming in every single interview he did? Wyoming must have meant something to him, or he wouldn’t have brought it up.
Pollock was famous for being verbally inarticulate. He wasn’t good at talking about his paintings, or art, or life or anything. He wasn’t a talker. But that meant, if he did keep mentioning a topic, it must be important. He just wasn’t good at talking about why. It’s the job of the biographer or journalist or historian to piece together that story.
I could now see my purpose. I went back into the library and checked out several Pollock books. They taught me about the Pollock-era art world. I already knew something about Wyoming in that era, from research for The Cowboy Girl, my biography of Caroline Lockhart (1871-1962). On my next visit to Cody, I added more context from newspaper archives. Then, as I examined Pollock’s life with this unusual set of questions, I found a powerful narrative.
My editor at the Bozeman-based Big Sky Journal had been asking for an article. I pitched this one. She was delighted, and noted that a sister publication, Western Art and Architecture, might also be interested. That editor was eager to pose questions about what the nation sees as "Western" art.
But when a magazine does a story on a famous artist, it runs into problems licensing the artwork. They got permissions to run my piece in print, but for only a very brief window on the website.
Thus in May 2022, when I read Katie Klingsporn’s great WyoFile article on the failure of an effort to name a Wyoming mountain after Pollock, I had conflicting emotions. On the one hand, I had no problem with the decision. (Klingsporn lays out the proposal’s many issues.) On the other hand, it felt like members of the Wyoming Board of Geographic Names—much like Pollock’s biographers—knew only the piece of trivia, and not the story. Then again, who could blame them? They hadn’t heard the story. And I couldn’t point anybody to it, because it no longer existed on the Web.
Enter Tom Rea and the great team at WyoHistory.org. Tom found the story worthwhile. We gave it some updates and tweaks. He also found ways to illustrate it with artworks from the public domain. (Unusual for a WyoHistory article, it also contains a few embedded links, from the name of a Pollock painting to a website that is legally reproducing that artwork.)
I’m delighted that WyoHistory has given this story a permanent home. Not because I care one way or another about whether mountains get named after artists. Rather, this piece of trivia turned into one of my all-time favorite stories: about a fascinating person with a fascinating relationship to a fascinating place.