High Lonesome: Wyoming's Ucross and Jentel

Lisa A. Phillips
From the March/April 2004 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

Northeastern Wyoming is a rugged place, where the ruins of turn-of-the-century homesteads still stand in the tall grass, and communities gather every spring to watch cowboys wrestle their calves down for branding. An average of five people per mile populate this High Plains landscape of low, bison-backed hills and rushing creeks. Such rough, isolated grace makes the region an ideal, though unexpected, environment for an artists colony—or better yet, two of them.

By the end of the session, the residents who hadn’t been to Ucross were talking about applying there.

Ucross, founded in 1981, has long been known as one of the premier colonies of the West, with a strong pedigree of residents including Annie Proulx and Ha Jin. Just eight miles away, Jentel opened in 2001. Both colonies are small. Ucross can accommodate some mix of eight visual artists, writers, and composers at a time, for stays of two to eight weeks. After two years of offering a March residency to two visual artists and one writer, Jentel expanded its scheduling to provide four-week residencies eleven months out of the year to six residents at a time. Both colonies are located on working cattle ranches that offer stunning views of the Big Horn Mountains.

What is it about the iron-red soil of northeastern Wyoming that has attracted two thriving colonies? “The space,” said Neltje, an abstract expressionist painter and the founder and benefactor of Jentel (an anagram of her name). “Just plain room to be, to question, to think, to love.” (Neltje, a longtime sponsor of the arts, for many years has funded the Writers Exchange Contest, which is a program of Poets & Writers, Inc., the organization that publishes this magazine.)

Sharon Dynak, the director of the Ucross Foundation, attributes the draw of the region to author Stephen Nachmanovitch’s concept of “entrainment,” a phenomenon in which the “silent rhythm” of strangers working near one another augments the creative process of all. “I’m sure that entrainment does operate at Ucross,” she said. “Perhaps it pulsated down the two-lane highway that connects Ucross and Jentel.”

The relationship between the colonies is casual and friendly, with announcements of readings, presentations, and openings at the two facilities posted for each colony’s residents and staff, who occasionally make informal arrangements to get together. One colony tends to be an advertisement for the other. I spent a memorable month finishing a draft of a novel at Ucross in 1999. When I found out that Jentel had opened, the prospect of returning to Wyoming thrilled me, and I didn’t hesitate to apply. On my arrival, I discovered I wasn’t the only Ucross alum to think that way. By the end of the session, the residents who hadn’t been to Ucross were talking about applying there.

The Ucross campus is on the former site of the Clear Fork headquarters of the Pratt and Ferris Cattle Company. The complex of buildings, known as “Big Red,” dates from 1880 and includes the Big Red Barn, the Big Red Ranch House, the Clearmont Train Depot, and the old School House. Big Red was restored by Ucross founder Raymond Plank, the CEO of the Apache Corporation, an independent oil and gas exploration company. Today, the Ucross Foundation runs the residency program, along with conference facilities, a contemporary art gallery, and a 22,000-acre ranch.

Resident bedrooms and common areas are located at the School House and Clearmont Depot. Two of the writers’ studios are in the Depot; the other two are located in the Kocur Writers’ Retreat, a new, spacious building on the banks of Clear Creek. Kocur is a three-quarter-mile walk from the other two buildings. Bicycles are available to residents. Locals and staff offer car rides during Wyoming’s infamous “horizontal weather”: driving snow, rain, or hail blown sideways by high winds.

During the week, Ucross’s chef prepares lunches and hangs them on studio doors at midday. Dinner is served in the School House at six. Residents are expected to attend, unless they notify staff otherwise. In my experience, few will want to miss the exceptional meals and the opportunity to connect with other writers and artists. The kitchen staff is talented and extremely accommodating of dietary needs and special food requests. Breakfast and weekend meals are the residents’ responsibility, with the kitchen kept well stocked.

There is plenty of room to roam at Ucross. More than half of the ranch is under a conservation easement with the Wyoming chapter of the Nature Conservancy. Residents can head out on U. S. Highway 14-16 East, a blacktop road that borders the ranch, or walk along the gravel road that runs through the property. The more adventurous can roam the grassy hills of the ranch, which means getting used to walking around cows. I discovered that, despite their challenging glares, they’re harmless. The off-road experience is well worth it, with abundant sagebrush, prairie rabbits, mule deer, wildflowers, and the occasional antelope. You may also come across teepee rings,
circles of stone 15 feet in diameter and set in the earth, evidence of the land’s history as Indian hunting grounds.

Like that of Ucross, Jentel’s architecture pays homage to its Western heritage, with the writers’ studios housed in a log-faced cabin and the artists’ studios situated in a barn. The main residence has a distinctly “New West” feel, though. Opened in 2003, the two-story peach adobe building’s west wall is almost entirely glass, offering views of the Lower Piney Creek Valley and the Big Horn Mountains, which are snowcapped most of the year.

Jentel admits two writers and four studio artists each session. While many colonies are “staggered,” with residents arriving and leaving on different dates, Jentel has set start dates and departure dates every month. Residents stay in well-appointed bedrooms; three residents share two bathrooms. Because there are no set mealtimes, the potential exists for artists to stay on their own schedule, with a minimum of contact with others. But because the kitchen is shared, residents should be prepared for at least some communal activity. There are weekly Thursday morning trips to town for groceries, banking, and supplies. During the first week of my stay, the kitchen became Grand Central station between 6:30 and 8:30 every night. We decided to simplify the dinner hour, each of us taking a different night of the week to cook for the group. This had the advantage of turning chaos into an experience more typical of colonies with a meal schedule. The kitchen was spacious and very well equipped, so we ended up getting deliciously competitive with our menus.

Jentel is bordered by Piney Creek, the Snake Hills, and a stretch of working ranch land known as “1,000 Acres”—another chance to put my cow social skills to use! Birding was incredible during my May–June stay, with northern orioles, black-headed grosbeaks, and an abundance of killdeers, magpies, and goldfinches. Marmots, mule deer, cotton-tailed deer, and rabbits were also plentiful. For safety reasons, residents are required to sign out when they leave campus, and bright orange vests are a mandatory measure for walks on the land and Lower Piney Creek Road. Hikers must use the buddy system when walking on 1,000 Acres from October through early May—temperatures can fall below freezing with little notice.

Jentel encourages residents to share their work with the community during their stay. Each session, the staff organizes a voluntary resident presentation, typically including slide shows and readings, at one or more of the local establishments, including the Sheridan Public Library, the YMCA, and area bookstores.

There is little within walking distance of either Ucross or Jentel. Residents who want more mobility than weekly town trips should bring or rent a car. The two closest communities to Ucross and Jentel are Buffalo, Wyoming, population 3,500, and Sheri-dan, Wyoming, population 13,000. Both towns have supermarkets, restaurants, cafés, a library, and other amenities. Buffalo is home to the historic Occidental Hotel, where Butch Cassidy, Calamity Jane, and Buffalo Bill Cody all stayed. Sheridan’s landmarks include the Sheridan Inn and the Mint Bar, a grand, polished-wood Western watering hole with an impressive assortment of rodeo photos and taxidermy.

Ucross and Jentel schedule occasional, optional outings in and around the Big Horn Mountains. Locations of interest include Devils Tower, the subject of the Richard Dreyfuss character’s obsession in the film Close Encounters of the Third Kind; Tensleep Canyon; and Crazy Woman Canyon. Yellowstone National Park, with Grand Teton National Park to the south, is a five-hour drive away.

Lisa A. Phillips is a freelance journalist and a fiction writer.