By William Matthews
Annie Proulx’s writing is landscape driven the land is very much an active character in her stories. Many writers describe the land in their works, but Annie takes it one step further so that the land and landscape influence the story. That aspect interested me as a painter, making me want to sketch out some of those elements.
Initially I thought the stories were such complete pieces that I was a little hesitant to go in and try to enhance what Annie had already described. I thought I should do a series of atmosphere paintings based on elements in the book guns, trucks, landscapes, horses that were more general and not necessarily related to a particular story. As Annie and I talked, though, it seemed to us that more pointed, specific illustrations were needed. So I went through the stories again and underlined descriptive areas that
I thought I could enhance through illustration. I wanted to bring something new to the party in the way that N.C. Wyeth and other illustrators had done.
A Lonely Coast
For the cover image, we wanted to find something that was provocative and a little jarring. We came up with the idea of a saddled horse standing in a blizzard without a rider. I did several versions, and then Annie and I selected one.
Throughout the collaborative process, Annie and I talked regularly and sent things back and forth to each other. At one point she sent me two big envelopes filled with snapshots she’d taken in her travels around Wyoming. She had used these photos as reference when writing her stories. Even though I’ve traveled across the state extensively, these snapshots helped me a lot as well. They helped me to see what Annie was looking at and in-spired by on the way to creating Close Range.
Award-winning writer Annie Proulx’s newest work is Close Range [May 1999 Scribner], a
collection of short fiction set in the West. The book includes color illustrations by Denver painter William Matthews and is note-worthy because it has been 60 years since Scribner last published illustrated adult fiction. Matthews spoke to Southwest Art about his collaboration with Proulx, the results of which can be seen on the following pages along with excerpts from the book.
The Mud Below
It turned out to be Elk Nelson and he was one step this side of restless drifter, had worked oil rigs, construction, coal mines, loaded trucks. He was handsome, mouthy, flashed a quick smile. I thought he was a bad old boy from his scuffed boots to his greasy ponytail. The first thing he did was put his .30-.30 in the cab rack of Josanna’s truck and she didn’t say a word. He had pale brown eyes the color of graham crackers, one of those big mustaches like a pair of blackbird wings. Hard to say how old he was: older than Josanna, forty-five, forty-six maybe. His arms were all wildlife, blurry tattoos of spiders, snarling wolves, scorpions, rattlesnakes. To me he looked like he’d tried every dirty thing three times.
—A Lonely Coast
In the sixth second the bull stopped dead, then shifted everything the other way and immediately back again and he was lost, flying to the left into his hand and over the animal’s shoulder, his eye catching the wet glare of the bull, but his hand turned upside down and jammed. He was hung up and good. Stay on your feet, he said aloud, jump, amen. The bull was crazy to get rid of him and the clanging bell. Diamond was jerked high off the ground with every lunge, snapped like a towel. —The Mud Below
The Blood Bay
“That can a corn beef’s wearing my size boots,” he said and got off his horse for the first time that day. He pulled at the Montana cowboy’s left boot but it was frozen on. The right one didn’t come off any easier. “Son of a sick steer in a snowbank,” he said. “I’ll cut em off and thaw em after supper.” He pulled out a Bowie knife and sawed through Montana’s shins just above the boot tops, put the booted feet in his saddle bags, admiring the tooled leather and top-stitched hearts and clubs.
—The Blood Bay
“O.k.,” she said, walking up to the tractor. “We are goin a move you into the blue-door shed and operate. My dad is goin a help me and you better stay hunderd percent quiet or it’s all over.” “You want to know my problems? Brakes. Belts shot, block cracked, motor seized, everything rusted hard, sludge, dirt, lifters need replacin, water pump’s shot, camshaft bearins shot, seals shot, magneto, alternator fried—you look inside that clutch housin you’ll see a nightmare.”
—The Bunchgrass Edge of the World
Going up, the day was fine but the trail deep-drifted and slopping wet at the margins. They left it to wind through a slashy cut, leading the horses through brittle branchwood, Jack, the same eagle feather in his old hat, lifting his head in the heated noon to take the air scented with resinous lodgepole, the dry needle duff and hot rock, bitter juniper crushed beneath the horses’ hooves. Ennis, weather-eyed, looked west for the heated cumulus that might come up on such a day but the boneless blue was so deep, said Jack, that he might drown looking up.
Featured in June 1999
The Bunchgrass Edge of the World