Joe Arnold | Reaching Great Heights

Exum Ridge View, oil, 24 x 24
Exum Ridge View, oil, 24 x 24
By Pattie Layser

Joe Arnold maintains that hard-to-reach places—places high above the everyday crowds—are essential for discovering the thrills and risks that define one’s limits. “Such places are rare,” he admits, “but you can still find them in Wyoming!”
Arnold is the fifth of seven generations to make Laramie, WY, his home, and while his experience of Wyoming doesn’t replicate that of other family members (such as his great-great-grandfather Franklin Luther Arnold, a missionary to Native Americans), what Arnold finds in the West does: “My ancestors all came here for adventure and ‘to find themselves,’ and that’s essentially what I have done in the high mountains.”

The 53-year-old artist is an avid mountaineer who’s known for the high-altitude panoramas he paints atop mountain summits. An annual participant in the Buffalo Bill Art Show & Sale in Cody, WY, Arnold’s been nicknamed “the plein-air artist of thin air.” A brochure for the exhibit once described a painting of his as “done at the end of a rope, the artist’s feet hanging over a yawning precipice.”
Above Lake Yellowstone (detail), oil, 18 x 96
Above Lake Yellowstone (detail), oil, 18 x 96

Arnold, his wife, Alison, and their three children (Jason, now 28; April, 22; and John, who died in 2005 at the age of 27) all hiked and climbed as a family from the time the children were young. An outing to Silas Canyon in the 1980s gave rise to Arnold’s top-of-the-world paintings. “You won’t find ‘Malted Mountain’ on maps of the Wind River Range, but it’s a real place in Arnold family legends,” says the artist, grinning. “I was taking the boys higher up to escape the mosquitoes—climbing fueled by lots of chocolate malt tablets!—when I realized that, for me, the views from mountaintops looking down are as good as it gets.” Why, he wondered, was no one painting summits? Even now, a quarter century later, no one else paints mountains the way Arnold does. “I guess you could say I like the epic view, scenes that transcend the mundane and let one’s soul and imagination soar.”

On canvas, Arnold not only shows viewers how mountaintops look, he lets them peer over the edge. In the colors born of rarefied air, he renders in oils and pastels the sentiment that John Muir expressed after his first ascent of Mount Ritter: “How truly glorious the landscape circled around this noble summit!—giant mountains, valleys innumerable, glaciers and meadows, rivers and lakes, with the wide blue sky bent tenderly over them all.”

Arnold’s highest painting was done at 18,000 feet on a glacier in the Bolivian Andes…

Featured in June 2007

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