CHEYENNE – His paintbrush quickly flicks over the mirror propped up on his artist’s easel, while the colors on the paint palette slowly spread across the reflective surface and create the iconic buckeye style of painting.
While many can’t agree on its origins, this method is a quick, rustic style of painting. Many of the paintings hanging on the walls of Gary Clemons’ booth can be completed in a matter of minutes, instead of hours or days, like other artwork.
“It was popular during the Civil War and after,” Clemons said. “All the way to the first years of the new century. It was actually very popular in the upper Midwest, and it was natural that it was called buckeye – buckeye painting. It was a primitive style that was very popular.”
Clemons has been coming to Cheyenne Frontier Days for the past 25 years after he decided a career in chemistry wasn’t for him. His uncle, Wayne Clemons, was an artist, so he thought to himself, “that looks like more fun than what I’m doing now.”
Even though he switched to make painting a career later in life, Clemons has actually been painting since he was a child.
“Now, we had a place in Oklahoma, a big park, where my grandfather would sit us down and teach us to paint, and it was in public,” Clemons said. “People would look over our shoulders and say, ‘You should have done this, you should have done that.’”
As people walk by his booth, not much has changed for Clemons since his first introduction into painting. He’s still painting in public, though in the booths under the Frontier Days grandstands instead of a park in Oklahoma.
As he paints, several people stop to gaze over his shoulder, the same way people would do when he was first starting as a 10-year-old. And when people gaze at his paintings, they also see themselves looking back.
“One of my favorites is this covered bridge right here ... it’s from Vermont,” he said. “A couple days ago, a couple was walking by and said, ‘Oh, there’s that bridge.”
The couple was from Vermont and actually lived near where the actual bridge stood. Clemons started talking to them about the bridge and the surrounding area, playing a memory game with them, he said.
Many of the painting ideas come from Clemons’ memories, imagination and sometimes both. Gesturing to a scene of a park in one of his paintings, he said those were actually aspects of two parks he’s been to. He liked them both, so he merged them in one painting.
In another painting, it’s actually a memory his wife has. The painting is of Native Americans bathing in a creek, a place his wife has been to and bathed in herself.
Native American artwork is also a common sight at Frontier Days.
Sitting in her booth in the CFD Indian Village, Melody Sauceda sells her jewelry to the crowd surrounding her shop.
She picks up the different pieces and explains the meaning behind them and how she created the wearable art.
Sauceda has been creating jewelry since she was 13 years old with her family, and has been doing it on her own since she was 19.
“This is my signature piece. The leaf and the vine pattern represents the breath of life. When my third daughter came into this world and she took her first breath, I started creating this,” she said. “The flower symbolizes the beauty in all of us.”
In another piece, Sauceda joins different shells together to represent an angel embracing someone.
Part of the reason she enjoys creating jewelry is because people can wear it while it harnesses spirituality and the inner strength people have within themselves.
Sauceda’s been coming to Frontier Days for the past seven or eight years on the recommendation of her friends. She fell in love with it the first time she came out to Frontier Park and has been coming ever since.
“I put my kids into all of my jewelry,” she said. “I put my kids’ names when they came into this world, and I took whatever energy I had when I was giving birth and put that into my jewelry.”
Other jewelers have family influences on the craft, as well. Navajo artists John and Evelyn Chavez have been coming to CFD for 30 years. John Chavez does the silver work for the jewelry, and his wife, Evelyn Chavez, does the bead work.
They said they keep coming back because the Indians Committee has been really good to them, and they’ve made close friends.
The couple travel to CFD from one of the Navajo reservations in New Mexico. There isn’t a lot of economic development on the reservation, so jewelry-making gives them opportunities to travel and work from home.
They used to bring their grandchildren with them when they were younger, but now their grandchildren have children of their own.
“It’s fun. You don’t know what you’re going to come up with when you start,” John Chavez said. “It’s a good creation process ... you’d be surprised what comes out at the end.”
He said he looks forward to returning to CFD again next year.