SCOTTSBLUFF — Artist Jean Welborn’s exhibition, title “500 Days,” is open for viewing at the West Nebraska Arts Center in downtown Scottsbluff.
The show — 12 portraits on wood, canvas, glass and steel, arranged on posts in the center of the upstairs gallery — goes beyond an urbanite’s casual romanticism of rural America. It’s a reflection of the land and the hardy people who come from it.
Welborn grew up in Holt County in Northeast Nebraska and graduated from Chadron State College in 2012. In an essay outlining the concept, she credits two events leading her to the project.
First, she got married and moved to “the big city” of Omaha with her husband. Second, her grandfather died.
The Atkinson native wanted to honor her grandpa, Raymond Dobias, who passed on January 22, 2014. Dobias was the last of a breed which is disappearing from the American West — a farmer who lived and worked the land in rural Nebraska for more than 80 years before his death in 2014. Her grandfather shared a codependent relationship with his farm — a substantial and complicated bond that exists between the steward of the land and the very ground that provides his livelihood.
“The whole point was to paint a tribute,” Welborn said during the reception Thursday evening. “But I didn’t just want it to be one painting of him.”
She aimed to capture “the good old boys” — the farmers and ranchers and rural residents — the salt of the earth that city dwellers often overlook. They’re the people she grew up around — the folks you meet driving a pickup down a dirt road. The idea was to leave the portraits outside for 500 days — to see how the faces she’d made would be exposed to the elements — to watch them grow old and wrinkle with time.
“What do these people appreciate more than the land? It’s where they work, where their cattle are,” she said.
The idea sat in her head for more than a year, so she wrote to express things she couldn’t articulate out loud.
“In early August, 2015 I spent the day with my uncle on his ranch,” Welborn read from a sheet during her reception.
“We changed out a panel in a corral, loaded up a bull and took him ‘back home’, changed the oil in his center pivot, ran a bale hauler over to a neighbors and had a job well done beer at the end of the day.
“It was everyday life for him but I felt so accomplished. We had spent the day doing things that made me want to blog to the world, look I lifted something heavy! I got a stellar looking bruise from the corral panel. I used a power tool! I had sweat dripping into my eyes. Dripping! I had a dirt smudge on my face that I didn’t want to wipe off. I had accomplished something.
“Then I realized if I hadn’t tagged along that day, he would have done the exact same routine. But no one would have seen the dedication, the sweat, the dust, the excitement when the bull finally cooperated, and he wouldn’t have went home feeling the need to tell the world how hard he worked because he did that every single day.
“Before I left that night I shyly asked if I might hang up the paintings on his land. Of course he agreed. My family might not always get me but they’ve always got my back. I told him I would give him the article I wrote just so he could get a better idea of what I was going for.
“The next day we had dinner at grandma’s with everyone and before I left to head back east with my husband I handed him the rough draft of the article “500 Days by Jean Welborn”. The next morning I got the best text from my uncle I could have possibly asked for.
August 17, 2015 11:07am “Your essay explaining the paintings out in the open was well written i loved it lets get em out there and start the process.”
After six months of painting in an apartment in Omaha, Welborn took the paintings to her uncle’s ranch near Atkinson. There, her paintings would hang in a circle in a clearing in the trees from Aug. 23, 2015, to June 7, 2017 — 655 days. Periodically, Welborn would return to visit and check on the paintings, taking photographs and journaling the progression as the weather aged and worked her paintings.
Faces of toughness
Her grandfather’s face is just one of the portraits. The other faces, though inspired by people she’s met in real life, were drawn from Welborn’s imagination. She wanted to show the sturdy stock of rural life — the people you’d meet in a small town.
There’s a painting of an old cowboy in a red flannel, (acrylic on canvas). He could be an archetype for the surly rancher you’d run into at a local coffee at 6 a.m. — wrinkles in his face, but a twinkle in his eye. He’s a little bit ornery and gets a rise out of giving the waitress grief.
There’s a young man, handsome — inspired by a young seed farmer, the sort with a toddler in tow running around wearing a cowboy hat. The next generation of farmer, trying to have a go despite the hard times in rural Nebraska.
“There’s hope,” Welborn said of the man in the painting.
Then there’s a young woman, basking in the natural beauty of sunlight that can only be experienced on a country morning.
As Welborn is explaining the inspirations for her paintings, she’s approached by an older woman who — pardoning the interruption — wanted to tell Welborn how much she appreciated the exhibit.
“It makes me want to cry,” the woman said, tears welling in the corners of her eyes. “To memorialize the whole life of people in rural Nebraska — it’s just wonderful.”
Welborn responded humbly.
“Thank you so much, you’re giving me goosebumps,” she said.
Living in contrasts
Be it her hometown of Atkinson (population: 2,106) or her current home in Blair (8,091), life in smaller towns can prove to be jilting after time spent away in a big city.
Such was the case for Welborn. As she was traveling back home for her grandfather’s funeral in 2014, she noticed — although not for the first time — how start of a contrast there is between the two modes of life.
“I didn’t really think there could be a culture shock, but the first time we came home from Omaha for a holiday, there were things that stood out,” she said.
Simple things — parking on main street, people waving as you pass, or going into the grocery store and knowing the names of everyone there.
“There is a difference,” she said. “Being in a city, you’re completely anonymous. You can go to a store and not know anybody.”
In rural areas every small town has it’s own celebration. In Atkinson it’s Hay Days, with the small town parade. But you could easily insert Oregon Trail Days or Fur Trade Days or the County Fair. The little things you wait for during the summer long.
“The other thing that is startling when I came back to the country was how quiet everything is,” she said. “There’s nothing, and it’s gorgeous. The silence of the country is stunning.”
500 days and then some
When Welborn finally removed the paintings from the ranch, she felt as though she was able to journey with her paintings — all ending a little bit changed. Her grandfather’s painting was the most worn of the 12 portraits.
The works aged like machinery left outside or the clad panels on a barn or machine shed.
“Beautiful things don’t not ask for attention,” Welborn said. “I heard that quote once and it stuck with me.”
The words sum up her feelings about her grandpa, rural Nebraska, and the 500 days project.
In a companion blog, [https://jmd500days.tumblr.com/], Welborn assembled all of her diary posts and photographs which are also displayed on the gallery walls. Welborn’s show will be on display at WNAC through June 23.