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An artist returns paintings of Yellowstone to Big Sky after 21 years

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By Tyler Allen
Big Sky Weekly Staff Writer

BIG SKY – Carol Tomlin was invited to be an artist in residence for Yellowstone National Park 21 years ago, and she turned it down. She regrets it to this day.

A self-taught oil painter from Woodbine, N.J., Tomlin, 58, began painting at age 10. She started using deer hides as canvasses after she had a family, “because we had so many from my husband, two sons and myself hunting every year,” she said.

Tomlin first came to Big Sky in 1991 after her brother, Kenny Morton, invited the family to visit him. Morton, who has lived here for 34 years, owns Canyon Auto in Big Sky.

On that trip, Tomlin brought some of her buckskin paintings to Yellowstone, hoping park officials might take interest. When she showed them to then park superintendent Golden LeFevre, he liked them but said they couldn’t be displayed because people might take offense. Lefevre asked if she would consider painting on canvas.

“I said ‘sure’ and mentioned I liked painting cabins,” Tomlin said.

“Then you should paint one of the world’s largest cabins,” LeFevre said.

Tomlin began working on “Old Faithful in the Winter 1904” (1991) that summer, creating a depiction of the Old Faithful Inn shortly after its construction.

Tomlin used the architectural schematics drawn by designer of the Inn, Robert L. Reamer, for the historical perspective. “I thought everyone in America should see what it looked like originally.”

LeFevre liked the painting so much he asked her to do one for each season. “We’ll do re-prints and put them in every room [of the inn],” LeFevre said. Then he asked her to be the park’s artist in residence.

Tomlin turned him down, she said, because “I had two small children, a farm to take care of, and my husband is a commercial fisherman, gone four or five days at a time.”

LeFevre rescinded his offer to hang the re-prints, but asked if Tomlin would donate the paintings of the inn to the park. Stunned, she declined and wrapped the paintings up and tucked them into the back of her studio. That’s where they remained for the next 21 years.

“Long story short, it was a bad career move,” Tomlin says now.

This year, Tomlin brought her work back to Montana, and it’s now hanging on the walls of the Big Sky Western Bank in the Big Sky Town Center. “They just need to be seen by the public.”

Standing beside “Old Faithful in Winter 1904” this November, she explained what an undertaking it was to build the structure featured in her work. “A lot of men died building the Inn,” Tomlin said, since the harsh environment and isolation of the site created dangerous working conditions. But it was a landmark achievement, when completed.

“[21st U.S. President] Chester Arthur saw Old Faithful go off [in the late 1800s] and said every American should see it,” Tomlin said. The Old Faithful Inn allowed travelers to make the world’s most famous geyser a destination, long before it could be reached by automobile in a day.

A number of Tomlin’s other paintings also hang in the bank, including “Deer in the Snow” (1996), “Mountain Majesty” (1996), “Old Faithful in the Spring” (1991), and “Royal in a Resting Place” (1996), all oil on canvas. She plans to start painting on buckskin again because “so many people have been asking for them.”

Tomlin was in Big Sky from Oct. 15 to Nov. 7, hanging her work in the bank. At the same time, Hurricane Sandy was ravaging her home state of New Jersey. She said later that their horse farm and surrounding neighborhood were left relatively unscathed by the storm.

Contact Carol Tomlin by phone at (609) 861- 3057.

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