By Todd Wilkinson EBS Environmental Columnist
I can’t help it. Whenever I’m driving down Gallatin Canyon on U.S. Highway 191 between Bozeman and Big Sky, I try to forget the stress that comes with navigating this over-traveled road. I try to mentally blot out what our manic desire to possess nature has done and is doing to the spirit of Montana and the Gallatin River.
What I do is let my thoughts drift into the message conveyed by Rod Crossman’s paintings. Crossman is considered one of the finest “sporting artists” in America and he’s placed in the category only because he is so impactful in communicating the spirit of angling rivers and wing-shooting field scenes.
I think of Crossman because I became familiar with his work back when I was in my 20s, a long time ago, and we each professed our love for the rivers of Greater Yellowstone.
To appreciate Crossman’s magic, think about your greatest fishing memory, the one that like a fine Scotch whisky only gets better with age.
You know the one I am talking about; it hovers in your mind as an eternal perfect day. No sound attached, only a certain quality of light. You know you can’t physically reinhabit it because the essence is fleeting, though it’s precisely the vision’s elusiveness that makes you want to reach out and touch it even more.
Such a memory certainly doesn’t include the crowds of today and there is no whiff of worry that somehow the dramatic growth in the area will cause leaky septic systems or that a water treatment plant will grow beyond capacity and spill effluent into the Gallatin making the river a sacrifice to the gods of growth.
It’s been said that in a Crossman painting the viewer’s eye can see into the sweet hereafter and back. To the artist, rivers are holy.
“My painting style is about capturing the moment just before or just after an experience that changed me in some profound way,” Crossman says, “the emotion and memory of that time. It may have been something that opened my eyes to a thing I’d never noticed or filled me with awe or woke me to a different kind of reality.”
Like visitations in dreams from people in our past, Crossman believes the spiritual presence of shared places and moments continues in nature.
“As humans, we all share similar emotions and some experiences,” he says. “Persistent memories keep coming back when our senses are touched by something familiar. It might be a smell, a color, a reflection in the water, the sound of the wind in the trees. In my work I’m trying to evoke those things. I think that’s why in some ways what I’m seeking is a dreamlike or ethereal quality.”
In describing where he finds inspiration for the aesthetic effects of his work, he told me: “One… I am a wade fisherman. When I’m at least waist deep or more in the water, there is a sense of weightlessness. When the laws of gravity don’t apply any longer it’s easier to believe in something impossible happening. Hope or hopefulness needs that kind of belief. I guess wading helps me see more clearly and feel more completely a part of the stream too.”
Crossman alludes reverentially to the scale of nature and the balming therapeutic impact going afield has—of how it has been a wellspring for euphoria and a cathartic refuge for shedding grief after he’s lost loved ones.
“Rivers, streams and the creatures that live in them induce such a sense of wonder and awe within me,” he says. “When we experience awe and wonder it makes everything else around us bigger and ourselves smaller. For me, this is a way to help overcome the cynicism, doubt and fear that so easily creeps into our everyday lives.”
Why does protecting nature matter? Crossman says those who only see rivers as commodities or mere window dressing need to wake up.
“I believe the invisible things of this world are the eternal and that the visible things are temporary. The selfless things we do for others is how to make the world a better place,” Crossman says, noting that advocating for the protection of nature is part of that. “I’m not holding myself up as great example of that. In fact, for most of my life I think I’ve been a selfish person. But over the years I’ve wanted more and more to invest my life more in those kinds of eternal things.”
Crossman hopes his paintings will cause some to put down the rifle rod or real estate listings for a moment and become more appreciative of what produces exceptional habitat for other creatures to survive.
“If we could see the others’ story, if we could see the invisible, it could make the world a better place,” he explains. “This is part of the reason why the world needs art. It helps us see, it opens us to the unseen and eternal parts of ourselves and others. It helps navigate the endless mysteries. I love what one of my favorite writers Richard Rohr says about mystery: ‘A mystery isn’t something we can’t know; it’s something endlessly knowable.’”
Todd Wilkinson is the founder of Bozeman-based Mountain Journal and is a correspondent for National Geographic. He authored the book “Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek,” featuring photography by Thomas D. Mangelsen, about famous Jackson Hole grizzly bear 399. Wilkinson’s cover story on renowned actress Glenn Close appears in the summer 2021 edition of Mountain Outlaw magazine.