By Janet Van Vleet of the Abilene Reporter News
It seems a daunting task: Tell the story of the Big Country from the 1850s to the 1950s using a variety of modes and methods.
But the staff at The Grace Museum are up for the job and welcome folks from all over the Big Country to check it out beginning Thursday evening.
"It was a challenging thing to do," said Judy Deaton, chief curator for The Grace and co-curator of the new exhibit. "But it will be a great visitor experience."
"Home on the Range: Where the Prairie meets the Plains in Central West Texas" incorporates fine art, historic photographs and artifacts ranging from spurs and saddles to tools used by Native Americans, the ranchers and cattlemen, along with oral histories collected from local ranchers and other longtime residents of the area.
"If you look up this part of Texas, sometimes it's part of the Panhandle and sometimes it's part of the Plains," Deaton said. "But we aren't either. We have to claim our own heritage."
Deaton called this area a big crossroads, a place where things passed through, such as the migratory buffalo herds and the Native Americans who used it as a hunting grounds. Trail drives brought cattle in and out of this area and the Butterfield Overland Mail stages stopped on their way West and back East.
"We're really excited to share the story of our region," said Laura Moore, executive director of The Grace. "We believe there will be a strong interest in the exhibit."
Bob Nutt, a member of the board of directors and chair of The Grace's exhibition and collection committee, said he's gotten a sneak peek at some of the items in the exhibit, but is excited to see the complete deal.
"I think what's most interesting to me, really, is combining the art and history together," he said. "It's so tailored to our region. Not cowboys in general, not history in general, but our region."
This exhibit is distinct in a number of ways from previous shows at The Grace.
First, it is a single exhibit that will be installed on all three floors of the museum.
"Everything will be mixed together to tell a story. It's all intertwined," Deaton said.
Another unusual aspect of this particular show are the partnerships that came together to make "Home on the Range" a reality.
The massive exhibit was co-curated by Michael R. Grauer, associate director for curatorial affairs/curator of art and Western heritage for the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum in Canyon, which loaned items.
Among the groups and organizations that shared various pieces were: Western Heritage Classic, Buffalo Gap Historic Village, The Old Jail Art Center, Frontier Texas!, Hardin-Simmons University Library & Archives, Texas Family Land Heritage Program, Fort Chadbourne and Fort Griffin State Historic Site joined with the Dallas Museum of Art, Amon Carter Museum of Modern Art, San Antonio Art League, The Wittliff Collections, Humanities Texas, Texas Commission on the Arts and the Texas Archive of the Moving Image.
A number of private collectors and historic ranching families, such as the Perinis and the Guitars, shared art, photographs, artifacts and history with the museum.
Melody Hunt, the vice chair of The Grace board of directors, is not from West Texas and looks forward to learning more about the ranches and history of this area.
"It's really going to bring the Texas history to life," she said, adding that the exhibit gives a different perspective than Frontier Texas!
When Deaton approached the different organizations and collectors, they liked the idea.
"Lots of the parts and pieces have been seen. This is the first time to see them all together," Deaton said. "The great thing about working at The Grace, people usually say ?yes'."
The Grace staff has organized more than a dozen events to coordinate with the exhibit that will be displayed from Thursday through Aug. 9. From art classes and art talks to Cowboy Camp and cowboy poetry, just about everyone will find something that speaks to them.
Deaton said she is excited about the entire exhibit and couldn't pick a favorite section or item. But she was very pleased to be able to incorporate tintypes of working cowboys taken by photographer Robb Kendrick and published in the book, "Revealing Character: Cowboys at the Start of the Twenty-first Century."
The photos were made on metal, rather than glass or paper, and feature real people working in this century, rather than the last. The black-and-white images of these cowboys, regardless of their ages, look inherently old-fashioned, due to the tintype method and the timelessness of the worn faces.
"What happened before is still going on," Deaton said about the ranching life. "We are still a place for history."
Another thing she found fascinating is that she could look at some of the paintings done by artists long gone and recognize the physical landscapes of the area.
"When I looked at the paintings, I knew where that was painted," she said.
There will be two projectors showing recordings, along with two TV monitors and four iPads to increase the interactive portion of the exhibit.
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About Janet Van Vleet
Janet Van Vleet is the arts & entertainment editor for the Abilene Reporter-News.