Nicholas Coleman grew up with some falcons.
His father, a sculptor and painter, was also a conservationist who dabbled in rehabilitating animals that had been injured. Two of those were falcons, birds of prey that now, more than 20 years later, have left their mark in Coleman’s studio.
“My dad had some big open beams in the studio, and there’s still some evidence they were there,” Coleman said.
Decades after living with the falcons, Coleman is set to show work in “Life in the Rockies,” one of three exhibitions opening June 20 at Trailside Galleries. One of those will be Ross Buckland’s “Beyond All Roads.” The other will be “High Country Summer,” featuring work of nearly 20 artists.
All told it’s an expansive display of a range of artwork covering a swath of styles — paintings, mostly, with a few sculptures thrown in — and subjects ranging from the American West’s wildlife to its settlers and its indigenous people.
For Coleman, a Utah native, the displays hew closely to the central theme in his own work: preserving the heritage of the American West. It’s a common thread in “Life in the Rockies” as well as “Beyond All Roads” and “High Country Summer.”
But the fact that the motif of the American West runs throughout all of the works in the exhibitions doesn’t mean that all of the artists approach that topic similarly.
Coleman, who grew up and lives in Provo, Utah, takes the perspective of a lifelong learner.
“I’ve always been interested in the history of the American West,” he said.
As he was growing up he was fascinated by the story of Etienne Provost, a fur trapper who was among the first white men to see the Provo area and after whom the city was named. That, along with stories of the land’s first inhabitants, the various Native American peoples, and the enduring nature of the American West’s wildlife, drew him to the image of a “rugged frontier.”
“Life was hard,” Coleman said, noting that he doesn’t “need to write a paper to go along with [his] paintings. There’s already a kind of story being told.”
That story is told both through the mood Coleman creates with familiar natural spectacles like rising and setting suns and through the consciousness of the viewer. It’s hard not to recognize the shared American story his images of wildlife, settlers and native people conjure: a story shared by the works of other artists in the exhibit.
Buckland, for one, seeks to tell the story of aviation. Like Coleman he’s interested in the idea of places in the West, alpine environments, mostly, that are — or were — unreachable save for float planes. Through the impression of motion, a work like “Midnight Run” is meant to evoke a feeling of exhilaration that comes from reaching a place unreachable in any other way. It also evokes what Buckland, a pilot himself, called “romantic nostalgia.” His paintings bring to mind the years of wilderness exploration in the middle of the 20th century when reaching the end of the road meant people had to travel by canoe or plane.
“It’s dirty and it’s uncomfortable, but there are moments where it’s just sheer enjoyment,” Buckland said. “Those are the ones that you remember.”
For another painter, Z.S. Liang, a Chinese artist who will show his work in “High Country Summer,” those sorts of memories exists on another time scale. Through his work he seeks to honor the Asian heritage of Native American peoples whose distant ancestors migrated to the Americas more than 20,000 years ago.
But Liang didn’t come to the United States to paint the subjects at the center of his current work, a series of portraits of the America’s indigenous people. He came here to study art more generally but, after working with and painting the Wampanoag tribe in New England, he became enamored with Native American culture. In past decades he has done field research for his work with several tribes and developed relationships that have given him access to old photographs and living subjects for his portraits.
For Liang the fascination with the American West and its indigenous people comes down to a shared past.
“I feel like a relative separated a long time ago,” Liang said. “I feel like I’m painting my ancestors.”
“High Country Summer,” “Beyond All Roads,” and “Life in the Rockies” will open Monday. An open house for all three exhibits will be held from 5 to 8 p.m. June 20 at Trailside Galleries. ￼