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The Laura Moore Cunningham

Evelyn Sooter, Mixed Media Artist
Clark Fork, Idaho

Sooter works in her studio.
Sooter works in her studio.

Evelyn - When I got recognized as an artist, and I just had so much self doubt and -- although, when I look back, though, even though I can think of years before that making some books and making even just the post cards, and a handful of people that saw things that I made just, you know, really thought I should be working at it, because they -- I don't think they ever called me an artist but just went, you know, "You just do the most beautiful stuff."

Evelyn - I was at the University of Montana where I went for two years, and that's when I took the photography class, and I started making not just the assignments but really original pieces, and, I mean, it was such a relief for me, because I just had worked so hard at the academics, really, really hard, and so I was making work. I've always worked around my place, and that's how the creativity was expressed. And here I was in school, and I guess I needed an expression, because when I started that class, the photography class, it was so natural for me to just do my own thing, and I was encouraged by the teacher, fortunately, to do that. He liked what I was doing, and so I really went at it, so I did have some work that I brought home.

I'd never even heard of the Idaho Commission on the Arts myself, but they were apparently trying to work out a show, an exchange show with curators from some museums in Spain for the Basque celebration - Idaho artists showing in Spain, and so they were visiting different artists' studios in Idaho. It was Jacque Crist, I think, traveling with them, but they went to see some people I know who now live in Sandpoint. And my friend Romey Stuckart told Jacque Crist, "You know, you should go see Evelyn's house." And there was definitely, I realize now, a number of people who saw my place as art.

Romey is a painter, a very good painter, and her husband Stephen Schultz paints, and so the curators were visiting them, and I think that's the story, and Romey said, "You should go to Evelyn Sooter's." Well -- and so she came with a couple of curators, and they actually wanted me to be part of the show, and I was so new. I had made some stuff, but I wasn't really seeing what they were seeing.

Evelyn - I just have made things because I make things, and then suddenly I'm an artist and I need to make things for the dealer. I also needed money; I had put myself through college. But there came a time when it wasn't like I was just doing it for myself anymore. And it's just such a combination of things. It feeds your ego, because people responded to my work, and it sold, and, you know, I got picked up by Dennis Ochi in Ketchum who represents some fantastic artists. He wanted me, and so that was flattering, but I didn't have my feet on the ground as an artist. I just wasn't set up, and I was broke. And so, I made work, to sell it, because I needed some money. I needed to put tires on my vehicle or whatever. And it kind of eventually -- I don't think backfired is the right word, but I wasn't showing up for Evelyn.

A bowl of elk and deer femurs
A bowl of elk and deer femurs

Evelyn - I put myself under pressure. It's not like Ochi put me under pressure, but I put myself under pressure. And, also, you hear people going, "Well, are you making work? Do you have any new work?" And I remember when it all slowed down for me, because I just couldn't push myself anymore. And it didn't feel good. I would always feel some guilt or shame because certain people, collectors and people who liked my work would ask, "Are you working?" and I was ashamed to say no, you know. It took me a while to be comfortable with that. Now I really recognize - I mean, this is life, and things go in cycles, and maybe some people are just consistent like writers who produce and are disciplined and write a little bit every day. I have never worked like that. I'm an extremist in everything, and when I start making work, I hardly sleep, not even eat. I just was so intent on what I was doing, and I would crash and burn because I wasn't taking care of myself, but that's just how I've done it, and things go in cycles, and I would have my times, and I'd produce a lot of work and then not.

Evelyn - I know where some of my work is, but not all of it. Some important collectors have bought the work, and I'm talking about what Ochi sold. A couple of movie stars that I don't want to mention bought my work. Nancy Kienholz gave me a studio space just to show -- to hang and show some work, and it just happened, because people travel through there, collectors, because of the Kienholzes, Monte and Betty Factor who were collectors and knew Ed Kienholz, I think, before he even met Nancy and were very supportive and helped fund one of his pieces, and I'm talking back in the early sixties, maybe late fifties, but early -- so, and they had a summerhouse across from the Kienholzes, and people would come visit them. In fact, it was the curator from the Hugh Lane Museum in Dublin who happened to be there when I had some stuff hanging in this studio at Kienholz', and she bought three pieces. And then there's another collector from Houston that has a summerhouse here, and people would come visit her, and she would bring them to my house. And I'd let the work go like -- instead of, like, keep working and getting a body of work together. I was always living on the edge. I've done waitressing. I've done housecleaning. I've done a lot of landscape work to support myself, but this is northern Idaho, and that's seasonal work.

Evelyn - Jacque brought Lucinda Barnes who, at the time, was the curator of collections for the Chicago Modern Art Museum. And I had just -- I don't even know if I had graduated from college yet, but I had a piece hanging there that I had made, a horse piece that had a piece of barbwire -- you know, it was just mixed media, a black and white photograph that I had scratched. I had barbed wire across it. And she said, "How much do you want for that piece?" And I was just like -- I didn't have time to think about it. I said 400. "Sold," she said. I've certainly let work go-- I've regretted it later. Marilyn Oshman snatched up three pieces, and I sold three pieces for what I should have sold one of them for.

When you look at who Wilfred Davis Fletcher collected, Rauschenberg and, I mean, all the big names, and I'm on the list. He bought three pieces. There in the Boise Art Museum permanent collection.

Evelyn Sooter's cabin
Evelyn Sooter's cabin

Evelyn - Well, actually, I went out specifically to collect some Rocky Mountain maple shoots. They're nice and red, the young shoots. It's a little late in the season, because they were starting to bud, but I like using them in my work, and I pick up -- you know, sometimes I go out specifically harvesting stuff that I know I want to use, but a lot of the things I find when I am just walking. I typically am really looking around and have my eyes on the ground. I've found some great stuff that way.

Evelyn - Sometimes I'll have my clippers with me when I walk. A lot of times I'll find pieces of wood on the ground. When I do cleanup -- and there's lots of cleanup on the property, lots of branches and sticks down, and it's just something to work at, especially in the springtime and in the fall. And I'll be making a pile, a burn pile, and I'll pick up something that's got a stick, and it's the right kind of wood - it's not something that's going to rot quickly, but it's fairly hard wood. It will have a bend in it, or maybe it's the shape of it. I just collect that and always imagine that I'm going to do a piece maybe with just many pieces of that wood. It would be a long piece, and I can see myself wrapping parts of the wood that I find on my property all the time. There are just hundreds of hemlock trees, young ones. They're so prolific. And a tree three, four foot, sometimes I just take the top of it, and I can show you an example, and pull it around and tie it. It's strong enough to tie it. It's interesting, because the bottom is going to shoot up like this. It wants to be a top, but leave that long enough, enough years, and I'll just forget about it, I mean, like, and then I'll come across and go, "Wow, I've got a curved piece of hemlock that I can work with.

Evelyn - I can walk out my back door or my front door and head out and go up and not ever see anyone and walk and walk and walk and walk and walk. And I'm just basically exploring, because I love to look at the mosses in the springtime, and I never come home empty-handed, even if that wasn't the intention to start out with. I'm just always finding things that are so interesting.

Evelyn - I do seem to have a way of doing that. They're kind of on display, and I'll bundle lots of things together, especially the wood stuff. I'll just bundle it, or I'll collect it in one location. Or these river stones that are flat that I have at times wrapped. I would bring home buckets, and then I'd just lay them all out in the area, and some of those I'd put down like that 12 years ago, and they've become part of the landscape, and they're concentrated in a couple different places. They look really great, and they're material when I want to start wrapping rocks again and doing that kind of a piece. I just go out there and rearrange and take what I want. That really works.

Sooter works in her studio.
Sooter works in her studio.

Evelyn - The ideas that I bring back, I guess you could say that I bring back ideas in that I will pick up a stick, something that's interestingly shaped; I can see what I could do with it. I might never do anything with it, but I'm really kind of picking it up because I can see, 'I can use this. I could do such and such with this if I wanted to.'

Evelyn - And I have a connection with nature and I don't even know if that's the right way to say it, but it definitely it nurtures me somehow because like I'm not an activist but it nurtures me just those walks where I'm see so much natural beauty and my eyes are always on the ground looking.

Evelyn - I have a lot of work around my place to take care of because I was gone and, and when I did come home for some months in the summertime and I think I was just kind of spent and I'd get out there and work like crazy some days and then I'd just read for two weeks. I can see myself working again. It's just I've been playing around with materials and I've organized my studio space upstairs where I have a lot of stuff to work with and just even handling it and looking through stuff I've collected. I can't not get inspired, it's really about okay Evelyn it's okay if you don't go pile up all that brush outside, how about giving yourself the space to just make some work.

Evelyn talks about her youth

Evelyn - I had taken a class at a travel agency, learning how to be a travel agent and before I even finished it my teacher because I was just really quick at that time on the uptake and she had she knew somebody who needed me you know needed to hire and this agency sold Scandinavian tours because one of the owners was from Sweden and so they had the wholesale outfit in Stockholm and that's who hired me. I bought a one way ticket to Copenhagen and then I flew to Sweden and I had a job. I did their correspondence mostly in English and, and I did that for seven or eight months and then I started hitchhiking around Europe. I always was good about writing. That was in 1970.

Evelyn - I was very independent. I mean really my mom says I just decided to go, went and got a passport and I was gone two weeks after I told her I was leaving. And, everything just worked out you know they helped me find a place, I lived with a great Swedish woman whom I'm still in touch with. It was really interesting because the Vietnam War was happening at that time, I wasn't political, I was pretty oblivious, and there were deserters you know that the Swedish took in and I was seeing protest marches and that was the first time I felt in a way not hugely, but a little bit the rug getting pulled out under your feet because you grow up a lot of us never questioning anything and so for a while I was like I don't know even know what I believe.

Artwork by Sooter that includes a bird skeleton laying on a rock
Artwork by Sooter that includes a bird skeleton laying on a rock

Evelyn - I made my way to Rome, and then to Greece and lots of adventures on the way you know like hitchhiking and just some pretty interesting stuff, but I made my way to Greece and uh in Greece I met this New Zealander a nice man, young man and he was traveling west and he sat down with me and gave me his travel notes, if you ever go East you know stop here and do this. Well he told me about this place in Istanbul called the Pudding Shop, he said it was kind of like a crossroads and um that there was a bulletin board and all the people traveling and there is a travel grapevine that, that happens you meet people and find out stuff. So anyway I got to Istanbul and I went to the Pudding Shop and there was a bulletin board and somebody had put up a notice about looking for people who, writers you know we're traveling to Nepal or Indonesia they were going to go around the world. It said Kabul, Afghanistan $50. And so first day on the road leaving Istanbul and traveling toward Eastern Turkey, first day I just it took me completely out of myself, this was like being 1,000 years back in time and I was just captivated and I went forget Kabul, Afghanistan I'm going to go as far as you guys are going, we slept on the side of the road at night and just god you'd hear camel caravans and wake up and there'd be 100 sheep, a herder driving the sheep right next to you and it was just fascinating to me and I mean I went through Afghanistan before the Soviets went in and not that I traveled extensively in Afghanistan, but I saw the real Afghanistan before it was destroyed, traveled through the Khyber Pass into Pakistan, and India.

Evelyn - And so anyway long story short we got to Nepal and I think it was the second day I was there and I was just exploring around Kathmandu and I met this fellow who spoke English and he happened to be from Bhutan and actually as it turned out he had been Shirley MacLaine's guide when she was one of the first Westerners to visit in Bhutan and she wrote the book Don't Fall Off the Mountain. I got a job and worked again writing English letters for a Mountaineering company that took people into the Himalayas. They had all the Sherpas and guides and stuff and so the thing about that was is I went from having a two week visa to having a six month visa and a relatively easy job and I got a place to live and I got paid 300 rupees a month, which is $30 and my rent was ten you know 100 rupees.

I think I just got ready to move on, but I walked, I took a bus into central Nepal, into Bokhara and I walked by myself, passed the Dhaulagiri range of the Himalayas and walked as far as I thought I could walk to the Chinese Tibetan Border. It was a holy pilgrimage route, I did walk with different people, I walked with a Tibetan guy one day, a couple of Americans one day, alone a lot of the time.