Common Ground

Author: Clyde Aspevig
Note: “Common Ground” — a 6 feet by 10 feet oil on canvas painting — is on display at the National Discovery Center in Lewistown, Montana.

The glaciated plains of northern Montana represent one of the few remaining ecosystems of its kind left in the world today. This beguiling landscape with its harsh weather, silhouettes of distant mountain ranges on never-ending horizons, and big dramatic skies, is where I grew up.

“Common Ground” – Oil on canvas. 6 feet by 10 feet.

As a young boy, I learned to operate a 1940s era tractor, which at its fullest might could barely pull a 12-foot plow. To be honest, I wasn’t that fond of sitting out in the open on that old piece of equipment with no radio, breathing dirt while baking in the sun for 10 or 12 hours a day. Daydreaming and watching the big Montana sky with storms building on the horizon kept me occupied. What really made the day from my perch on the tractor was the visitation of birds and wildlife going about their business with no apparent regard for me or the tractor as a threat. I marveled at the beautiful agility of the raptors and seagulls as they picked off the field mice disrupted by the plow. I watched the badgers, the foxes with their curious kits, coyotes hunting gophers, and rabbits on the edges of the field while antelope watched from a distance and upland game birds bolted for cover. Occasionally, an elk or moose would wander into the scene on a journey to new habitat. I saw my first wolf and mountain lion in the lights of the tractor while summer fowling at night near the Milk River on the Canadian border.

These images have lingered in my mind all my life, and at an early age I began to realize how extraordinary and intertwined this world really is. I also realized that we can co-exist with our animal neighbors.

When the tractor was silenced at the end of the day, my ears ringing and my day dreaming put on hold, the glorious sounds of prairie songbirds sang me home in the evening light. The sweet smell of clover and damp earth took hostage of my senses, and the rich colors of sky and earth were etched in my memory to become paint on canvas as my career as an artist began to emerge.

When I look back on those years, I realize one of my most cherished activities was exploring the unplowed coulees and pastures where the native prairie still thrived. These areas became a sanctuary where I could think about my vision for the future, inspired by nature in all its diversity. It was a place where I could learn and engage all my senses, uninterrupted by noise and the weight of humanity. I began to feel like being alone in these untrampled places gave me a sense of freedom. I felt truly alive. I would ride my horse out to fix fence or help my brother check cows and then end up looking for tipi rings or wildlife lurking in the coulees and draws covered with snowberry, wild roses, and a few cottonwoods where the hawks nested. I spent many days walking the land, feeling as if I was discovering something new every day. I still feel the same way today when I revisit the things I’ve discovered over the years. It’s still new.

I loved the smells, the texture and beauty of the plants, and the small creatures and insects that made their home within this complex environment. These observations reinforced my understanding of how delicate and interdependent nature is as well as the great impact humans can have on the natural world. I realized the most important thing we can do is to understand as much as we can about the science of nature, then think beyond our short-term existence for ways to productively work within its self-defining systems, creating lasting and positive impact for the future.

While studying these intertwining sets of connections, I realized how many different levels of perhaps totally unrelated events come together for many different reasons. I was fascinated that the stones I picked from the fields my homesteading grandfathers broke out with horse and plow were also used by Native Americans to anchor their tipis, create weapons, and make tools. Before them, the glaciers and ancient sea beds carved and shaped the land, leaving behind the sandstone formations we see jutting up from the prairie landscape today. The grinding down and building up is a never-ending field of energy, which I find full of metaphors playing out in our own lives every day of our existence and beyond.

I have been painting the prairie landscape for more than 50 years now, and it never fails to seduce me with the depths of its moods, both beautiful and terrifying at the same time…the sublime. I’ve found that all nature humbles me and exposes my vulnerabilities, but the prairie seems to do it in a different way. Perhaps it’s the vastness and subtle nuances that mysteriously appear, or the fact that there are few places to hide. I am simply in awe of the prairie’s physical and spiritual power. In the process, it is a marvelous gift to feel as though you are an essential part of it.

With these observations in mind in this fast-changing world, I support the movement to both restore and protect a relatively small portion of this prairie landscape – in such a way that it contains all the original wildlife and plant species that were here for thousands of years – so that it can become an effective measurement of not only a better understanding of nature, but ourselves as well. There is a great nobility in having the discipline, courage, pride, and foresight to achieve such an idea for the health of our planet and future generations of people, plants, and animals living together as one organism. I greatly admire the people like E.O. Wilson who has spent a lifetime educating the rest of us on the importance of these issues. After all, our very existence is at stake.

Throughout the world in which we live, our emotions and experiences are encased in the landscapes we occupy. This is why we love the land and it becomes sacred ground for many of us. It’s understandable that we want to keep it the same as it gives us security and comfort in its familiarity. And it is also understandable that some would like to return at least a portion of it to what it was a few hundred years ago with few fences and abundant wildlife. Whether we are Indigenous Peoples, agriculturists of European decent, or a townsperson, my hope is that this painting will inspire a sense of “common ground.” I hope we, as a people from many different perspectives, can leave our biases and preconceived ideas behind and look for solutions that honor our willingness to learn from and understand each other’s goals and objectives in our effort to conserve this sacred land we share together. I truly believe that under the big sky and vast landscapes that cover the 22 million acres comprising northeastern Montana, there is enough room for all of our dreams to be realized.

Typesetting Inset/Side Note: In the lower left-hand corner of the painting, I included a harbinger of hope for the future health of this landscape we all love. Every time I visit this spot with my wife Carol, this little amphibian is there to greet us…and it always puts a smile on our faces.

About Clyde Aspevig

One of the country’s top landscape artists, Clyde Aspevig’s paintings of the West capture the beauty, rhythm and harmony of places that he has seen disappearing during his own lifetime. They are not theatrical sets intended to reinforce regional mythology. Rather, his paintings possess qualities meant to last generations.

Clyde grew up on a farm in Rudyard, Montana, not far from the Canadian border, where he participated in both the pains and joys of agricultural life, learning to work hard and persevere against many kinds of obstacles. His father, a practical but open-minded farmer, along with the rest of his family, encouraged his pursuit of art and the appreciation of music. His father even bought his first painting, when Clyde was 12.

He attended Eastern Montana College in Billings and now lives near Bozeman, with his wife, the accomplished artist Carol Guzman. Both of them became involved with American Prairie in its early days, hoping to further connections between the group and other artists and writers.

Clyde’s paintings are in many museum collections, including The Tacoma Art Museum, The Denver Art Museum, The Rockwell Museum, the Booth Museum of Western Art, The Gilcrease Museum and The Wichita Center for the Arts. His most recent one man shows were at the Brinton Museum in Wyoming and the Yellowstone Art Museum in Billings.