First LightThe following interview was conducted over the phone between artist Ashley Wertheimer and Tessa Granowski on January 13, 2022.
BCE: How long have you lived in Montana? And tell me a little bit about how you ended up there.
AW: I've been there for like eight and a half years now, and I moved there because I met a cowboy in college named Cooper. And initially I had no intention initially of winding up in Montana, but after college we had this long-distance thing for a number of years…
Ashley and Cooper with her artwork at Brackett Creek Exhibitions in June, 2021
BCE: Had you ever been to Montana as a kid before, or was that your first experience?
AW: No, never before. And I had very limited understanding of what a rancher was or what a cowboy meant. And I come to find out that Cooper is actually a fifth-generation rancher and had the intention and dreams of managing his family's Ranch one day. And when we first started dating, I was like, oh, that's cute. What does that mean?
BCE: *laughs* Yeah, that's a nice idea. Like in the movies!
AW: Yeah, exactly. And then as the years went on, he was doing an apprenticeship on a Ranch in Colorado, and I followed him there. And that was my first experience on a true Ranch. And long story short is that we had to finally, after five years, decide if we're going to make this work, I was going to have to move to Montana. And the only way to figure out if I could be a part of that was to move there, and then I just stayed. It was hard for a number of years.
BCE: And do you remember your first pair of cowboy boots?
AW: Actually, yeah. I got a used pair of Tony Lamas from a thrift store in California, and I was very proud of them.
BCE: Was this before the decision was made about Montana?
AW: Yeah, it was definitely like, well, I should probably invest in some boots, and I guess I need a hat. And I felt like such a dweeb for the longest time with a cowboy hat on. I felt so fake and silly. It's all great wearing it when you're not living that lifestyle. But when I entered that actual lifestyle, I felt like I was kind of trying to prove myself by putting on an actual cowboy hat.
BCE: I think they always say you can tell the real cowboy by who has the biggest dent in their forehead when they take their hat off at the bar and hang it up.
AW: Yeah. I mean, Cooper's got the ultimate cowboy tan, which is like an actual line that goes across his forehead… and his hands are a completely different color from his forearms.
BCE: So do you want to tell us a little bit about the Ranch's history, the Sieben Live Stock Company's history? What kind of Ranch is it?
AW: So it is a cattle and sheep Ranch, but back in the day, it was all sheep. And it was founded by Cooper’s great-great-grandfather, Henry Sieben. He immigrated from Germany to the U.S. in the 1800s. And he and one of his brothers, after working on different farms in Illinois, ended up in Laramie, and they were going to take the Oregon Trail, but Red Cloud’s War was happening, so they ended up going to Montana instead.
BCE: Where is Laramie?
AW: In Wyoming. And they followed a trail with John Bozeman and ended up in Montana. It was a 100-vehicle wagon trail. Montana wasn't even a state yet when they arrived!
BCE: Did they already have sheep with them?
AW: No, not at that time. They ended up getting in the freight business and they would freight people's livestock through the rail system.
AW: And then, after a time, they ended up buying oxen. Basically, as the story goes, his cattle would always make their way to where the Ranch is today. That was their favorite place to be. The area is called the Chestnut Valley. And so that's where Henry decided to set up shop. And he was able to buy some land.
Eventually, he had two daughters and split his land into two different ranches. So, one is called the Sieben Ranch, which is near the capital, Helena, and the other is called the Sieben Live Stock Company, which is where we are, outside of Cascade. And it has been in the same family ever since. I’m probably getting the story wrong, but I believe Henry had a little brother who trailed sheep all the way from California and that’s how they ended up starting their sheep enterprise.
BCE: Wow, that’s a long journey.
AW: Yeah, It’s pretty interesting. I actually know way more about Cooper’s family history than my own. *laughs*
BCE: And it's not just oral histories, stories that have been passed down, but the Sieben name has been in Montana’s record database for quite some time.
AW: Yes, exactly.
View from the morning at the Sieben Live Stock Company
BCE: Tell me a bit about your day-to-day on the Ranch. And has that changed over time? Does it change seasonally? I know you guys have something that happens in April…
AW: Yes. It does change seasonally, but in April, we do lambing. So that's when all the little baby lambs are born.
BCE: Your own baby lamb was born in August, though, right?
AW: July 29, very end of July
BCE: That’s right.
AW: Yeah. My involvement on the Ranch and my day-to-day has changed since having a baby.
AW: Yeah. But normally I work with our sheep. We have eighty-two ewes, which are female sheep. For the record, I had never worked with livestock before meeting Cooper, but they are the sweetest little critters. And yeah, I help with lambing, which happens in April. And that's basically a month long where all these mamas are having their babies every single day for the entire month. And you just make sure everyone's healthy. And sometimes you have to help the lambs out a little bit. I even have a legitimate Bo Peep stick, if you can picture it… It's called a Shepherd's crook.
BCE: What is the actual function? Because I can only picture it pulling people offstage.
AW: You basically need it to grab an unruly sheep or get a sheep medicine, or something along those lines. Sometimes they can be unruly, so basically you run after it, you hook it around the neck, and then you're able to then confine it. I'm not very good at it... Let's just put it that way. I've successfully done it a time or two, but it is not my natural talent.
Sieben Live Stock Company barn that is used for lambing in April
BCE: Have you ever seen the movie Giant?
AW: Not in years.
BCE: Okay. Because I feel like you are maybe a version of Elizabeth Taylor... coming from the East Coast down to a Texas Ranch and just jumping right into it, trying to help, and everybody is waiting for her to fall on her face. Was that kind of your experience on the Ranch at first? Where everyone is waiting, looking at you like just a California girl ready to mess something up?
AW: I've had to earn my place, for sure. I remember one of the ranchers who used to work there, his name is Lloyd, and he came up to me and asked, What have you been up to, Ashley, working on your tan? I was just completely out of place for a very long time. And I'd like to think that now I hold my own, but it took what felt like a long time. So, I work with the sheep and then I also do my own thing. I have my studio practice at home and a studio in Helena. I work there when I can. It's been different since having a baby.
BCE: So, when you originally moved out to the Ranch and started to get settled, did you even think about having an art practice yet? Was it maybe an idealized vision of being able to finally work with a lot of space on your side?
AW: Yeah, that was part of the deal when I moved there. I had a steady painting practice, and the plan was to keep making work and see where it would take me. The open space was really alluring, but it was challenging at first because I was so used to having an artist community and after moving, I was suddenly so isolated. It helped me realize that a lot of my stimulation comes from having an art community. So, I ended up seeking opportunities outside of the ranch, like artist residencies. I went to the Vermont Studio Center, which is funny because a lot of people do those programs to escape their city life, to go to a more rural place to focus.
AW: And I was escaping my rural life to go to a less rural place. Which was helpful for a time. And then about three years into it, I just started having a more regular practice, and then I got the studio space in Helena, which is 2 hours away. But what I do is drive to Helena and stay there for two to three days and just work in my space, and then I'd go back to the Ranch for a week and a half or so, and then just do it all over again. And that was a really helpful rhythm for a long time. Having this personal space that is separate from the Ranch and that allows me to be around more artists has been a nice balance.
Ashley in her Helena studio
BCE: Yeah, it was great getting to visit that studio space. Was that your first studio you found there, or was that a later one?
AW: It was the first studio I found there. Early on, it was kind of confusing for the family for me to have this extra space. As in, you live in rural, beautiful Montana. Why couldn't you just paint or work anywhere out there?
BCE: You need the creative community.
AW: Yeah, exactly. And that's been pivotal for my practice.
BCE: Do you want to talk a little bit about the residency that you started on the Ranch – A.I.R. Seven?
AW: Yeah. Honestly, I initially started that program in a kind of selfish way. It was my way to bring artists to me because it's just a way for me to feel more connected to the outside world. But then over time, I ended up having more intention to connect to the Ranch itself. I see now that it serves as this platform for cross-cultural exchange. And I really wanted it to be this place where artists can come, just like any other residency, where you can escape your daily life and have time and space to focus on your work. But it's also so much more. I want people to also learn more about ranching and land stewardship and the importance of the two.
BCE: And how to have an early 19th century bedroom.
BCE: When was that residency cabin built?
AW: It was probably built in the late 1800s, maybe early 1900s. I really think it was late 1800s, though. And Cooper's grandmother had it relocated. It used to be a sheep cabin, which means it was basically for a shepherd would live out there with the sheep and it was relocated probably in the ‘60’s, I think, and then had another space built onto it. And I know you've seen it, Tessa, but just to describe it, it is this amazing archival Museum space with saddles and boots and artifacts and arrowheads.
BCE: Yes, every piece of wall seemed to be covered with some sort of Ranch paraphernalia.
A sign hanging outside of Jane’s Cabin (the cabin for the A.I.R. Seven Residency)
AW: Yeah, and in 2018, I saw there was an opportunity to have artists come and kind of in exchange, tinker around and fix various things in the cabin and maintain the lawn and just kind of take care of the space while they're also making work.
BCE: Do they typically work outside when there, as it is a summer residency?
AW: Yeah. People work inside, too. But I've had artists working with the landscape itself or working on their paintings outdoors. One artist, Jacqueline Norheim, worked with the lawn itself, and she would mow the lawn like she was asked to do. But then she made these amazing rings out of the landscape and made her own designs in the lawn.
BCE: Like crop circles.
AW: Exactly like crop circles. And some have even used the trees in the yard to hang some of their pieces.
BCE: Do you ever see foresee using any of the vacant barn structures or other abandoned buildings on the Ranch for shows? Or what do you see is the future of your artist residency?
AW: Yeah, I do. I really would love to see those spaces used. Matt has been a huge source of inspiration for the future of this residency, and I would just love to see artists stay for an extended period. I think staying longer and being in touch with these other structures would truly create that opportunity. And that really excites me. And it's funny, I wanted that to happen, but it wasn't until meeting Matt that and I was like, you're right. This must happen.
BCE: Are the people coming to the residency typically based in a city?
AW: They are, yeah. Whether it's Brooklyn or Oakland, for the most part, it is people that have never been in a landscape like that before.
BCE: So, quick pivot. It seems that you changed from painting at some point to tufting. Were working with the sheep what made you want to work with yarn?
AW: Sure. That was an influence. I had reached a point with painting where I felt really intimidated and limited. And in 2019, I started searching for another way for me to make my paintings.
BCE: So do you ever shear the sheep though?
AW: I am not that cool. There are some amazing people who come and do it for us, and then we're involved with the process, but we are not the people holding the sheep down doing it. There is a woman on the Ranch who has done it before, and she's fully capable of doing it, but I have not done that.
BCE: Do you think it's a not yet or, like, probably not in your cards?
AW: I don't think it's in my future. The thing about shearing is that you have to be confident in doing it because you can easily cut the sheep.
BCE: That makes sense.
AW: And, I mean, when you watch the experts doing it, it's really beautiful. It's very smooth, and the sheep are not stressed in the slightest. It's almost a soothing experience.
BCE: I would love to see it.
AW: And so, where I was going with this, though, is that we go through the life cycle each year with our sheep, caring for them, shearing them, year after year, and it’s become such a beautiful, kind of sacred part of my life that I would love to take their wool, clean it— do the whole process of spinning it, and then use plants from the Ranch and dye it. It's a goal. Let's just put it that way. It would take so much time, but a lot of the processes on the Ranch take a lot of time, so I would love to reflect that.
BCE: Regarding the color choices in your works… Have they been influenced by what yarn you can find? And are you one of those super picky yarn people now?
AW: I have become a picky yarn person. At least initially, I was limited by what I could find, and that was hard for me at first because with painting, obviously, opportunities are endless because you can mix whatever color you need, and with yarn, I found myself trying to play with what I had in front of me. But I have been able to gradually find a way to create the effect that I've been looking for and almost emulate my paintings. Like you said, they are kind of similar. I don't think that was intentional. I tend to choose colors that make me uncomfortable.
AW: Like a lot of colors that I pair together, usually have a tension between them. I try to challenge myself and put these things together and make them work. Yeah. And part of it is just... I don't know. It's funny because there's a point in every single piece I make-- and this goes for my paintings, too-- that really the colors make me hate it. Like, really just making me feel distracted and wanting to redo the whole thing. But then I always have to commit, and have to push through, and then I find this vibe that happens between the colors I go for. And so there's this tension and harmony that kind of happens at the same time.
Try Not to Flinch, 2020
tufted wool yarn on acrylic, 24x24”
BCE: I would have never guessed that you were starting with the idea of wanting to make yourself uncomfortable because the colors do end up working well together. You're intentionally putting yourself in that tough position to work through.
AW: Something I thought about, too, is that it kind of is a reflection of my experience living this lifestyle I'm living.
BCE: How so?
AW: It's a little bit brutal out there and not my natural comfort. It's by no means the life I would have chosen for myself, but it's the life I'm living, and I'm, like, constantly humbled by it. And yeah. There's these rules and systems you need to follow. And I feel like I'm creating these rules and systems in my work that I have to follow.
BCE: You’re so puritanical now! Do you want to talk a little bit about how you first heard about Matthew Chambers and Brackett Creek?
AW: Sure. I was in my studio, and I was listening to-- have you ever heard the Sound and Vision podcast?
BCE: I have heard of it, but I've actually never listened to one of it.
AW: Yeah, it's a nice podcast. Artists are interviewed, mostly painters. And I happen to be in my studio and listening to that podcast. And Matthew Chambers was being interviewed, and this was probably a couple of years ago, maybe even three years ago. And he mentioned Bozeman, that he's like, living outside of Bozeman. And I was like, oh my God, awesome. There was a painter with his background living in Montana!
So, I made a note to myself, like, I'm going to reach out to that guy and I'm going to visit his studio one day. And then I shelved it away and forgot about him. And probably a year later, my friend in New York reached out to me on Instagram and was like, you should go to this Marinaro show outside of Bozeman. And then I saw that it was featuring work by Matthew Chambers. And I was like, hey, that's the guy! So, I reached out, not knowing his whole set up… And I ended up going out there. And that's when I met you for the first time.
BCE: Yes! A very memorable visit.
Final question. Congratulations on being a new mother. How do you think that will affect your art practice going forward? Well, maybe it's a question.
AW: I was working, working, working all throughout my pregnancy until just about three weeks before giving birth. And then everything just changed for me even before she was born. But the meaning of my work and the motivation behind why I'm doing what I'm doing and just, like, has inevitably changed so much. And I can't say I know where this is headed yet because I've been pretty removed from my practice, as Matt calls it, it's my “sabbatical.”
I thought it was really going to mess with my head at first, and I have my days, sure, where I'm like, how am I feasibly going to do this? But her presence and existence has most definitely changed my whole world. I'm not making new work yet, but it has changed already. Maybe more the meaning behind it is changing, but therefore the work will have to change. So, I'm excited to see what's going to happen.
BCE: This is a silly question, but did naming Posey, coming up with a name feel a little bit like choosing a name for your artwork?
AW: Oh, my gosh, I love that. Yeah. In a way, sure it did. I've never thought of it like that. Not everyone is like this, but Cooper and I both really wanted a name that had a bunch of meaning behind it. We wanted it to have history and whatever be a representation of our family heritage as well. In this case, her name comes from an area on the Ranch. It's called Posey. And what's cool about it is it has no defined borders. There's no record of why it's called Posey.
BCE: What area of the Ranch is it?
AW: It’s in this area up in the mountains from where we would have been together. But I don't know if you saw the burn area. There's this big fire that was there a few years ago. And the thing about it is just that it's already healing so beautifully. Like, the elk are returning despite this intense fire, and the grasses are growing again. And Cooper's whole philosophy is that humankind needs to work with nature in order to better it. And we think it's cool to bestow that intention onto Posey, to take on that responsibility of, like, you're this human. You live in this vast, beautiful place and part of your gift as a human being is to exist with nature. We kind of geek out on that. So, when I think of my work, I spend all day long thinking of a name but with her name… Oh, man, we spent so long trying to figure out her name and of course she has two middle names and that's because we couldn't decide.
TG: What's her full name?
AW: Her full name is Posey Freida Gertrude Hibbard.
AW: Yeah, we threw a Gertrude in there. We thought about naming her Gertie, inspired by Cooper's grandmother, and it also means spear and warrior. And then Freida means peace and peaceful leader and so we geeked out over that, too. So, she's like this peaceful warrior.
BCE: I can't wait to meet this peaceful warrior Princess.
AW: Oh, I can't wait either.
BCE: Well, with the stories on your history and the Ranch's history and Posey and the sheep, I think it's a wonderful cast of characters that we've introduced. Thanks, Ashley!
Ashley showing Matt and Tessa around the Sieben Live Stock Company with her four border collies - Kota, Che, Rumi, and Rico