“Hard Twist: Western Ranch Women” photography exhibition opens Jan. 30 at Eiteljorg

Joey Amato | January 8, 2021

An exhibition of fascinating photographs showing the strength and resilience of ranch women working in the Rocky Mountain West opens Jan. 30 at the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art and continues through April 25.

Hard Twist: Western Ranch Women is a traveling exhibition on loan to the Eiteljorg from the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame in Fort Worth, Texas. It features 62 striking black-and-white photographs by renowned photographer Barbara Van Cleve of a group of ranch women who work around cattle and horses and compete in rodeos. Part of the Eiteljorg’s 2020-21 theme of Honoring Women, the exhibition is included with regular museum admission.

“After a year when everyone’s normal routines of life and work were disrupted, it is refreshing to experience Barbara Van Cleve’s documentary-style photographs depicting strong women who work outdoors in the elements year-round, manage their ranches, raise their families and express their individuality. The photographs beautifully capture the realities of ranch life, the stories of the ranch women are inspiring and the Hard Twist exhibit celebrates the theme of honoring women,” Eiteljorg Vice President and Chief Curatorial Officer Elisa Phelps said.

Van Cleve, a Montana rancher who grew up with firsthand experience of cowgirl life, pursued a second career in documentary photography after retiring from a career in academia. Van Cleve earned a master’s degree at Northwestern University and taught English literature and photography at DePaul University where she was dean of women; she also taught at other institutions. A lifelong photographer, Van Cleve identified the lack of published photographs of women ranchers. Inspired by her mother, Van Cleve spent much of 1986-1994 traveling the Rocky Mountain West on horseback, gathering images and interviews from women of the West in their natural elements – out on the range, ranch or at rodeos. Her photographs counter the stereotype that all ranchers and ranchhands are men. Van Cleve is an honoree of the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame, the same institution that organized the photography exhibition.

The Hard Twist: Western Ranch Women exhibition includes photographs of and objects belonging to four other National Cowgirl Museum honorees. Ruby Gobble and Gretchen Sammis worked the Chase Ranch in New Mexico together for almost 50 years, with Gretchen as owner and Ruby as foreman, and both were accomplished horsewomen. Fern Sawyer, a rancher and champion cutting-horse rider, was a rodeo executive known for her flamboyant wardrobe, including custom boots in a rainbow of colors and styles. Jan Youren was a world champion bareback bronc and bull rider whose rodeo career lasted more than 50 years. They are featured in Van Cleve’s photographs in the exhibition, as are 25 other ranch women. Van Cleve published her photographs in a book, also titled Hard Twist: Western Ranch Women.

In conjunction with the photography exhibition, the Eiteljorg plans public programming events – both virtual and in person – related to Hard Twist, including talks and photography workshops, and a virtual presentation by Van Cleve on March 13. Curator-led tours of the exhibition are scheduled for noon Feb. 5, March 5 and April 2. Check www.eiteljorg.org/events for the latest event details and registration.

The Hard Twist exhibition continues the Eiteljorg’s Honoring Women theme. It included the exhibition Quilts: Uncovering Women’s Stories, which closed Jan. 3, as well as Powerful Women: Contemporary Art from the Eiteljorg Collection, which continues through March 21. The current rotation of Powerful Women highlights contemporary art by Native American women artists, and a second rotation of Powerful Women open from April 18 to Oct. 3 will feature artworks by contemporary women artists who are Native, African American, Latino, Asian American and European American. Joy Harjo (Mvskoke/Creek Nation), the first Native American woman to serve as poet laureate of the United States, is scheduled to conduct a poetry reading and book signing Oct. 16 at the Eiteljorg as part of the Honoring Women theme.

The Eiteljorg Museum is open and follows all state and local public health requirements during the pandemic. Upon entering, all visitors must receive a non-invasive temperature check, sanitize their hands, wear face masks and socially distance inside the building. For details, visit Eiteljorg.org/ReOpen.