About a block west of the Western Folk Life Center in Elko is a large black and white portrait of Virginia Bennett. I recognize the Washington poet from the Center’s promotional materials advertising this year’s National Cowboy Poetry Gathering. It’s a good photo. Bennett is smiling with her eyes closed, like a congregate caught mid-worship—head tilted back, hand outstretched towards something transcendent. Heaven? The photographer? When I scan the QR code in the corner of the panel, I find out it’s not God, but one of her poems that she is lost in. It’s called “The Dead Yearling.”
In the poem, Bennett talks about the time she and her mare encountered a young, dead deer in early spring. She wonders why it couldn’t have held on just a little longer. It made it through winter, after all, and life was about to get easier. The poem ends like this:
“With the good comes the bad,” that’s what they say,
It’s a truth that outweighs all the lies.
But it’s fact that for every birth on some warm, spring day,
Somewhere, all alone, something dies.
For a person whose go-to karaoke song is “Lightning Crashes” (I know), Bennett’s poem hits all the brooding death notes I require while stopping short of something as hopeful as reincarnation. We don’t need that kind of assurance at the Cowboy Poetry Gathering. This sense of acceptance and composure in the face of absolution—the kind that comes with prolonged contact with the natural world, the kind often encountered on horseback—is half of the appeal of the event.
The other half is, of course, seeing the cracks in this facade as seemingly stoic cowboys and cowgirls talk about things that make them crumble. Death, love, loss. Climate change. Wishing to be salt in a cow’s mouth and melting into the ground.
It’s all online. But the thing that sets the live experience apart is the thrill of actually meeting your heroes—the poets, musicians, and artists who are usually off limits to the general public at events of this scale.
Crowded into three main venues spread out across Elko, somewhere between six and seven thousand people rub elbows with the performers they’ve traveled to see. Stand in the Pioneer Saloon, and D.W. Groethe will tell you about his lost truck keys. Wait a bit longer, and John Dofflemyer will break out into an impromptu concert. If you’re very lucky—and happen to be my 6-year-old daughter, Coco—Brigid Reedy might visit you in your blanket fort during the Friday Night Dance.
This familiarity extends to the Gathering’s art exhibition as well, a through-the-years compilation of over 500 photographs by Kevin Martini-Fuller simply titled, Portraits of the Gathering. In addition to the 24 poet panels hanging around downtown Elko, Martini-Fuller displays three decades worth of performer portraits in the Wiegand Gallery.
In between concerts and readings, people file in and out of the gallery, gravitating towards the faces they know, getting drawn in by those they don’t. Some gallery-goers get stuck in the progression photographs—the portrait series that follows performers from their mid 30s into old age, giving a chronological bent to the exhibit.
Others park themselves in front of a line of nine portraits in the corner. Unlike the progression photographs, these have a timeless quality that has less to do with the fact that they are one-shot-per-person and more to do with the people in the photos. One, titled “Bill Black,” features a handsome, 30-something man shot against a gray, Disfarmer-like backdrop. He wears a steady gaze, 10-gallon hat, handlebar mustache, and ultra-cool hipster sweater. His thumbs hook over the tops of his jeans while he holds a half-smoked cigarette. Bill Black could exist in 2019 or 1919 with equal believability. All of these portraits are like this—unblinking, unaffected, out-of-time. During a group tour of the exhibit, Martini-Fuller tells us that this series was shot in 1986, the second National Cowboy Poetry Gathering and the photographer’s first.
Next to these portraits are three large photo matrices on the west wall, each made up of 140 tightly packed head- and body-shots of the performers—collages that Martini-Fuller hopes will “generate a lot of discussion, a lot of reminiscing, a lot of conversation amongst people.”
“A giant, nonlinear yearbook”
The collages seem to be filling that purpose, functioning as a giant, nonlinear yearbook for cowboy poetry enthusiasts. It’s only my second year here, but I recognize a few dozen people, too. There’s Deanna McCall and Henry Real Bird, Waddie Mitchell and Adrian Buckaroogirl. My daughter recognizes Brigid Reedy posing with one of her fiddles, her belly-button-length braid perched like a bird on her shirt.
“There’s Brigid,” Coco whispers. “I love her hair.”
A woman on the tour comments on Paul Zarzyski’s portrait, his face wearing its only expression—sparkly eyes and a full frontal smile. “It’s Paul,” she says. “As ever.”
“There’s Glenn Ohrlin,” Martini-Fuller points out to the group. “He was very ill when I made that photo. He passed away about two weeks after that.”
Martini-Fuller has taken his share of final portraits.
“I feel a loss,” he says. “There’s a richness to their lives and a richness to their stories. I feel like I’m invited into it and allowed to be a part of it. It’s a sad moment to see them age.”
After 34 years of documenting the Gathering, it’s no surprise that somewhere along the way, things got personal for Martini-Fuller. What began as a quest to get over his fear of portraits ends in a celebration of friendship. Like a real life episode of My Little Pony, but three octaves lower and with horses instead of ponies. I’m not in quite as deep as Martini-Fuller, but it’s only a matter of time for me and my arm-length love of this community—sped up, no doubt, by some very nice portraits.