I was introduced to the work of Leon Gaspard in 1973 by Frank Waters, Plate 5 A sketch of ponies in Taos Pueblo Oil on canvas on board 10.75 x 16 who had published a book about the artist in 1964. By the time it went out of print, my interest in Gaspard and his work had become a passion. At my urging, Frank revised the text of Leon Gaspard so I could reprint the book and fill it with color plates of the artist’s works that were in my collection. Today, 41 years later, the aura of Gaspard’s magic has not diminished for me.
Soon after the book was reprinted, I acquired Gaspard’s estate, which included his home and land, the library full of personal records, and about 230 oil paintings. It was a bit overwhelming – and put me into what my banker impolitely called “a financially disadvantaged position.”
Over the weeks and months that followed, as I rummaged through Gaspard’s expansive archive and personal files, his adventures became one with my fantasies. It was almost as though I had been with him on horseback, riding boldly across the Gobi Desert or cutting ice on the Volga River. I was living vicariously through his colorful canvases.
The many compelling photos that he took during his early travels to Asia and Europe captured stories that I knew needed to be published. The idea was born, but my days were filled with running an art gallery, leaving me little time for the satisfaction of writing a book.
Then, in 2007, I met Carleen Milburn, a professional writer and gentle-lady who farms wheat in Montana. Her husband is the grandson of Carolyn Riebeth, whose family had been close to the artist Joseph Henry Sharp. I had become friends with Carolyn while writing a biography of Mr. Sharp in 1982. Carleen possesses many intellectual strengths that I envy and would admire in anyone. An email she sent me showed her flair and sensitivities.
You would love harvest. It’s not just the process of running the big farm equipment and watching the reel fold thick grain into the machine while clean wheat pours into the hopper. The challenge and fun is in the urgency and excitement of getting crops in ahead of weather, keeping equipment running, neighbors checking in, helping each other, and sharing equipment if something breaks. There’s such a sense of community. The best part is the unexpected surprises. I got out of the combine late in the evening to stretch and there was a weird silent flutter overhead. I was in the field next to the mountain where I regularly see elk and an occasional mountain lion. I looked closely and realized I was witnessing the migration of thousands of monarch butterflies. Illuminated by the full moon on that velvet night were the hushed wings of thousands of butterflies skimming twenty feet above the ground. It filled my senses.
Although I had completed much of the research needed to write the Gaspard biography, I lacked the time to see it through. I needed some help, and when I mentioned the project to Carleen, she was quick to jump aboard. She took it on with relish – and with a pen that never faltered. We both drafted texts and sent them back and forth to each other, so that words could be changed, rewritten, and re-sent. We were a good team, but prudence requires that I give her most of the credit.
What made our research enjoyable was the wealth of information that had been sequestered in Gaspard’s upstairs library: a lifetime of photos, notes, drawings, and letters. We felt the boxed material had been impatiently awaiting our nosy arrival.
Additional information about the artist came from copious journal entries made by Gaspard’s second wife, Dora Kaminsky. In addition, forty-two audio tapes, with the recorded voices of Gaspard and those who knew him best, provided us with intriguing accounts of his life. It seems that all of his friends had a favorite anecdote to tell about him.
The recorded musings of Jane Hiatt, whose Village Gallery in Taos sold Gaspard’s work, portrayed a self-confident painter who compared himself more than favorably with Pierre-Auguste Renoir, a Paris acquaintance. Two Taos friends – Marion Couse, the daughter-in-law of artist E. I. Couse, and Saki Karavas, whose mother owned Hotel La Fonda de Taos – whispered funny stories that helped me understand Leon’s life after dark and away from his easel.
Thirty-five of the lengthy tape-recorded interviews with Gaspard in 1957 revealed his natural aptitude for storytelling … and a slight propensity for overstatement. His unique personality gave essence to his stories. Listening to Gaspard’s voice, embellished with his heavy Russian accent, I could almost see his distinctive facial expressions and body language. Even his pauses brought anticipation. Notes made at the two birthday parties I had each year for Alexandra Fechin, widow of the great Russian-American painter Nicolai Fechin, also provided a few backdoor chuckles about Leon.
But our most intriguing information came from the fertile memory of Frank Waters himself, whose mind was a cistern for interesting stories about Gaspard. Speaking of the artist, Frank once said, “At the drop of a hat, he can conjure a yarn that will hold a dinner audience spellbound until the candles burn low.”
Perhaps the veracity of Gaspard’s tales would have given pause only if the listener had caught the twinkle in his eye when he occasionally strayed from the facts. Gaspard admitted to not always believing everything he said, and if strict authenticity was lost in the jumble of his words, I am sure he would have said the truth was there in spirit.
Although Frank was candid with me during our conversations about his extraordinary friend, he was reluctant to elaborate on some of the stories in his book. He said, “Such a mélange is impossible to preserve in cold print. It loses not only its flavor but its purpose.”
Venturing into Leon Gaspard’s past, Carleen and I discovered that his creative senses had been honed in hard places, and his personality was as multicolored as his palette. Its bright hues illuminated our way as we followed him through time, across lands rutted deep by the hooves of a journey filled with countless adventures. Fifty years after Gaspard’s death, his stories continue to tell their own tale and add light to his legacy.