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RANGELY I Some of the murals are gone.
One fell victim to a careless semi truck driver, another to a building’s closure. A third was destroyed, only to be re-painted. All of them, says painter Dawna Wardell, are part of the natural ebb and flow of change.
Other brushstrokes remain, a testament to Wardell’s half-century lived in Rangely as an art teacher, artist and mother of five.
There’s the mural of a panther gazing out from a mesa which frames the west side of the Early Education Building. Eagle Scout candidate Doug Crookston envisioned the project; Wardell painted it for free. Years later, in the midst of the building’s renovation, contractors realized the huge panels contained asbestos, so Doug’s mother Brenda campaigned for funds to repaint the image. And so Wardell began and finished the mural—again.
Other stories remain in the form of pictures. There’s an idyllic mountain scene to behold, if you know to look up and to the left just as you enter Town Hall.
Down the road, at the Rangely Junior-Senior High School main gym, a menacing panther advances to meet you above the visitor stands.
And if you drive up Dragon Road, you’ll see the eagle that soars above a red desert, the scene curving around what used to be merely a water tank.
Wardell is a storyteller, not only with her art but also with her words. Perspective was difficult to achieve on that tank, she says, since she was painting from the bucket of a cherry picker truck borrowed from Moon Lake Electric.
“I’d have to back away and think, ‘There’s the head, so the tip of the eagle has to be that far out there.’” You can imagine her squinting, pointing. “So I’d keep my eye on that spot and put my brush there.”
She tells, too, about images that no longer remain except in photographs and her memory. Perhaps she can feel her hand cajoling deer, mountain peaks, a bold bear from the nothingness that was a 75-foot space on the Flowersmith-Exchange’s east wall.
“I think it was my best one,” she says. “I’m no modern artist, that’s for sure.”
Wardell has been making art since she was a child, when an adult cousin with rheumatoid arthritis, hands gnarled and twisted, drew with her. She took art classes at Uintah High School in Vernal before moving to Rangely, 13 miles downriver, as a new bride in 1952. Wardell’s husband Bob, a welder and a rancher, liked that she made art. She did, too, so much so that she taught classes at the recreation center and at Rangely Junior College.
Some of her children have followed her in talent and drive. Daughter Gay, an award-winning photographer, is also adept at pointillism, a technique in which tiny dots form patterns and, eventually images. Daughter Wanda, who owns the Trading Post in Vernal with husband Carl Ray, is a painter. Son Layne creates images by carving them into bone or antler.
Daughter Wendy remembers art as one of the fabrics woven into the Wardells’ family life.
“She was always painting something,” daughter Wendy says. “When we went camping, I remember a time she painted portraits of us. They were on little 8-1/2- by 11-inch boards. To watch her do so many amazing kinds of painting was kind of surreal for a kid. You watch and it looks so easy, and for her it was easy. It came naturally to her.”
Natural or not, Wardell knew early on that she had to develop her talents.
“You learn that there’s no end to it,” she says. And so while she was reluctantly charging friends $.50 an hour for lessons or teaching courses in town, she was always learning herself, attending workshops in Vernal or taking classes from Meeker art teacher Joel Johnson. There was a trip to Roosevelt to see Vera Gagon-Gardner, an artist who created a 16×25 foot mural in half an hour and then auctioned it off.
“She painted a mountain scene with kind of a pink sunset,” Wardell recalls. “I had never thought of painting trees pink before. Every (workshop) you go to, you learn something new.”
Wardell hosted workshops of her own, too. When she saved enough money, she turned the old cabin she and Bob first lived in into a studio and gallery where friends, among them Shirley Cox, Stella Thompson, Mabel Banta, and Grace Noel, came to practice their techniques and learn from her.
“Dawna tried for years to get me to paint, but I never did,” said Patty Powell, Wardell’s friend for more than four decades. “Our husbands were welders, so that’s how we became friends. I did finally paint for quite a few years. Dawna was wonderful as a teacher. She can work with children or adults, with anybody. And she still does.”
These days, Wardell doesn’t paint murals, but not because she doesn’t want to. Now 80, she has a home with a pond and ducks in the backyard, a quiet place next door to Wanda and Carl Ray. Her memory and her mind, much like her painting hand, are still steady.
“Some people think I’m too old, but I don’t think so,” Wardell says. “Some days I am that old, but not every day. I’ve got a few aches and pains that never want to go away, but it’s better to deal with them than lay back and give up. Life is good.”
Wardell’s garage is now her gallery-studio, a space where she teaches painting to adults and children for the better part of a day each week.
“For the adults especially, it’s a therapy class,” she says. “I’ve got three (students) that are in their 80s. One is probably 50, another maybe 60.”
In the last week, one of those students and a dear friend, Valda Massey, passed away unexpectedly. Wardell has turned to her art as comfort, finishing canvases that he began, painting them for him.
If you want to paint, she says, whether you’re a mom or have a full-time job or don’t have enough money, you should paint.
“I don’t have much patience with people who say, ‘When my kids get in school or grow up, I’ll start painting,’” Wardell said. “We’re here to teach people and to grow in the talents we’ve been given. I felt like as I was using my talent, I was teaching them to use theirs.”
Perhaps it’s experience that has taught Wardell the importance of making time for what you love. For her, painting is not only a gift; it is essential to life, as necessary to her as sleeping or breathing.
“As I got older and wanted to take my children camping, I was at a loss for what to do,” Wendy says. “When we were children, we would go play and my mom would go out in the hills and paint. Life was great with that around you. What she did was so relaxing and peaceful.”