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Art and Culture

The landscape of the West is big, distinctive, vividly colored and demanding; and so is the art it has engendered, from the huge, compelling canvases of Bierstadt and Moran to Georgia O’Keeffe’s abstract personifications of nature. And the indigenous custom of storytelling finds expression in the modern art most dependent on story—film.


Although US Indians created works of art, almost everything also had a utilitarian or religious purpose. Some of the finest baskets ever created were the work of Washoe artisans, of whom Datsolalee , of the late 19C, is the best known. Coastal California tribes also made baskets exceptional for their beauty and utility, some woven so tightly they could hold water. Peoples of the Northwest coast and Alaska excelled in the art of carving soapstone and walrus tusks, cedar masks and totem poles. Hawaiians created coral jewelry and finely decorated robes and helmets adorned with bird feathers.

All the tribes of the Southwest fashioned decorated pottery, although the art had slipped into a utilitarian mold by the early 20C. Potter María Montoya Martínez (c.1881-1980) of New Mexico’s San Ildefonso Pueblo is credited with reviving the potter’s art in the 1930s when she produced exquisite black-on-black ware. Southwest Indian artists also made names for themselves as painters, among them Pablita Velarde (1918-2006) and Harrison Begay (b.1917). Navajo women today weave rugs crafted in distinctive regional styles.

The Spanish decorated their missions with silver work and wood carvings, much of it made in Mexico and carried north by mule train. The Spanish probably also taught lapidary skills to the Pueblo Indians, who today produce some of the finest stone (especially turquoise) and silver jewelry in the US.

The American West provided an exceedingly rich canvas for artists and other chroniclers of frontier life and scenery. Early explorers often were accompanied by sketch artists, some of whom went on to become noted artists. Karl Bodmer (1809-93) and George Catlin (1796-1872) both recorded Indians and mountain men in the 1830s, while John James Audubon (1785-1851) made his own journey west to sketch birds and wildlife. Artist-photographer Solomon Nuñes Carvalho (1815-94) accompanied Frémont during a survey of the Far West. The paintings of Thomas Moran (1837-1926) and photographs of William Henry Jackson (1843-1942), part of the Hayden Expedition to Yellowstone in 1871, were crucial in swaying the public and Congress to create the first national park. Alfred Jacob Miller (1810-74), a Baltimore artist, made a trip west in the company of fur traders in 1837 and capitalized upon it in creating a series of paintings of great documentary value. German-born Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902) painted Western landscapes in a particularly Romantic style. Grittier and more lifelike are the sketches, paintings and sculptures of cowboys, Indians and other Western characters by Frederic Remington (1861-1909) and Charles M. Russell (1864-1926).

New Mexico, with its pueblos and unusual scenery, became a popular magnet for artists in the late 19C. Santa Fe, long the cultural center of the Southwest, is one of the largest art markets in the US after New York and Los Angeles; so is Scottsdale, Arizona. Taos boasted an artist colony in the very early 20C. Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986), an annual Taos visitor who later moved to the New Mexico desert, painted austere landscapes and decorated more than one famous painting with a parched cow skull against a bright Southwestern sky.

The stop-action photography of Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904) preceded the invention of his zoopraxiscope, a landmark in pioneering the moving-picture industry. The haunting black-and-white shots of Western landscapes, particularly Yosemite, by Ansel Adams (1902-84) inspired generations of photographers and conservationists. Through her poignant portraits of farm migrants and photos of vast public-works projects rising amid arid landscapes, Dorothea Lange (1895-1965) dramatized the tragedies and triumphs of the Depression-era West. Photographers Edward Weston (1886-1958) and Imogen Cunningham (1883-1976) were among the more influential members of a West Coast coterie known as Group f.64.

The west coast of California also exerted a strong influence on 20C painting and sculpture. Artist colonies at Carmel, La Jolla and Laguna Beach spawned the California Impressionism and Plein-Air movements, including Franz Bischoff (1864-1929), creating landscapes inspired by the unique light and natural features of the area. During the 1930s, abstraction, surrealism and social realism came into play. In San Francisco, Mark Rothko (1903-70) and Clyfford Still (1904-80) inspired an explosion of abstract painting by their students, who included Robert Motherwell (1915-91). Painters such as Richard Diebenkorn (1922-93) and David Park (1911-60) responded with a representational movement known as Bay Area Figurative. An influential art scene that has developed in southern California since the 1950s includes David Hockney (b.1937). Tacoma, WA, native Dale Chihuly (b.1941) established a blown-glass art tradition, the Pilchuck School, now famed worldwide.


Native Americans built homes to suit their environment and culture with available materials. Nomadic Plains tribes adopted buffalo skins spread over lean-to timber frames to build highly mobile tepees . Farming tribes of the Great Plains, like the Mandans and Pawnees, built permanent earthen lodges . Northwestern tribes erected sturdy plank houses , while the people of the Great Basin and California lowlands preferred light summer lean-tos of thatch and brush, using more substantial materials in winter.

Most of the farming people of the Southwest built fixed houses. Ancient cliff dwellings and pueblos of dried mud or stone, some occupied for hundreds of years, still stand throughout the region. Raised on canyon shelves for protection from marauders, the cliff dwellings were abandoned in the late 12C. Latecomers to the Southwest, such as the Navajo, erected six-sided houses called hogans . The likely descendants of the cliff dwellers live today in pueblos . Some, like those of Taos, New Mexico, are stacked like apartment houses and are among the most remarkable buildings in America.

The Spanish built with sun-baked adobe bricks, made from wet clay and a binding material such as straw or horse hair. Structures were whitewashed and roofed with overhanging clay tiles to reduce rain damage. Adobe walls retain heat in winter and coolness in summer. Doors and windows could be carved from the sturdy walls with a minimum of effort. For their ecclesiastical buildings, Spanish architects tried to copy structures they knew from Spain or Mexico.

Most Western settlements in the American era were initially built of wood, the cheapest and most readily available material. A prominent exception was the sod house of the Great Plains which, though sturdy shelter, was dark and readily abandoned when wood became available. Rudimentary log cabins were usually superseded by frame houses , while commercial establishments achieved a tone of respectability by sporting facades of brick (often imported from the Midwest or East) or dressed stone, locally quarried. A characteristic feature of many towns was the false front , which served to make one-story shanties look larger and more reputable.

Large cities looked East for architectural inspiration in the 19C, often drawing upon the Greek Revival style for banks, or a hodgepodge of styles for the mansions and row houses of residential districts. Romanticized throwbacks to the Old West have remained popular through the 20C, especially at dude ranches, resorts and national parks—a spectacular example being the Old Faithful Inn (1904, Robert Reamer) at Yellowstone National Park.

Widespread prosperity in the 20C enabled Westerners to experiment more with architectural style. In California, some builders put form before practicability, so that wealthier residential districts in some cities were imbued with a bewildering array of styles in close juxtaposition. In Los Angeles, one residential block might boast Tudor, Norman and Mission-style houses between a Japanese garden and Swiss chalet. The 1920s and 1930s popularized whimsical structures built to resemble extraneous objects (giant oranges, derby hats, even cartoon animals) to attract clientele.

More thoughtful architectural fashions of the 20C included the Mission Style, which resurrected the arched doorways and windows, red-tile roofs and white earthen walls of Spanish missions; Art Moderne , with streamlined contours and Art Deco detailing; and the Prairie School , emphasizing strong, horizontal lines and a lack of superfluous decoration. The latter, a creation of architect Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959), stressed organic architecture harmonizing with specific landscapes. Of hundreds of buildings designed by Wright in the West, the most important is Taliesin West (1937) in Scottsdale, Arizona. With its low-profile buildings of indigenous materials, uneven rooflines and deeply shaded entrances, Taliesin West remains a strong influence on design. The West Coast was a stronghold for Craftsman style, the American adaptation of the British Arts and Crafts movement, featuring simple decorative wood trim, built-in cabinetry and porches with broad pillars. San Diego and Oakland both have notable Craftsman neighborhoods.


Tall tales and colorful humor were popular on the frontier. Westerners were famous for telling tall tales—which is why John Colter’s earliest descriptions of Yellowstone’s geysers, hot pools and astringent streams were thought to be lies. Humorists like Mark Twain (né Samuel Clemens, 1835-1910) and Edgar “Bill” Nye (1850-96) carried on the tradition of exaggeration in print, writing satire that turned on common sense and droll humor. Twain‘s first break came with “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” (1867). Roughing It (1872) is considered richest and funniest description of a dude’s life in Virginia City, San Francisco, Hawaii and other parts of the Wild West.

More serious Western observations also were widely read in the East. Francis Parkman’s exciting account of The Oregon Trail (1849) remains a standard today. John C. Frémont’s reports of his forays to the West, scribed with governmental precision, were rewritten with dramatic flair by his wife, Jesse Benton Frémont (1824-1902); they were best-sellers in their day and made Frémont’s guide, Kit Carson, into a great Western hero. The laconic Carson himself told his own story with less flamboyance in an autobiography not published until 1926. Other accounts of Western experiences embraced a wide range of views, including those of Indians ( Black Elk Speaks , 1932) and homesteaders (the works of Laura Ingalls Wilder , 1867-1957). Historians like Frederick Jackson Turner (1861-1932), Bernard De Voto (1897-1955) and Wallace Stegner (1909-93) added heft and drama.

Sentimental stories, exemplified by the California gold-rush tales of Bret Harte (1836-1902), were popular throughout the 19C, but it was adventure and derring-do that gave the real impetus to a new brand of fiction, the Western. The first mass-market adventure fiction set in the Wild West appeared in the 1860s, and thousands of “dime novels“ were enthusiastically embraced by the public—including several by Buffalo Bill featuring himself, and dozens more by other authors about him. The prototype of the modern Western is generally considered to be Owen Wister’s The Virginian (1902), which combined a love interest with all the elements of frontier lore: chivalrous cowboys, treacherous Indians and a brooding bad man. Among the most enduring work is that of Zane Grey (1875-1939); his Riders of the Purple Sage appeared in 1912. The Western occasionally rose to high levels of literary complexity, as in the psychological narrative of a lynching in Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s The Ox-Bow Incident (1940), Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927) and Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose (1971). Jack London’s novel of man and dog in the Klondike gold rush, The Call of the Wild (1903), probably has been translated into more languages than any other novel set in the West. Few books have sparked so large a following as Jack Kerouac ’s awakening call to the Beat Generation, On the Road (1957), a fictionalized account of aimless journeys through the contemporary West.

Other writers alerted public opinion to regional problems. John Muir’s books and articles helped arouse Eastern support for greater protection of Western lands and resources. Helen Hunt Jackson’s Century of Dishonor (1881) helped awaken sentiment to the mistreatment of Indians, a forerunner to Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (1971). Frank Norris (1870-1902) attacked the problem of greedy railroad barons in The Octopus (1901).Among the defenders of the deserts’ fragile beauties were Mary Austin (1868-1934), whose The Land of Little Rain exalted the Owens Valley and Mojave Desert; and the irascible Edward Abbey (1927-89), author of Desert Solitaire (1968).

Another stalwart of Western fiction is the hard-boiled detective. Dashiell Hammett (1894-1961) created the tone with Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon (1930), set in San Francisco. Raymond Chandler (1888-1959) followed suit in The Big Sleep (1939) by introducing Philip Marlowe, a cynical, self-sufficient but honorable detective who guarded the mean streets of Los Angeles. Ross McDonald ‘s books featuring detective Lew Archer succeeded Marlowe, painting a realistic but humane portrait of Southern California from 1949-1976. Tony Hillerman (b.1925) blends Western and detective fiction in his books, which recount the adventures of Navajo policemen Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee in the Indian lands of the Southwest.


Native Americans employed music and dance in all their ceremonies, both religious and social; these forms endure today at numerous annual pow-wows . The Spanish, who introduced the guitar to the West, also used music for sacred and social purposes, and took pains to instruct their mission neophytes in playing instruments. The bulk of popular music today, carried West in the folk music of pioneers and the hymns of missionaries, has roots in the British Isles. Fiddle, harmonica and banjo were the instruments of choice on wagon trains, where popular Oregon Trail tunes included “The Arkansas Traveler” and “Sweet Betsy from Pike.” Accompanied by stomping feet, clapping hands and instructional dance calls, the fiddle gave life to capers, jigs and square dances at frontier gatherings, and entertained cowboys on cattle drives and soldiers in lonely barracks.

The archetype of contemporary Western music is a highly commercialized hybrid of cowboy songs, themselves descended from Scottish, English and Irish ballads by way of the rural South, and often incorporating elements of the Hispanic muwsic of Mexico. The genre was popularized on radio and in film by cowboy singers like Roy Rogers (1912-98) and Gene Autry (1907-98). Influenced by well-traveled singers like Buck Owens (1929-2006), several of whose songs were recorded by the Beatles, cowboy music began to absorb outside elements in the 1940s, picking up the tempo, heavier rhythms and twanging guitar that characterizes popular country-and-western music today. Texans Bob Wills (1905-1975), the “King“ of Western swing; Ernest Tubb (1914-1984) and Willie Nelson (b.1933) broadened the genre‘s scope, incorporating popular music elements ranging from swing to rock and blues. National radio has eroded regional distinctions, but artists such as Texas‘ Don Edwards have revived traditional Western song.

The West has made conspicuous contributions in the realm of rock music. In the early 1960s, as the Beatles emerged in England, southern California originated its own brand of lighthearted “surf” rock; its best-known ambassadors, The Beach Boys, sang in intricate harmony of waves, hot rods and surfer girls. Later in the decade, the social upheaval in San Francisco, culminating in 1967’s “Summer of Love,” drew numerous prominent singers and performers—including Texan Janis Joplin (1943-70) and Seattleite Jimi Hendrix (1942-70)—to a local scene already celebrated for its “San Francisco Sound.” The music of Jim Morrison‘s The Doors , Jerry Garcia’s Grateful Dead, Grace Slick’s Jefferson Airplane , John Fogarty’s Credence Clearwater Revival and other top groups was characterized by driving guitar riffs and influenced by more traditional blues. In the early 1990s, Seattle became the center of a style termed “grunge rock,” with bands like Kurt Cobain’s Nirvana and Eddie Vedder’s Pearl Jam noted for their raw, rough-edged music.

Theater and Film

Nineteenth Century miners were noted for their love of opera. They were so generous in supporting fine opera houses in remote towns that Eastern and European companies routinely toured San Francisco, Virginia City (Nevada), Central City (Colorado) and other thriving mining frontiers. Stage plays, running the gamut from Shakespearean excerpts to melodramas, were also popular. Among the famous actors who toured the Western mining camps were Edwin Booth (1833-93), Helena Modjeska (1840-1909) and the unconventional Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923). Less exalted entertainment was offered by the scandalous exotic dancer Lola Montez (1818-61) and her comedic successor, Lotta Crabtree (1847-1924).

Today, San Francisco remains among the preeminent opera cities of the West, staging lavish productions with renowned casts. The Dallas Opera and Houston Grand Opera also are highly regarded, the latter known for its modern world premieres of John C. Adams‘ Nixon in China (1987) and The Death of Klinghoffer (1991). Since 1957, one of the brightest lights in the American opera scene has been the Santa Fe Opera Company, which offers outdoor summer performances. Live stage plays continue to attract tourists and local audiences in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle and smaller cities like Ashland, Oregon, and Cedar City, Utah, both of which mount internationally recognized annual Shakespeare festivals.

Of all the Western-themed entertainment, nothing was more popular during the late-19C and early-20C than Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, a commercial extravaganza. Theater on an epic scale, the show thrilled East Coast and European audiences with dramatized excepts from William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody (1846-1917) himself. Drawing on Cody’s remarkable life as a Pony Express rider, bison hunter, Army scout and soldier, the show re-created famous Western battles and presented feats of sharpshooting, an Indian attack on a stagecoach, trick riding and roping, bucking broncos, bull-riding, steer wrestling and other rodeo events. Among the most famous cast members were Sitting Bull sharpshooter Annie Oakley (1860-1926) and Cody himself.

Spectacular live shows continue to be a hallmark of the Western stage, particularly in resort centers like Lake Tahoe, Reno and especially Las Vegas. The prototypes of Las Vegas-style performers were stand-up comedians, torch singers and chorus-line Parisian showgirls like the Folies Bergères. Shows now embrace a mind-boggling array of magician acts, circuses, water choreography, and spectacles of electronic and pyrotechnic wizardry, as well as concerts by famous singers.

No other medium has propounded the myth of the Old West more successfully than the Western movie. Like Medieval morality plays, classic Westerns depict history selectively but irresistibly, winning audiences who root for heroes and boo villains without complicating ambiguities. Larger than life, Westerns helped to establish Hollywood as the world capital of film-making.

From the first silent Westerns in the early 20C through the 1950s, Westerns’ cowboy heroes were chivalrous characters; Indians were usually villains, and other ethnic minorities were rarely depicted despite the prominent roles played by Chinese, black and Hispanic people throughout the American West. Some of these Westerns were undeniably powerful. Among the most emotionally satisfying, if conventional, were Red River (1948), starring John Wayne; High Noon (1952), starring Gary Cooper; The Searchers (1956), starring Wayne; and many visually exciting works by director John Ford , beginning with Stagecoach (1939), also starring Wayne. Television Westerns of the 1950s and 1960s tended to reinforce the Western myth in shows like The Lone Ranger, Gunsmoke and Bonanza .

Since the 1960s, Hollywood has produced ever-greater numbers of offbeat, thoughtful, brooding Westerns that run against the grain of earlier productions. Protagonists are anti-heroes in Lonely Are the Brave (1962), starring Kirk Douglas ; Hud (1963), starring Paul Newman; The Wild Bunch (1969), directed by Sam Peckinpah ; and a series of “spaghetti westerns” (including The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, 1967) directed by Sergio Leone and starring Clint Eastwood. Another trend reversed old roles by placing Indians as heroes and soldiers as villains, as in Little Big Man (1970), starring Dustin Hoffman , and Dances with Wolves (1989), starring Kevin Costner. Film festivals throughout the West continue to influence the world and disseminate the medium. Among the most famous is Utah’s Sundance Film Festival, the creation of actor-director Robert Redford.

Sports and Recreation

For exercise, entertainment, drama and fellowship, Americans love to play and watch sports. A year-round slate of professional (“pro”), collegiate and amateur competitions keeps the excitement high. College sports, especially football and basketball, attract the excited attention of fans and alumni nationwide, especially during the annual football “bowl game” series in December and January, and the “March Madness” championship basketball tournament.

Take Me Out to the Ball Games

Often called the national pastime, baseball inspires legions of devoted fans who follow teams with religious intensity. Played on a diamond-shaped field with bases in each corner, the game tests the individual skills of batters, who try to strike a thrown ball, against pitchers and fielders, bearing some similarities to cricket. The game may appear slow-paced but can be fraught with suspense, the outcome often resting on a final confrontation between pitcher and batter. In March, when pro teams engage in their annual spring training in Arizona and Florida, seats at practice games are the hottest tickets in town. The Major League Baseball (www.mlb.com) season runs from April to October, culminating in the World Series, a best-of-seven-games matchup between the American League and National League champions.

Fast-paced basketball draws participants and spectators from every walk of life. In part because it requires a smaller playing area than most sports, the game is often played outdoors in crowded urban areas. Players score by throwing a ball through a suspended hoop. The 29 teams of the National Basketball Association (NBA) begin play in November, competing for a berth in the NBA Finals held in June. The 12-team Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA), founded in 1997, has inspired a new host of professional female players around the country. For information on both, visit www.nba.com.

With its unique combination of brute force and finely tuned skill, American football demands strength, speed and agility from players in their quest to pass, kick and run the football down a 100-yard field to the goal. The National Football League (NFL) oversees 32 teams in two conferences, the champions of which meet in late January in the annual Super Bowl, a game that draws more television viewers than any other event. Football season begins about September 1; visit www.nfl.com.

Other Professional Sports

Although ice hockey was born in Canada, the US has adopted the game in a big way. In this breakneck sport, skated players use sticks to maneuver a hard rubber puck into a goal at either end of an ice arena. The 29-team National Hockey League (NHL) pits professional Canadian and American teams in annual competition for the coveted Stanley Cup, with finals held in June.

The US may be the world’s preeminent golf nation, attracting golfers from around the globe to its challenging, well-manicured courses. Public and private links abound throughout much of the West, especially California, Arizona, Las Vegas and Hawaii, where the climate permits year-round play. A yearlong slate of tournaments for men, women and senior men utilizes numerous championship courses in Arizona, California and Hawaii.

Descended from frontier horsemanship contests, rodeo celebrates the skills developed by generations of cowboys. Members of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) compete for millions of dollars in bronc-riding, calf roping, steer wrestling and other events. Most dangerous is bull-riding, in which a cowboy tries to remain on the back of a rampaging bull for all of eight seconds; rodeo clowns distract the bull from goring the rider after he has been thrown. Hugely popular pro rodeos are held in Cheyenne (Wyoming), Pendleton (Oregon), Houston, Las Vegas, Oklahoma City, Fort Worth, Denver, Reno and other cities.

A Recreational Paradise

Skiing in the Colorado Rockies; surfing the big waves on the north shore of O’ahu. Whitewater rafting down Idaho’s Salmon River; backpacking the 2,550mi Pacific Crest Trail. Mountain-biking through Utah’s slick-rock canyons; fly-fishing isolated lakes in Alaska’s vast interior; riding horseback through aspen-clad mountainsides: Seekers of outdoor recreation and natural beauty take full advantage of the wealth of mountains, forests, lakes, rivers and oceanfront, as well as urban parks and biking/running paths.

In-line skating, snowboarding and mountain biking are recent additions to the panoply of popular recreational sports. Sky-diving and mountain climbing attract increasing numbers of mainstream participants. Adventure-travel agencies design vacations around bicycling, canoeing, wildlife viewing and other themes.

Hiking, horseback riding and river rafting provide the best access to thousands of square miles of Western backcountry and parkland. A vast network of trails probes remote corners of the Rockies, Sierra Nevada and Cascades. Undeveloped Alaska offers plenty of true wilderness for adventurers—even for comfort-loving anglers or hunters who hire bush pilots to find the perfect lake. Throughout the West, guest ranches offer room, board and riding opportunities to “city slickers”; some even sponsor working cattle-drive vacations. The Colorado River of Utah and Arizona might be the most celebrated rafting challenge, but most Western states offer white-water to match the skill level of any rafter or kayaker.

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