I Live in a Small Town, and a River Runs Through It

Twenty miles southwest of Red Lodge, MT sits Glacier Lake. It is located on the Montana-Wyoming border and at just under 10,000 feet in elevation it is the headwaters for Rock Creek, flowing forty some miles before it joins the Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone River.

I Live in a Small Town and a River Runs Throught It.jpg

When I was three my family moved to a small plot of land near Rockvale, where the river ran less than fifty yards north of our house. The house was flanked by two large ponds, full of Louisiana bull frogs. Each night I fell asleep to a chaotic cacophony of croaking frogs and the gentle lull of the river passing by. Just across the river within view from our bank lived my older brother’s best friend, Clay Gruber. The three of us spent most our summer days swimming, fishing, catching frogs, and building and testing bike ramps into the pond. We would attempt to capsize our paddle boat and would play king of the hill on it pushing and kicking and sinking each other back down, flipping and turning the boat over and over and over. I excelled at monkey fights...two of us would hang below the diving board my dad had built for us and would try kick the other into the water. Looking back on it now, my family regards the pond and creek house and that time of life as “kid paradise”.

When I was seven or eight, we moved into Joliet. I remember crying over the loss of the pond house, not yet knowing all the fun that a boy can have in a small town. We soon made friends with Seth Keifer, who had a trampoline. Our days were now filled with bike tag, wrestling matches on the trampoline, water gun fights, and a dangerous game we dubbed “the game” which I won’t go into now, but which did leave my friend Parker with a bloody forehead and permanent scar.

It wasn’t long before we found ourselves back on the river, this time travelling down it on black tire inner tubes. The 45 minute float from two mile bridge to the bridge in town was called the “tour de rock creek” and every summer, even now, I make it a point to ride the tour. The creek provides the perfect amount of rapids which require some paddling to keep from running under the overhanging Russian olive trees full of spiders, but it also provides slow wide spots where we’d usually enjoy a few cold ones. That river is full of unopened beer cans as high schoolers attempt to pass one across stream to a friend and miss the mark. I can still see many of us -Ryan, Brenton, Cody, and myself-- laughing, swearing and desperately and often unsuccessfully chasing down a stray tall boy as it bobbed just out of reach. And then of course there was Ben Polesky, our larger friend with a quick wit and a propensity for trouble. You had always better stay clear of Ben on the river especially when an upcoming log jam or an overhanging tree was ahead. He had a way of coaxing his friends to float next to him only to double cross them and push himself off their tube sending them spinning into disaster. That river’s heard a countless number or cursings of Ben’s name followed by his mischievous laugh and high pitch gleeful squeal we called the “Polesky squeal”.

The river has given me much joy over the years and now is an endless source of creative inspiration. The accompanying painting to this writing brings to mind the lyric of a song by Chris Tomlin-- “All this world is light and shadow, oh the joy and oh the sorrow” This painting is all about light and shadow and though I’ve mentioned just some of the incredible joy the river has given, it has also brought great sorrow. In the Fall of 2010, it took the life of my friend Ryan. The pain this has caused his family and friends is very real. All I can think of is that the very things that bring us the most joy also have the capacity to inflict the most pain and, most importantly, somehow through the mix of this clash of emotions and realities flows endless beauty, unaware and unaffected by whether we notice it or not.

I live in a small town, and a river runs through it.


Jumping out of planes and painting along the way

Daniel Keys: I texted Caprario about skydiving next month. Gird your loins!

Me: Lets so it! (I fat fingered)

Daniel Keys: Good! Michelle wants to too.

Me: Awesome! lets really do it

     One month after this brief text conversation I found myself 10,000 ft above Phoenix, AZ in a rickety old prop plane held together with duct-tape and bumper stickers inspiring confidence with sayings like “IF YOU’RE SCARED, SAY YOU’RE SCARED”. I’m with my good friend and fellow artist, Daniel Keys, and two middle aged men respectively strapped to each of our backs via carabineers, straps, and I hope high quality thread. As we sat listening to the rusty growl of this flying sardine can, I contemplated the reality that my life would literally be “hanging by a thread” in the very near future, and also that 15 minutes earlier Todd had pensively slipped the words from his mouth with the desired effect of a skilled torturer, “Ever have that feeling you’re forgretting something?” “One minute!” the pilot calls out in time to jolt me from the contemplation of whether Todd was serious or not, and that’s my cue to pull on the plastic eye goggles given to me earlier on the ground “You don’t want any gap between your nose and the goggles…otherwise your contacts will slide back behind your eyes,” Todd casually mentioned. “Check my position,” the pilot said as Todd opened the side hatch door of the Cessna 182 prop plane...“We’re good…you ready?!” “Yep…” I doubtfully replied, and took one last look at Daniel and thought, “Wow, guess this is really happening.” Awkwardly, I swung my legs out towards the 1 ft x 1 ft jump platform and reached my hands out for…well nothing, before remembering that all I was supposed to do was “hold on to my shoulder straps and try to keep my back arched” and then suddenly I saw the plane fall away from me as we front flipped down toward the sun-baked, cactus riddled baron landscape of the Arizona desert and eased our way into a 120 mph cruising speed. It was all a pale burnt umber ahead of me. I yelled and screamed as loud as I could, though I could hardly hear myself as I felt it all pass through the back of my neck and slip past Todd’s helmet leaving a trail 5,000 feet tall in a matter of 30 seconds.

     It was an incredible experience to say the least and one that I feel is somewhat indicative of this past year of my life. Only one year ago, I was rattling down US 89 in Grandma’s ‘94 Dodge Caravan towards the same sands of southern Arizona lonely and broken.  It was in the depths of that trip that I made the decision to plow head-long into life as an artist. A journey, which has led me all across the U.S. in a grand adventure, and I am so grateful for every moment of it.

     I’ve felt for a while now a need to share a few of the highlights. It should be noted: these adventures aren’t ones that I deserved, and they were rarely of my planning. But I’ve realized that the highest caliber of life, the one that God calls us to is one marked by uncertainty, adventure, and a willingness to step out in faith and accept whatever it is He has planned for us--jumping when he says “Jump!” and being content when he says, “not yet”.

     In spring 2012 I found myself painting and exploring the stoic vermillion canyons of Zion National Park with my dad. A week later I was enrolled in Daniel Keys’ still life workshop which sparked a marvelous friendship and the beginning of many adventures. Adventures that had us painting together along the Merced River in Yosemite and the rugged cliffs of Big Sur. A few months later we were freezing and mooshing stiff paint around on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon.


This year has taken me all the way to the sun along the famous historic highway that cuts through Glacier National Park, and it’s led me under the shadow of Mount Gould. It’s taken my roommate, his cousin, and I to the peak of Mount Villard rising 12,000 ft amongst the magnificent Beartooth Range…we all thought we were going to die up there on the spine of that great mountain as we reached the summit and gazed across half of Montana and Wyoming at 4:30 in the afternoon. Our judgment of time needed for the climb was grossly optimistic and we set out that morning from our disassembled camp thinking we’d be back by lunchtime and would even be able to hike the additional six miles back to the car and would be sleeping soundly in our warm beds at home before nightfall. Instead, that night we set the camp back up in the dark at 9:00.


I’ll never forget the great week I spent painting the Tetons and hiking around them with my friend Dan Lombardi, fueled only by his strict yet, to my surprise, delicious vegetarian regimen. Later, in mid summer, Lombardi and I adventured 9 miles into the heart of the East Rosebud to the majestic Rainbow Lake just 60 miles due west of the quiet small town I grew up in.

     I treasure the exciting days of painting and the lonely, even scary, spring nights I spent camped out above Canyon de Chelly when the moon was a great spotlight, beaming down on my tiny one-man tent. I felt so alone there. The canyon is an ancient place. It was home to the Anasazi who mysteriously vanished from the canyon leaving behind cave dwellings and pictographs. Later, the Navajo would discover the canyon’s ruins and to this day consider it very sacred. As I explored the canyon bottom, surrounded by the 800 foot vertical walls, I couldn’t help but feel small and insignificant, knowing that the canyon will go on unchanged for thousands of years long after my life has been tucked away in the folds of time.

     On a lighter note, in December, I embarked on the longest journey yet; a 37-hour drive and 2,000 miles that cut through whiteout blizzard conditions and ice-caked highways with my cousin Jesse, who presented me with the trip a mere 48 hours prior to leaving.  Upon arriving in Virginia, after driving nonstop for 37 hours and having eaten only oranges for the entire time, we were on the doorstep of Miss Ashley James (a very special girl in my cousin’s life and in fact the true reason for the trip though we’d lie and say it was a paint trip for me and a business trip for Jesse.) Later on in the excursion I left Jesse and Ashley to themselves and camped in Wal-Mart parking lots and visited the incredible art museums and the historic heritage found in Washington D.C.   I was ushered around and hosted by my friend Sammy, a 27 year old Ethiopian immigrant with an insatiable entrepreneurial spirit. He introduced me to the delicious Ethiopian dish “kitfo” (seasoned raw meat). He made me feel right at home amongst his Ethiopian friends and we attended worship services just across the street from his apartment in the Evangelical Ethiopian Church of Silver Springs, MD. Sammy whipped me in game after game of billiards before sending me back to Montana to lick my wounds for a week painting in my home with my four roommates who play guitars and piano, and we sing and find every excuse to slip into the hot tub that was given to us just in time for winter. That week I went on walks with my friend Tensy and her new silver lab puppy, Brody. We played fetch in the dried canal one block south of the house, and I remembered that earlier in the year the Stumberg brothers and I found it, filled with the swift murky water provided by the mighty Yellowstone River, to be the perfect summer time oasis despite the legends of flesh-eating virus and spikes set along the canal’s bottom to deter miscreants like us.

     Then, after a few days of down time, I once again boarded a plane bound for Scottsdale where exactly a year earlier I first met Daniel Keys. Putney Painter week was back in full swing and this year I was placed right in the heart of those Vermont artists and friends. The skydiving Daniel and I did on that trip was incredible, though, for me, not the highlight. In fact, it pales in comparison to newly forged friendships, late nights of sketching and painting, and coming away with a new found sense of direction and artistic identity. I came to the realization that my story, that these adventures, by which I’ve been so blessed, are perhaps my greatest asset. I now understand that what I want to paint are the moments we realize we’ve embarked on a grand adventure…uncertainty lies ahead and that is the very thing which pulls us in.

Life by drive by painting


Turn around...Why? You know you should paint it. Yeah, but I could paint something like that anywhere. But will you?...Okay fine, I’ll take another look at it. Half the time it only looks good from the car anyway, what with you listening to music and taking in all the countryside in a split second at 70 mph, compressing and combining all the beauty into one beautiful impression. Still, I’ll get ou...t and take a look at it. You know what drew you to it. The scheme of yellow and shift of cool to warm across the haystack, that classic subject that found its way into Van Gogh’s, Monet’s, and Sargent’s, and still creeps into the contemporary greats like Aspevig, Entz, Elliott, Lynde, and Lee. It makes sense, it’s a good story; the farmers who worked the land for generations, the stacks year after year in this place, the cattle that have come and eaten and gone to slaughter, the hay that feeds the cow and the cow that feeds the farmer. A story of work and sweat and machines that cut and bale and stack and the machines that break and the cursing and the headaches and the rust. The post pounder and the strong forearms that lift it and slam it down. All these things and more, but it’s the light you’re drawn to and the shape of shadow on the hill. How it’s neutral behind the stack, close in value but warmer than the cool left side of the bales and cooler than the hot right of them, the rolling hills and the feeling of their mass. What are you waiting for? Slap down that sky, cerulean and ultramarine and white, and work it all forward from there. A wash? No. Just work from the back forward. Scrub in where you’ll need to lay thick paint on top of the scrub later. Feel those rolling hills like a sculpture, do it with your whole palm, feel them and see cow trails working their way up them. What’s the shape of that stack? It’s a trapezoid, two on top, three in the middle, four on bottom, the left side catching color from the cobalt sky, that reflective mesh most of the bales are wrapped in does that. That’s amazing how hot those fronts in shadow get as they angle closer to the sun and it bounces light into the grass in front of them, left to right warmer and warmer, warmest and darkest in the deep hollows between them. Clean up those edges, sharp where the sun hits and the shadow of the hill behind. That’s a good place to lay paint on, let the thick paint make the hard edge. There it is, now it’s separate from the back. How bout those posts now? It’s a lot easier to paint them in than to pound them in. You’ve done enough of that working for Dad, planting those ponderosa and staking them against the wind, getting in a hurry because you’re frustrated by how long it takes to put a post down in that rocky Red Lodge river rock soil, raising the pounder too high and slamming it on the post, the lip of the pounder catching the top of the post, repelling it back and planting itself on your forehead, you collapse, dizzy, pissed, tired, feeling stupid, and wishing you could just go make paintings. Yes, it’s a lot easier to just paint them in with a brush. Well make sure you put them in the right place. Don’t screw up the underlying strokes, do it once and do it right, there and there, not there, it wouldn’t do you any good there, the shadow of the bales and the color on your brush are the same, you wouldn’t see the stroke and you’d just confuse the brushwork on the bales. Put one there in that opening against the light where you can see the thing. A thin vertical line on top of wide horizontal and diagonal strokes. Put in those tall poles too. They’re as high as the stack, the one on the right is slightly higher. It’s a darker green color and cuts through the back hills and their shadows and their light. Put in a couple cows. One was laying there earlier. That’s always an interesting look, the body horizontal and dark, and the head up and to the left, a little knob on top. Do one more standing, grazing. There it is. Work the ground towards you. Put it under your feet, slightly warmer as it comes forward, here the grass is vertical and catching light, it casts a soft shadow to the left on the shorter grass. A bit of snow is cutting through and the grass cuts through it. Tighten it up here and lose the edge there. Break that line and add a thick stroke here. Step back and look at it from a distance, you didn’t do that yet...look at it from 20 feet away. God it’s a nice day. And you were gonna keep on driving. It’s reading pretty well, the drawing isn’t perfect. but the color is good. Your camera would never see it that way. Clean up. Pack it up. Your tire is a little low in the back. Eddie’s Corner is another hour away so grip the wheel in case it goes. The painting’s nothing to write home about but it feels good to have stopped and acted on the impulse to put in on canvas. There’s always something better ahead and when there’s always something better ahead you never get anything done. Now you can drive for a while and not feel bad about not stopping, but you better stop if you see something good. You might be able to get to the Crazies and the good land beneath them before the sun goes down.See More