Packers and mule strings rarely appear in western art. More often than not, the closest you’ll find is a lone pack horse (not a mule) being led by a cowboy. Too often in these images, packs appear poorly loaded, the horse looks like it has no balance, and the horseman is tugging hard at the lead rope as they go down the trail.
It isn’t a scene that would make an outfitter proud.
Given that the imagery of a mule string on a mountain trail is as western as it gets, it’s surprising more Western artists don’t paint outfitter art. Marye Roeser, an artist based in Coleville, California, has spent decades rising to the challenge.
“Western art focuses on old-time ranching traditions,” Roeser explains. “Since outfitting deals with ‘dudes’, it’s associated with vacation, and not the working cowboy lifestyle. I think that’s why you rarely find outfitter-inspired western art.”
Roeser knows better, though. She’s experienced first-hand the hard work it takes to be an outfitter, having helped husband Lou Roeser operate Mammoth Lakes Pack Outfit for 38 years, running weeklong pack trips, hundred-mile horse drives and winter sleigh rides in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
“I paint what I’ve lived over the years,” she says. “The imagery of a packstring in the mountains is very romantic. The only place you’ll see it is in the backcountry, where mules are still needed for transportation.”
It’s difficult to paint in the backcountry, which might explain why doing so isn’t more popular with western artists. Oil painting is particularly difficult in a remote areas, since a freshly painted canvas must be packed out wet. Canvas also tears easily, bugs and dirt stick to the paint, and the large wooden frames are difficult to pack.
To solve these issues, Roeser switched to watercolors. The paints dry quickly on watercolor paper and the finished product takes up only a small space inside a pack pannier.
By capturing her backcountry images first-hand, Roeser joins a tradition of Western artists that dates back to the Lewis and Clark Expedition, and artists who include the likes of Thomas Moran, George Catlin and Frederic Remington. But while those masters of the genre used pack mules and horses to haul art supplies into the field, you wouldn’t know it by looking at their artwork. Unlike Roeser’s paintings, their artwork is devoid of the packer and the mule string that carried them into the backcountry in the first place.