An exhibit celebrates the legend of Everett Ruess

More than 70 years ago, an artist disappeared in the wilds of southeast Utah. He left little behind but two burros, a dog, and a legend that lives on today.

EVERETT RUESS“He was a storyteller and an adventurer,” says Montezuma-Cortez High School teacher Nathan Thompson. He’s discussing Everett Ruess, an artist whose work hangs in “Block Prints of Everett Ruess’ at the Anasazi Heritage Center near Dolores, Colo., now through Sept. 4.

The show contains 25 images, and documents the artist’s life. That life is a legend, according to Thompson, who wrote his master’s thesis on Ruess. Born in 1914 in Oakland, Calif., Ruess showed artistic talent early. During his childhood, the family moved often, and Everett studied at several good schools, including Chicago’s Art Institute.

The Ruesses returned to California in the mid-1920s. As a teen, Everett wandered the coast with a sketch pad. By 1930, Ruess was hitchhiking to Monument Valley, Canyon de Chelly, the San Francisco Peaks, the Grand Canyon, and Zion National Park. His family sent him money, and he sold art work. Off and on, he returned to California to make block prints of his sketches.

During his travels, Dorothea Lang photographed him. Maynard Dixon gave him art lessons, and Ansel Adams traded a photograph for a Ruess print. Ruess kept journals documenting these encounters, and wrote long letters home.

“It’s really kind of unique that he was doing this,” says Thompson. “It was the Depression era. Other people didn’t have the money to travel around the way he was. (He wasn’t) taking any responsibility for contributing anything to society. He was a very selfish person.”

In November, 1934, Ruess wrote to his brother from near Escalante, Utah, asking that mail be forwarded to Caliente, where he would arrive in three months.

Ruess never showed up in Caliente. Searchers found his camp the following spring at Davis Gulch, near Glen Canyon, where Lake Powell is today. Two emaciated burros stood in a makeshift corral, and Everett’s dog was hanging around, but there was no sign of him.

The Ruess myth began. Some newspaper accounts and witnesses suggested he disappeared by choice, and was living among the Navajos. Others proposed he had met cattle-rustlers, who mistook him for a marshal and killed him. Another saga claimed that he died of malnutrition, because he couldn’t afford food.

Someone suggested he committed suicide. A more modern idea proposes he was having trouble with his sexual identity, and didn’t want to go home and face it.

One tale ran that he fell off a cliff. Thompson says it’s possible. “He took lots of chances in the places he’d go. He wasn’t very safety-conscious.”

Ruess was forgotten by all but but his family. Then in the early 1980s, photography and textbook publisher Gibbs Smith had a conversation with famed writer Edward Abbey. Abbey had known Ruess, and suggested that Smith publish some of his letters and journals.

Smith did, under the title “Vagabond for Beauty.” He then brought out “On Desert Trails,” and “The Wilderness Journals of Everett Ruess.”

In 1985, Smith also decided to place a plaque in Davis Gulch commemorating the 50th year of Ruess’s disappearance. He asked a friend familiar with the area, Clive Kincaid, to find a place for the plaque, which contained a selfportrait of Ruess leading two burros. The image came from one of the few known Ruess printing blocks. Kincaid fell in love with the image, and used it for Christmas cards. He began to wonder what had happened to the rest of Ruess’s blocks. With the help of Everett’s brother, Kincaid searched the Ruess family home in California, finally locating the cuts rotting in a box in the gazebo.

Kincaid had recently founded the small non-profit Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, or SUWA, and he contacted a member of the group capable of restoring the blocks. From these, Kincaid had 50 prints made. They sold quickly. The proceeds helped SUWA to grow.

“They’re now the most powerful wilderness group in Utah,” says Thompson. “(Writer) Terry Tempest Williams calls him the Patron Saint of the Wilderness. He helped ’em out after he was gone.”

Thompson adds that SUWA and the myth of Edward Ruess probably would not exist without each other. Money from Ruess’s work developed SUWA, and because SUWA used his prints, people interested in wilderness preservation became interested in Ruess’s story.

That interest continues unabated. Since 1983, Smith has sold nearly 100,000 copies of Ruess’s letters and journals. Youth adventure writer Will Hobbs used Ruess as a model in “The Big Wander”’ his novel about a boy, burro, and dog exploring the Southwest.

Jon Krakauer included a chapter on Ruess in his Alaskan adventure “Into the Wild.” Diana Orr made a featurelength film, “Forever Lost,” about him.

The show “Block Prints of Everett Ruess” happened because a one-time director of the Utah Arts Council, Glenn Richards, put it together in the 1980s from SUWA’s prints.

Thompson suggested bringing the exhibit to the Anasazi Heritage Center to help celebrate the Mesa Verde National Park Centennial, because it contained an image of the park’s famous Square Tower House.

Thompson asserts that Ruess was indeed a gifted artist. But his adventures and death, and his connection with SUWA, make him larger than life, because he had no time to develop his talent.

Little is known of him other than what he wrote himself. People even argue about his name. Some say ‘Roose,’ while others say ‘Roo-ess.’ Some argue that it should be ‘Ryoce.’

“His life is difficult to explain,” says Thompson.

From Arts & Entertainment, August 2006.