Tallbear Artworks reveals our picture-perfect West
A photographic portrait of a bison comes alive, the enormous, untamed creature appearing ready to leap right out of the image. Absolutely magical. That enchanting sensation declaring each photo is a piece of art and not merely some random picture, occurs whenever James Menk engages his camera.
Menk’s childhood on a southern Minnesota dairy farm included cows, hogs and chickens. There was precious little free time on the busy acreage but what he could eke out he spent tracking wilder animal life with ideas and a camera.
At age 14, young Menk set up photography blinds in marshy Swan Lake. The boy also canoed out to shoot photos of birds such as egrets, ducks, blue herons and swans. As he pursued them, those early picture-taking sessions were leading him to a lifelong career.
For 27 years, Menk flourished as a wedding/portrait photographer in the Midwest. In 2005, he was honored to do the photography for an educational, four-book elementary grades series published by Capstone Press.
But Menk always felt drawn to the Western states, its wilderness and wildlife. So much so, in fact, that even sans any (known) Native American lineage, someone started calling him Tallbear; and it stuck.
His special interest in Old West history and interactions between the region’s native peoples and European settlers also greatly impacts his artistic works.
Perhaps most captivating to him is the bison, the iconic indigenous creature that became a gravely endangered species due to ruthless hunts by early European immigrants.
So, when opportunities arose 10 years ago for James and Tami Menk (his wife of 26 years), the couple eagerly pulled up stakes to move to Colorado. Deciding upon the perfect location to live within the state was easy enough. Tami’s Colorado brother recommended the Fort Collins area for its favorable weather and low crime rate. The Menks took his suggestion and have been delighted with their choice ever since.
“We love our life.” Tami declared.
As official lender of moral support, she sometimes accompanies her husband on photo shoots and to vendor/artisan market craft shows, helping set up/tear down displays.
Some events Menk has frequented include The Makers Market in Loveland; the Mishawaka Amphitheater vendor market (held twice annually); the Cheyenne Artists’ Guild (CAG) where, in April 2019, Menk was named Artist of the Month, and received its People’s Choice, Best of Show and First Place awards.
Menk displays his pieces year-round at CAG and separately at “Cheyenne Frontier Days” where he and Tami are part of the public relations group for its Frontier Village.
This year during Frontier Days’ July 19-28 run, they’ll participate in village action as two of its “residents” garbed in period clothing. As fictional character Fanny Bea, Tami portrays a glamourous Cheyenne, Wyo., dance hall owner.
Menk will be immersed in the fabricated personality of Josiah James Earp, a fact/fiction blend of an actual cousin to Wyatt Earp.
The Menks are excited to be involved in educating tourists about local Wyoming history. As a bonus, they’ll ride in an authentic stagecoach daily throughout Frontier Days.
Menk offers his photos as traditional framed prints as well as on stretched canvas, metal and slate tile. Slate pieces can be wall-mounted or used as trivets. (In fact, the artist personally — and successfully — tested that latter use with straight-out-of-the-oven hot dishes.) Additionally, 20 images are available as coasters on wood composite with beveled black edges.
Our culture’s social media addiction has led some photographer wannabes to inadvertantly plunge off cliffs or get savaged by wildlife while in pursuit of that next (possibly last) dramatic picture. Such selfie-centered individuals lack respect for the environment, wildlife, fellow-humans, and themselves.
Contrastingly, responsible photography is always top-of-mind to Menk.
“With a ‘bad ass lens,’ I can safely shoot from 100 yards to capture animal images without any disturbance,” he noted.
Among such accountable accomplishments is Stand Your Ground, one in a series of photos taken during a roundup of a bison herd being moved from a ranch north of Fort Collins to Texas. Menk was on horseback helping with the complicated procedure that he described as “like herding cats.” Very big, snorting cats. It took the crew 1½ days by use of horses and 4-wheelers just to load the 80-head of wily bison onto several trailers.
Menk recalled a humorous incident from a 2016 trip to southern Wyoming to photograph pronghorn antelope, noting that these shy creatures always prefer flight over fight. He gingerly approached the animals, inching closer and closer to get within optimal shooting range.
Tami Menk, meanwhile, was unaware of this particular species’ timidity. Concern growing for her husband’s safety, she suddenly screamed out the truck window, “Be careful! Be careful!”
Menk, from a distance and as quietly as possible, called back, “Ssh! Be quiet, you’re scaring them.”
(Perhaps wary pronghorns would be a safer quarry for selfie-takers than are big, burly bison or cranky cougars.)
June 2019 marks the one-year anniversary of Menk’s re-launch of his photography business from wedding/portrait to wildlife/Western landscapes. A plethora of events have been planned for the remainder of the year.
The weekend of June 15-16, he and Tami traveled to Deadwood, S.D., for “Wild Bill Hickock Days,” where they dressed in character as Josiah Earp and Fanny Bea. They played an old-time card game called Faro in the very saloon where Wild Bill so long ago enjoyed that betting pastime… and where he was shot. They visited the cemetery where Hickock was buried and, of course, Menk spent time photographing Old West scenes.
In May, the Estes Park Artists’ Co-Op opened its “Inspired Artisan Marketplace” where Menk’s photography at Shop #6 will be part of 20 artists’ featured works.
Wellington, Colo., celebrates Independence Day each year with a big fourth of July event. In 2019, that will include Menk’s photos among the vendor exhibits. In the same town, Owl Canyon Coffee currently displays some of his available pieces.
August will find Menk in Loveland, Colo., at nationally renown “Art in the Park,” an event that he and Tami have previously attended as visitors. But, after applying and being accepted, this will be his first year as an artist at the important juried competition and sale.
Menk hopes to do Estes Park’s “Elk Fest” in October. This would be his first time at that event also and, if area wildlife cooperate, he just might be able to capture some images of them while visitors admire ones from his previous photographic forays.
Philanthropically, Menk has donated his art on canvas and metal to several non-profit fundraisers, which include the Wellington Chamber of Commerce, Pirates’ Dive Club, and the Travelers Ball for Poudre Landmarks Foundation (period costume preferred so, of course, Josiah and Fanny Bea gladly attended).
Oh yes, and Menk is an active member of the Fort Collins Rockhounders group.
That’s a lot to have all on one plate. But, recalled Menk, his father always wisely advised to do everything you can while you still can.
With camera, skill, talent, artistic eye and creative ideas, the Western photographer is happily doing just that after finding his Western niche.
Declared now 60-year-old Menk, “I finally get to do what I want.”
Visit James Menk, and beautiful examples of what he does, on Facebook at Tallbear Artworks or on his website at http://www.tallbearartworks.com. Menk can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by phone at (507) 469-0553. ❖
— Metzger is a freelance writer from Fort Collins, Colo. She can be reached at email@example.com.