Stafford Poem Inspires 15 Paintings, Bozeman, Montana


Montana artist Mary Keefer was so inspired by William Stafford’s poem “Godiva County, Montana,” that she found herself putting his word-pictures on canvas. Two years and fifteen paintings later, she’s fulfilled her vision.

“This poem describes the many landscapes in Montana that I love – the high plains, rolling wheat fields and mountain ranges. I decided to do a series of paintings using each literal phrase of the poem to create imaginative landscapes,” Keefer said.

Keefer, a retired Montana State University reference librarian, actually discovered Stafford’s work many years back, and this poem came to her attention 10 years ago. As soon as she read it, she knew that some day she’d turn it into a series of paintings.

Godiva County, MontanaOne_shoulder_leans_bare

She’s a big country. Her undulations
roll and flow in the sun. Those flanks
quiver when the wind caresses the grass.
Who turns away when so generous a body
offers to play hide-and-seek all summer?
One shoulder leans bare all the way up
the mountain; limbs range and plunge
wildly into the river. We risk our eyes
every day; they celebrate; they dance
and flirt over this offered treasure.
“Be alive,” the land says. “Listen–
this is your time, your pleasure,
your world.” 


– Written near Big Timber, Montana–June 16, 1993. Click on the image of William Stafford’s draft for larger view. From the William Stafford Archives at Lewis & Clark College.

“I’m a very slow painter and my paintings evolve gradually. They’re more conceptual, not representational. Once I retired, I gave myself two years to do this,” Keefer said. Each distinct phrase has its own painting, and some were more difficult than others. She explains, “ ‘The wind caresses the grass’ … how do you paint ‘caress’? And ‘We risk our eyes’ – how do you paint ‘risk’?”

After painting the first phrase, Keefer did not go in line-by-line order through the poem. “I didn’t keep charging through, but as I worked, each painting continued to surprise me,” she said. The paintings are done in acrylic and mixed media on canvas.

Keefer continued, “My creative process translates a literary art form into a visual art form. The process is challenging but also exciting because almost any risk is worth taking. There were no pre-conceived ideas about what might happen in creating each painting. My intention is to allow myself the artistic freedom to explore the words of the poem and express that freedom I experience in the various Montana landscapes. Said another way, the language of the poem is so evocative and joyful for me that I actually paint ideas that spring from those poetic words.”

Keefer’s research included a train trip from Montana to Portland, where she visited the Watzek Library at Lewis & Clark College, and met with Stafford archivists Doug Erickson and Jeremy Skinner. They discovered Stafford’s hand-written draft and revision of the poem, which is being included as part of the exhibition.

Keefer, a watermedia painter from Bozeman, will show her work in a solo exhibition as part of the Painting Poetry series in the atrium of the Bozeman Public Library, March 1 through April 30, with a reception on Friday, March 14.

“I thought it would be terrific to have Montana acknowledge this cherished poet by being one of the locations where tribute is paid to him during William Stafford Centennial Celebration in 2014,” Keefer said. “Stafford’s poetic language expresses his love of Montana’s beautiful landscape and he encourages all who see and feel it to enjoy it as he did.”

Stafford’s son Kim said that “Godiva County, Montana” was one of the last poems Bill wrote before his death in 1993. Kim stated that his father was near Big Timber when he wrote this very joyful poem about Montana. Stafford loved Montana and spent a lot of time in the state, including Bozeman, Big Timber and Missoula.

      – The Bozeman Public Library Foundation sponsors the exhibition. You can download a brochure about the show here.