The Tale of Teton Teater
Prolific painter created a canvas per day during decades spent at the easel.
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Yet while paintings by other deceased Western artists are only growing increasingly popular, Teaters haven’t achieved that kind of posthumous success. Thirty years after his death, the legacy of Teton Teater is largely known only by those who collect his paintings and the people – fewer and fewer each year – he considered friends. While his paintings can fetch $500 to $3,000, Teater’s only official gallery representation isn’t a gallery at all. It’s an antique shop in Boise, Idaho.
In his time, Teater’s art career was successful enough that, despite living in poverty through early adulthood, he was able to commission and build the only Frank Lloyd Wright house in Idaho in his 50s. His earnings allowed the artist and his wife, who never had children, to spend 30 years traveling the world, painting in more than 100 countries and crossing the Atlantic on the Queen Elizabeth and the Concorde.
For many of the tourists who came through town every summer, Teater was a tourist attraction in his own right. Visitors often bought a painting to commemorate a trip out West. Today, Teater’s paintings are scattered around the country.
“He doesn’t command a whole lot of attention as far as being a really important artist,” says Christopher Moran, an art appraiser. “He never really gained strong recognition as a painter anywhere other than Town Square here in Jackson. More than anything, he was just sort of a character.”
Taylor says that’s not so. People just don’t remember.
“After he died, he just fell off the ends of the earth and disappeared,” Taylor says. “Of course, he’s still well-known as an individual around that square, but even now that is dying as the people who knew him and have his art are getting elderly. The big problem is getting him back into the art world.”
Teater was known for childlike naivete and for his temper. He liked to drink, and it’s said that Teater paid his debts – including those incurred by his wife’s penchant for petty theft – in paintings. He once got in a fistfight with Glenn Exum and didn’t renew the friendship for 35 years.
Teater was born near Boise, Idaho in 1901. He grew up poor and never finished eighth grade, basically supporting himself from the time he entered his teens.
Teater used to tell people that he had never known what art was until he saw a “buckeye” artist – a painter who traveled around painting people’s portraits for a living – at the age of 15.
“He was absolutely fascinated and decided then and there to be an artist,” Taylor says.
Some say Teater’s first canvas was cut from the covering of a sheepherder’s wagon.
As a teenager, he made a living working at logging and gold mining camps along the Snake River in Idaho. Yet he found that his coworkers – miners, trappers and lumberjacks – had little patience or understanding for his artistic side, so he often took his wagon into the mountains for solitude, working for days on landscape pieces.
By the time he was twenty, Teater sought formal instruction, leaving Idaho for Oregon to attend art school at the Portland Art Museum.
By 1928, Teater bought a Model T Ford and traveled to Jackson for the first time to paint the Tetons. For several years, he spent the first part of his summers here constructing trails in Grand Teton National Park. Yet every summer, as soon as he earned enough money, he quit his trail-building job to spend the rest of the months painting.
He got his name, “Teton Teater,” while living in a tent along the shores of Jenny Lake. There, the artist exhibited his paintings by leaning them against trees. When he was away from the campsite, he left a note requesting that buyers pin payments to a blanket or drop them in a coffee can.