Wyoming Geology Provides Unique Canvas For Cowboy State Rock Artist

Cheyenne Artist Georgia Roswell is inspired by the state’s unique and complex geology. That shows through in her art, which highlights the many layers, colors and dimensions found in rocks millions of years old.

Renée Jean

April 09, 20237 min read

(Courtesy Photos)
(Courtesy Photos) (Georgia Roswell)

Millions upon millions of years ago when much of Wyoming was under water, there lived a tiny freshwater snail.

It was about the size of a human thumb, although no humans yet existed to make that comparison or to give the snail a name. 

There was just the sun, warm lakes and the deep, dark night of a subtropical world not yet lit by fire. 

This was the Eocene, and a snail's life was rich and warm, but not endless.

One day, the tiny snail would die, dropping slowly to the bottom of the lake, along with its brethren.

There, they would lie together in never-ending night.

Until finally, one day, the thumb-sized snail would meet a new destiny in the hands of Georgia Roswell, a Cheyenne artist.

Her work has long been inspired by the state's complex geology stratigraphy she'd never seen before coming to live in the Cowboy State 15 years ago.

She found the little snail at a gem and mineral show and became fascinated with it. She bought it and took it to the University of Wyoming, where she learned its Latin name, Elimia Tenera. 

It lived in the Green River Basin, 50 million years ago.

Seeing The World In A Different Way

The snail might have been tiny, but it began to live large in Roswell's imagination.

"I was thinking about a day in the life of this snail, decades of millions of years ago, when Wyoming was underwater," Roswell said. 

She started making some little sketches, drawing these thoughts and feelings about the snail onto paper, seeing its life in a new way.

When the drawings felt right, she took the project to the next level in her studio, cutting strips of cloth in particular colors to represent the way light plays through the sky and dances on the water, before finally disappearing into the depths.

She rolled the pieces of cloth, twisting them together into tiny eddies of color representing water and light filling up a canvas that stands 6 feet tall. 

It's the story of a snail's life woven with textures of cloth that have their own story to tell, as they are the discarded clothes of people who once wore them, which themselves were made by people in countries around the world.

"(The painting) starts out with a high horizon and the light goes down, down, down," Roswell said. "The snail is living and dying and then turning into a fossil."

Tiny snails, with a different textiled whorl, dot the water, floating down, down, down into the inky black depths together. There's a tiny strip of minuscule land that seems fragile and rare between the water and a wide swatch of bright blue sky swinging overhead.

All of Roswell's Wyoming artwork is like this -- a crazy quilt of swirling colors and textures that somehow still make sense. Discarded colored textiles twist and turn like emotions do, telling a wordless story about the Wyoming world that's been captured in geological layers of time.

How Wyoming Changed Her Work

Roswell's Wyoming work is not something she could have imagined herself doing before arriving in the Cowboy State. And this was a source of no little anxiety as she and her husband Dave were moving here 15 or so years ago.

In Georgia, where they had lived, she was working with bamboo and handmade paper, as well as some painting, to translate the landscape, transform it and see it anew.

But Wyoming doesn't have bamboo that she can harvest and make handmade paper from. She was meanwhile not interested in doing figures of people or animals. That left out cowboys and bison.

She had no idea what she was going to do.

As the couple entered Wyoming, Roswell turned a thoughtful eye out the car window, looking at the landscape with her inner artist's eye.

"I was sort of astounded," she said. "I grew up on the East Coast. Here there were really no trees. It was so vast and wide open."

Her first impression was of hills, undulating and brown, like warm suede. 

On subsequent trips to get the lay of the land, she noticed all the stratification of rocks -- layers of time, laid down over millions upon millions of years, compressed into inches. She knew the pattern in the rock meant something to a geologically trained eye.

I thought, you know I really love that, Roswell said. I'm going to, I want to do something like that.

But she didn't want to just paint the layers. That felt boring and wrong.

"Then my next thought was, I'm going to do that in fabric," she said. "Then my next thought was, I'm going to do strips of fabric. Im going to do that with old clothes."

Unusual Materials Have Always Attracted

"I have always been attracted to unusual materials," Roswell said. "And working with my hands, just layering and forming things."

She credits her mother and father for that. Both were makers, Roswell said, even if they did not know they were artists, too.

They made cakes and pies from scratch and would never think of bringing something to a potluck that came from a box.

Her mother knitted scarves and blankets, and her father, who was self-employed, built things, too.

"So, my parents were very supportive, when I was a child, of art lessons," she said. 

And when she wanted to go to University of Buffalo in New York for an art degree, they were supportive of that as well.

While at the university, she focused on fiber and textiles. She did some clothing design and made wedding gowns.

The cloth felt important in some way. It reminded her of her mother knitting things for her family, and her father building things for people, to make his living.

Seeing Is The Real Art

But her surroundings also play a part in her artist vision.

Each time I have moved, my art has evolved, she said. 

New materials, new landscapes -- somehow a unique and new vision has always emerged, a way to see the world anew.

That vision, Roswell said, is what she hopes to be remembered for one day. 

A friend, who came to one of her art shows in Georgia, told Roswell, I never thought I lived in a beautiful place until I saw your work. I'm going to drive home tonight and look at the landscape through your eyes.

That compliment is one of the best Roswell believes she's ever received. She values it as much as, or perhaps even more than, prestigious awards she has won over the years, like the Western Spirit award from Cheyenne Frontier Days or the Wyoming Arts Council's biennial Artists Fellowship, one of the state's most coveted.

"To know that what I do helps people to see the world around them in a different way," Roswell said. "That's one of the things I'd like to be remembered for, helping people to see the world differently."

It's still a beautiful world, Roswell believes, even if there's sometimes ugliness as well.

Sometimes, it just takes the right eye to capture that beauty, and then highlight it in a way that helps everyone to remember it.

If You Go

Georgia Roswell's textile art inspired by Wyomings geology will be on display April 7-30 at Blue Door Arts, 1608 Capitol Ave. in Cheyenne. 

Share this article



Renée Jean

Business and Tourism Reporter