THE COWBOY ARTIST
Fifteen miles down the dusty East Fork road, half an hour’s drive from the town of Dubois – one of Wyoming’s least populated towns – lies the Finley ranch; a scattering of log cabins, barns and corrals tucked away amongst the cottonwood trees that line the bubbling East Fork River, dwarfed by the vast Wyoming wilderness that surrounds it.
Seventy-one-year-old John Finley has lived his whole life on the ranch, where he learned to hunt as a child, shooting his first deer at the age of nine. John’s grandfather Duncan travelled to the United States from Scotland over a hundred years ago, settling in the East Fork Valley of the Wind River in the country’s second most sparsely populated state.
Nowadays, John lives on the ranch with his wife Ramona – or Monie as she’s known – together with his energetic and fearless ranch dog Strider, four horses and sixteen head of cattle. Once running 300 mother cows, the ranch has gradually reduced in size over the years since John was in his youth. In the 1970s, the family sold off some of the land and the majority of their cattle for economic reasons, cutting the herd to around thirty head.
In the 1990s, a decade-long drought plagued the area, which had an impact on the grazing and led the family to further reduce their herd. The effect of the drought was compounded when the privately-owned land above the ranch valley was acquired by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, which ended the practice of agricultural irrigation. Thus, the Finley ranch no longer benefitted from the irrigation run-off, causing more of the grazing land to dry up.
The quintessential cowboy, not only is John the embodiment of authentic western culture, raising livestock and living off the land, he is also a skilled and accomplished artist, creating a broad range of artwork. From leatherwork and life size bronze statues to intricate wasp paper paintings, scrimshaw, and women’s jewellery, his varied artistic creations reflect his unique talent and affinity for the natural world and its wild inhabitants.
John has also become a renowned figure within the ranching community and nearby town of Dubois, where his run in with a grizzly bear in 2016, and how his dogs Strider and Merlin helped save him, has made him something of a townsfolk legend, with the story arguably being enlarged with each telling.
Living in a remote and secluded setting, the Finleys embrace a quiet life in harmony with the land and nature that surrounds them, and in peaceful isolation from the outside world.
John with his horse Cirion, who he affectionately refers to as ‘the squirt’, wearing a leather vest he made by hand.
The East Fork Road that leads to the Finley Ranch and the Shoshone National Forest.
John walks towards his log cabin followed by his dog Strider.
The damaged bridge that crosses the East Fork river on the Finley Ranch.
The ranch land is located next to the Wind River Indian Reservation, where Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapahoe Native American tribes live, with whom John maintains well-established linkages.
John prepares to scrimshaw a knife handle while sitting at a desk in a corner of his log cabin, which he built himself.
John stands inside a barn where he stores his tack and ranch equipment.
Strider follows Squirt around the corrals.
John ties a rain coat to the back of his saddle.
John’s western saddle, which he embossed by hand.
Finley’s dog, Strider
The top of the driveway that winds down to the East Fork valley where the ranch lies. The Finley ranch has been owned and operated by the same family for over 100 years.
A drawing John created of the moment his dog Merlin encountered a grizzly bear on the ranch in 2016. Merlin survived the attack, becoming the legend of many campfire stories.
One of John’s extremely delicate wasp paper paintings.
A drawing by John illustrating how wet weather affects a cowboy hat.
Wild horses gallop along a flat mountaintop in the Wind River Indian Reservation.
John and his dog Strider, son of Merlin, who recently passed away.
Horses graze in a field at the neighbouring Bitteroot Ranch.
An old photo of John’s grandparents hangs on the wall inside his log cabin.
John, Monie, Strider and Squirt.