Artist Profiles | Literary Arts | Visual Arts

Stephen Trimble: Interpreter and Messenger

This profile was written in conjunction with Artists of Utah’s Utah’s 15 program and appears in the publication Utah’s 15: The State’s Most Influential Artists Vol. II (order your copy here). His works appear in the current exhibition by that name at Salt Lake City’s Rio Gallery, through March 8. Trimble will also participate as part of Artists of Utah’s READ LOCAL Onsite series Wednesday, January 23 at Finch Lane Gallery, 7 p.m.. He will be appearing with David G. Pace, and both writers will read from their works and engage in a discussion with each other and the audience. 

Stephen Trimble out on his daily walk in Salt Lake City, 2018, photo by Simon Blundell.

One snowy day in 2011, Stephen Trimble and his wife, Joanne Slotnik, arrived at a grove on the lower slopes of Mount Rainier with the ashes of his father. Trimble was born in Denver in 1950 to Don and Isabelle Trimble. Isabelle grew up in a small Montana town. Don was a geologist who worked his way through college and graduate school as a hard rock miner at the tail end of the Depression. He was responsible for Steve’s interest in photography and the natural world, Isabelle for his interest in people, and both for his respect for storytelling. “Every vacation was a new national park, and on our road trips Dad kept up a running commentary on Western history and landscape,” Trimble remembers. “His stories sounded more like parable. He retold them to communicate his values.” With reverential regard, Don Trimble, who hailed from Toppenish, Washington, referred to Mount Rainier as “The Mountain.”

Trimble knew that some of his dad’s ashes belonged in that “paradise of Paradises,” the southern slope of Mount Rainier National Park. “We needed to leave some of him there. And we did.”

Trimble is a humble force of nature. His 25th book, The Capitol Reef Reader, will appear spring of 2019 from the University of Utah Press. He’s been a freelance writer and photographer since the 1970s. His accolades include the Sierra Club’s Ansel Adams Award for Photography and Conservation, the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum’s Western Heritage “Wrangler” Award, a Doctor of Humane Letters from his alma mater, Colorado College, and a Wallace Stegner Fellowship from the University of Utah’s Tanner Humanities Center. His writing has received the Benjamin Franklin Award for excellence in independent publishing, New Mexico’s Best Arts Book Award, The Arizona Daily Star Best Southwestern Book, the School Library Journal’s Top Ten Non-Fiction Books, and the Utah Book Award in Nonfiction, among others. His activism has brought him far afield: in 2018 he contributed an online lecture, Community or Commodity? Why Utah Fails the Moral Challenge of the Climate Crisis,” to The Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal on Human Rights, Fracking and Climate Change. In this gutsy piece, Trimble explores what he describes as our “chasm of values.”

But none of this adequately describes who Steve Trimble is as a writer, photographer, naturalist, conservationist or artist.
“I don’t use the word ‘artist’ to define myself,” he says. “I don’t use the word ‘art’ to describe what I make. It’s up to you to decide if my writing or photography is art. My job is to write well, to photograph well, to do my best work as a craftsman.”

In person, Trimble is reflective and personable. He expresses a generosity of spirit capable of forgiveness but committed to accountability. He has a keen sense for words, realizes when he hasn’t found the best one to describe what he wants to say, and measures breath in a way to allow time for his language of ideas to develop. It is difficult to contextualize, in so brief a profile, the life of a working artist who’s been an active producer for five decades. One can speak of “phases,” “periods,” or even “layers,” a term that initially seems to serve the purpose but proves incorrect because it suggests covering one thing with another. A more appropriate way to think of Trimble’s development as an artist is to see it as extending through two concentric circles that fold into one another along a single plane. Space and silence dominate one arc, where the artist serves as interpreter of our natural world. The other arc envelops intimacy and relationships, where Trimble is the messenger between subjects and readers.

Immediately following his days as an undergraduate at Colorado College, Trimble worked as a technical writer for the BLM. His boss, more bureaucrat than writer, was nevertheless a fierce editor. “It was the first time that anyone took what I’d written and tore it apart,” he recalls. “He understood clarity and precision. His criticism was a real gift.” At the Museum of Northern Arizona Press, where he was director, Trimble learned about marketing, design, artistic collaboration, and editing.

Trimble’s first saddle stitches were explorations of the natural landscape for the National Park Service while he worked as a seasonal ranger, beginning with Great Sand Dunes: The Shape of the Wind (1975) and Rock Glow, Sky Shine: The Spirit of Capitol Reef (1978). This natural history work culminates in his first freelance project, The Sagebrush Ocean: A Natural History of the Great Basin (1989), wherein Trimble proves himself a master of intimacy by capturing the natural essence of things in photographs up close and far away. His accompanying prose is elegant and muscular. “I knew a lot about the Southwest before beginning the project,” he says, “but I didn’t know anything more of the Great Basin than headlights and late-night truck stops. I take enormous pleasure in learning about new country. I fell in love with the Great Basin because it’s so enormously wild.”

Trimble’s writing about Native people began in 1984, when the curator of anthropology at the Heard Museum (Phoenix) contacted Trimble about a new wing for the museum’s permanent collection of Southwest Native American artifacts. The museum hired Trimble (partnering with New York photographer Harvey Lloyd) to record interviews and take pictures for an introductory slideshow about contemporary Native Americans. “Up until then, I was a natural history writer. I was hanging out in the desert and writing in my journal about the land, not the people.” 

Apache girl’s coming-of-age ceremony, White Mountain Apache Tribe, Arizona, 1984, Stephen Trimble .

That summer, when Trimble was on the road nonstop to talk to Native people throughout the Southwest, was transformative. It resulted in the slideshow Our Voices, Our Land, which also became a book and calendar. Trimble expanded on this fieldwork to create Talking with the Clay (1987), a book about Pueblo pottery from the perspective of 60 potters, and finally, his seminal work on Southwest Native Americans, The People (1993), of which Tony Hillerman remarked: “It may well become one of those classics that stay in print forever.” The 496-page compendium (words and photographs by Trimble) “redefines American ethnography” (Library Journal) and remains the best introduction to the 50 Southwest Native nations available.

While in much of his writing Trimble has acted as natural world interpreter, or messenger between peoples, he also has used personal life experience as a catalyst for art. In 1994, while both men were young fathers, he co-authored with Gary Paul Nabhan The Geography of Childhood: Why Children Need Wild Places, a book that combines environmental psychology, gender studies, ethnobotany, and personal history to explore the relationship between youth and the wild.

All these skillsets coalesce in Bargaining for Eden: The Fight for the Last Open Spaces in America (2008). Here, Trimble combines the lessons of land and narrative to tell a story about conquest and identity in the American West. His parallel stories involve Snowbasin’s privatization of public lands for the 2002 Olympic Games and Trimble’s own issues as a land owner in Torrey, Utah. It won him the 2008 Utah Book Award for Nonfiction and represents, in his mind, his best writing. He calls The People his most significant accomplishment. But his favorite?  “Probably the pottery book because it’s such a privilege to hang out with the potters. I loved that experience.”

In large part these projects were made possible by Trimble’s work as a stock photographer. He’d sell images to textbooks, guidebooks, and magazines, which gave him time to write. By the end of the 1990s, however, the internet had flooded the market with free images. “I found myself scrambling to make a living because my income flow had all but disappeared. Eighty-five percent of my income had come from photographs. When that went away, I never really did solve the problem.”

Or at least not decisively. Trimble taught writing at the University of Utah Honors College; he lined up speaking gigs; he worked as a consultant for the Nature Conservancy; he wrote copy for the (then) new Natural History Museum. He suffered an identity crisis. “It was very difficult, and remains so for all creative folks looking to be valued fairly in the world.”

No matter where he’s found himself in the world, Trimble has been politically active since the year he started college in 1968.(Think Vietnam War, draft cards, Kent State, and Abbie Hoffman.) “American cities were burning. Our most charismatic leaders were being assassinated,” he remembers. “I might be drafted to go fight a war that was a horrific mistake. We were all activists about something. We protested. We held the powerful accountable. We joined groups to make waves. That said, I focused my activist energy on the land.” 

At 18, Trimble joined the Sierra Club just before the Board ousted Executive Director David Brower for his “radicalism.” An environmentalist and mountaineer from Berkeley, California, Brower had been placing full-page advertisements in The New York Times and printing “battle books” with the specific purpose of engaging Congress on land-related issues. “The ads worked. Brower kept dams out of Grand Canyon, but the Sierra Club lost its tax-exempt status as a result, so they forced him out,” Trimble remarks. Trimble decided Brower was his guy. He bought all the battle books and used them as models for his writing and photography. He began drafting letters to Congress. He urged legislators to proclaim the Escalante protected wilderness, spoke against coal mines on the Kaiparowits Plateau, and protested nuclear waste disposal at Canyonlands.

The Henry Mountains from Panorama Point, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah, 2015, by Stephen Trimble.

Throughout the 1970s and ‘80s, Trimble spent as much time in the wilderness as he could. He discovered Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire and the writing of Wallace Stegner. He also developed a network of lifelong relationships: Terry Tempest Williams, Dave Livermore (Utah Director of the Nature Conservancy), and naturalist writer Ann Zwinger (1973 finalist for the National Book Award in science) among others. By the time he moved to Salt Lake City in 1987, he already enjoyed an established community of artists, environmentalists, and friends. 

One afternoon in 1995, Trimble and Williams sat down over tea to brainstorm what they could do about an anti-wilderness bill proposed by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Utah. Their solution: Testimony, a stunningly handsome chapbook of the best writing about Utah from writers and poets like Barry Lopez, John McPhee, Mark Strand, Ellen Meloy, and Rick Bass. Within two months of their call for submissions, Williams and Trimble were in Washington, D.C., delivering Testimony to members of Congress. Their champions, Sens. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., and Bill Bradley, D-N.J., moved to filibuster the bill. To buy time, Feingold read Trimble’s essay on the floor of the Senate.

The bill was defeated.

When President Clinton declared Grand Staircase a National Monument, he told Terry Tempest Williams that Testimony had influenced his decision to do so. There exist innumerable examples of art and literature created in response to a social or political issue. But how many works can we name that are used as tools to defeat legislation?  Twenty years later, Director of Torrey House Press Kirsten Johanna Allen volunteered to publish a chapbook (2016) and subsequent trade edition for a second generation Testimony project in response to Republican Congressman Rob Bishop’s Public Lands Initiative — legislation that Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance characterized as “A pro-development bill disguised as conservation.” Trimble volunteered to edit.

This second battle book, Red Rock Stories, included a broader collection of Native American voices and a focus on Bears Ears. Although more difficult to trace the influence of this work in Washington, President Obama did establish Bears Ears National Monument in December 2016. Trimble, along with other artists and conservationists, felt triumphant.

Then the world cracked: In 2018, President Donald Trump reduced the 1.35 million acre Bears Ears National Monument by 85 percent and downsized Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument by half its 1.88 million acres.

Trimble remains persistent. In 1979, he published his “first book with a spine,” a guide to the national parks of the Colorado Plateau, The Bright Edge. The work concludes with a plea to preserve wilderness, a passage too political for the superintendent of Zion, who refused to allow the park’s bookstore to carry it. Forty years later, Trimble’s voice remains central to our local, regional, national, and international dialogue of conservation and stewardship. His most current protestations against President Trump, environmental mismanagement and disaster, and the complicity of Utah legislators as well The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, appear in The Hill, the Los Angeles Times, Terrain.org, The Salt Lake Tribune, The Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal, and elsewhere.

Whether beginning a conversation with a stranger on the Reservation or sitting on the precipice of some great expanse, Trimble’s output as an artist speaks to where he’s been; it touches what he’s seen; it conveys what he’s learned as a father, writer, son, photographer, activist, teacher, husband, and friend. The circles of his lifework broaden the circles of our lives by speaking to the messenger and interpreter in each of us. “I’ve maintained this notion since childhood,” he says. “There exists the world, out there, and the world as we experience it. Between the two are the pictures and stories we share.”

 

Ancient bristlecone pine snag, and September supermoon. The Table, Mount Moriah Wilderness, Nevada, 2015, by Stephen Trimble

Calvin Jolley’s work has appeared in American Book Review, MAYDAY magazine (New American Press), Context South, Caveat Lector, Yefief, and other publications. He is a Literary Editor at 15 Bytes.

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