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Steamboat Magazine

Fellow Travelers

02/23/2021 11:55AM ● By Rachel Miller

Matt Smith | “Sierra Jewel” | 40 x 36

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS – Walking through Steamboat Art Museum’s current exhibit is like taking an armchair tour of the American West. Pristine wilderness, gurgling streams – yes, in your imagination you may hear them – sculpted rocks, windblown trees, sharply towering mountains: you feel as if you have escaped the urban environs for a cross-country hike. 

Indeed, artists Ralph Oberg, Matt Smith, Skip Whitcomb and Dan Young have been doing just that for 30 years. Three Coloradans and their friend “from away” (Arizona) camp together, explore together and paint together. 

In the process, they have given birth to the modern plein air movement and become four of the most accomplished Western artists in America today. Their current exhibit, “Four Directions – Common Paths: Oberg, Smith, Whitcomb, Young,” has received more national attention than any other exhibit in SAM’s short but notable history. The four artists themselves can hardly believe their good fortune. 

“I can remember when we had an old pickup truck with a barebones camper on the back and we didn’t have two cents to rub together, but we were having so much fun, we didn’t know we were broke, eating chili – no beans – out of a can, pooling our money to buy a few beers, and we would literally paint from sunrise to sunset,” says Matt Smith. “Failure was a close friend to me in those years.” 

“Any time you’re experimenting, there’s a chance of failure,” says fellow artist Skip Whitcomb. 

“It’s not about the success or failure, it’s about being out there and putting this stuff down, taking chances, of pushing what you’re all about. We all reinforce each other on that. It’s a valuable friendship.” 

In the end, it’s that friendship that is the story here. Each one of the four artists has developed his own style, his own audience and his own viewpoints, but at the same time, they lean on one another, egg each other on, and serve as each other’s sounding board. 

“You have fellow travelers who stand for the same thing, and it’s really important, especially as we get older. It becomes intensely personal,” Whitcomb explains. “You’re among friends and there’s no pretenses.” 

The lack of pretense, the integrity of their art and the depth of their ties to one another is evident in the collection of their work now on display at Steamboat Art Museum. You will not only see the West through Oberg, Smith, Whitcomb and Young’s eyes, you will want to grab your backpack and join them on their next adventure. 

Steamboat Art Museum is open in compliance with Routt County COVID protocols. Hours are Tuesday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. For information, visit