House hunter

Russell Lindsey

Photo By David Robert

Russell Lindsey made the case that the home of Nevada artist Robert Caples (1908-79) in Dayton deserved to be on the Nevada State Register of Historic Places. The 47-year-old Nevada Museum of Art intern took on the project as part of a graduate certificate in Art Gallery and Museum Studies with California State University-East Bay. Establishing Caples’ contributions to art was relatively easy; finding the house was the hard part. It’s a long story—longer than 15 minutes—but Dayton residents, art historians, Caples’ family and friends all helped in Lindsey’s search. The home was listed on the register on Dec. 14, 2006, and is located at 175 Silver St. in Dayton.

Is it true that Caples is the character of Lawrence Black in Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s book The City of Trembling Leaves?

Absolutely. … I haven’t finished reading that story myself because my wife stole it away from me, but there’s a lot in there that describes Caples’ character and his relationship with Clark because, of course, the book’s regarded as being an autobiographical account of Clark himself. … He talks [in the book] about how they meet at Pyramid Lake, and Pyramid Lake had a very special meaning for both of them, and they were out there all the time. … He married Rosemary in ‘55, and their first house together was in Dayton. Then in ‘58, they left for Connecticut. When he died in ‘79, Rosemary actually came back to Nevada knowing how much he missed it and how much he loved Pyramid Lake, and his ashes were actually sprinkled on Pyramid Lake, which I thought was really a nice, touching conclusion to his life.

Could you describe his work?

He’s probably best known for doing charcoal portraits of Native Americans—I think mostly local Paiute, but I think there were others, as well. He did those charcoal drawings in the ‘20s and ‘30s. [UNR] holds I think 21 or 22 of those charcoal drawings, and those are really something, But in the early ‘30s, Caples stopped doing portraits altogether. For him, it wasn’t satisfying. I think what really, truly moved him was Nevada landscapes and the environment, but it took him a number of years to come to that awareness and that recognition. That’s why the house itself is so significant because that’s where his work and depiction of Nevada’s landscapes really came into being.

So these works, they are not particularly realistic looking. He was trying to capture … the essence of the landscape. It’s not so much the visual depiction, but it’s the atmosphere, the feelings that come from simply looking at Nevada’s countryside and landscape. So his very often have a dreamy appeal to them …. They’re very unique. I can’t think of another artist—and there are certainly some good contemporary artists and plein air artists—but nobody that’s really trying to capture necessarily the emotion that certainly Caples and probably Clark must have felt when they looked and admired Nevada’s environment. … So not diminishing the value of his earlier work and portraits, but for Caples personally, that’s what was most important to him, to the point that when he moved to Connecticut in ‘58, he only produced paintings for another two or three years. So by about ‘61, he stopped painting, and there’s a lot of speculation about that. … It’s apparent that Caples recognized that his motivation for his work was based upon Nevada and the environment. Take him out of that environment, and a lot of that creative inspiration was dwindling quickly. … I’ve run on far too long.

It does make me want to find out more about him and his work.

That’s what I hope. Hopefully, by nominating the house and getting it onto the register and some visibility of Caples and who he is, then people will be interested in his work. I think the time is right—between the museum, the Historical Society, the school—to show more of those works. It’s been over 20 years since there was a major exhibition of his work.