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COULEE CITY – Don Nutt has been an artist all his life.

“Every 5-year-old loves to draw and paint,” he said. “I just never really stopped. Family members gave me drawing books, it was the YouTube of the 1960s.”

Nutt, 62, owns the Cariboo Trail Studio in Coulee City, where he sells paintings, mostly of landscapes, people and animals of the Scablands of central Washington. He started selling his art 50 years ago, he said, and worked at it full-time about 18 years ago, encouraged by his wife of 39 years, Debbie.

“I’ve spent most of my adult life working a real job,” Nutt said. “And when the kids grew up, I just felt it was time. I mean, I’ve always made art. But I only had so much time to devote to art. So we took the plunge… I told her, ‘I don’t know if it’s going to work.’ She said, ‘It doesn’t matter. We’ll be OK.'”

About 16 years ago, he moved into the building that now houses the studio. The name comes from the 800-mile trail that led hopeful gold seekers south from eastern Washington to the Cariboo Gold Rush in central British Columbia in the 1860s. One branch of the trail ran through what is now Coulee City.

“I believe the mines up there are still working,” he said. “This is one of the greatest gold discoveries of all time… I’ve always been interested in local history, and that’s how I came up with the idea for the Cariboo Trail. And yes, Americans come here and quietly say, ‘I think you spelled it wrong.’ Canadians come and say, ‘Yes, that’s what it’s supposed to look like.'”

The environment is an important factor in Nutt’s paintings. Rocky landscapes of the Grand Coulee or the plains of Douglas County are common motifs. So are cowboys on horses and Indians in traditional dress. The studio itself looks like something from the Wild West. In addition to the paintings, the room is decorated with antique firearms, a couple of wood stoves and an (unfortunately non-functional) organ salvaged from a church, as well as other frontier knickknacks.

“I’ve done at least 50 or 60 paintings of Lenore Lake,” Nutt said. “And a lot of people ask me, ‘How can you do so many of the same area?’ It never looks the same. I mean, you can go there every day for a month and the colors aren’t going to be exactly the same every day.”

A few years ago, Nutt suggested on social media that Coulee City would be a good place for an art walk. A number of artists responded enthusiastically and the first April Fools’ Day art walk was born.

Nutt went door to door to Coulee City businesses to see which ones would be willing to host artists. Many were eager to participate, especially soon after the COVID-19 pandemic subsided. Fourteen artists, authors and local historians set up displays in the back corners of the stores and interacted with a crowd of about 400 people.

Lyn D. Nielsen, author of the Place of Sage trilogy, shared space with Nutt on the Cariboo Trail.

“I was so engrossed in his beautiful art and grateful to know Don,” Nielsen wrote in an email to the Columbia Basin Herald. “He never gave up. And when I saw the faces light up as people walked into his studio, I couldn’t help but smile. From humble beginnings come great things.”

Ralph Reed, whose wife Barbara Conner-Reed exhibited paintings at the Art Walk.

“Don put on an amazing show,” Reed said.

The Art Walk was scheduled to be repeated in 2023, but this year Nutt cancelled it due to time constraints. He is not sure if it will happen again next year, he said, due to logistical difficulties. One of the buildings that has housed artists in the past is now empty, he said. No one is allowed to sell anything in another building. Setting up the walk outdoors is one possibility, he said, but that would require obtaining liability insurance.

“The downside is that I have to charge the vendors and artists money, and I didn’t want to do that,” he said. “I just want them to come and show their work.”

Nutt could have opened his studio in a bigger city and perhaps made more money than in this town of 600 people, but having lived in Coulee City his whole life, he knows where he wants to be.

“People have come up to me and asked me why I’m not in Jackson or Santa Fe or something,” he said. “I have a good thing going on, I’m happy here.”

“There is no doubt that Don has been approached by prestigious galleries with offers of fame and fortune, but he has his success in his own way,” Nielsen wrote. “By staying true to his family, his art and his community, he enriches the lives of those around him, young and old. Don and his art help make the Columbia Basin a special place to live.”

Joel Martin can be reached via email at [email protected].

At the Cariboo Trail Studio, Don Nutt’s original artwork shares space with an eclectic collection of Old West memorabilia.