- Associated Press - Thursday, September 3, 2015

CASPER, Wyo. (AP) - The Florida man riding around Edness K. Wilkins State Park on a three-wheeled bicycle has paint on his shorts.

His gray hair moves with the wind. He’s tan and smiley and waves hello to every car that passes by. He settles at a bench near the North Platte River with his yellow backpack equipped with the essentials: paintbrushes, a plastic clipboard canvas and paint.

His name is Lew Wilson.

“They call me the man who walks with rivers,” the 68-year-old said.

Wilson is an artist. For the last 35 years, he’s traveled across the U.S. to paint and photograph rivers, spending days to months on their banks. He captures their beauty for his series titled “Two Rivers-Two Lands; An American Passage.” He hopes the paintings will generate awareness to protect and preserve the rivers in this country, reconnecting the public to nature.

“We all live downstream,” Wilson said, smiling. “That’s basically a big theme in my project. Finding balance between man and nature.”

The artist has been living at Edness K. Wilkins State Park for two months now as a volunteer. For 20 hours a week, he picks up trash, cleans the restrooms and removes fallen tree limbs in exchange for a free camping trailer near the shop. He did the same thing last year for three months.

“When you go to these rivers to get good photography and be inspired, to really feel the essence of it, you have to live with these rivers,” Wilson said.

While Wilson started this project 35 years ago, he increased his efforts after a near-death car crash 14 years ago in Colorado. Now, he’s visited, photographed and painted almost every major river in America. Some of his favorites include the Hudson and the American River in California.

Wilson’s works range from landscape watercolor and oil paintings to black and white or color photographs. He’s done talks and programs. His pieces have been displayed at The Denver Art Museum, The Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas, The Tampa Museum of Art, a museum in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and many more.

Currently, he’s spending his days painting and photographing another one of his favorites: the North Platte River.

“I’m not sure what to even call him. He’s an artist. A dying breed I think. We need more people like him that remember the basics. He’s become a friend,” said Richard Anderson, 67, the park superintendent at Edness K. Wilkins State Park.

“He’s the only one who’s ever done this. We weren’t even set up for volunteers. Thankfully, he’s a good man, and he’s accepted what we’ve been able to offer.”

Wilson has macular degeneration, an eye disease that causes vision loss. He doesn’t have a driver’s license. Instead, he commutes by train, bus or bicycle. He’s a Vietnam-era veteran, having served in the Coast Guard. He lives off a pension.

“It’s not very much money. It’s poverty wage line, but here I am,” Wilson said. “That’s what’s so mind boggling. People don’t understand how I make it, but I make it. I’ve had generous people to just give me opportunities to hang out.”

Wilson no longer sells his artwork. He gives it away. It’s his dream to have his series displayed permanently at a museum or exhibit where it will be used for educational purposes long after he’s gone. He wants to inspire generations to take care of nature, specifically rivers, which “have always been special to man, even going back to scripture in early times of the ancients.”

Some of the rivers he’s visited need more care than others. Not so much in Wyoming.

“In this state, fortunately most of the rivers are in great shape. People really love the rivers here no matter what they do in life,” he said. “There’s a lot of recreation with them and a lot of sustainability, like ranching and farming. (Wyomingites) all have a great appreciation for their river systems.”

Wilson will be on the move again in a few weeks. It’s doubtful that he will return to the Casper area next year.

“I’ll miss him as a friend,” Anderson said.

With his eye disease and decreasing health, Wilson wants to visit more remote locations before it’s too late. Soon, he’ll flow to his next destination: the Green River in Utah. He’ll backcountry hike, paint and photograph.

“And the waters move on,” Wilson said with a smile. “What more can you do?”


Information from: Casper (Wyo.) Star-Tribune, https://www.trib.com

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