The Atmospheric Art of Cristen J. Roghair
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"I See the Light"
Cristen J. Roghair

Photographer Cristen J. Roghair doesn’t have to look far for inspiration. She finds it the rippling hills and endless skies of her own Jones County backyard.

Western South Dakota’s often tumultuous weather is another muse. Her work is currently featured in an exhibit — Weathered: The Northern Plains Landscape as Shaped by the Elements — at Augustana’s Center for Western Studies. She was also selected as the only South Dakota artist to exhibit at the 2017 National Weather Center Biennale, and for 1st Place in the professional category of the 2017 photo contest put on by this outfit called SDPB.

A native of the central Midwest who has lived in Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin, she spent her high school years in Murdo before returning to the Chicago area where she studied photography. She returned to Jones County twelve years ago, where she lives, works and creates on a cattle ranch with her husband and two children.  

SDPB Living caught up with her to talk art and the elements as she made her way to the Fargo Marathon. 

SDPB: You’ve lived in several (topographically) different regions of the Midwest. How did the Great Plains cast their spell on you?

CJR: My family moved out to Murdo  [from central Wisconsin] when I was in the eighth grade. It was quite a culture shock to come out here (laughing), but spending my high school years in western South Dakota, I grew to love the prairie and the rolling hills. There’s something about the wide open skies. I couldn’t get them out of my head. When I moved back to Chicago amid all the buildings and the trees — and I love trees, loved living in Wisconsin and the trees, I like the city, the cityscapes [of Chicago] are beautiful — but I missed the prairie. 

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There’s just something about the raw beauty of watching a storm come in from as soon you can see it on the horizon, and watch it as it passes over. I love storms. I enjoy the weather and how we have this firsthand experience. We don’t have to watch it on TV to really understand it. We can just walk right outside and see it. The beauty of the colors at night —  we can see the full effect of the sunset. You don’t get that in the city.  

SDPB: What are your stomping grounds when you’re on the hunt  for inspiration?

CJR: Right around my ranch. Sometimes in the Badlands. I kind of fly by the seat of my pants. A lot of it is just driving. I drive quite a bit of distance out here, so I just keep my camera with me. Every time I travel, I observe the prairie. Especially in the evening, the way the shadows outline the rolling hills. 

When the clouds look incredible, I head for the hill or the dam. The Okaton elevator is another one of my favorite spots. I love that building. I’ve lived here for twelve years, and as the years have progressed, how the wind has changed that building, and different parts have come down… it makes me so sad! That piece of history — I find such beauty in it. 

SDPB: Do you discover many creative opportunities in the course of running a ranch?

CJR: Yes. Just yesterday my husband and I were sorting the cows that have not calved yet to bring them to a different pasture in preparation for a branding next week, and just the way that the lines came through in the clouds on a certain spot of pasture as we were riding, I thought: "Oh, that might be a good location."