Back to Stories

Wild, Tangled Hair: How A Western Woman Got Her Groove

For Anna Vanuga, leaving Wyoming for Montana unearthed a new life through art. Her story will touch your heart.

EDITOR'S NOTE: The illustrated essay below first appeared at the online publication Wayward Roots and Company whose motto is "The Roots of Us: To Restore a Mindful Connection with our Homes, Food & Community."  We strongly suggest that you subscribe. Mountain Journal is happy to be collaborating now and in the future with Wayward Roots

Story by Anna Vanuga
Photographs by Lauren Lipscomb

MOST OF MY LIFE I NEVER CONSIDERED BEING ABLE TO EARN A LIVING AS AN ARTIST.  For years I resisted painting. The only college class I ever dropped was an art course. I would only paint when a rush of inspiration hit me hard enough to alter my short-sightedness. 

In those moments the painting would just come through me, an abrupt surge of color. It was almost as if my subconscious momentarily shattered a longstanding belief in my capabilities. Once the painting was done the wall would come back up and my brushes would go back to storage for months or years. This proceeded for a long time as I kept trying to go through the motions of “defined success."  I went to college, worked hard, did internships, applied to graduate school, but all the while I felt like I was in autopilot. I was miserable, battling depression and crippling anxiety. I was lost. I had no idea what I wanted, needed, or how to listen to myself. 
"This proceeded for a long time as I kept trying to go through the motions of 'defined success.'  I went to college, worked hard, did internships, applied to graduate school, but all the while I felt like I was in autopilot. I was miserable, battling depression and crippling anxiety. I was lost. I had no idea what I wanted, needed, or how to listen to myself."
After receiving several rejection letters from graduate programs my internal switch flipped. I dropped everything, packed the car and moved into a bus on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming where dear friends took me in. I spent my days irrigating, feeding, ripping copper wire from old telephone poles. And slowly, I started to heal.

Working with my hands brought me back to my childhood, beautiful years spent in the vast expanses of high mountain desert, riding bareback, tangled hair, and sunburnt cheeks. As a kid raised in rural Wyoming, my older brother and I were encouraged to run a little wild. The years we spent tearing through the badlands, creek beds, forests, and fields of sagebrush dramatically shaped my values.

My parents’ relationship with the outdoors wasn’t optional; it was mandatory. They both had such a strong connection to the land, a passion for environmentalism and self-sufficiency. Hiking, skiing, horseback riding, running, mountain biking, snowshoeing, camping, canoeing — they loved it all. On top of that, each year my mother would grow beautiful gardens, refusing to feed us anything boxed or processed. I’m not sure if they realized how dramatically that connection would shape their children’s lives. 

I moved away from this lifestyle as a young adult as my family began experiencing dramatic hardships that tore us apart. I found sanctuary in friendships and intoxication, almost any form I could get my hands on. When I left Wyoming I swore I would never again live in a small town. I was disconnected with myself, with my family, with my values. I wanted to run away and not look back or return to where I was from.

College was a harsh slap of reality. Going from a close-knit community, wild, open country, and homemade meals to cafeteria eating and dormitory living. I remember being massively depressed, by my sophomore year I had picked up distance running and returned to painting. I ran to escape my thoughts and the crowds of town. I found if I was quick enough I could get from a trailhead to near solitude in a short amount of time. I painted to ease my anxiety. 

When I was with my paints my brain would shut off and all I would think about was how colors flowed and merged with one another. But, there was still a massive gap between what my soul craved and what I assumed was expected of me. I assumed people would be disappointed if I pursued art, so I studied health and wellness instead. 

Unexpectedly, I loved it. And this decision ultimately was a step toward moving me back into alignment with my values. However, when I received a job offer for health coaching in Malibu I had a moment of absolute knowing that I was not ready to leave the mountains. It was a full body sensation, there was no hesitation in my response. I knew I belonged in the Rocky Mountains. 
When I was with my paints my brain would shut off and all I would think about was how colors flowed and merged with one another. But, there was still a massive gap between what my soul craved and what I assumed was expected of me. I assumed people would be disappointed if I pursued art, so I studied health and wellness instead. Unexpectedly, I loved it. And this decision ultimately was a step toward moving me back into alignment with my values.
I didn’t know how I was going to make a living but was willing to do what it took to stay. What I failed to acknowledge was the role art had been playing. This craft that sat on my back-burner, it surfaced every once and awhile, but never enough for me to consider myself an artist in any capacity.

As my story continued to take many twists and turns, it would be another couple of years before I settled into the idea that, at the center of my soul, I was an artist put here to create. Finally, one supremely cold Montana winter in Paradise Valley, in a home at the base of Emigrant Peak, I pulled out my paints and away I went.

I stopped saying no to the urges that pushed through me. It was liberating but simultaneously agonizing. I learned about myself, my inner wiring, a programmed belief system needing to be unraveled and reconstructed. That part of the story took the most work; the initiation ugly and painful. The desire and longing for creativity have been with me for a lifetime, but the blocks restricting a natural tendency needed to shift.

The more I moved through the discomfort, the more art opportunities would come my way. Despite the screaming resistance inside, I said “yes” to everything. Logo and tattoo designs, commissioned artwork, drawings of pets—all of it. 

Many projects were well beyond my realm of knowledge, projects I wanted to say no to, but something inside was forcefully pushing me to paint. When fear and self-doubt inevitably bubbled up, I took it as a sign and slowly put one foot in front of the other. Fear has been the ultimate teacher, a constant and dramatic reflection of my own perceived limitations.
I spent time watching other artists and creators, inspiring people and proving being an artist isn’t a path destined for failure. Jeff and Meghan Purcell, Mariah Palmer, Kristi Reed, Jessica Lewis, and Sue Tirrell all unknowingly facilitated my belief in what was possible for a young entrepreneur. 

Seeing them live and work in alignment with their values, in unison with their communities, while actively advocating for the environment and its wild, harsh terrain gave me a sense of peace and purpose.

As time passed, it dawned on me that being an artist was going to give me a life I’d secretly imagined. For years I tried to move towards success in the conventional sense, hunting for a steady job to provide stability. But every direction I took I hit a wall, taking me years to learn how to listen to myself. 

In a moment of torrential tears my partner, Wyatt, asked if money were no object what would I do? I answered that I would have wild, tangled, hair and wrinkled, leathery skin from years in the sun. I would be a mountain babe in the truest sense.

I got lost along the way, as we all do, but my vision throughout these years has essentially been a return to my childhood. Untamed country, creativity, exploration, and homegrown goodness. For as long as I can remember I’ve had this dream of waking up surrounded by trees and days without a rigid agenda. A life that frees me from the system. Slow, methodical, seasonal living with awareness in the cycles of life and death. 

I was told it wasn’t possible, but art led me back to my true purpose: a synchronistic relationship between human and environment.
The artist and author in her Montana studio
The artist and author in her Montana studio
This reawakened me to a higher power; the fueling and all-powerful force, Mother Nature. I witness, process, and regurgitate onto paper or canvas what I see, taste, hear, feel and admire in the untamed expanse of southwest Montana. 

Painting has given me an avenue for communicating deeper than any spoken language. My hope is that somehow the pieces convey the magic encapsulated in the natural world. A true power beyond our wildest beliefs. Nature has the capacity to teach what no classroom can, a reverence and respect for the land.

Anna Vanuga's painting titled "Balance"
Anna Vanuga's painting titled "Balance"
Being an artist has granted me the space to be my own boss, to set the rules and standards to construct a life of purpose. Although I am on a stepping stone on a long journey towards my ideal lifestyle, I still feel an intense knowing that I am on the right path. I am on a mission to help others realize their endless potential, my message weaved between painting, yoga, and gardening. I want to encourage others to fall back into their soul's rhythm. 

I am running in the opposite direction of a career; I am running toward a style of life that thrives with the land. Steady, calculated living with a consciousness towards impact. Artwork serendipitously served as a catalyst to bring me back to my true self. Ultimately, I feel like painting chose me, I certainly did not choose it. But once I surrendered, my whole life and heart underwent a transformation.

I genuinely believe we all have a unique purpose during our time here. The gift of life is an outstanding miracle where all things aligned in one perfect moment to bring you into existence. If your life feels heavy, if you are looking for the magic answer or perfect job, would you believe me if I said that there is no formula, the roadmap for true richness lies inside? 

There is no reason to live miserably and disconnected. Our society breeds unhappiness; the suburbs, box stores, rigorous work schedules under fluorescent lighting, hunkered over computers, people living in poverty and food deserts. Humans aren’t meant to live this way. Change starts with making the decision to do things differently, to be different, to think and exist outside the box. As said by Tao Tzu, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

Anna Vanuga
About Anna Vanuga

Anna Vanuga is a freelance artist, yoga instructor and wilderness advocate located in Livingston, Montana. A graduate from the University of Montana, AERIE Backcountry Medicine, and the National Outdoor Leadership School, Anna’s teachings and artwork are rooted in the belief that the greatest lessons in life come from the natural world. The photo here was taken by her father, Jeff Vanuga.




Increase our impact by sharing this story.