Monday, October 22, 2007


One of the few times I miss having a buddy is AFTER major events, when I begin to decompress and debrief. It helps to have a second witness, which was often the role I played for Bob and then later for others although not so effectively or crucially. I got back from this history conference and from the CMR colloquy with a pocket full of business cards and a lot of little cryptic notes, some fairly orderly and others scribbled on margins or handed to me on scraps of paper. It’s a strange process of trying to bring things together and separate them out at the same time. This time it’s complicated by two different events with overlap: maybe three or four other people were in both places.

And also by the fact that this is the held-breath time just before the biography of Bob hits the bookshelves. I’m braced for both attacks and praise and even for the long silent pause that often comes just before people figure out what side they want to be on. Not that the book is particularly incendiary, but people will react in quite different ways just as they did when Bob was alive. He was intense enough to polarize people and the field of Western Art has become even more overheated than ever.

So, I’ve got all the business cards into clear holders for three-ring binders. I’ve written out blog accounts of the two events and sent them via email to people I know want to hear about it but who don’t check my blog regularly. (My blog veers back and forth over a lot of different categories. is both more focused and more neglected.) But my mind is still chattering away with questions and follow-ups.

There were several quiet conversations with people I hadn’t known before. For instance, Lon Johnson (cultural resource specialist and historical architect on the payroll with Glacier National Park) is someone I’d heard mentioned and never met. He was at the Historical Conference. Our conversation ranged all over the place, trying to discover whom we knew in common, but more about vision beds and condors -- esoteric, but subjects we knew about. I always have a weakness for architects, who are generally dreamers but in a practical way, though I’m beginning to have real issues with some the newer architecture in Montana.

Jim Dunham, Director of Special Projects at the Booth Western Art Museum, was from Cartersville, Georgia, where one of the newest of these institutions has just grown out of a millionaire’s collection. Dunham himself can paint a pretty amazing version of one of Charlie Russell’s figures in an hour. He presents a talk in which he does just that, accompanied by a cowboy singer, and then gives the image to the group he is addressing. The photos he had were pretty convincing. Dick Flood would... well, “appreciate” it.

A few people were jerked up short when they came across my opinions. Afterwards I always wonder whether I ought to have been more, um, diplomatic, but then I think I did the right thing. So many rat-finks cruise through life undetected by always preying on new victims and preventing them from networking with the old ones. The other protection for rat-finks is the great number of people who believe that being big fans of Western art or literature is an innocent hobby -- though it seems a little expensive at times -- with a Roy Rogers aura of good old honest mom-loving home-on-the-range safety. Would Matt Dillon allow people to be cheated? Their heads go to a child’s fantasy about what life is all about. (No wonder wives tend to be sceptical!) They shut off their crap detectors.

At the same time, more suspicious youngsters are looking at some of this and recognizing highway robbery when they see it. Just the simple accumulation of facts as in the CMR Catalogue Raisonne will put paid to some of the misrepresentation. Rick Stewart told us about a sort of “gun” that one holds up to a painting which immediately on the spot tells the chemical composition of the paint, what’s under it, and what the supporting surface is. Sometimes a bit of a surprise.

Customers of both history and art objects, literature and sculpture, are constantly demanding to know what something is “worth.” They never seem to grasp that the steak itself is worth one thing and the “sizzle” or attraction is another: quite ineffable but terribly relevant. If some fool is willing to pay millions of dollars for a dead shark floating in formaldehyde, that IS what it’s worth. Until the prestige of such a belonging is deflated by mockery (or in this instance, requires expensive maintenance like switching out the old shark for a new one and changing to a new formula of preservative) at which time the value of the thing may be severely diminished. Should we be surprised? It’s essentially no different than a house or a car, which some would argue is or ought to be considered a work of art. Certainly, it would have artful components. Some people value old battered cars more than new ones.

A person wants to discuss such issues with others, but in Valier not too many people are prepared for disillusionment, at least outside the bars. The postmaster gets pressed into service or maybe the woman who runs the trash roll-off. Both are actually pretty sharp as well as grounded in reality as you might imagine. They see through a lot of the razzmatazz that more sophisticated folks can’t. We all hope our belongings and relationships show that we’re discerning and sophisticated. We don’t want to be fools.

So I dream conversations with people I used to know or people I just invent for the occasion. I split in half and argue with myself. I try to intrigue my relatives on the telephone. Maybe this is one of the uses of literary or artistic agent. I’m writing one of those into my nascent novel. It’s a little risky to involve actual people at the University of Calgary Press. They’re just finding out about Bob Scriver and still a bit overwhelmed. For them it’s unprecedented but I don’t think they will want to admit that.

Now where’s that list of things that I promised to send people? What pants was I wearing? What jacket? Where did I put my earrings when I took them off on the way home?

No comments: