Thursday, January 03, 2008

AUTHORS ARE MOTHERS; PUBLISHERS ARE FATHERS

Publishers are fathers, authors are mothers -- printers are... obstetricians? This observation is prompted by the reaction of the University of Calgary Press to -- at last! -- the appearance of “Bronze Inside and Out” yesterday, which was, “It’s beautiful!” Kind of what a father would say on seeing his newborn. When I complained about the lateness of the printer (which had the manuscript -- ready to go -- in October), the same U of Calgary Press person sympathized, “Oh, it must be like waiting for a baby to be born!” Implying that pregnancy is uncomfortable and the end is wanted -- but at least acknowledging that though the publisher is responsible for the original impetus, it is the mother/author who gestates the baby.

But that’s not how I feel now, though this book is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh and the “pregnancy” has been about fifty years long. I could keep it safe while it was unborn. Now I’m feeling like a parent whose child has just started school, going off alone into adventures. I want to be a “helicopter author,” hovering over the book and trying to guide it along. I know what sorts of pitfalls and burnings are out there waiting for it, some wanting to destroy it and some wanting to exalt it beyond common sense. Who should I alert? What follow-up articles should I write? What speeches should I make?

Bob Scriver was not one of those easy-going sweetheart artists like maybe John Clymer or Tom Sander. Personally difficult, he seemed to have a gift for getting into scrapes and controversies. Maybe it was the times, maybe it was being white on the Blackfeet reservation, and maybe it was a factor of his success that he attracted coyotes. Anyway, some people will react to the book in about the same way that they reacted to the person.

The first reactions of another sort of reader were to get rid of me, to shut me up, to deny that I could write a book, to reduce me to a stenographer instead of a contributor, to grab my book and make it into something else. I’ve had to assert my participation in this story. Minor players have some questions to answer (like Phil Scriver’s pretense of being Bob’s cousin so as to get at his business affairs) but I’m not going to pursue them. Let some ambitious journalist do it -- that’s their job. Rather, I’m interested in the big institutions who control Bob’s estate. By delaying decisions in his lifetime and putting his work in the hands of his widow (the fourth wife, now deceased: I was the third), he essentially put everything in the hands of lawyers. (Insert lawyer joke here.)

The goal became the conversion of goods to cash as quickly as it could be done. In the process, value was lost. Collections like that of the huge Fery mural-like paintings that used to line the walls of the Scriver Museum of Montana Wildlife were sold one-by-one at auction. If the collection of animals had been kept together and displayed with those paintings, it would have remained something of unique beauty and value. Now it will never exist again. A collection of John Sharp sketches of the Blackfeet reservation was dispersed at auction. I’m unable to find out what happened to the John Rogers sculpture collection, though I’ve asked.

The molds of the original animals that Bob collected and used to make the paper mache shells for these full-mounts had been carefully stored. They also had considerable value, but they were destroyed. They were NOT the molds that were intended to be destroyed, the molds for the sculptures. In any case, Bob had been selling the copyrights of many of his bronzes to entrepreneurs who set their own edition limits, contracted with foundries, and owned their molds: these were not destroyed. New castings are available today if you know whom to contact.

The Montana Historical Society, whose chief focus is the sorting and preserving of valuable documents, cannot locate the most crucial documents of the Scriver estate: the records of sales. Much of the value of art of any sort and especially sculpture comes from being able to trace the ownership of the specific piece from artist to current owner. Bob was meticulous about keeping these records and also gave bronze buyers a certificate confirming their ownership of that specific number of the limited edition, along with the number expected to be cast. The MHS says it “cannot locate” these papers because it doesn’t have enough money. Yet the papers they removed from the studio had already been sorted into files which the MHS archives lists. Perhaps the provenance records had been removed in the year or so that Bob’s lawyer managed the estate in situ. He is a dealer in Scriver bronzes. Perhaps there is a deeper and more sinister motive: I hear rumors that MHS removed bronzes that had been ordered and paid for by customers.

No provision was made for the continuing publication of the three books that Bob self-published about his work: “An Honest Try,” “No More Buffalo,” and “The Blackfeet: Artists of the Northern Plains.” A copy of the latter is for sale in the gift shop of the CMR Museum for $550. I’ve seen it on the Internet for as much as $800. Bob accurately predicted that the artifact collection would not be kept together, but that the pictorial record would endure.

The original lawyer tried to keep the estate in Browning as a foundation with himself as the director. The lawyer who took the estate away from that first lawyer (professional courtesy?) was quick to broker a deal to break it up. Bob had wanted everything to go to the Royal Alberta Museum, which had bought the Scriver Artifact Collection. In the last decades of Bob’s lifetime, he had become much entwined with the CM Russell Museum in Great Falls, serving on their advisory board. They had made repeated offers of space for his work, but he was always talked out of it (By whom? His lawyer?) or became doubtful. He was extremely aware of art wheeling and dealing in the state (some would say “corruption”) and if he smelled it, he veered off. At one meeting he gave an impassioned scolding to all present, but everyone put it down to senile dementia. Indeed, he was not mentally or emotionally balanced in the last decades. Probably the stroke in 1988 pushed him over the edge. The lawyers, of course, don’t want anyone to think about this.

For a while there was a four-way deal: the RAM, the CMR, and the MHS with the full-mounts (oh, what a nuisance) dumped on the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. (As was Arnold Olsen, in time.) Then there was a quick shuffle of peas under walnut shells and the CMR was excluded. MHS became the legal owner of everything with long-term “loans” of the Blackfeet series of bronzes to the RAM and those full-mounts to the RMEF. The irony is that the MHS has failed to even unpack the estate in the building that was supposed to house it, a steel warehouse with gallery space out by the Helena airport. In the meantime, Ed Mitch -- one of those entrepreneurs who collaborated with Bob -- gave his collection of Scriver bronzes to the CMR where they are exhibited today.

The MHS, which is truthfully bursting at the seams, is now aspiring to a new building. The location and designing of this edifice is very much open to speculation and plotting, which renders the MHS more vulnerable to examination for its policies and capacities than it has ever been. Whatever plan is settled upon, it will take a huge funding drive. Other competing institutions may not be motivated to cooperate.

This book will be jostled and dissected. But -- there are a lot of less political things in it. Funny stories, hunting adventures, hair-raising foundry moments. Heart-breakers and spiritual uplifters. In many ways, it is a story of unrequited love: I loved Bob Scriver, who didn’t love me; Bob loved the Blackfeet, who didn’t love him; and all three of us loved the east slope of the Rockies which doesn’t have emotions -- only grandeur.

2 comments:

Chas S. Clifton said...

What's with the "Mary Stracha" at Amazon? You need to straighten them out!

prairie mary said...

When I protested to my publisher -- the University of Calgary Press -- they said, "Amazon does whatever it wants to."

Amazon has the wrong cover, too. It was sent to them as a provisional cover before the "real" one was designed and they have not changed it despite requests.

ALSO, though the UofC Press says, Canadian-style, "Tsk,tsk,tsk" Amazon is giving a nice price knock-off. My advice is to take it and run!

The book is being shipped but has to get across the border to the Michigan State University, which is also a kind of shrugging institution.

Publishers are currently about as demoralized as authors. I still don't have a copy of the book myself, though it was delivered by the printer on Jan. 2.

Prairie Mary