Sunday, March 22, 2009


Go to if you’re a visual person who craves video.

Think of this as a three-act play, except that though I experienced it in sequence yesterday and you’ll have to read it in sequence, it was really happening all at the same time as though it were staged on three sides of the audience.

First is the main stage, which is at the Heritage Motel in Great Falls as it has been for many years. It’s the kind of huge motel with an indoor swimming pool in the middle and glass slider doors onto that space. All the furniture comes out for storage in trucks and the artists put up false walls to convert each room into a gallery. Or the less affluent just rent a regular motel room and spread their display out on the bed. There were fewer people this year -- I found a parking place right off. But there were more people eating breakfast and more of them had white hair. Some were missing. Every year more are missing. Every year the management has everything even more smoothly organized. The Ad Club, who has always sponsored this, is VERY sharp and energetic. No detail is neglected.

This year I was on the programme for the book-signing, which in this context also means signing cowboy hats, signing buckskin vests -- not just signing but also drawing a little picture. I wasn’t quite so creative, struggling hard to think of something meaningful to say in one sentence. The lawyer who destroyed Bob Scriver’s estate came on his belly to buy a book. Trying to be nice for the sake of Norma Ashby, the best I could come up with was “best wishes.” I didn’t say for what. The last time I heard from him was years ago when he sent me a letter forbidding me to ever enter his office because I told someone I wanted to punch him out.

Eric Newhouse mentioned me by name in the calendar, though there were more important people signing books. I sat next to Joan Stauffer, who wrote “Behind Every Man: The Story of Nancy Cooper Russell.” That’s Charlie Russell’s wife, whom everyone agrees put him on the map. She arranged his shows, set the prices, and ran off the little kids and loafers who kept him from working. Joan used to dress up and deliver a monologue as Nancy Russell, whose elegant portrait is on the front of her book.

I asked Joan if she thought Nancy had any regrets. She said yes, that Nancy regretted that she hadn’t shown more warmth to Jack, the couple’s adopted son. He was a little bitter and didn’t visit. Joan lives in Tulsa and is active with the Gilcrease, which has the largest and “best” Russell collection, the one that “got away” from Montana, leaving them determined never to let that happen again. Tom Gilcrease was a Native American who got rich on oil and used it to educate himself by touring Europe (a classic alternative to university) and returned to celebrate American history.

When I asked Joan if she knew Tellefero, author of a controversial tell-all bio of Charlie and Nancy Russell, she looked off into the distance and went silent.

I did sell all the books I had left and could have sold more. Hastings and the CM Russell Museum should have sold out as well. One of the most charming book buyers was Ron Ukrainetz, an artist whose saloon-keeper/hustler father sort of tricked Bob into his early career. The story is in the book, but Ron and will have to get together to tell stories. He says they have a cache of Bob Scriver letters with little sketches left from the negotiations (before I came to Montana) and have framed some, might print others, and will never let anyone read a few. I have a unique document: the letter Bob wrote in the middle of the night, consumed by panic that he had done the wrong thing and breaking off. The only paper he could find was an adding machine tape and the only pen was red. Ron and I are about the same age and he exhibits his good work in Jack Smith’s gallery down the street from me in Valier, but we’ve never met before.

The three people I always seek out are old Bob Scriver friends. One is Joyce Clarke Turvey, whose wood carver father, John Clarke, is an historic figure. I used him in what I hoped was the symphonic chord at the end of “Bronze Inside and Out:” an imagined interaction among a fine sculptor educated at Beaux Arts in Paris, named Voisin; John, who both learned from Voisin and was the subject of one of the busts the sculptor was there to do; Charlie Beil, a protegee of Russell and mentor to Bob Scriver; and Bob himself, fourteen years old.

Then there was Rex Rieke, whose wife is my self-declared most devoted blog fan. We have a lot of jokes about that. Rex is another of those fine artists who excels at both paint and music, which he plays at many venues around the state. He brought his so-fine Maynard Dixon-type mountainscapes, not his abstract work. While I was talking to him, his hired man called to say they had just had another lamb out at the ranch. Rex said that Dick Flood, one of the first of the art higglers, used to find Russells in the early days by simply walking down Montana streets after dark, early in the evening before the shades were drawn. He could spot them through the windows and return the next day to buy them.

Always I check out David Powell, son of Ace Powell, who in the earliest days was at the heart of Western art on the northern prairies. David and Sasha’s autistic little boy is making good progress in a special school program; their college-aged son is getting straight A’s and wants to go into airplane crash investigation as a profession. I would love to hear what Ace would say about that! There weren’t even airplanes when he started out.

This event is a niche within a niche, maybe within another niche or on another layer. First of all, this event is a friendship circle and the people who experience it that way see it as an annual reunion, like a high school class coming together. They are not a university crowd, not inclined to analyze, not sophisticated about much of anything and not defensive about it, but good-natured and generous. Good spenders! Good friends -- aging.

They interface through the Ad Club with two other groups mainly. One is the artists themselves, which can be grouped in a lot of different ways, but who address exclusively the American West and mostly the 19th century American West that white folks have made legendary. They love art that has been called illustration or calendar art, but some are pretty good impressionists. This show does not attract the big names, though long ago when they were little names, they weren’t too proud to come. There are bronzes everywhere, some of them pretty obvious copies of Scriver works. I don’t fuss about it. I DO fuss about the many illegal castings, but the entity that has the power and obligation to do something about it is the Montana Historical Society -- not me.

The other group interfacing through the Ad Club is dealers, a mixed lot. Some are honorable and fair, some are true predators, looking for weak people to exploit, whether artists or buyers. The Ad Club keeps them somewhat in check, though Montana art law is nearly nonexistent.

Besides the centerpiece auction there are six other events, at least: what they called “March in Montana” is really the same wheeler/dealers out from under the thumb of the Ad Club in a more downscale motel; the Native American Show in the Civic Center; the Western Heritage Artists Association and March Antiques Show at the Holiday Inn; Jay Contway and Friends at the Expo Center, specializing in yarning as much as sales; Studio 706, a local collective selling through their own gallery; and Western Collectibles with all the paraphenalia. There was also an auction at the Pacific Antique Mall. Maybe some action at the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center.

I only have the stamina to attend two. The Native American Show and “March in Montana.” The Native American Show was the best experience of the day for me. First, the work was vibrant, new, jumping and alive. Valentina LaPier, whose work grows constantly, really impressed me. Deborah Magee, whose family has many ties to me and Bob Scriver (Deborah's father Merle was Bob's hunting partner and on the school board that hired me.), won best of the miniature category with a “bead painting” that was a small portrait of an historic Indian woman, all done with solid beads and framed in painted rawhide. It tickles me that the newest and most intellectual art is done by the Native Americans. But it puzzles me (maybe it doesn’t really) that there is such a wall between the White Triumphalist Western Art (Kevin Red Star was the only Indian over there at the main auction.) and the Native American highly sophisticated and often hilarious work. Few whites even come over to look.

It was a great pleasure to see Carl Cree Medicine Sr. receive an award for his long-standing attendance (25 years) and work on behalf of artists. When I came to Browning, the average annual income for Indian men was $500 a YEAR and their average life-span was 47 years, or about as long as a person can live with chronic alcoholism. Carl wrestled demon rum (or rather demon Thunderbird) for a long time. He looked at his plaque and said, “Pretty good. Ought to be able to get a couple of jugs out of pawning it!” But he was only joking. One of his sculptures was called “Alley Preaching” and showed two winoes being scolded by a guy in dark glasses. For years Carl ran a centre where street people could take shelter. The place was blue with tobacco smoke and their coffee was about like battery acid.

The politically correct crowd will ask me, when I say I know some Blackfeet person, “Have you ever invited them to your house for dinner? Have they ever invited you over for dinner?” Suburban culture and corporate culture both organize around dinner parties. When I say I know Carl, I mean that we ate many a coffee break donut and long john (maple bar) at the bakery lunch counter with our elbows bumping, and I had many an argument with him drunk while Bob hid, and we risked our lives together in the foundry pouring molten bronze. The boy who posed for the bust of a child in Bob’s group of Blackfeet portraits was there with Carl. His name is Tim. He’s one big dude these days. I suppose he’s about forty and looks healthy. Carl is my age. His life shows.

I’ll post more about Carl later. And also about Terrance Guardipee, about whom I’ve been asking people for years and who turns out to be Darrell Kipp’s NEPHEW! His mother was Geraldine Kipp, who was my student once, and who keeps the Piegan Institute organized and on time now, ever quietly and gracefully as she always does everything.

Then I went, sighing, over to the “other” auction, where there were no pretty ladies in evening gowns to carry the paintings, and the auctioneer was running the art and NA artifacts through the process as fast and hard as he could. A small audience, mostly dealers, sat in front; probably a hundred more were invisibly streaming and bidding online, another double-dozen were perched alongside the upstairs balcony railings, and some were watching from inside dealer rooms, both on laptops and by craning their necks. Conversations were often interrupted as some choice item looked momentarily promising. This was where the economy and the general down-curve of nineteenth-century American West enthusiasm was being felt. There weren’t as many white heads as dyed heads, mostly male. The rooms had not been emptied, so the beds were covered with tomahawks and rare books. These are the last of the “higglers,” though they call themselves “antiquarians.” This is where you can find out the real truth of things.

I checked in with Adolf Hungry-Wolf who was not glad to see me because “nineteenth century Blackfeet braves” are never glad to see white women, and said hello to his best friend, Paul Raczka, who keeps a low profile over in Choteau. They know more about the Blackfeet than the Blackfeet know about themselves.

By then my back ached, my head swam, I could barely pronounce words -- much less remember names --so I went home. It was a gray day, mixed clouds moving slowly in a high stratus sheet and patterns of cumulus over the mountains. Not too cold and not too hot. No green yet. The question I pondered as I drove was the one we were all asking ourselves and each other: “what about twenty years from now? Will there be an auction? Will anyone care about Charlie Russell?”

More later.


Anonymous said...

Delightful post, making the whole event come alive for us.


Anonymous said...

Russell also wrote excellent western stories. Charles M. Russell: The Storyteller's Art BY: Raphael James Cristy has serious Indian stories, men encountering wildlife, cattle range characters, and nineteenth-century westerners facing twentieth-century challenges: ORDER: 800-249-7737 - 32 color photographs, 111 halftones and drawings $27.95 (paperback)ISBN: 978-0-8263-3285-1