Saturday, March 20, 2010
"REAL MEAT" by Bob Scriver
The Blackfeet had one of those duality categories in their language. To them, the Blackfeet were the “REAL people” and everyone else was “nothing people.” (A person became Blackfeet by learning to speak the language.) Likewise, buffalo were “real meat” and the other animals were “nothing meat.” (One warrior remarked that he hated leaving the prairie because it meant eating “nothing meat.”) Grizzlies were “real bears” and black bears were “nothing bears,” of no concern. This is why Bob Scriver’s bronze sculpture of a group of buffalo is entitled “Real Meat.”
It is a “real bronze” in several senses IF one has a casting made in the Bighorn Foundry, which was Bob’s own foundry. Second, it was portraits of real people and animals. Bob had been riding in the Moiese National Bison roundup for several years. He was permitted to return at the time of slaughter (the herd has to be constantly culled or it will overwhelm its range) so that he could measure animals to make accurate individual portraits. The model for the horses was his own favorite, Gunsmoke, affectionately called “Gunnysack.” The Blackfeet were Fern Omeaso, Sr., and Lyle and Clyde Heavyrunner. They were part of George and Molly Kicking Woman’s family.
But that only scratches the surface. When Bob measured animals, which is one of the foundations of the reality he was able to evoke, he drew them from the side and top, front and back, and then put calipers on the dimensions, measuring the distance to the quarter-inch and recording them on the drawings. All these measurement schemas went to the Montana Historical Society where they were not recognized or understood. They didn’t look like anything to the art technicians there. I hope they weren't discarded.
The only part of Bob’s relationship to the tribe that the sensationalists understand is the accusations surrounding the sale of his artifact collection to the Royal Alberta Museum in Edmonton. They do not grasp that the men who posed for this sculpture were friends, that they were paid to pose as well as sometimes working in the shop, and that posing -- often in the evening after work -- were occasions of camaraderie and mirth as the men sat astride a homemade shop bench, wielding a broom for a spear. Stories were traded and visions of exploits ghosted through the air.
This bronze was not quite finished when my story about Bob Scriver appeared in American Artist magazine in 1965 between an article about Norman Rockwell and an article about Maurice Sendak. Nice neighborhood! Paul Juley had to be flown out from New York City to take this photo for the magazine because no local photographer at that time could get the results they wanted. The photos Juley took are now housed in the Smithsonian with all the photos taken by Paul and Peter A. Juley, his father, who between them photographed all the major Beaux Arts sculptors of familiar monuments back east. The Sixties are a half-century in the past now and it’s hard to recapture what those times were like in Browning, Montana. It was a transition period with the Kennedy administration just beginning to pump in money for housing. The “Free School” movement had not quite started. Historic Blackfeet religious ceremonies were still underground, not because anyone actively suppressed them but because there were only a few in the generation that remembered them, the people eighty years old.
When “Real Meat” was first displayed, attacks on it were swift but not fatal. The complaint was that it was a “copy” of Charlie Russell’s “Wild Meat for Wild Men.” This was because the subject was the same: two men on horseback chasing buffalo. This is the level on which many people perceive art: the subject matter. If they can’t tell what the subject matter is, they don’t like the art, thus the suspicion about abstract art. This also promotes the constant search for some content that hasn’t been portrayed before, which can lead to strange sculptures of things like babies in the process of being born, instead of concentrating on the qualities of the work -- which is what really distinguishes one artist from another. There have been hundreds of depictions of biblical scenes like Christ being taken down from the Cross. Indeed, in some times and places depictions of religious subjects, like the afflictions of saints, were the only subject matter allowed.
So this was a bogus accusation, but not an unexpected one. Bob worked against it several ways. Russell used a slightly smaller scale, his figures were generally quite rough -- partly because his work was mostly “haptic” meaning hands-on -- but Bob used tools as well, and the compositional design was different. In “No More Buffalo”, his self-published book about his Blackfeet series, Bob says, “Upon analyzing the basic composition of his [Charlie’s] sculpture, I found it to be based on a counter-clockwise movement, so I based my piece on an explosive design. Thus, though the subject matter is the same, the basic designs are entirely different.”
Charlie Russell never chased buffalo this way. They were gone by the time he got to Montana. Bob Scriver did. That makes a difference as well. Bob was constrained by reality but Charlie was free to imagine and exaggerate. Which is better is a silly question. Each method is good in its own way.
According to the newspaper, a casting of “Real Meat” will be loaned for display to the new Federal Court House in Great Falls. I hope it is a good casting, as a sculptor is at the mercy of his or her foundry in a way that a painter is not. Bob’s patinas were based on “Les Animaliers,” the French Beaux Arts sculptors who excelled at creatures and were supported by the same brilliant foundries used by Rodin. Indeed, some of them trained with Rodin. But one of the many blunders on the part of the uninformed lawyer who drew up Bob’s will (or one of them, as he revised them almost daily) was not understanding that by giving the collection to the Montana Historical Society, the copyrights would not be enforced, thus opening the way to cheap casting. The Historical Society has neither the will nor the funds to pursue cases. Once again, the sculptor is at the mercy of non-artists.