My publisher at the U of Calgary Press surprised me with the news that a review of “Bronze Inside and Out” had been published by “Montana, the Magazine of Western History” in the Spring Issue. I was very pleased to see that it was written by Thomas Nygard, of Nygard Gallery in Bozeman, Montana, probably the best if not the only truly educated gallery owner in the state, at least when it comes to representational art of the West. I’ve been visiting it since my circuit-riding days took me to Bozeman every other week in the Eighties. We’ve both “morphed” a little over the years, but not unrecognizably.
Nygard shows his perception by taking a sword to the memoir/biography controversy. He simply calls “Bronze Inside and Out,” an expose´ which is accurate. It’s always rewarding when someone “catches your drift.” So I called him up and we had a good talk. I discover he’s on the boards of BOTH the Montana Historical Society and the CM Russell Museum. What I like most about the internet is that the ends of the tentacles reach out and reach out until they touch someone else’s tentativities and suddenly a new set of ideas come into focus.
The problem with representational Western art (okay, ONE of the problems) is that the only way to know what goes on is to have a window behind the scenes. Art is presentation as much as creation -- and I include writing. The most difficult thing in writing or running a gallery is to see work with new eyes, as it really is or has never been seen before, which might be the same. The enormous impact of the Chinese academy-trained artists like Mian Situ has been due to this: the loveliness of their technique framing the brutality of the treatment of the Chinese immigrants of the 19th century. They are expose´s.
Somehow the middlebrow, middleclass consumers of art (often conservative) have claimed Western art and made it a triumphalist scene suitable for hanging over fireplaces in dining rooms. Predictably, sentimentality has diluted, sweetened, and paled what was gut-wrenching, hard core and often fatal. Since the institutions have become invested in this way of thinking, because there is always money in the reassuring Disney and Hallmark approaches to life, they have not thrown their potential searchlights on reality.
Film-making and some kinds of publishing HAVE gone for the nitty-gritty, the reality, the tough-minded. I suspect now that no one has to push back against Bush and Cheney and now that we’ve all been chilled by terrorism, there will be more resistance to the harsh, the taboo, and the violent for fear of provoking more violence. But Bob Scriver’s sculpture was rarely violent, not even in the way that the Animaliers were so fond of predator/prey deadly wrestling matches made into beautiful masses. Bob’s best work, except for the bucking rodeo events which were balletically violent, tended to be moments of poise, balance and reflection. “Lone Cowboy,” “Transition,” “No More Buffalo.” Sad, yes. Even grieving, like his “Pieta.” The violent pieces were almost universally commissioned by someone else. (“Price of a Scalp” was commissioned by George Montgomery.)
I do not think this was because Bob was a peaceful man. In fact, he seethed with rage and was often violent, esp in his early years. It was frustration, determination to drive on through to goals . . . I do not blame him. Art was his refuge and restoration. I think Tom Nygard “gets it.”
Mary Strachan Scriver’s “Bronze Inside and Out” is a focused and thoughtful appraisal of the life of the sculptor Robert MacFie Scriver. Up until his death in 1999, Bob Scriver was a mainstay of the western art world as well as the on-again-off-again pride of Browning, Montana. His legacy is preserved there and at the Montana Historical Society where his lifework is housed. It is also preserved in the pages of Mary Strachan Scriver’s expose´ on the life of her ex-husband. Married to Bob Scriver almost exactly four years, she spent a decade or more in his company. Her firsthand account of his life offers a unique view of this Montana treasure through the eyes of someone who knew him intimately and obviously loved and admired him.
“Bronze Inside and Out” relates profound and heartfelt and humorous remembrances alike. For example, the author tells how one day, “Dick Flood came in with a Russell bear he had bought. ‘This is the most fabulous bear ever made,’ he said. ‘Just look at how wonderful it is. NO ONE else could make a bear as good as this one.’ and he looked at Bob significantly. That was at lunch. Flood took his bear and went off to make his salesman’s round. Bob, aggravated by Flood’s tone (as was probably intended) grabbed some plastilene and began to model. In a short time he had a bear exactly like the Russell bear. At supper he flaunted it in front of Dick. ‘NO ONE, huh? How do you like this bear?’
“Flood liked it. ‘How much?’
“Bob took the bear out of Flood’s hands and began to twist it. ‘Russell wasn’t so very damn terrific! The nose is too big, the gait is wrong . . .’ He made corrections to suit his own notion, while Flood blanched and could hardly keep from grabbing at it to prevent the changes. ‘Now THIS is a good bear!’
“‘I won’t sell it to you.’ Bob enjoyed teasing such operators as much as Picasso did by drawing in the wet sand when the tide was coming in or drawing in the dust on dealers’ cars when he knew the drive back to town would destroy the picture.” (p. 112)
“Bronze Inside and Out” is warm and often enchanting. It conveys a sense of life and times of this bronze artist that other writers looking in from the outside simply cannot capture. It is full of the kind of western lore that is routinely overlooked in today’s ever faster-paced society and contains detailed passages that provide a portrait of a mid-twentieth-century art world. Mary Scriver’s insightful portrayal of Bob’s work is, for the art historian and student of Montana history, an accounting that demands reading.