This morning I woke up early but unsure of the time. Some of the clocks are reset and some aren’t. It was pretty dark but I had heard the paper come, so I got up and read the section dedicated to the Western Art auctions in Great Falls at the end of the week. It’s all about new artists -- the old stalwarts swept away. Charlie Russell is there, of course, but no one is alive who knew him. Les Peters, who set up Charlie's studio for display after his death is dead himself now and never mentioned.
I went back to bed and dreamt about the Sixties when the auction commotion began. In those days a studio was often wood-heated and pretty rough. Charlie’s telephone pole cabin was mighty fancy by our standards. Our stuff was just “there” for reference or because the place might have been a back storage room in the first place. Ace Powell and Nancy McLaughlin, his wife, had a pretty nice studio with big windows in Hungry Horse, but that was because it was an old store and they ran a kind of trading post in the front while living in the back with their kids. That’s the one that burned down. Al Racine was in an old log cabin in St. Marys but you couldn’t live there in the winter: the wind whistled through it. John Clarke was in the bottom of his house in East Glacier because the top had burned out. He just walled off that part.
Nowadays artists’ studios are real layouts featured in magazines, but nowadays they make real money so they can afford spacious, furnished, properly decorated, architect-designed places. It’s the New West, a lifestyle based on money and fantasy. They have glossy bear rugs on the wall. We had real bears on the floor, waiting to be skinned. The first New West artist to show up was on the Flathead side of the mountains, naturally. It was Fred Fellows, who had been a city advertising art guy. He came over to Browning to buy some objects to arrange around here and there. He’s gone to the Southwest now.
Since I turned out to be a writer instead of an artist and since writers these days use computers and since you can’t have a computer in a cabin that goes from freezing to roasting with a wood stove throwing particulate into the air, my house is not nearly as cabin-like as I would prefer. Jack Smith, down the street at the Medicine River Gallery www.medicineriver.com/ is closer because, like Ace, he’s about as much a trader as an artist. But he’s online with a computer, so he has to use gas heat. He DOES keep it roaring and sits right next to it, so it’s a good place to sit to gab while you warm up. Not that you’d get a word in edgewise with Jack, but there’s a lot of art and artifact to look at.
I don’t have bear rugs and Ralph Lauren Hudson’s Bay blankets and pole-made beds, etc. Nor do I have any Indian artifacts except for my Bundle-transfer dress and moccs, which I keep put away in case the Bundle is found and can be properly transferred again. They don’t look like much, which is often the way it is with the real stuff. What people like is parade regalia. A full set of white buckskin, beaded and painted, with ermine and falconry bells -- maybe some “scalps” -- sells for as much as a cowboy artist’s painting. I do smudge. And I do have a woodstove in the garage where there is a concrete floor. When there’s no wind and the weather is not too dry, I burn my windfall limbs and am happy.
So I went back to sleep and dreamt that a Jimmy-load of guys and their women had stopped by. I had a woodstove and a pot of cowboy coffee simmering and we all settled to spin yarns and whittle. Then the guys asked if they could take a bath and one-by-one they did. (I don’t have a bathtub anymore either -- well, I do, but it’s out in the backyard where I grow tomatoes in it.) It was like those obligatory scenes in old Westerns where the hero, modestly arranged in the soapsuds, smokes a cigar or a pipe and sticks his foot up to scrub it with a brush.
I wish I could remember what we said in the dream conversation. Some of it was olden days and a little of it was “Doomer” talk like that from Paul, who still lives with a wood stove and a spring out in the boonies. It’s just that he talks on the computer. (I don't know how he compensates for smoke.) We sorta have a suspicion that things are going to circle back to the basics here pretty soon.
Nassim Taleb has been talking about “fragility” (things that easily crash) versus “robustness” (things that become consolidated and stronger under adversity). It looks pretty clear to me and others that our infrastructure of all kinds is becoming increasingly complex and out of control. Do I have to say “Japan”? So are our political systems, which are rapidly converting into interlocking international corporations. The most fragile systems are monocultures, like our food crops. The assumptions that may save the Doomers is that being prepared for the worst is never a mistake and the closer one stays to the basics, the better.
Of course, I consider art and friendship basics. What sticks with me from the dream, which wasn’t realistic but rather morphed among a number of places with an assortment of characters, was the atmosphere of inquiry and trust. You can’t buy it from Ralph Lauren. (I did once buy some Ralph Lauren sheets. Not sorry.) Neither can you buy it from an auction or find it in a studio with a hardwood floor and a high-end sound system where a nice guy paints nostalgic stuff. It’s not bad -- it’s just not the same thing. The same as the Old West, which was pretty hard on people and animals, is not the same as the New West, which is just pretty . . . and fragile.