Friday, July 18, 2014



Now that it’s a hundred years since Bob Scriver was born, it’s interesting to try to understand what we were thinking in the Sixties, the key years when his reputation as an outstanding sculptor of Western subjects was being formed.  Fame and fortune are something like the determination of a dog to chase a car, trying to catch it without understanding what to do with it once you’ve got it.  

While Bob’s collateral relatives from Canada were here, I rustled up the DVD that the lawyers made of Bob talking about himself when he was eighty.  It’s a 30 minute disc that includes both Bob and some “mood” images of the Blackfeet sculptures that are included in the book “No More Buffalo,” which Bob paid to have printed.  The DVD has disappeared off the market.  You can find "No More Buffalo" on the used book websites on the Internet, but many copies were ruined by water damage when the museum burned and others are in storage at the Montana Historical Society because no one understands the legalities that would allow them to be sold or reprinted.  The bronzes themselves are on exhibit in Fort Benton.

Watching the DVD, Bob's cousin asked whether he was drunk!  He’d had a stroke and he has trouble with his teeth, but also he has adopted a defiant, boasting, false humility about his place in history.  Actually, I agree with him.  His claim is based on being in a certain place (the Blackfeet rez) at a particular time (the booming popularity of Western art as the last of the frontier faded) and taking advantage of it with the skills and drive he had developed since his earliest years.  He shows the tiny figures he made as a first grader, developed into his basic skills by the time he was in high school.  He puts considerable force and eloquence into explaining why he took the detour into music, describing “foul” years.  Actually, they were considered quite brilliant at the time, with his school bands winning prizes and praise.

Browning town square -- Browning Merc to the right

But he wanted to be a star.  Not a high school band conductor but first chair in a major orchestra.  Of course, that would have meant leaving Browning.  Much of the guidance and energy in his life came from his mother, who was determined that Robert would be outstanding but also that he would NEVER leave her.  Bob's father had no use for art, but understood brass bands from his own years with a cadet band in rural Quebec.  His father’s idea of a proper man's vocation was that of Bob’s older brother, Harold, who ran the Browning Merc when his father was too old, but he still wasn’t even trusted with the key to the rolltop manager’s desk.  

Sir Albert Edward Kemp

The two boys were more like extensions of their parents than independent human beings.  Both parents had made a huge leap -- across the continent -- away from their own birth families. Thad’s brother had indeed become enormously rich, but by chance.  He owned land that turned out to be in the center of Minneapolis.  No other Scriver, MacFie, or Hawley became rich or famous, but Wessie’s mother, maiden name Creller, had a cousin who became “Lady Kemp” (her husband owned a machinery business that was of service to the crown) which gave them all that confounded British Landed Gentry complex that the BBC has been wrestling with in series after series.  Nothing short of a knighthood would have satisfied Bob’s mother.  

John Clymer's portrait of "Big Medicine"

This is part of the reason Bob focused his efforts on Alberta (British) instead of the American SW where the other cowboy artists were getting rich.  Also, he was as interested in animals as people (also characteristic of his mother) so that the Connecticut illustrators (John Clymer, Bob Lougheed, Bob Kuhn) became early personal friends who invited him into the Society of Animal Artists.  Those artists didn’t get pulled into the “cowboy” obsession until the demand began to boom and more work was needed by galleries.  

John Clarke

Also at that point, the “other” Western artists, including those who were interested in Indians (Joseph Sharp, Winold Reiss, Hart Schultz, Charlie Beil, John Clarke) and those invited into Glacier National Park by the advertising campaigns of the Great Northern, began to sell big.  Bob knew many of them personally, learned from them.  Many of the important families associated with Glacier Park and the reservation became close to these men, but Bob’s family did not.  However, the Carberry family was friends with both the Scrivers and the arts community of the park.  Their artifact collection is in the Field Museum in Chicago. 

Paul Dyck

Harry Jackson

Bob's entry into the "cowboy world" of the SW was through rodeo when he did the portrait of Bill Linderman.  For a while Harold McCracken included him in the Cody context along with Harry Jackson and Paul Dyck, both of them personal friends but friendly rivals.  None of the three was Cowboy Artists of America material: too independent and unique.

Leon Walters

When Bob had gone to Chicago to study at the Vandercook School of Music, he haunted the Field Museum and connected with Leon Walters, a major diorama taxidermist, who taught him many things as well as causing him to take a serious scientific approach to animal preservation.  (The current conviction that there’s something macabre -- even obscene -- about mounted animals or hunting was unknown at the time.)  Also at the Field Museum there was a room called the Hall of Man that contained a series of life-sized portraits of what were then considered “races,” each individual carefully portrayed.    Malvina Hoffman had been subsidized to undertake this massive project as an aspect of anthropology.  The whole concept has since been attacked as a source of racism and hatred.  The bronzes have been put into storage except for the judicious use of a few with other exhibits.  But for Bob, Malvina was his Muse Mother.

Malvina Hoffman's Hall of Man

Because of Bob’s devotion to these bronzes, both the geography dimension and the skill of the work, we went to see Malvina Hoffman and also became friends with Joy Buba, her sculptor friend.  The two women proposed him for the National Sculpture Society.  Warren Baumgartner, another illustrator friend, proposed him for the National Academy of Design and the Salmagundi Club, and these were key connections to the certifiers of value in realistic art.  Because I had been a theatre student and accustomed to read the New York Times, which I purchased in Great Falls at Val’s Cigar Store, I prompted Bob to send his work to the major Manhattan shows of realistic sculpture advertised there, and the bronzes were accepted.  The scrapbook of these honors was reassuring to novice art buyers.  

But his father always demanded “Are you making any money, Robert?”  He didn’t until the Calgary Stampede, backed by Colonel Harvie who had made a fortune in the equivalent to a Bakken strike between Calgary and Banff, bought the entire set of rodeo bronzes.  When Bob divorced me in 1970, he had just finished those bronzes.  The sale was completed just after I was gone.  I don’t know what his dad said then, but I suspect he found some way to undercut his son’s pride.  It had become a habit.  He was ninety.  His mother was delighted and told all her friends.  But the real excitement came when Bob was on "What's My Line?" This was her audience, not the art world, which she didn’t grasp anyway -- neither the in-state promotions nor the big Manhattan scene.  None of my praise meant anything to Bob because we had agreed from the beginning to merge egos -- I’d just be praising myself as far as he was concerned.

Contemporary art writing is often contemptuous, mocking, and intent on finding the cracks in the golden bowl of fame and fortune.  It’s always easy to do, since anyone with a relentless drive to achieve is going to expose an underside;  trampled bodies love to rise up to make accusations.  So why work so hard at building a reputation?  If family doesn’t get it, if the professional world is oblivious, if the money means nothing in terms of improving the quality of one’s life, if friends turn to competitors -- what’s the point?  All these people are dead now. I was young when they were old -- now I'm old myself.

They made art for the sake of the doing of it.  “Art is the expression of the relationship between a person and the universe.”  I think I’ll change that definition again.  Now I think it should be “art is the universe expressed through a unique person.”  Can't be stopped.  Almost can't be controlled.  But I remember all these people and how much they relished working.


northern nick said...

I think you're right. It's the work. John Barth used the phrase, "The key to the treasure is the treasure." I read you as saying, "The work of life is the life." All else is ephemeral to the substance of our time of and among the animal world, especially inclusive of we humans.

Anonymous said...

This was interesting, and then so much more. Your thoughts about "why make art" are cutting and true. Thanks. Laura L