Friday, August 08, 2014


Joyce Thomas, artist and property developer, is about the same generation as myself, both in our Seventies and trying to get our “stuff” in order at the same time we are coping with the parent generation’s “stuff.”  It’s both physical -- lots of paper -- and mind work -- thinking about what it all might mean.  What mattered?  We’ve both figured out that one way to get rid of paper is to mail to someone else.  In Joyce’s case the catnip is her ancient aunt’s archives which includes a lot of information about Clare Sheridan.  (I blogged earlier.)

Father Wilfred Schoenberg

This last envelope contained the program from the very first CMR auction on March 6, 1969.  It was the beginning of the transformation from a loosely congenial bunch of eccentric, gifted, colorful people who “did art” into the strike-it-rich mentality of the wheeler-dealers.  It was Van Kirke Nelson’s idea but it would never have worked without Norma Ashby and the Ad Club.  In fact, he had tried his puppetry on Father Wilfred Schoenberg at Gonzaga in Spokane earlier but it didn’t take.  The account of this is in a self-published book by Schoenberg called “Indians, Cowboys and Western Art: A History of MONAC.” (Museum of Native American Culture).  Schoenberg is a story in himself.  Today he’s deceased, the museum is demolished, and the collection has been dispersed.

The point is that art was being defined, formalized, and priced in a way it had not been, and the justification and point of reference was Charlie Russell in Great Falls.  Joyce Thomas was one of those who was not captured and pinned to a gallery.  Bob Scriver (with whom I was merged at the time) also escaped in some ways but not in others.  He refused to give up any work for auction, so invented the little bison skull award. 

At this point the prices of the 65 pieces were printed in the program!  Many works were donations, most of them donated by Van Kirke Nelson.  What he was really doing was establishing the value of the works of specific artists, clearing his warehouse and -- no doubt -- getting a tax write-off.  I count 23 pieces donated by Nelson, 5 from Paul Masa, and 8 from Jim Brubaker, who later served time in prison for cutting valuable artwork out of historical books and selling them on eBay.  All three were from Kalispell.  4 were donated by Dr. Dan L. London -- all of those were by Steve Seltzer.  Prices were all between $50 and a few hundred, except for an Earl Heikka bronze and a Marjorie Reed oil painting priced at $2,000.   (Bronzes from that time and place must be carefully documented because of the amount of wild-cat casting.  Ceramic shell casting was just beginning.)

by Dr. Andrew Jordan

The “types” of artists ranged from the highly respectable dentist, Dr. Andrew Jordan, whose daughter is also a dentist and whose son, an opthamologist, later saved my eyes by sealing holes in the retinas with laser surgery, to the mercurial Ace Powell, Bob Scriver’s oldest and closest friend.  In the end both Ace and Leo Beaulaurier were felled by alcohol.  Ace painted like Charlie Russell, but Beaulaurier made painting on black velvet into a true art form instead of a carnival gimmick.  Many of his portraits hung in the supper club at the GF airport and when we shipped by air, the high point was dinner among those fine faces.

By Leo Beaulaurier

Ace, despite high hopes from Van Kirke Nelson who accumulated his work, never did pull the high dollars.   His work looked like Russell's, which Nelson evidently saw as a plus.

By Ace Powell, his signature card in the lower left corner.

His son, David, is a respected member of the Cowboy Artists of America, but has made his grubstake over and over in Hollywood as a consultant and set designer.  Both men were pretty good set decorations all by themselves.  In fact, Ace once impersonated an old medicine man in a movie.

Ace Powell

David Powell

Of the other Flathead Valley artists, Les Welliver and Bob and Geri Wood, are gone.
Fred Fellows

Jay Contway and Fred Fellows, probably the closest to real working cowboys in this remuda, are still at it.  Jay has stayed local and helps his friends at auction time in a parallel event.  Fred went to the SW to join the Big Boys and star in the Cowboy Artists of AmericaGary Schildt has married a lawyer.  Prudently, I will say nothing about him.

Weaver's statue of CMR

Bill Gebhart, noted for his tall thin figures, quietly finished out his life in Conrad after losing the competition for the Charlie Russell statue at the Washington DC Hall of Fame, the same as Bob did.  The winner of the competition, Jack Weaver, emigrated to Alberta where he was welcomed by museums.

Connected to museums and historical societies, which can never really decide whether they are commercial or public, Bob Morgan is authentic and so was Les Peters.  Steve Seltzer is grandfathered in, literally, since his ancestor painted with Russell.

by Marjorie Reed

There are two women:  Betty Magner of Great Falls and Marjorie Reed, of Arizona.   Magner’s painting on eBay right now is asking $4,700.  Her auction donation, a painting of Canada geese, was valued at $50.  Reed worked for Disney and has a website:  Her donation was priced at $2,000.

Branson Stevenson and Archie Bray, not cowboys

Lyndon Pomeroy was doing welded sculptures early on, John Segesman was national and commercial, and Branson Stevenson was the grand gentleman of the scene.  Stan Lynde was called Rick O’Shay after his comic strip character and everyone loved both of them.

The auction was a strange transfer of assets from Kalispell to Great Falls.  In those days Kalispell was small and relatively unknown, but GF still had the Big Stack.  I remember reading an economic forecast for Montana that predicted GF was shrinking -- no more refining, no more railroad hub, much diminished Malmstrom Air Base, though the missile siloes were just going in.  The other side of the coin was the idea that Kalispell and the whole top of the Flathead Valley would soon boom, in the end becoming bigger than either Great Falls or Billings.  That forecast has come true.  But anyway, Nelson is now a family operation with galleries in the Big Market of the SW.

By Mian Situ

Some things were totally unpredictable.  No one ever imagined that the most marvelous painters (Like Mian Situ) would combine classical European-style painting with a new angle on Western history, that of the Chinese labor.  Native Americans, however, remained segregated and held their own show concurrently.  The auction quickly became a status marker, esp. for right wingers, though the left remained fond of animals and plein aire.  It was a while before the Great Northern’s sponsored artists (John Sharp, Winold Reiss, John Fery) began to come to the scene along with the big scenery guns (Thomas Moran) and finally the Taos painters, though Sharp was one of them.  The Cowboy Artists of America remained centered in the SW, though a few examples would wander up this far north.  The pop illustrators from the magazine era began to filter in.

The most recent CMR catalogue had N.C. Wyeth on the cover.

The biggest surprise was that the pattern, fueled by the Internet, would explode into major national auctions, backed by online catalogues and databases, which blew individual galleries and dealers out of the water the same as books had suffered a ground-up economic reconfiguration.  The best artists of the first auction didn’t come close to the quality of those in the 21st century as far as the painting went.  

By Tom Sander

But authenticity suffered the same way that rodeo became a sport for money-chasing athletes, presented with show-biz glamour.  Low-key Tom Sander was bumped aside by his ex-wife, Sherry Sander.  He spends half the year in Alaska on boats, half in Ledger, near Lake Elwell.

by Sherry Sander

Beyond that, the culture turned its back on cowboy stuff.  Only the white-haired and the old-fashioned still thought the 19th century was anything more than an inflated myth and the action was in debunking, like cynical “Deadwood” instead of idealistic “Gunsmoke.”  7-11 had a huge collection of cowboy art which they quietly began to dispose of.  No one knows what will happen now.  Maybe globalization: more and more paintings appear at the auctions that are of European and Chinese peasants, African and South American animals.  

The most memorable paintings I ever saw in the auction were of old homesteads silhouetted in the night -- little house, outhouse, pump head, and clothes on the line -- with a huge, canvas-filling moon dominating the sky.  Everyone who saw those paintings remembers them.  No one remembers the name of the artist.

Couldn't find the name of this artist either.

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