Saturday, March 15, 2008


Like the proverbial elephant, the way a person understands the CMRussell Ad Club Auction depends on where you have ahold of the beast. So I’ll tell you about my day there from a few different points of view.


One of the unique aspects of this shindig is that the main auction has brought in what amounts to a captive audience of people who care about art depicting Western subject matter. Some of these very high-end people fly in on their own or specially chartered small jets, so many that it’s a problem up at the airport to find good places to put them. A new hangar is under construction. At the other end of the economic scale -- which is not the only scale one can use -- is the guy who drives down in his pickup from the rez with a lot of beadwork, carvings, dream-catchers with baseballs in the middle (a big hit this year), and modern ledger art that explores a genre invented by captives at Army forts who begged for paper to draw on and were given old bookkeeping ledgers.

I swung by the Indian Art show first because I wanted to give Carl Cree Medicine a copy of “Bronze Inside and Out,” since he’s in it. In fact, as he says, he’s at the beginning and the end. In Browning when you need more help, you don’t interview prospects or call the job bank -- you just add the brother of the guy already working there. They’re likely to have the same aptitudes and get along well together. (An old Indian chief advised that success in polygamy comes from marrying sisters for the same reasons.) If your business persists long enough, you begin to hire the sons of the men who work for you and the enterprise turns generational.

Carl came to work for Bob Scriver a year or so before I got to Browning, but he stayed for twenty-five years -- I only lasted a little over ten. David Cree Medicine, Carl’s son, became the foundry foreman when Bob went back to casting at the end of his career. Carl and I are about the same age, but he had a hard fight with the demon rum and other apocalyptic horsemen in his younger life, and now he’s on a walker and brought a “chauffeur.” Nevertheless, I gave him a book and got him to sign mine. We had a few minutes to remember old times.

This show is organized and mentored by Gladys Cantrell, who took care of Jim Welch Jr.’s father in his last years. No spring chicken herself, she never runs out of passion and the show reflects her constant urging towards more sophistication and skill. I’m of two minds about this keeping Indians apart in their own show: on the one hand, it means that they don’t have to compete with the top artists of the country, but on the other hand, if they DID compete, they would come off very well. The fact remains that the Russell Auction is a whitebread event except when Earl Old Person brings along the Blackfeet dancers to do their pow-wow stuff.

But then one must consider that the other satellite shows include an antiques and collectible gun show, sometimes a female artists’ show, “the friends of Jay Contway,” and other sub-categories and clubs that come and go. This year Pacific Galleries, which is a permanent antiques and art arcade in Great Falls, had a show, but I ran out of time and energy to get to it.


The Ad Club, which has a fine eye for the needed extra, runs a “trolley” among the various venues, so once a person finds a parking place, it’s possible to leave the vehicle all day. Security personnel on ATV’s patrol the “big” show parking which always fills blocks of lots and curbs. Two huge bronzes were being exhibited in the parking lot: a life-sized elk and a flight of huge ducks. It seemed to me that there were fewer exhibitor rooms -- the motel furniture is stored in big semi-trailers for the duration and the artists bring “liners” and screens for hanging their art work. The work was uniformly excellent. I would say there was a little less cowboy stuff and about the same amount of Indian images, but FAR more animals and scenery than ever. The animal bronzes were huge, best placed in public spaces or outside. It appears that even cowboy art is going green.

I don’t go to the big expensive events: brunches and dinners and cocktails, all with vigorous presentations by and for the Ad Club, wedged in among the actual auctions. A big crew of beefy guys do nothing but arrange and reconfigure the tables and chairs through the big indoor plaza of the motel where the swimming pool is. I associate this show with the smell of chlorine, which is NOT green.

This time I located Dave and Sasha Powell right away, so there was enough time among potential customers to visit for a bit. At last I got the real story of an event in the Sixties that has become famous over the years. We were in the front of the Scriver Museum during North American Indian Days, which is analgous to the Russell Auction in some ways, when someone came running in the front door puffing, “Jimmie Welch just punched out Richard Lancaster at the campgrounds!” Good news! We heartily disliked Lancaster, author of one of those tarted-up Indian books (“Piegan.”) But puzzling -- Jim Welch was not a likely street fighter. Years later I asked him whether it was true and he laughed, but said it wasn’t him. I didn’t press any further.

But now I find out that Jim was THERE on the campgrounds among a little group of loungers among the lodges, a favorite occupation of young Indian men since long before forts. Along came Lancaster with his usual self-important swagger. He was a big guy, very full of himself. The guys began to call out, “How ya’ doin’, Moochie? Where did you mooch your breakfast this morning?” His nickname on the rez was “Moochie” because that’s pretty much how he lived.

Lancaster took offense and came over to demand that they stop calling him that. Eddie Livermore stood up to him, Lancaster spat on Eddie, and it was Eddie who laid him out on the ground. Then the others, except Welch I’m sure, put the boots to him. Since he was so proud of the effect of his face on the ladies, they gave it special attention. It was a while before he’d be back in action. This guy left single mothers and traumatized daughters all over the West. We’re told that now he’s dead or as good as.

A little before lunchtime, in order to beat the rush, I slipped into the motel cafe for a sandwich and found Brian and Ann Elliott just finishing up. Brian and Ann own The Blackfeet Trading Post in Browning, which locals call “Faughts” because of the previous owner, and have been trying to order my book from Michigan State University, where they evidently don’t teach geography as the distribution people couldn’t find Montana. That’s been straightened out now. They were just headed over to the Indian show and then to the Browning basketball game in town.


Right after lunch was the seminar about the forty years that the Ad Club has presented this event. Bob Morgan, Ginger Renner, Steve Seltzer and Van Kirke Nelson formed a panel and Norma Ashby moderated from a lecturn. The swapping of stories, often corrected or contradicted by the others, was augmented by two video compilations of events over the years. Bob Scriver appeared in quite a few, partly because back in the beginning he refused to give them art work to auction but offered to make a bison skull on a plaque for an annual award and in later years he sometimes presented it himself.

So here’s the straight story on how the auction got started. Norma Ashby had been to a ranch estate auction sale, because her husband worked for a bank. Sad as these dispersals can be, she had had a marvelous time looking at old things and schmoozing with the characters. So when the Ad Club’s annual money-raising event selling raffle tickets for a donated Cadillac was ruled illegal, she suggested an art auction instead. There were a lot of wrinkles and objections, but when Norma has an idea, she doesn’t let it go.

What I didn’t know at the time was the extent of the involvement of Van Kirke Nelson, a gynecologist/obstetrician in Kalispell who was also, to quote Norma “a wheeler/dealer and conniver.” He and his doctor buddies had a profound effect on cowboy art in Montana. Nelson, at the heart of what I call the Flathead Art Mafia, had a gallery (His family also owns Manitou.) and found that he could scoop up quite a lot of respectable art if he bought from hard-up artists, esp. someone like Ace Powell who had “shaken hands with the Devil alcohol and was sometimes pulled into hell.” But then how could he sell it? Auctions turned out to be the answer: locals understood them, they could provide drama, they weren’t just for snobs, and they only lasted a couple of days -- then most of the participants could get out of town. He had organized a few in Kalispell, and lead Father Schoenberg out into the swamp for the sake of the big Indian Arts center (MONAC) he was building next to Gonzaga University. It was Nelson’s gallery’s paintings and those of his buddies that were at the core of the first auction. The Russell Auction is juried, but many times the art sold there is recycled a few years later through the satellite auction sponsored by Coeur d’Alene and Manitou Galleries, with luck at much higher prices. To Nelson it was a poker game: Montana Hold'em!

But it was Norma that made the Russell Auction into a smash hit, a pattern now followed all over the country. Father Schoenberg was invested in keeping control. I just finished reading his analysis of what went wrong, eventually crashing both his auctions and his institution. (“Indians, Cowboys and Western Art: a History of MONAC”) He felt it was politics, since Red Power was at its peak then and the surrounding tribes ungratefully demanded that THEY have control. Norma had the Ad Club at her side and the CM Russell Museum already existed -- the Club was only contributing funds to it, plus the glamour, of course. But the Ad Club folks were shrewd, hip, plugged-in people, with no specific political ax to grind. Brilliant ideas came a’poppin’ and they knew how to make them work. Every year they rejiggered the whole thing, reconsidering every small practice so that flow and liveliness has been kept vital for forty years. They dressed up as Russell characters, they invented things like “quick draw,” or artists swapping each other’s paintings mid-creation and finishing them, and once Arlene Hooker Fay created a “paint by numbers” portrait of an Indian cherub which Norma filled in while everyone watched.

One of the results that I doubt anyone really anticipated was that for some high-income customers, who at first thought that traveling to Great Falls, Montana, in the middle of March was an insane idea, gradually became emotionally invested in Russell and the other art work to the point that Ginger Renner, a tough gallery owner and wife of the foremost CMR art expert (Fred Renner, whose profession was NOT art and who courted Ginger at the Auction), said with wet eyes, “This is a beloved community and a family. I have never felt so loved and safe in my life as I do here.” Plainly this was true for others as well, especially Norma. It’s a white-haired bunch of folks, but they function very much as a once-a-year congregation in a near-religious sense. Now they tire easily, walk with canes and sometimes oxygen, wear hearing aids, but somehow manage to get to the auction. Events happen earlier in the evening to keep them from wearing out too soon. The glow from them spreads to people who are not part of their group.

Norma knows everyone and introduced many luminaries, asking them to stand. She included her daughter -- and me, to my surprise, whom she calls “Bob Scriver’s widow,” though there’s really no term for what I am really: “Bob Scriver’s third-wife of four, divorced thirty years ago, childless, nothing to do with the estate, the only survivor.” We only have circumlocutions, though such relationships become more common every day.

I sold a book to each of three of what I call “white hat cowboy artists,” guys who don’t participate in the seething mass of jostling, jealous, conniving, money-obsessed Industrial Cowboy Art Cartel bigshots. One went to Don Greytak’s wife for a gift to him. She says he’s so content with his life and what he has that it’s tough to buy him anything. He does graphite pencil drawings of real ranch and ag scenes, not excluding the tractors and thrashing machines. Gentle and accurate, they are much underestimated by the people going after technicolor special effects. (I’m a little surprised as how many of the cowboy artists these days formerly worked in Hollywood as background painters rather than the generation before them who got their training doing magazine illustration and advertising in New York City or Connecticut.)

Another book went to Joe and Margaret Halko. Joe is a sculptor who does mostly animals these days. He began as a taxidermist like Bob Scriver and they’ve always had respect for each other. Halko has probably exceeded Bob in his skill and the grace of his work. He hasn’t gotten so deeply into casting. They live in Choteau, not far from me.

The third went to Rex and Judy Rieke, my all-time favorite art couple since I first met Bob in 1961. Rex has a music connection with Bob and still plays with his son and their combo, but they also run a ranch over by Garrison where they raise threatened domestic animal breeds like Joseph’s sheep -- or is it Joseph’s goats? (The Joseph in the Bible, the one with the coat, got all the spotted ones, you’ll remember.) Rex paints in several different modes, but he brought to the show his landscapes which have a lot of Maynard Dixon influence. The young artist sharing his room, Higgins(?), was more modern, less “cowboy art,” but very skillful. His slices of watermelon and jagged abstract mountains are more like what most contemporary artists in Southwest Art magazine or on the Art and Perception blog are doing. [Rex says that Judy reads my blog every day and believes everything I say, so I promised Rex to mention that “Rex Rieke is a great guy!” It comes from the heart!]

These three sets of artists and non-artist but participating wives are all native Montana folks living quiet lives without any pretenses or feverish pursuits. If I had a windfall of money, it is their works I would buy. I passed through the rooms of the Black Hats, but was not tempted.


At a different, more low-rent, motel there is a small version of the big Heritage Inn auction. The sponsoring galleries (usually Coeur d'Alene and Manitou) shift around a bit, as do the dealers in the rooms which are not usually artists. These folks sell books, Indian regalia, some art, ephemera, jewelry, and other debris from the early days in the West. Many are single guys and I noticed this year that two had canine companions: one was an exceedingly clean and fluffy Australian shepherd who came to say hello and the other was an Italian greyhound, graceful and loyal. Neither of them has written a book, unlike the governor’s dog.

In an end room, quietly sitting among his things, was Adolph Hungry-Wolf. He is subdued. People have not realized what an amazing achievement his four archive books about the South Piegans really is. They haven’t grasped the lesson that the art purveyors have got hold of: the paintings that sold in the early days of the auction are now quadrupled and more in value. Books do the same. Bob’s book about his art collection, “The Blackfeet: Artists of the Northern Plains,” originally sold for sixty dollars and now sells on the Internet for $800 -- IF you can find a copy. If a person bought these four books and salted them away, they would amount to an excellent investment. Part of the problem is that the Blackfeet Heritage Center had a gifted and well-connected Indian manager who had agreed to publicize and distribute the book in the US, but he left the position too soon. A repeating reservation problem. No solutions.

I did a bad thing. A woman and several kids came in and for some reason they kept asking me their questions instead of Adolph. I ought to have diverted them over to him, but I wanted to talk to him, so I gave the answers hoping they’d be quick. There was a photo on the wall of Adolph next to a real wolf that fascinated the little boy. “Is that a real wolf? Would he attack Adolph?” Etc. But then, I was asking MY questions when in walked a beautiful young Indian woman all in red and that was the end of his attention to me!


By this time it was late afternoon and I left for home. Only two books unsold from this shipment. A year to the next CMR auction and not all of that “beloved community” will make it back. Norma Ashby and Bob Morgan, who has also been a state-wide force for good since the very early days and who is the sparkplug for the Western Art Rendezvous in Helena (an August show which happens as much “en plein air” as indoors), have written a book about all this which will be out in August. That ought to be well worth buying and reading! This has been a significant era in Montana, quite apart from the main engine of the Industrial Cowboy Art Cartel in the SW.

I often use the drive back as a kind of metaphor. This time the sky was full of moving March clouds that appeared to be battles at sea, erupting geysers, prairie fires, hurricanes, and dragging gray gauzes of rain streaks. No wind. When I got home, to unwind enough to sleep, I watched “3:10 to Yuma,” in which the oddly noble anti-hero (Russell Crowe) is an artist who draws birds. He’s not quite ready for the Auction yet.


Anonymous said...

This is one of the loveliest and most insightful postings you have ever written.

Richard Wheeler

david said...

WOW -- what a great review, and insight into the history of Great Falls' premier event. Thank you for sharing it with us.

BTW -- I stopped by Don Greytak's room and was absolutely AMAZED at his work -- might be my favorite spot of the evening.

Whisky Prajer said...

Lots of entertaining social history in your review -- fun! Makes me wish I knew these people.

Anonymous said...

Wonder if Eddie Livermore is a brother of my cousin, Earl Livermore. Loved reading about the auction. I've not been able to go yet. However, I DO have a copy of Bob Scriver's book and also the series by Adolph. You're right. They're all masterpieces.


Anonymous said...

This was my second year announcing the art, and I enjoyed it tremendously. Meeting the artists and many of the patrons was a joy. This is a wonderful event for Great Falls, and it continues to grow. I loved your post and it gave me additional insight into the history of this event.