The idea or “trope” of what is “Western America” was taken as history but then developed quickly into a lot of literary genres (classic Western, counter-Western, uber-Western, spaghetti Western, anti-Western) and many merchandizing opportunities like movies, novels, magazines, paraphenalia, fashion, and the actual occupations of the people living there. I believed it was something.
What I walked into in Browning was the career of Bob Scriver, who was born there and had a first career as a musician and teacher. His first marriage produced two children, his second marriage after WWII helped him move from music to taxidermy and from there to sculpture, and my contribution turned out to be building a foundry and supporting fame in the larger art world that was just developing because of the love of what was Western.
The relevance to the threads I’ve been following about presentation communities and horizontal cultures are based in part on structural connections such as the Charles M. Russell annual art auction in Great Falls on the artist’s birthday. It’s success is normally described in terms of money made, but there is another story in the amount of corruption and swindle, quite apart from the pursuit of value in the constantly changing world of art.
This is a link to my previous blog. It might not work because the blog has been made into a zombie by Google.
“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.
“. . . What Nelson 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.”
This small event was part of a larger popularity that was part of defining what an American was. It picked up on the pattern of dominance and violence and celebrated it. But we only partly realized what was happening.
We were enemies of Nelson, who stalked us along with his other invasions of the reservation which many thought of as legitimate raiding. Nelson was accused of being a wheeler-dealer so much that he finally just proclaimed that he was, and so what, he was proud of it. He was one of several doctors and dentists who made enough money to indulge their hunger for importance.
On Google I found the record of a court case that was typical. Land was as often their opportunity as was art.%3CMPW0rbZ7Roixn44OyWDpMg@ismtpd0167p1iad2.sendgrid.net%3E
In this instance, a widow was forced to sell her ranch, but she tried hard to block its conversion into housing tracts, though that would make more money. She found a buyer but he didn’t have quite enough money, until Nelson joined him as a partner with the provision that they WOULD make into housing. This was secret because the widow hated him. But she lost.
Bob Scriver didn’t lose until he died and Nelson attended the auction of his extensive collection, stalking the event with his now white-headed handsome domination. It was Ace Powell who bamboozled Nelson. The latter took advantage of Ace’s alcoholism to “own” him, making a contract that all his art work would automatically belong to Nelson, who stashed it in a warehouse while waiting for Ace to die so the prices would jump.
Ace loved the Shadle dry-out programs Nelson sent him to, where he boasted that he was included with doctors and lawyers as fellow drunks. But he continued to drink, partly because his body was so deteriorated that it was a way to escape pain. If all else failed he would sit in a local bar and sell his autograph for enough money to keep the drinks coming.
Fellow ob-gyns complained that they ended up delivering “Nelson’s” babies because he was out in the world wheeling and dealing so much. They put him on the ethics committee, which was a strategy with docs operating in a gray area, because people on that committee would be closely monitored by anyone the committee criticized.
Nelson’s daughter also became a doctor but a son joined his father in running the Glacier Gallery, one way he handled his profit-making deals. Eventually this small gallery became the bigger Manitou Gallery in Santa Fe because such a business needs a large population.
Neither Ace Powell nor any other Montana artists seem to be featured and the quality of the art, which is representational, ranges from kitsch to classic. Nelson himself had no sense at all of what was quality, only what would sell and sell at a profit. I once stood in the Glacier Gallery as an anonymous walk-in and realized that as I looked at the art, I was overhearing a conversation on the mezzanine above between Nelson and his son. They were choosing what to discard because it wouldn’t sell, and I was bemused to realize that they were wanting to get rid of some of the finest artists, like Russell Chatham, because they hadn’t been promoted enough to be “hot.” Also, Nelson was too prissy for some artists. Ob-gyns must be respectable.
I loved Chatham’s work, not just because our birthday was the same day, but also because it was often used for book covers to help the authors. Indeed, I bought some novels just because of Chatham’s covers and never regretted it because they were all high quality. He painted mystical Western landscapes. Some said that his own stories were “Rabelaisian, vulgar, and exquisitely written.” I have no objection.
(to be continued)