Montana was visited in its earliest days of settlement by noted artists, who left a rich legacy of landscape and wildlife art. Early artist-explorers Karl Bodmer and John James Audubon passed through Fort Union and up the Missouri; their journals and paintings portray Montana before settlement.
Charlie Russell is the quintessential Montana painter. He knew the West from the inside, having lived the life of a cowhand for many years. A native of St. Louis, Russell came west during the days of the great cattle ranches and lived in the Judith Basin area of central Montana. He began by sketching in bars and around campfires. The lives of the Indians and cowboys that he encountered daily became his subject matter. He often traded his sketches for drinks, and after his death some of the best collections of his works were in bars. His studio in Great Falls is now the Charles M. Russell Memorial Museum. His works are also on display in the Montana Historical Society Museum in Helena.
The regional and Western tradition is still strong in Montana art. Ace Powell of Great Falls inherited the mantle of Charlie Russell and painted fine tableaus of the emerging West. A contemporary master of reproducing the light and shade of the Montana landscape is Russell Chatham. His carefully balanced scenes capture the expanse and intimacy of the Montana countryside. Gary Carter paints wildlife and Western scenes, while Clyde Aspevig concentrates on landscapes.
The Montana arts scene doesn’t end with Western-themed painting and sculpture. The universities and the Montana Arts Council foster more experimental artists. In Missoula, Rudy Autio produced nationally recognized ceramic sculpture. Another former U of M professor was Walter Hook, a math professor turned painter. Hook developed a wry syntax of images, including buffalo, kites, and Easter eggs, that recur like visitants across his canvases.
John Buck and Debbie Butterfield are Bozeman-area artists whose work flirts with Western icons. Butterfield sculpts horses out of old signs or commercial media to achieve a haunting dissonance. Buck confounds Western art images, ready-mades, and methods—such as whittling—by incorporating them in aggressively modern constructions.
While the mountains allure writers, the prairies seem to attract—and inspire—visual artists. Far-flung ranches and small towns in eastern Montana harbor conceptual artists. Pat Zentz and Dennis Voss are ranchers who each employ quirky and experimental sculpture and assemblages to convey a sense of Montanan ritual and whimsy. Ted Waddell employs modern expressionistic techniques to paint the cows on his ranch, imbuing them with near-totemic presence. Gary Hornick’s installations juxtapose isolation and a rich historicity.
A Missoulian who garnered fame as a poster illustrator is Monte Dolack. His easily recognizable movie and commercial poster paintings are avidly collected. Dolack’s Missoula gallery markets his stylish and whimsical fine-art paintings and prints.
Regional Art Centers
Several Montana communities, some of them quite small, have community art centers. These host touring shows of regional art and frequently feature the works of local artists; the gift shop is often a great place to buy that special souvenir. You may be surprised at the sophistication of work turned out by a ranch wife or by a retired railroad worker. Look for regional art centers in Glendive, Miles City, Kalispell, Anaconda, Bigfork, Billings, Colstrip, Great Falls, Hardin, Helena, Lewistown, and Missoula.
Additionally, some towns have developed reputations as visual arts centers, and privately owned galleries proliferate. If you’re planning a visual arts tour across Montana, you’ll want to check out the private galleries at Bigfork, Livingston, Bozeman, Big Timber, Missoula, Billings, and Red Lodge.
© W.C. McRae & Judy Jewell from Moon Montana, 7th Edition