JERRY GOROSKI is the consultant appraisar to whom I refer inquiries about Scriver bronzes. He is formally trained and certified to do assessments and knew Bob Scriver as well as working for the CM Russell Museum in Great Falls. His gallery is called "Open Range Art."


Friday, March 24, 2006


On Thursday at 9PM on Yellowstone Public Radio (which can be streamed at Leni Holliman hosts a redaction (and sometimes rearrangement) of some literary event around the state, often something from last year’s High Plains BookFest in Billings. Last night, March 23, the panel Leni presented was on a topic that I’ve searched for without success until now: writing about Western art.

Montana looks entirely different when viewed from the east end. In the Western valleys where the Montana Festival of the Book is staged, cowboy art, cowboys and talk about cowboy art is mostly met with a blank stare, though I’m sure someone in the Flathead would be happy to sell you some cowboy art from about forty years ago. On the east side of the Rockies you stumble over the cowboy artists themselves, as well as the marks made by some historical figures of some stature.

This panel was chaired by Corby Skinner, who is active with writing, theatre, and so on in Billings. His panel had four members:

1. Bob Wakefield, who was a personal friend of Conrad Schweiring and wrote a book about him. Schweiring’s father was the Dean of the School of Education in Laramie, WY, and though “Connie” wanted to be an artist right away (claimed he painted murals on his bedroom walls when he was a child), his father made him get a degree in commerce and law first -- to make sure he could earn a living. After graduation, Schweiring began to paint but didn’t turn away from art education and ended up in New York City where his best teacher told him he was a good artist, but ought to go back where his heart was: the Tetons. By then married, he and his wife set out towing a trailer and found their “heart spot.” For eleven years they lived in the trailer and sold paintings to tourists. Then they’d made enough money to buy land and build. His reputation was made on big landscapes. Towards the end of his life, having moved to the Mexican coast for the winters, he was working on seascapes -- still learning.

Don Frazer is a Will James expert. The book he wrote was not about James but is a bibliography, which would take plenty of pages as a simple list, with information about each book. James told some fanciful stories about his origins, but in fact he was a Quebequois who came West to Alberta. He did pen and ink sketches only -- no color or oil -- of such detail and delicacy that one can understand all the equipment and manuevers portrayed. Bob Scriver always said that Will James was more of an influence on him than Charlie Russell was. The room where the panel was meeting was decorated in Will James’ pictures.

Tom Minckler
is a fine arts dealer and expert on Western art who splits his time between New York City and Montana. His book was still being researched and is unexpected of an unexpected subject: flower still lifes by James Henry Sharp! There turn out to be about 200 of them. Sharp was academy trained in Europe and though he’s noted for paintings of Indians and his involvement with the Taos 7, he also painted many landscapes, often plein air. Bob Scriver had several small sketches painted around Browning, but when Sharp was up north, he mostly stayed in Crow country.

John Taliafero is the author of two boat-rocking books: one a life of Charlie Russell which knocks off a bit of rust and romance in order to reveal a boy who grew up in an affluent and educated family but reinvented himself in Montana as a wild and woolly cowboy who painted his own friends and life. Taliafero also wrote an account of the carving of Mount Rushmore by Gutzon Borglum, pointing out some of the ironies and egomanias involved.

One of the topics Taliafero returned to several times was the ghettoization of Western art. So far in the history of American Art, the Big Deal has been abstract painting in New York City. That has crowded out everything else and in fact, been so hard on realistic representation that such work was driven off into the far corners. Western art then circled its wagons and declared they preferred being able to tell what a painting is about. Since then, there has been a mutually excluding boundary: the Manhattanites consider “cowboy art” to be naive self-taught doodling (though some of it has excellent pedigrees) and cowboy artists think of whatever is sold in big shot galleries as over-intellectual pretentious claptrap.

The very fact that someone so blunt and perceptive as John Taliafero is willing to speak about such things bodes well for the future in my opinion, or the genre will become stagnant and strangulated -- dead. Leni Holliman remarked that after the mikes were turned off at the panel, some smokin’ discussion continued. How I wish I could have heard it!

Maybe next summer at the next High Plains BookFest. The website is already up: Featured speaker is Ivan Doig, who spent his high school years in Valier, where I live now.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006


Jeanette Caouette Scriver Chase has died of rheumatoid arthritis and simple old age in a nursing home in Grants Pass, Oregon. She was Bob Scriver’s second wife, the one who helped him make the transition from music to sculpture. The relationships among former wives are unpredictable, dependent on individual personalities and the circumstances and times of the marriage. Bob was a problematic husband, one of those larger than life personalities who gets that way by sucking up the energy of everyone around him. I sometimes joked I would start a support group for the four of us who were formal wives and others who never quite made it to that status.

Bob’s first marriage was a catastrophe -- both persons too young, a shotgun wedding when neither was prepared for a child, and two families of origin who were not supportive. Maybe the two fathers were, but not the mothers.

Jeanette and I could not be more different and we were from entirely different eras, but Bob’s problem with us was the same: we were strong creative women who could propel him where he wanted to go, but he couldn’t quite control us and was sometimes afraid of us. So relating to him was sometimes ecstatic when it all balanced and then demonic when we were in pitched battles over who was in charge.

Jeanette was born in Morinville, Alberta, a little French-Canadian town north of Edmonton. She was the oldest and the first of her generation, very much cherished by a huge extended family. Her father ran a barbershop and pool hall and she was his favorite, so his patrons were also among her admirers. Her father’s family was easy-going, music-loving, full of jokes.

French-Canadian Alphonse/Gaston jokes (as remembered and told by Bob, who loved them.) The two are nailing shingles onto a roof. “Alphonse, why are you throwing half the nails away?” “I have to, Gaston. The heads are on the wrong ends.” “But Alphonse, those are for the other side of the roof!”

Alphonse and Gaston go fishing in a rented row boat. “Alphonse, this place is such a wonderful spot for fish. You better mark a big X on the side of the boat to show where it is.” “Gaston, don’t be stupid. We might not get the same boat next time!”

My favorite: Alphonse and Gaston are arranging to meet but concerned that they might miss each other. “Alphonse, if I get there first, I’ll make a blue mark on the wall.” “Right, Gaston. And if I get there first, I’ll rub it out.”

Jeanette’s mother’s family came to Alberta after some years in Argentina and were a different kind of French: thrifty, religious, careful in all ways. Jeanette’s mother never warmed to her but was absorbed in Helene, a very pretty little girl who sang and danced. There was a third daughter, whom Jeanette claimed as “hers.” But she died of rheumatic fever. The impact on the whole family was deep. And there was a son Maurice, born late, whom Jeanette also claimed. She loved to manage men, thought they were all boys who would go astray without a firm hand.

Even now, old ranchers and townsmen will remark to me that they were fond of Jeanette. She flirted with them all, danced with many while Bob played with his band, and they thought that Bob worked her too hard and didn’t appreciate her. She had a business making custom cowboy shirts and buckskin jackets. A woman contacted me recently because she had been cleaning out her closets and came across the buckskin jacket she had bought from Jeanette and saved because it was fringed and beaded by Blackfeet. The label in it gave Jeanette’s name and “Browning, Montana,” and Google offered one of my blog entries mentioning her.

Bob married Jeanette’s family to the extent that long after the divorce in 1959 we visited San Rafael (1967) and found Helene (the beautiful sister as opposed to Jeanette’s intelligent sister) and Maurice. These two sibs became the models for Bob’s small cluster of religious scuptures: first a commissioned corpus for a cross and two busts of Maurice (one expressionistic in character as Jesus and one severely classical as himself); then a Pieta when Bob’s daughter (about Maurice’s age) died; and finally a huge project that proposed a statue of Jesus on top of a pyramidal peace monument -- rather transparently intended to give peace to Bob Scriver. Helene and Maurice became Bob’s emotional center in his last years, not always comfortably since they could not make the world right for him, as he begged them to do.

Jeanette, on the other hand, “married” Bob’s first wife and his two children by her. Unable to have children herself, she dedicated herself to the two small and chubby kidlets and did her best to be their mother. (Their blood mother went on to have four more children with a second husband.) She stuck by the daughter until she died of colon cancer in 1967, but had a harder time with the son who also died of cancer.

At one time this sort of dynamic was hidden and considered embarrassing, but now I’ve seen the same patterns so many times in so many families, that I see no reason to hide them. Still, there were uniquenesses. It was the daughter’s death that had three wives sitting around a kitchen table, arguing amiably about who got stuck in the mud on a duck-hunting expedition and then, more seriously, what should be the fate of the daughter’s children.

Jeanette came back to Browning several times, briefly visiting the museum and signing the guest book. Bob always ran away and locked himself in his little house, as though she might tear strips off him. She brought her harmless and sweet husband, Norman, along with her. Bob never tried to make peace except while his daughter was dying.

So I went the other way. I came back often and hung around every chance I got. It took a while for Bob to stay in the shop when he saw me, but then he grew used to it and would come out to meet me, unexpectedly dumping a pet badger or bobcat into my arms.

When Bob died in 1999, I began to research for the biography of him he’d always asked me to write, but then interfered with so much that I couldn’t do it. When I called Helene DeVicq, she gave me Jeanette’s email address. It turned out that Jan Chase, as she was known then, had a computer that “her Norman” had given her as a “toy.” She had just returned to her house after a terrible bout of bad health.

When Norman died of cancer, Jan’s health also came apart. She fell and shattered a leg and rheumatoid arthritis twisted her hands. After operations that left her hallucinating for months from the anesthetics, she went into a nursing home, not expected to live. To pay bills she authorized someone to sell all her furniture, with some reservations. One thing NOT to be sold was the classic bust of Maurice, her brother, which her mother had owned. But it was sold to some stranger who had no idea what it was, offending Maurice to the heart. The computer was not sold. It’s value was recognized, while the sculpture was just a tschotske.

After a time Jeanette was moved to a care home where she began to recover and eventually was able to move back to her house. She bought a bed, a rocking chair, and a very few other things and engaged someone to come clean and otherwise help out. She had sold one of her paintings for enough money to pay a carpenter to build-in a breakfast nook. A food pantry operated out of her pool cabana. She was able to keyboard with one finger, pecking out telegraphy and forwarding all the awful stuff people constantly forward.

We corresponded almost two years before she declared it was too painful, that I’d made her look at things she’d resolved never to think of again, and that there was no point to it. She ripped a lot of photos out of her albums and sent them to me, including a photo of her cameras! (She was a professional-level photographer, either learning with Bob or teaching him.)

But anyway, I’d double-crossed her by repeating to her family some of the increasingly dangerous episodes in her health while she was alone. She thought she could control death and that it would be sudden. Instead, she died helpless in that nursing home in Oregon -- her cherished house sold to pay the bill.

I celebrate Jeanette’s drive to exist and prevail, her energy towards goals not always her own, and her determination to have things “right.” Before she asked me not to call anymore, I could hear her while on the phone directing the person making up her bed how to properly place the pillow and how far the topsheet should be folded over the blanket. She could no longer do it herself. She was a lesson and a caution. I hope she made Saint Peter spell her name properly when she got to the Pearly Gates. I have no doubt she was welcome.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006


$2.2 million at the auction “proper” as compared to $1.9 million last year.
$275,000 at the fixed price sale.
$52,750 at the two Quick Draws.
Top price went to the Russell: “Judith Basin Cowboy
First runner up was Russell Chatham’s $140,000 painting in the fixed price sale.

At the first auction in 1969 (I was there.) the total of sales was $10,872. The first artists were asked to donate their art.

Monday, March 20, 2006


No one ever pretended the CM Russell Auction was about anything but money. When in the Sixties the Great Falls Ad Club invented the auction, they frankly intended to make money to benefit the CM Russell Museum in Great Falls -- period. The auction has fulfilled that goal with such effectiveness that sometimes onlookers lose focus.

Let’s look at the money:
THURSDAY FIXED-PRICE SALE TOTAL: (This was a new feature and was held at the C.M. Russell Museum.) $275,000 TOTAL
Most expensive: Russell Chatham’s “Rain Sweeping Over the Sweet Grass Basin.” $140,000
74 living artists participated and the works will remain on sale until March 31.

FRIDAY AUCTION TOTAL: $750,000. (Last year same night was $753,000.
C.M. Russell’s “Indian Portrait” (10 by 8 inch watercolor) valued at $55,000 to $65,000 sold for $45,000.
Clyde Aspevig’s “Winter Glow” (“big” oil) estimated at $50,000 to $70,000 sold for $32.500
O.C. Seltzer’s “Blackfoot Scout” (16 by 17 inch watercolor) valued at $30,000 to $45,000 went for $35,000
E.S. Paxson “The Aspen Fireplace Screen” (51 by 48 oil) valued at $20,000 to $25,000 went for $32,500
Chuck Fulcher “Under a Yellow Canopy” (oil) valued at $2,000 to $3,000 went for $2500. (The painting won the Tuffy Berg Award for best new artist. Fulcher works for Lodestone Advertising in Great Falls.)
Three lots failed to meet their minimum and were withdrawn.

Saturday night’s totals haven’t been given yet, or maybe I missed them. The keystone to that night was two letters written and illustrated by Russell and sent to Robert Benn, proprietor of the bar in Kalispell’s Montana Hotel. One was written August 15, 1908, and the other July 22, 1910. Benn was murdered on March 27, 1915. It was rough in them days. (I can’t resist saying that Bob Scriver was born August 15, 1914.) One letter sold for $70,000 and the other for $69,000. I doubt anyone could tell you the reason for the $1,000 difference.

There were two sets of “QUICK DRAW.” This year there was no model and the artists had a whole hour to work, rather than 45 minutes. They painted “out of their heads” or from photos. The first go-round added up to $28,000 for the work of twelve artists, almost double last year’s Friday quick draw ($14,850). Together the two go-rounds raised $52,750. (Last year the total was $55,550.) There was only one sculpture in each event. Gerald Balciar’s “Eagle Rock” went for $10,000. (One assumes the clay will be translated into something else, like bronze.) The most unusual painting was in French dye on silk, “Catch & No Release” by Nancy Dunlop Gawdrey, which sold for $5,000.

Aside from the Russell main action auction, there are a number of parallel gallery and association events. At the Great Falls Native American Art Show in the Civic Center, the event was swept by Blackfeet. Lyle Omeaso and Terrance Guardipee won juror’s choice. Honorable mentions went to David Dragonfly, Gale Running Wolf Sr, Kodi Kuka and King Kuka. In the miniature program the juror’s choice went to David Dragonfly and Robert Orduno, Honorable mention to Howard Pepion, Francis Wall, Valentina LaPier, Khol Kuka and King Kuka. These were not purchase prices and there is no mention of sales.

One of the most interesting stories was the fate of a fake Russell that showed up in last year’s auction. Paul Masa of Kalispell said he burned it “under the personal supervision of Ginger Renner.” B. Byron Price claims there were only two of these paintings of “Black Eagle” whom Russell knew from the winter of 1888-1889. I suspect that a search of negatives would come up with the photo Russell used for reference. If someone discovers irrefutable proof that Russell painted the “fake” after all, there will be wailing. He DID sometimes paint the same subject twice or even more. That’s not unusual.

Another interesting development is that the Russell Auction, which has in the past been “local” and “Western” has begun to open out to other representative art. In fact, the “best of show” was to Calvin Liang for “Newport Sailboats.” (One assumes that was Newport, Washington.) I think this is the trend most likely to change the face of the auction, so that it will be more like the Western Rendezvous show in Helena. In fact, I suspect that the genre of “Western art” may be in the process of losing its boundaries into the larger world of realistic art, esp. when it comes to landscapes and still lifes.

One exhibitor at the Heritage Inn kept a tally of visitors to his room and found that last year he had close to 2,500 visitors but this year he counted more like a thousand. I had a sense that there were fewer exhibitors in fewer rooms, but thought it was because I went on Thursday rather than Saturday. A major snowstorm came through late in the auction, which confused the issue. Did people stay away because the weather was so good just before the snow, or did they come when the snow began? Many exhibitors stayed over until the roads were safer.

It seemed to me that might be less enthusiasm on the part of motel management now that Al Donohue, one of the heavyweight Ad Club personalities, is deceased. The effort and wear-and-tear are enormous. The motel itself is aging, though it’s well-maintained.

In the case of the usually overrun Manitou Galleries auction at the Townhouse Motel, the action was clearly diminished. (There weren’t even many gamblers in Lucky Lil’s.) Nelson has sold the auction (but not his galleries) to Best of the West so the great quantity of assorted stuff he normally provided was not there. A modest show in the basement was more convenient, but less exciting.

One exhibitor said it was just much easier to sell art on the Internet. When I suggested that complications were arising with artists becoming reluctant to post photos of their works online (because of copying), they reported they hadn’t felt the effects yet.

Much of the reported material was about the big-time buyers, who appear to be treating the auction like a sporting event. They come in a group in a corporate jet, usually organized by someone who has become a Western art enthusiast, and each buy a dozen or so works, calling them “an expensive hobby” or “an addiction.” For them, being there is at least part of the point and it’s a chance to see the West, dress up in Western clothes and so on. In short, play “Dallas.” There were a few shadowy figures who bought big-ticket art (like the Chatham) and remained anonymous. People generally suspected the media figures who have ranches in the state. But who knows? Might have been Japanese millionaires or German aficionadoes.

The Scriver bronzes were mostly the usual late and small pieces that circulate constantly through the auctions. In general, I thought the bronzes being shown were all high quality, and so was the painting. I’m always bemused by the monumental sculptures that show up on low-boys and are parked as close to the doors as they can get. This year there were fewer realistic horses and more wild welded Indian figures with a lot of action and whipping cables in them. Often skillful and striking! Something to put by the gate of your McMansion in a wheat field. (There weren't any of those in the Sixties when this auction first started.)

Friday, March 17, 2006

CM Russell Auction in Great Falls 3-17-06

Two gents were sitting on either side of one of the doors to a motel room/temporary gallery, so that one had to walk between them to get in. One man was clearly part-Indian (“Assiniboine-Cherokee,” he confided, “But I never lived on a reservation.”) the other one looked vaguely familiar. In search of clues, I asked him, “Are you from Montana?” He looked as though he were trying to decide whether to kick me or laugh. He was Ron Marlenee, the Montana Representative to the United States Congress for twenty years. I thought of him as being ancient, but when I Googled him, I see he’s only five years older than me.

After a side nod to Bob Scriver, the two guys launched into stories about drunken Indians, mostly Billy Big Springs. For those who don’t know, Billy was a massively built oil millionaire who married a petite Irish Colleen from back east. (Happy St. Pat’s, Mrs. Big Springs!) And so it goes at the annual C.M. Russell Museum benefit auction and associated events.

I really went down to Great Falls to look for photos of Bob Scriver in the Tribune morgue, but it turned out that they were being put online and even the librarian in charge of them didn’t know how to access them. I’ll have to wait a week. So I swung by the main auction motel, where all the rooms are converted to galleries once a year, and minor Scriver bronzes abound on all sides. This year was much smaller and quieter, partly because some of the main action had migrated back to the actual museum and partly because -- or so it seemed -- the exhibitors and customers were all as long in the tooth as me and Marlenee. We’ve now seen the entire arc of the Western art genre from its meteoric rise in the Seventies to its roaring Eighties and Nineties and then a long sliding descent into the 21st century.

At the “other” auction at the “other” motel, the action was even slower. Nelson, son of Van Kirke Nelson and owner of the Manitou Galleries, has sold the auction to Best of the West Auctions. (He kept the galleries.) The long tables of objects with dubious provenance are replaced by a modest assortment in a basement display room. Lots of Ace Powell and Nancy McLaughlin works.

But I wasn’t looking for art -- I was looking for people, like Ace and Nancy’s son David. Didn’t catch up with him but did run into Rex and Judy Rieke with Judy’s sister, Gail. Once again we swapped email and blog addresses. Rex will have a show at the Yellowstone Art Center in Billings -- all abstract paintings. I watch Rex very closely. He’s the person who sold Bob his first Rungius moose painting, a keystone for Bob’s art thinking, and he is also a musician, more persistently than Bob. He still plays. If Rex is doing abstracts, what does it mean? And yet the old guys lounging around the motel rooms suggested that the Western art market has just about bottomed out and will soon begin to go back up. I suggested that a new crop of soldiers might be prospective customers and soon found myself in political soup. It was more interesting than the art.

While I was in the big city, I picked up the latest issues of “Art of the West” and “Southwest Art” and was interested to see in the former mag’s letters to the editor a quite stiff scolding to the Cowboy Artists of America (once beyond rebuke) recommending that they stop the sausage factory and begin to make real art again! Most of the letter quoted an admonishment from Fred Renner, whose wife, Ginger, is one of the stalwarts in Great Falls this weekend. I’d have liked to have talked to her.