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."


Saturday, December 28, 2013

Review of "Bronze Inside and Out"

BRONZE INSIDE AND OUT Review from “Alberta History”, Summer, 2008

Mary Scriver loves to write and she has chosen an ideal topic -- Bob Scriver, her late husband, a sculptor of international fame. A resident of Browning, Montana, he is particularly remembered for his bronzes of Indians, rodeo cowboys, and prominent figures, and prominent figures. Included among them is a 53 piece series of bronzes of Blackfoot culture entitled “No More Buffalo,” a 33 piece set entitled “Rodeo in Bronze,” and individual figures such as Eric Harvie of Calgary’s Glenbow Museum, rodeo star Casey Tibbs, “Buffalo Bill” Cody, Teddy Roosevelt, and others.

In this book, Mary also tells her own story, of how she came to Browning and her experiences with the Blackfoot people. She met her husband there and tells of his life and accomplishments in an engaging and literary style.

Bob was born on the Blackfeet Reservation in 1914 where his father owned a store. After a stint at teaching, he opened a taxidermy shop which grew into a foundry for his sculptures. As one who grew up with the Blackfoot, he had a keen interest in their cultures, and participated with them in their ceremonies. His love for them is reflected in his many sculptures. He also collected many artifacts, as had his father, to preserve a disappearing culture.

In 1990 he became the centre of controversy when he feared his entire Indian collection would be seized from under a newly-passed “Repatriation of Indian Artifacts Act.” To prevent this from happening, he took his collection to Canada and sold it to the Provincial Museum of Alberta for $1 million.

This whole story of Bob Scriver is a fascinating one, and a good read.


I’m suspecting that this casting (above) was made in the Sixties in our own Bighorn Foundry that we built in the backyard and that probably either Carl Cree Medicine or I patined it.

The early auctions began, rather transparently, as ways to clear out the warehoused art stock of certain persons under the guise of helping the CMR Museum or Indians or some other cause. When they came around to ask Bob to donate a piece of art, he was outraged. (“I’m broke already!!”) But one was frozen out of the buyer “social classes” if one didn’t, because the auction was also an important bonding event for collectors and their supplicants. So he invented the Scriver Buffalo Skull Award, which didn’t cost much to cast and wasn’t going to be affected by the general state of art sales.

Now, of course, everything has changed, but Bob was right to be wary of auctions, because now there are many auctions, the generation that was betting on which artist was going to be the next Charlie Russell is ancient or dead, and there is a Charlie Russell wannabe under every bush, painting away as fast as they can. Aside from that, works go through auctions back east where people know nothing but abstract expressionism or conceptual art and no one knows anything about Charlie -- they have a vague trace memory of Frederic Remington.

In some ways, bronze sculptures have become as much victims of technology as books have been undercut by electronics. Ceramic shell casting is so cheap and easy, with results that are so indistinguishable from fine lost wax casting (except by experts), that everyone casts everything, slaps a store-bought slick-as-plastic patina on it (maybe in COLORS !!), and sells it for trinket prices. Worse, they aren’t very particular what they make molds off of -- copyright or not -- and they aren’t particularly good at making molds.

It gets worse: with laser technology, you can stand a horse in front of a machine and have a computer-recorded exact replica of the horse without the intervention of human judgment at all. Is this art? Is an upside-down urinal art? It’s up to the buyer.

Personally, I think it is worse to have a monument-quality sculpture cast by the artist by the same lost-wax method that Rodin used, go at auction for $800. And worse than that, I resent the work being carelessly described by some racist shallow catalogue maker as a “buck, squaw and papoose.” These are portraits. Chewing Black Bone, the man sitting down, was a dignified ceremonialist, said by some to be the last warrior to have taken a scalp. He was blind, probably from trachoma. In summer he lived in his lodge on the Mad Plume ranch, mending his own moccasins and remembering the old days. He was a friend and informant of James Willard Schultz, who called him “Ahku Pitsu.” I only met him once, early in the Sixties.

Mae Williamson, the woman in the middle, was a dignified and sophisticated woman who was married to a white lawyer. (Later she had other husbands, all Blackfeet.) The dress she is wearing, embellished with the eyeteeth of elk (count’em and see how many elk it took), is worth thousands of dollars. The boy is “tomorrow.” We’ve lost the name of the boy who posed. Maybe he’ll see this, recognize himself, and tell us how he turned out. He’d be a grandfather by now, fifty years older. None of this is romantic foofoo stuff invented by a Hollywood-hypnotized story spinner. These are just facts.

I complain a good deal about the Industrial Cowboy Art Cartel, who try to lock up the value of their own acquisitions by whatever means they can. Wheelin’ and dealin’, we say. These new phenomena of slice ‘n dice, bring-’em-faster auctions in which the buyers are often not present (they buy via the internet), no informed persons explain what the context of the pieces are, and everyone is monitoring a ticker-tape website that shows what the artist’s work sold for last time, are incredibly destructive to the reputation and value of Western American art.

But at least it is not the racist divide that is presently between those who love Western art, Western literature, and Western history because it is essentially a conquerer’s account of the empire of America with a nod to the valor and glamour of the “worthy opponents” -- as opposed to the flipside: real people’s history of previously invisible kinds. (Example: Mian Situ who suddenly makes real the Chinese in the West.) This divide is in all three contexts and it is decimating the organizations devoted to the fields, especially those that include with the amateur aficionadoes some serious academics who have been alert to the re-framing of history by people like Howard Zinn. Young people are now quite different in outlook and opposed to exploitation. It may be that the buckskinners and cavalry re-enactors have smudges of fascistic elitism and triumphalism. The idea makes them so defensive that no one wants to go near the topic.

Right-wingers. God love ‘em. Bob Scriver was among ‘em. Not that the forces of Red Power didn’t do their best to change him from an innocent to an entrenched opponent. This man grew up thinking he WAS Indian and got pushed out of the category by Indian people who hated the FBI -- who did their best to reinforce hate, even though the FBI was organized in the first place to oppose the many murders that came out of the great early oil strikes in Kansas. Wounded Knee was Wounded Pride. So the foxes sit quietly in front of the hen house with their tails curled around their feet while the weasels come and go.

I’m not meaning to accuse the amateur aficionadoes, who are off creating sonnets that ask “Why Gone Those Times?” I’m not ignoring the young rascals who say, “Good riddance.” It’s the commodifiers I’m after. In the meantime, sales everywhere are really miserable.




Bob Scriver was born in 1914, approximately at the beginning of WWI, so 2014 will be the centennial year of his birth.  I want to mark it somehow and what is within my powers is a “book,” maybe a hundred pages long, 8 1/2” by 11”, with content that people will actually read.  At this point Bob’s peers are mostly dead, though he really began his sculpture career about twenty years late, so in that sense there are a few left.  The truth is that most people now have little or no consciousness of him and -- worse than that -- most people really don’t give a damn except to want to know how much his work is worth.  They cannot grasp that all art is only worth what people are willing to pay for it, which varies greatly over time and place.  In fact, almost everything varies in value according to circumstances.

In this post I'm speculating on what I might include in this projected “book,” which will be little more than a long magazine article.  If people want to read an exhaustive account of Bob’s life, context, and place in history, they should read “Bronze Inside and Out: a Biographical Memoir of Bob Scriver,” published by the U of Calgary Press, available online.  No bookstores carry it, not even the Montana Historical Society which owns Bob’s estate.

In Montana everything is dominated by the pattern of Charlie Russell -- even the reality of the man himself is obliterated by the legendary template and attempts to differ from it will be quickly suppressed.  Bob Scriver was a sculptor, which means that from the very beginning the story must be different.  Both men constantly worked bits of malleable material -- wax, plastilene, river bank clay, whatever.  It’s the art medium of cast bronze that defines Scriver far more than Russell.
Bust of Washington by Houdon

About the time of the founding of the United States of America, all fine sculpture was cut from white marble by Italians.  When it was time to commemorate Washington and so on, Houdon, a Frenchman, had to be imported to make the figures and then they were cut in Italy, shipped back to the US.  So strong was the influence that Washington was depicted in a toga.  (Here on the high prairie the horse had just arrived.)

by Barye, Animalier

Then about the time of the American Civil War, bronze had replaced marble.  I should look all this up, but I’m sketching here.  It’s just a guide -- YOU look it up!  The ability to make finally detailed bronze sculptures, much less fragile than marble, made possible theAnimaliers and Rodin.  If you watch the set dressing on BBC shows like Downton Abbey, you see a lot of small bronze objects, especially on desks. To show sophistication, many are depictions of Romans with rearing horses.  Those are probably "pot metal," a lesser alloy.  (By this time the buffalo were being eliminated and the prairies were being cleared of Indians. Charlie arrives in Montana.)

by Saint Gaudens

The next war is WWI and metal is converted to armaments.  Blackfeet become soldiers.  A small boy is born in Browning, a second son named Robert.  By the time the war ends and recovery is underway, he is old enough to read and spends time sprawled out with the newspaper which comes with one page of local news and three pages printed en masse somewhere else.  Favorite stories feature the new monuments to heroism created by sculptors educated in Paris, esp. at the Ecole de Beaux Arts. Nowadays not many of us know the names of the sculptors, but we recognize their work because in heroic-sized monuments it has stood in parks a long time.  Usually they are men on horses.  These works are the ones to whom Bob Scriver aspired.  His natural home is not Cowboy Artists of America, but rather the National Sculpture Society founded by the Beaux Arts representational bronze sculptors.  This creates a problem, a split in potential appreciators, since the subject matter goes one way and the art medium goes another.

Bighorn Foundry

Bronze is also problematic because the cost of production, both in terms of exertion and capital, is far higher than for a painting.  Bob became convinced early on that one way to survive was to be his own foundry, his own gallery, and -- of course -- his own and only artist.  So we learned to cast “Roman block lost wax” sculptures that demanded great technical expertise, a certain amount of danger. and intense energy.  

This was in the early Sixties, just as the Space Age began.  The technology of creating metal parts made huge jumps, not least the invention of ceramic shell casting.  It was as though the printing press had been replaced by computer printers: a steep drop in the cost and expertise of production.  People could cast bronze replicas of their children’s creations in their own backyards.  Most people cannot tell much about quality in almost every humanities pursuit: painting, sculpture, writing, dance, music.  The schools don’t teach the principles.  The media only wants to know what will sell and that means quick, dirty and preferably shocking.
"Transition" by Bob Scriver

Art is like religion (in the sense of systems of thought that support meaning and a sense of significance) in that it has to be present but not necessarily available to conscious reflection, but when the culture is wealthy in time and money, it is much more conscious and explored which makes the value go up.  But the money has to be seen as a means rather than an end.  So when the Blackfeet were flush with oil money the first time (there’s a little echo these days with frakking) they laid out a promenade of monuments.  It was never built, but this is the impetus for Bob’s first significant meant-to-be-monument works. “Transition,” “No More Buffalo,” “Return of the Blackfeet Raiders,” “Real Meat,” were worked out with the advice of Iliff McKay and Blackie Wetzel, leaders at the time.

The Scriver Museum of Montana Wildlife in winter when saddles were stored there.

Parallel to the development of these works was a path also followed byEarl Heikka, going along with Charlie:  “modeling” rather than sculpture, meaning one-of-a-kind, nostalgic, colored, full of detail meant to be accurate, near-dioramas.  Gordon Monroe has picked up this genre.  For Bob this was braided together with his taxidermy career, which bridged him over from his first career as a musician, his love of hunting, and his admiration of the world class dioramas presenting mounted animals in the major natural history museums, like the Field Museum in Chicago where he went to school as a young man.  His notion of a personal collection justified by usefulness to animal artists drew him into the newly formed Society of Animal Artists.
"An Honest Try" by Bob Scriver

The climax of Bob’s career was probably the rodeo series, though a case could be made for the Lewis and Clark monuments.  The rodeo pieces hinged on the commission for a portrait of Bill Linderman in what was then the Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City.  It came about because of rodeo hands who had worked for Bob pulling him into the contest just before it closed. 

There is another strand, much more private and often misunderstood.  A commission for a “corpus,” the body of Jesus the Christ on the cross, coincided with the cancer death of his daughter and renewed connection to his brother and sister-in-law from his second marriage.  (The daughter was from a first marriage.)  Her bust, the busts of Maurice Chaillot, the model for the corpus, and then of HelĂ©ne DeVicq when both posed for a Pieta, form a little cluster that has little to do with Christianity, but everything to do with grief.  It met a dead end in a statue of Jesus big enough to enter and go up into on stairs.  Never built.

There are hundreds more sculptures, some just for fun, some for money, and so on.  Just making a list of them is an on-going task.  I try to keep track on but new pieces show up all the time.  What are they worth?  How much do you want them?