Living

It all began with Charlie Russell

Greetings from the Interior West. My children and I are on a road trip, and while it’s unsettling to hear that we've been sharing the open road with a couple of desperados on the lam from a prison break, that somehow seems to fit with the stories that come out of this land of big sky and vast spaces.

One of the people most responsible for creating and communicating this notion of the West was Charlie Russell, a Missouri-born boy who traveled to Montana in the 1870s when he was still just a teen.

“Kid Russell” found work as a cowboy. He soaked up the stories of his fellow cattlemen and drew pictures on anything he could get his hands on, from playing cards to wagon covers. At first this self-taught artist just gave his drawings to friends or traded them for food. But when he married, his wife Nancy started selling his art to East Coast publishers.

Russell’s subject matter, style and palette have influenced Western art ever since.

Now the story of his adventurous life is told in a beautiful new picture book by Bellingham author Lois V. Harris.

“Charlie Russell: Tale-Telling Cowboy Artist” is chockfull of some of his most memorable paintings of the American West. There are depictions of cowboys, Indians, wildlife and life on the range. There are also some images of his beautiful bronze sculptures, and black-and-white photos of Russell.

Harris provides a simple but lively text that focuses on Russell’s early years and conveys his love for the Wild West.

I might take issue with the layout of certain pages, but that’s a minor quibble. This book is both fine and fun – an inspiring introduction to a notable artist.

Coincidentally, another new book on Russell also has the involvement of someone from our general neck of the woods. Brian W. Dippie, retired history professor from the University of Victoria and an expert on Russell’s art, is one of the contributors to “Charlie Russell and Friends,” an absorbing consideration of Russell’s influences and artist friends.

The richly illustrated book, published in conjunction with a recent exhibition at the Denver Art Museum, also contains essays by Peter H. Hassrick, director emeritus of the Denver Art Museum’s Petrie Institute of Western American Art; Thomas Brent Smith, current director of the Petrie Institute; and other distinguished scholars.

In a series of sprightly essays, these specialists weigh in on the factors that contributed to Russell’s artistic progress, especially noting how he built an artistic community pretty much from scratch in Great Falls, Mont.

If Russell “savvied” an artist, they were friends for life.

To a large degree, he promoted Western art simply by extending invitations to other artists to come visit him at his studio there, extolling “the big hills that ware [sic] white robes and where the teeth of the world tear holes in the clouds.”

Aptly put, as I can attest firsthand this week. I commend both of these delightful books.

The Bookmonger is Barbara Lloyd McMichael, who writes this weekly column focusing on the books, authors and publishers of the Pacific Northwest. Contact her at bkmonger@nwlink.com  .

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