Thursday, July 25, 2013

Day 8: Charlie Russell Compound

When Dan was a boy in Spokane, Washington, his father was a traveling salesman whose territory included Montana. When he came home from trips to Montana, he sometimes brought prints of paintings by Charlie Russell that he purchased at the Mint Saloon in Great Falls, where the artist had lived for most of his career. These prints were Dan's first exposure to art. One of our earliest trips together was a pilgrimage to Great Falls to see the Charlie Russell Museum.

The Russell compound is a square block park containing the museum plus the Russell's home—which Charlie built with money he inherited from his mother—and Charlie's log cabin studio. Charles Marion Russell was born into a prosperous St. Louis family, but he couldn't conform enough to have a conventional education and career. What he wanted was to be a cowboy, so he undertook to support himself as a wrangler in Montana while in his late teens. When he began to succeed as an artist, he had an idea about how to be a gentleman artist. His log studio is spacious with room to store the collection of artifacts of cowboy and Indian life, especially the garb, that he used in his paintings. You never think about Russell posing his humorous scenes because they are as convincing as snapshots.

Studio of Charles M. Russell

The artist's painting gear
The studio included a cozy area around the fireplace where Charlie could trade yarns with his friends or deal with clients.

Cozy fireplace in the studio

Historical artifacts that the artist used as props in his paintings
Russell was able to build a home early in his marriage thanks to an inheritance from his mother. It is rather confining and conventional.

Home of Charlie Russell
There were some interesting toys in the nursery. Notice the miniature desk.

Toys for the Russell children
The museum does not have a huge and revelatory collection of Russell's works. The stars today were a few canvases from the Mint Bar collection which are now held in the collections of a pair of collectors who have ranches in the local area. There were about a dozen other Russell paintings. I enjoyed the detailed caricatures in some of the scenes. In "The Holdup," for instance, every passenger lined up outside the stage to have their pockets emptied—the schoolmaster, the rich landowner, even the Chinese cook—has a unique reaction. I also appreciated Russell's convincing depiction of animals in the wild, especially a couple of ferocious bears. Photography was not allowed.

Again it was about 2pm when we started looking for a lunch place. We went downtown to try to find a diner he remembered from his teenage visit. We found Tracy's Diner, which had been open since 1953, and it had a look that he remembered. We got a perfunctory lunch.

The highlight of the day for me was Giant Springs. Water bubbles up through a limestone formation to form a beautiful pool and a little rapids that flows into the Missouri River. This sight is inexpressibly beautiful. I took movie footage from every angle—the flickering light, the clear, upsurging water, the intensely green underwater plant life, the dark rainbow trout flitting beneath the reflective surface, the view from the footbridge between the spring and the river, the banks of the river, the fluttering trees. I couldn't stop shooting, but I didn't take any still shots.

When I finally consented to leave, Dan said, "What we need now is a cold beer!" So we went back downtown to the City Bar and Casino. Sports played on an array of TVs while we drank our beer and looked at the video I had taken. Perfect end to a lovely day.

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