Magazine article Sunset

Art of the People

Magazine article Sunset

Art of the People

Article excerpt

The C. M. Russell Auction offers the West the way it ought to be

It's late enough that half the crowd shifts restlessly in folding chairs, and the other half sips bourbon-and-sevens at the sidelines. But nobody pulls their eyes from the stage. Here, women in haute Western attire - buckskin evening gowns, turquoise jewelry - stroll a spotlit runway, each holding up a painting or a sculpture, displaying the West as captured on canvas or cast in bronze.

"Lot 195," the auctioneer shouts. "When Trails Meet. Do I hear $1,500?"

The C. M. Russell Auction in Great Falls, Montana, is among the preeminent events in Western art. By this, one means not "Western art" as encountered in a college survey course - the textbook progression from the Lascaux caves to Picasso - but cowboys and Indians, grizzly bears and coyotes. "Western art is art of the people," says Herb Mignery, a Colorado sculptor who was the Russell's guest of honor last year. "People associate art with something they don't understand. Western art is realistic. You can determine what is a head and what is a hand."

Art where you can determine what is a head and what is a hand is big business these days. While the Russell is not the most lucrative Western art auction, it is probably the oldest and the most beloved - largely because the profits help fund the Great Falls museum devoted to cowpoke-turned-artist Charlie Russell. Russell seems to have been that rarest of species, a genius who was genuinely a nice man. The fact that the auction begins with everyone singing happy birthday to Charlie warms the whole proceeding.

The auction is tamer than when it began 30 years ago. "We used to have mountain men, people showing off their pet wolves," one artist confided. "We've lost a lot of that Western vulgarity; we're getting too proper." Still, it's unlikely you would confuse the Russell with your average gallery opening. There, patrons' dark, severely cut clothes announce that they are aesthetes of razor-sharp sensibility. When clothing at the Russell makes a fashion statement, it tends to be "Yee-haw!"

During the day, patrons - high-rolling Texas ranchers and Minnesota cereal kings, and more moderately rolling Montanans - mingle with artists who have set up exhibit rooms in the motel that serves as auction headquarters. …

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