Magazine article Sunset

Charlie Russell's Montona

Magazine article Sunset

Charlie Russell's Montona

Article excerpt


He was the West's greatest painter.

Now you can explore the sweeping

landscape that inspired him

* Drive U.S. 87 between Great Falls and Lewistown, Montana, and you will see a landscape as unforgettable as any in the West: a cloud-flecked bowl of blue sky, the wide green plains, and the distant purple mountains-the Highwoods, the Little Belts, and the Snowys.

A magnificent landscape and strangely familiar, too, for it inspired one of the greatest artists of the American West: Charles Marion Russell. Today, Russell's works can fetch millions. But Russell started out as a humble cowboy, exchanging drawings for drinks. And his work's strength derives from the cowboy Montana he knew so well.

Over his lifetime, Russell completed some 4,500 oils, watercolors, sculptures, pen-and-ink sketches, and illustrated letters. They depicted the Native American tribes and buffalo who were the prairies' original inhabitants; the arrival of explorers and fur trappers; and, most memorably, the cowboys of the open-range ranches, where Russell himself worked.

Today's Montana is vastly changed. Tepees have been replaced by missile silos, Native American trails by highways driven by "skunk wagons" (Russell's name for cars). Still, the land's essential beauty abides. Trace Russell's path through Montana and you will come to understand, and love, the landscape that shaped his life and art.

Kid Russell comes to the Judith Basin

Charles M. Russell's port of entry into cowboy life was Utica, Montana, situated in the lush Judith Basin. In the 1880s, Utica was headquarters for cowboys working the basin's huge herds of open-range cattle-a town that, in the words of one resident, was "wild and woolly and full of fleas."

The tenderfoot was in his early teens and dyslexic; after a short, dismal schooling, he left his well-off family in St. Louis for a Western adventure. He took a job as a sheepherder-then got fired because he lost the sheep. He wintered for two years with mountain man Jake Hoover, then worked wrangling cattle.

It was here that Russell became an artist. During the terrible winter of 1886-87, when snow and cold killed nearly 90 percent of the herds, Russell sent a postcard-size painting to Helena ranch owners depicting the carnage. Titled Waiting for a Chinook (the warm winds out of the southwest that would melt the snows), the painting featured a single starving steer with wolves lurking in the background. The painting helped establish Russell's reputation.

Today's Utica is a sleepy town, but there are places that draw your attention. The Utica Museum details lives of famous residents, including Russell and Calamity Jane, and shows relics of Utica's cowboy past.

On a gravel road 13 miles south of town, the Circle Bar Guest Ranch features 60 quarter horses, an elegant log lodge, and hiking and fishing. Come September, true Russell fans willing to pony up $1,700 can join the annual guided historical Russell Trail Ride. "There's something special about covering the same ground that Russell did over a hundred years ago," says Sarah Stevenson, owner of the Circle Bar. "It's like actually riding into the canvas."

Lewistown and Fort Benton

Head northeast from Utica on U.S. 87 and you'll be following part of Montana's officially designated C.M. Russell Auto Tour, which matches Russell's paintings with towns and landmarks in the Judith Basin. Soon you'll reach Lewistown, nestled along Big Spring Creek at the foot of the Judith.

For Kid Russell, as he was called, Lewistown was the place he came to kick up his heels, and, it is said, exchange paintings and sketches for drinks in local saloons. It's still one of the most interesting, authentic towns in Montana. The downtown appears much as it did in the early 1900s: Brick buildings feature sandstone carved by Croatian stonecutters. Along Main Street you'll find jewelry stores that carry the locally mined brilliant blue yogo sapphires. …

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