As a child who grew up in Boston with an oarsman for a father, I went with my family most years to the Head of the Charles, a major rowing regatta on the river that divides Boston from Cambridge. The day would usually be crisp and colorful, autumn in New England at its best. Besides cheering on our father, my sisters and I would buy that year’s poster for the event. Later, the poster would be added to one of the bathroom walls in our house. Today, that bathroom is sort of a historical record of the Head of the Charles. Each poster tells a story, reminding me of who I was, what grade I was in, what books I was reading, and even some moment that made that race day different from all the others.
Poster art is like a theatre performance. It is ephemeral, fleeting; the poster—and the event for which it was created—appears and then is gone. You see it or you don’t. It makes an impact or it doesn’t.
“If you look at the body of an artist’s work, you can trace the life and cycles of that artist. With posters, though they seem random, separate, when taken all together you can trace the history or essence of the town in which they all hung,” says local artist Sue Spanke, one of the organizers of the upcoming show, 30 Years of Missoula Poster Art.
When Spanke started contacting artists and townspeople about amassing posters for the show, she was surprised at the universal response she received. “‘It’s time,’ people kept saying when I told them about the show,” she says. “We have never done anything like this before, and posters are art and history.”
The 20 or so posters in the show span the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s, revealing a pattern of what the town was thinking about, a collective consciousness told through art and events. “For a lot of the artists, these posters give them a glimpse into what their life has been over the last three decades,” Spanke says. “For many of them, they were college-aged in the ’70s, young artists, hippies maybe, living communally, talking, creating, and living art 24 hours a day. Many of the posters from the ’70s center around parties, but they also offer a flavor of Missoula as a wild logging town, a mill town filled with smoke.
“Back then, Montanans thought of themselves as a separate country, not just another state in the Union,” she adds. “There was no speed limit, no freeways, all the passes were still two-lane highways. The posters reflect that collective way of thinking, and of being.”
One poster from the 1970s was for “Blackfoot Boogie,” a party at Red Rocks on the Blackfoot River. Created by Jay Rummel, its style brings to mind certain images in Mad Magazine or the work of Robert Crumb, the offbeat cartoonist best known for his “Keep on truckin’” drawings. The poster suggests a Woodstock-like party of endless music, naked love, and free-wheeling decadence and debauchery.
Another poster from 1978, created by Monte Dolack, the artist whom Spanke says launched the poster art movement in Missoula, is entitled “Ya-hoo.” It pictures a cowgirl on a horse, her long, curly hair wild and wonderful in the wind. Near the bottom of the image, encircled with a red slash across it, is the symbol for nuclear power. The poster celebrates the day City Council voted to ban any nuclear facilities and declared Missoula a nuclear-free zone. According to Spanke, a friend of Dolack’s had commissioned the poster and paid for it by selling what stock he had in the Exxon Corporation.
On many levels, poster art is the bridge between art and advertising. “First you look at the image because the art grabs you,” says Spanke. “Then you look at the print that tells you the what, where, when, and how of the event or cause. Then you look back at the art. The more you look, the more subtleties you see. A story is revealed, a personality about the times. And 10 years later, certain posters or images still stick with you, even if you don’t necessarily remember the event itself. These images can be very powerful.”
The posters of the 1980s focus more on the peace movement, environmentalism, and protests. One ’80s poster pictures the outline of a dove. Two dog tags hang from the “chain” of the body, one Russian, the other American. Simple and emphatic on a black background, the Roman Kuczer poster advertises a concert to benefit Missoula veterans traveling to the Soviet Union to meet Russian vets of the Afghan war. “At the time there was a real connection between the Vietnam vets here and the vets in Russia. The vets here felt that they understood how the Russian vets were feeling and being treated in their own country after returning from that horrible war,” Spanke says.
In a similar vein, a poster by Roger Merril created for the anti-nuclear movement shows Missoula’s famous (and now dismantled) peace sign on Waterworks Hill with a group of people, paintbrushes in hand, stroking on the final swatches of color.
The 1990s posters display a sense of doing. A Mary Beth Percival poster reveals a Garden-of-Eden-like view of Mt. Jumbo, created in an effort to preserve that land. Others advertise the Gallery Association for Greater Art, the Day of the Dead celebration, and a fundraiser to build A Carousel for Missoula.
While working to put the show together, Spanke learned a great deal about the town where she herself has lived for more than 30 years. “What I see when I look at this collection is that many of our posters have a sweetness, a spirit that comes from being in a place that makes us happy.”