In 1996, Dan Flores, a University of Montana professor of Western history, got a phone call from former student Allen Jones. Remembering that Flores had given a slide presentation on Western art in his "19th Century West" class, Jones, now the editor at the Big Sky Journal, asked Flores to write a feature about some of the regional artists of the Northwest. The feature became a regular column for eight years and Flores used the opportunity to delve into the history of artists—men and forgotten women—who were significant specifically to the area.
Visions of the Big Sky: Painting and photographing the Northern Rocky Mountain West is the culmination of those Big Sky Journal essays, as well as more than a decade of research by Flores on the history of regional Northwest art. The book acts as sort of a visual counterpart to The Last Best Place, which focused on the literature of the Northern Rockies and Northern West. In fact, Last Best Place editors Bill Kittredge and Annick Smith brainstormed with Flores on his book.
We spoke with Flores about Visions of the Big Sky, charismatic animals, nostalgia and Charlie Russell.
Indy: What happened to art in the Northwest?
Flores: I think one explanation is that because Charlie Russell loomed so large up here he and his followers kind of captured the visual arts tradition and pretty much distilled it into cowboy art and nothing else. And, of course, in the middle 20th century, cowboy art along with Western movies and Western television shows was sort of fading away. It went out of style. The result is that over the last half-century we kind of just lost this memory of a time when this was one of the places that visually told people what the West was.
Indy: Did you have a particular moment when this idea hit you?
Flores: I was in Fact & Fiction after having been in Santa Fe all summer. I was standing in front of the art section and it struck me that of almost all the art books that existed in this part of the world, 80 percent had Charlie Russell's name in the title. Meanwhile, I'd just been down in Santa Fe where there would be entire walls devoted to the art of the Southwest covering scores of people. It was sort of this epiphany. I said to myself, "Ah, so this is what happened."
Indy: You say in the book that unlike with writers, visual arts colonies didn't develop in the Northwest. Why not?
Flores: People tended to live somewhere else. They would come out here in the summer, they would paint and sometimes come several years in a row. From the very first American artist who came out to the Northern Rockies the pattern is: You come from the East, usually up the Missouri river. You spend a couple of summers in the Northern Rockies and then go back to civilization.
Indy: And is that different from artists in the Southwest?
Flores: I think it is. In the Southwest many of the artists who became famously associated there often grew up somewhere else but they moved there. Mabel Dodge, Mary Austin, Georgia O'Keeffe—they all moved there. That didn't happen in this part of the world. It's happened with writers. But painters and photographers didn't do it.
Indy: What did you notice about American Indians in Northwest art?
Flores: In the Southwest artists were painting and engaged with Pueblo Indians who had managed to preserve their culture, their ceremonies, their religion. Indians were still living in the places they had been living in for a thousand years with traditions that are intact. When a painter like Joseph Henry Sharp, who had painted the Pueblos in exactly that way, comes to Montana, he's convinced, as is everyone else, that the Indians in this part of the world are all losing their cultures. The buffalo are gone. They're abandoning their teepees. So it's kind of this visual salvage anthropology to try to capture the way they looked maybe 50 years before.
Indy: Does it tend to be more political for that reason?
Flores: I think it's nostalgic. It's Edward Sheriff Curtis, maybe the most famous Indian photographer in our history who goes to a Blackfeet Sun Dance with George Bird Grinnell in 1901 and gets the idea for photographing the Indians of North America. But he photographs them as he imagines they were living in 1850. There's a photograph in here where Curtis has photographed this trio of Blackfeet men inside a teepee, a classic scene. And he gets back to his studio and develops the negative, pulls the print and realizes that there is an alarm clock in the scene and so he airbrushes the alarm clock out. But when he shot the photograph in 1908 these Blackfeet were all using alarm clocks and they drove to the shoot in a car.
Indy: Can you talk about the charismatic animal and how that affected art in this region?
Flores: The only thing that remotely resembles it in the Southwest are howling coyotes with handkerchiefs around their necks, and that's nothing by any means to compare to all this rich art tradition that we have here of bison herds, of grizzly bears, of wild horses. I've got a chapter on John James Audubon in here that sort of reproduces the Great Plains when it was ecologically whole. There were bison herds and prairie dog towns and now extinct wild sheep that were in the Badlands of eastern Montana and the Dakotas and wolves and coyotes. He just did this marvelous complete ecology of the Northern Plains.
Indy: But we haven't lost those themes.
Flores: We haven't lost any of them. They're all still there. But many of these themes were regionally specific and the world at large lost sight of the fact that there was a regional visual arts tradition here in the Northwest. Nobody really noticed that all these animals that were being painted and almost all of the wilderness landscapes are actually in the Tetons and Yellowstone and Glacier. People just thought of it as "Western art." But it's a very specific part of the West. What I'm trying to do is reclaim it as a specific regional tradition and remind people that it is out there, that those marvelous Albert Bierstadt paintings, absolutely that's Western art, but it's also the art of the Wind Rivers, and it's part of the Northern Rockies tradition.