Real Folk 

Exploring the world of western Montana’s everyday artists

It’s as if they don’t actually make art; art just happens to them. It seems inaccurate to say that they create because they want to; it’s more like they can’t help but do it. Every day across western Montana, art is made in unexpected ways, by unexpected people, and the pieces that they create are part of the vibrant and constantly changing body of Montana’s folk art.

Now, just what folk art means, exactly, changes from one wood-whittler or Sunday painter to the next. But there are a few crucial things that many of these people have in common. They are self-taught in their crafts, for one thing, having reached a sort of expertise in their work only by doing it for years, experimenting, and not giving up. They are not shown in galleries or museums, either, by and large, although a couple of them are just now beginning to get noticed by the art establishment. And perhaps most importantly, just like any artist whose passion drives them toward greatness, these people are simply consumed with a love for what they do.

This week, for our Fall Arts Issue, we set out to find some of western Montana’s best everyday artists, to shed some light on who they are, what they do, and what role art plays in their lives, as well as ours. What we got was an education. We found more talent than we could handle, and learned more about pure, unstudied art-making than we ever expected. So look at their work, read their words, and if you can, support them in what they do. After all, they are real Montana folk.

Laber of Love

Artist: Jay Laber

Home: St. Ignatius

Media: Junk

Blackfeet artist Jay Laber says he usually has “no idea” what his sculptures will look like until he’s done.

“I don’t do any sketches,” the St. Ignatius resident says. “I just do it as I go.”

Laber, who teaches art classes at Salish Kootenai College in Pablo, is gaining widespread attention for his lifelike statues of tribal horsemen and other pieces that depict a bygone era on the Great Plains. He says recycling and tradition are key components of his craft.

Laber, 38, recently completed four pairs of sculptures depicting ancestral tribal riders on steeds for the Blackfeet tribal government. The statues, made from parts of abandoned vehicles found in the Browning area, old sickle bars, rusty barbed wire and cable, will stand sentinel at each of the Blackfeet Reservation’s four main gateways. Their foundations are crafted with stones from a Catholic mission that burned down years ago.

“What we did was gather cars from the 1964 flood,” Laber says. “We took whatever was available, basically, whatever we could get out. Everything we used was just found.”

As part of the deal, the Blackfeet Tribe helped Laber hire workers to yank vehicle carcasses out of reservation floodplains and haul them to where he could break them down. The 1964 deluge has special meaning for Laber, because his family lost their home when nearby Kennedy Creek swept out of its banks.

Tribal leaders say they commissioned the artwork to help visitors learn more about the reservation. Interpretive signs will be added in coming weeks.

One of Laber’s first projects was a huge steel buffalo cobbled together from Flathead Reservation cars and parts of the old Dixon Bridge. That piece was purchased by a museum in Germany, where residents are particularly enamored with American Indians and their lore.

Laber also has one of his horsemen currently perched on the University of Montana campus, where it’s drawing crowds of curious passersby. Some of his other work will be featured at a UM exhibit in November. He’s creating an intricate buffalo jump display for the Glacier Motel in Browning, as well.

Laber says his past careers as a carpenter and construction worker help him with his art. He shores up his pieces with amateur welding skills to ensure they withstand travel and weather, especially the legendary winds of the Rocky Mountain Front. “That’s really helped me with design,” says Laber, who learned welding from a friend who once advised to run a bead “until it looks good and then whack it with a hammer to see if it holds.” Laber works in a variety of other media, including painting, drawing and creating sculptures out of rock. He’s been teaching at SKC for the past two years under the tutelage of Corwin “Corky” Clairmont, an up-and-coming artist in his own right.

“The teaching part is really fun,” Laber says. “We do just about anything.” Three of his art students took top honors at an American Indian Higher Education Consortium conference in New Mexico this spring. “That made me real proud,” he says.
Ron Selden

Lawn Rangers

Artists: Mike and Debra Eichenlaub

Home: Milltown

Media: Plywood, paint

You may have seen their house as you pull out of Milltown en route to the Blackfoot River. On the north side of the road, a little ways past the lumber mill, there is a house nearly hidden by as many as 100 brightly colored lawn ornaments decorating its front yard.

“We been doing it for 12, 13 years,” says Milltown-based artist Mike Eichenlaub. “Started with a rocking horse, then reindeer, and now windmills, swing sets, logging trucks—you name it.”

The medium is plywood, cut into various shapes by Mike, a supervisor at Stimson Lumber where he has worked for the past 27 years. “I worked with wood all the years, and she paints.”

And paint she does. Debra Eichenlaub sometimes spends three weeks on end painting the fishermen, snowmen and grizzly bears before placing them in their yard for people to see as they pass by on Highway 200.

Accordingly, they’ve sold to locals and tourists alike. “We’ve probably got stuff pretty well all over,” says Mike. “We’ve had people in from Hawaii and Germany.” Still, the Eichenlaubs believe that they sell only about half of their ornaments to tourists, the other half going to locals looking to spruce up their front lawns.

“In a way, it’s art,” says Debra. “Because it all started when we were making ornaments just for fun, and then we thought, ‘There’s something wrong here. We should be sellin’ it.’” Nowadays, the Eichenlaubs move about an ornament a day during the high-turnover summer and Christmas seasons. Many of their sales are done without them even being home, as passersby see the ornaments, pick out one they like and drop the money in the mail slot of the front door.

Although sales were dented a bit by the fire season this year, the Eichenlaubs are undaunted by the dip in cash flow, viewing ornament construction more as a hobby and less as a money-making venture. And they remain opposed to computerizing any of their operations. “If we ever did that, I don’t know if we’d have the time,” says Mike. “We still like to get out to go fishing and camping, and if we computerized and did it full-time, it’d get boring.”

And so they keep it small, with the woodwork and painting done right in their home. Mike says that’s just the way he likes it. “We’re able to give a lot of stuff away at Christmas,” he says. “It’s nice to watch the kids’ eyes.”

Chad Harder

Slave to the Needle

Artist: Aaron Campbell

Home: Missoula

Media: Human flesh, ink

Watching Aaron Campbell work just hurts. As he talks, his voice falls over a backdrop of sound resembling a dentist’s drill. As he applies his ink, you can see skin literally bunch up for moments at a time, forming entire tiny landscapes of hills and declivities, before relaxing again. And through it all, Campbell’s subject—a beefy but giggly guy named Jason—sits with a very intent, almost fulsome kind of calm on his face. He is watching but trying not to watch. He is wincing and yet stone-faced. His mouth is clamped so tight it looks like a scar.

“Anyone who tells you tattoos don’t hurt is lying,” Jason says with an arrested laugh, in one of the many breaks that he and Campbell take during this afternoon’s session at Altered Skin. “A cat scratch is a good comparison,” he responds, when asked exactly what it hurts like. “A cat scratch that doesn’t stop.”

Campbell himself, needless to say, is unfazed by all of this. Pain is, after all, the common currency of his occupation, and he’s appropriately cavalier about it. “It’s like one person likes the way a certain food tastes, and then another person doesn’t,” he says, as he drags his motorized needle across Jason’s right calf. “Pain has the same kind of quality.”

Right now, Campbell is in the middle of creating a large, dramatic picture of what Jason describes generically as “a warrior,” a musclebound titan leaning on the handle of a broadsword, waves of hair cascading behind him. Campbell can’t remember just how many tattoos this will be for him as an artist—he guesses it at 1,000 or 1,500—but you can see by watching him that he has been at it long enough to develop a kind of precision that’s somewhere between the inspired and the surgical.

“What makes for a good tattoo is smooth shading and solid lines,” he says, back at work on Jason’s leg. He is wearing rubber gloves. “If you don’t have smooth shading and solid lines, you aren’t gonna have a good tattoo.” After every five seconds with the needle, he wipes away excess ink, along with the blood that seeps to the surface of the skin.

“There’s a real emphasis on line quality,” he goes on, needling. “Just clean lines and a lot of repetition. You definitely learn by doing it.” Wipe.

Campbell began tattooing in earnest in 1993, after an aborted attempt at studying animation. “Back then, my only exposure was biker-type photos, in tattoo magazines. I dunno. Just started doing some research.” That research led to an equally informal apprenticeship, with a tattoo artist he knew and respected in Tucson. He began to watch her work, and slowly the portrait of an artist started to take shape.

From there, Campbell began working on himself, on roommates, on anyone who was willing, and as time went by, his pieces became bigger and more exacting. Today, he specializes in images that are complex and grandiose.

“I lean toward images that are big. The bigger the better,” he says, needle buzzing. Indeed, his warrior is taking up the whole of Jason’s tibialis anterior. “And I prefer not to work in color. I think you just get more powerful results in black and gray.” Wipe. He looks up. “I just like something that’s big and bold. I like something that, if you’re ever gonna get washed up in a flash flood and preserved, and they dig you up in a thousand years, I want it to be legible.”

In the end, Campbell’s approach to his work might best be described as an admixture of grand ambition, hallucinatory vision, and finely wrought detail. His work is fantastic, meticulous, and sometimes frightening. And as you get to know him, you find that he is not quite as nonchalant about the pain as he first seems. In fact, for him, the pain is a reminder that the stakes of his artistry are remarkably high.

“You gotta make it big, if you want it to last,” he says, still at work, “and you gotta want to make it last, because this stuff hurts people.”

He does not explain any further. But after a moment, Jason exhales and says, “Amen, brother.”

Blake de Pastino

Chainsaw Gang

Artists: Jim and Ice Rogers

Home: Ovando

Medium: Logs

It seems an unlikely place to be having this kind of conversation. On a rainy Sunday afternoon, Jim Rogers is helping his son clear some land across the road from the Blackfoot River. Wearing a steel logger’s helmet, and surrounded by the trade tools of the Montana everyman—bulldozer, backhoe, chainsaws, piles of logs—we talk about art.

Jim asks me if I have ever taken any drawing classes, if I know anything about representing reality in some medium. And like a good teacher who estimates the depths of the pupil’s ignorance before beginning, he warms to the subject. We talk about how the formal difficulties of rendering a figure are first apparent in the way that we observe the subject.

“Try to draw your face from one angle,” he says. “Take the angle given to you by your shaving mirror. That gives you one perspective, it’s flat and one-dimensional. Then turn the mirror to the side for a profile and look at that perspective. That needs to be incorporated, too. To sculpt a three-dimensional object you also have to take into account what the back of the subject looks like and how you are going to shape the material to make it right.”

I expect that metaphysics and questions of identity do not often trouble your average tree-stump carver who turns out bears, owls, mountain lions and coyotes. And although he has done his share of these standard roadside creatures, today Rogers makes about 90 percent of his pieces on commission. He has done work for Liz Claiborne, Willie Nelson and Barbara Mandrell, but like any artist who relies on his art for income, it is often “feast one day and famine the next,” says his wife Bonnie.

Rogers’ particular aesthetic comes from the daily carving he has been doing since a workplace accident in 1976 left him temporarily incapacitated. Finding he needed something to do to keep his hands busy, he began carving by hand. As he gained more mobility he found he could render things much more quickly with a chainsaw. At that time, he didn’t know of anyone else doing anything like this, and didn’t know if he could make a living at it, but felt he had an affinity for the work.

One day, while doing a portrait of an Indian woman who lived nearby, he became completely stuck when he reached her face. Realizing that he was up against unknown territory where some instruction might be helpful, he enrolled in an art class at the University of Montana and later at University of Eastern Montana. During his many years as both a student and teacher of art, he learned a great deal about observation, which helped him work in practically all possible sculpting media.

Although nowadays Rogers says that he can saw something faster than he can think of its shape, he still thinks he’ll have to live to be 200 to flesh out all the projects he wants to sculpt. He may have help in the form of his sons who sculpt too. His son, Ice, who was allowed to take up the tools of his dad’s art only when he could, with a straight arm, raise the saw to the level of his chest, looks to be an accomplished carver as well.
Bill Fanning

Life’s Work

Artist: Mary Akerson

Home: Bonner

Media: Oil paint, wood, canvas, burlap, bone

“I don’t know if I stretched that one myself,” Mary Akerson says, reaching over a three-by-five oil landscape of the Tetons to retrieve another of her paintings, “but this one I did.”

It’s an oil study of a country church painted on coarse burlap, stiff with age, stretched taut over a frame made for her by her late husband. Her basement rec room is filled with her paintings, mostly landscapes: shimmering scenes of the Tetons, the Missions and Glacier National Park, peaceful lakes and snow-covered country roads painted from photographs and picture postcards. She’s painted herself, sketchbook in hand, into only one of them. Peering up at us with limpid blue eyes, the 94-year-old Akerson is delighted to show us the work she’s been quietly amassing for decades.

“Ooh, I’ve been doing this for quite awhile,” she muses. “I can’t clip any exact date on it. I’ve always enjoyed drawing and painting, ever since I was in grade school and we used to have drawing days—that’s usually when you get started. I just took it a little further. A few years ago, I guess. Not too many, it doesn’t seem like.”

Other rooms are filled with delphiniums and lilies in vibrant oils, charcoal sketches of former co-workers and their families (Akerson taught at Bonner School for many years) and faces that somehow just caught her fancy.

“That one’s just a pretty girl,” she points at a portrait of a woman peering intently out of the 1940s or 1950s—none of Akerson’s works are dated—“Not anyone I knew.” There’s even a game copy of Gainesborough’s “Blue Boy.”

There are poignant touches to some of the paintings and sketches in Akerson’s home studio. She passes a hand lightly over an oil crayon sketch of a little boy, perhaps eight, in a light blue swimsuit. The boy is smiling shyly, fidgeting with a long stick that has an uncooked marshmallow plumped on one end.

“This one’s a nephew,” she says, “grown up to be a man and died by now. It’s funny, you know.” Her eyes search ours briefly. “I seem to outlive a lot of my subjects.”

Lately Akerson has been painting on bones, mostly the shoulder blades of cows, brought to her by friends and neighbors. She shows us a few. To young people—anybody, really—toying with the idea of picking up a paintbrush, she offers the following advice: Keep trying. Follow your interests. Take lessons if you’re really interested.

“To me, art means pleasure. Sometimes it means profit. Pride in what I can do. If people admire it, it makes me proud.”

Andy Smetanka

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