The art of the rear guard 

Billings painter Charles Fritz joins the corps

Charles Fritz grew up playing trombone in the same Iowa hometown as Meredith “The Music Man” Wilson and majored in education at Iowa State University with a career as a school principal in mind. Those plans changed, he says, after he and a friend returned from a four-month, 14-country cycling tour of Europe, during which time they spent barely a dozen nights indoors.

“I was always drawing and painting around that time,” Fritz recalls, “but those four months in Europe kind of put me over the top.”

After the tour, Fritz taught briefly in his home state and decided maybe he wasn’t principal material after all. So he followed his passion for landscapes—and his wife, a middle-school orchestra teacher—out to Billings. The call to join the Corps of Discovery, some 200 years after the fact, came when his friend, the late sculptor and lifelong Browning resident Bob Scriver, referred a client to him. The client, a chemical engineer for Exxon-Mobil originally from Sidney, was interested in commissioning a painting of the events of April 25, 1805, the day the expedition led by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark arrived at the confluence of the Yellowstone and Missouri rivers near the present-day border of Montana and North Dakota. Artist and client collaborated on the painting for a year, during which time Fritz became pointedly aware that there had been no artist along on the original expedition.

“I put myself into the first person,” says Fritz. “I’d had that experience many times, of coming around a corner or canoeing around a bend in the river and just getting hit with something that makes you go, ‘Whoa, I need to paint this!’”

Many of the titles in An Artist with the Corps of Discovery, currently on display at UM, reflect this first-person intimacy: “Our Boats, Gripped in Ice,” “Our Terrible Condition at the Pacific.” Fritz didn’t invent a romantic persona per se, creating an expedition personality for himself as an actor might, but over the past few years he’s at least amassed some props: a small but growing collection of artifacts and articles of clothing he’s bartered for at historical rendez-vous. They’re mostly American Indian in style, if not necessarily manufacture—items that Fritz thinks would have attracted an artist in the early 1800s.

“I tend to paint the more everyday things,” he explains. “I’m drawn more to the ethnological aspects. I think an artist along with the expedition would have been drawn to them, too—things like the canoes of the Chinook or the teepees of the Yankton Sioux, a kind of lodging that had never been seen before.”

Fritz didn’t retrace the expedition route in one fell swoop (“The logistics of family life don’t allow for that sort of thing.”), but over a period of three to four years, he visited points along the entire route at least twice, sometimes three times.

“I tried to go to each site at the same time they would have been there,” says Fritz. “There’s a difference between summer skies, winter skies and autumn skies, and I wanted to get everything exactly right. That took a few years.”

One painting in particular, “Our Terrible Condition at the Pacific,” captures with visceral unpleasantness what it must have been like to crouch on an exposed beach in the teeth of a sodden Northwest coastal winter. Even with all the hardships the expedition had endured en route to the coast, says Fritz, the experience must have been “as close to living like an animal as you can get.”

Fritz himself forswore motel accommodations during his field research, claiming that such creature comforts would have made him too “soft,” more likely to sleep in when he should have been out making use of the morning light. He chose to sleep in his truck, where he could never get too comfortable and was usually cold at night, and therefore inclined to get up early and cook oatmeal on his tailgate. Painting on location is fairly hard work, says the artist, not to mention that the sites can be remote; in many cases, classier accommodations just weren’t available.

“I also have a certain amount of Norwegian frugality in me,” Fritz chuckles. “Like the saying goes: At best I’m frugal, at worst I’m tight. A lot of that just comes from the habits you pick up when you’re just starting out trying to make it as an artist. It’s getting a little better, though.”

In the field, Fritz often puts in eight- to 10-hour days, not only painting but bracing his work against the elements, rigging up guy-wires to keep fresh oils from going butter-side-down in the dust. Most of the late-19th century painters he admires, Fritz says, painted more or less the same way—artists like Maynard Dixon and Karl Rungius. Fritz’s choice in presentation, too, reflects the era of his favorite landscape painters. The distressed gilt picture frames in the exhibit are hand-carved in Boston, Chicago and Salt Lake City, jessoed, shaped with clay, covered with gold leaf, rubbed down and antiqued.

Fritz says he tarried on most of the sites he’s painted longer than the Corps itself. It might have posed some challenges to pinpoint accuracy with regards to lighting, but it was necessary, he insists, for the artistic process:

“Brushstrokes tend to be pretty spontaneous in the field. When the subject in front of you is on fire with light, it’s hard not to get excited. As an artist, you want to control some things, try to time some things, and then you’ve got to have the freedom to allow for the artistic thing to take place, too.”

It’s rare, says the artist, to encounter a landscape ready-composed for painting. Artistic freedom affords him conditional license to rearrange and excise certain elements—to move, say, the occasional cottonwood a few hundred feet to the right or left.

“A camera,” Fritz explains, “has no option but to capture everything before it. When you go out there to paint the same thing, you don’t necessarily want that analytical view. You want to capture the feeling you get when you’re there, and you start to edit details. What you’re really trying to do is make a distillation of the scene.”

Yet Fritz says that historical veracity—from the lighting conditions to the party apparel to the water levels at different times of the year—was foremost in his mind, both in the field and in his Billings studio. He used primary source material like the journal entries of Captains Clark and Lewis and Sergeant John Ordway, vetted with secondary sources like Stephen Ambrose’s Undaunted Courage. The late Ambrose was an outstanding resource, he says, as were a legion of museum curators and local historians.

“At times I would think a painting was done,” Fritz admits, “and then while working on another I would find out I’d made a mistake that I would then have to go back and correct. I wanted the paintings to be state of the art as far as historical accuracy and landscape.”

Many of the landscapes the Corps of Discovery traipsed through, naturally, have changed in the interval. In some cases, certain perspectives available to landscape artists contemporary to the expedition no longer exist; he was lucky, Fritz says, to have access to a range of historical materials, including a sketchbook of Carl Weimar, a St. Louis artist who painted from the decks of steamboats in places where the Missouri has been dramatically altered by damming and channeling. While painting stretches of the river in North and South Dakota, Fritz used Clark’s atlases to determine whether it had switched courses naturally—a common occurrence, he says, with “braided” rivers.

“I’ve learned a tremendous amount,” says Fritz, who notes that his 12-volume collection of the Expedition’s journals has got sticky-notes poking out all over the place. “There are so many people who have studied it and know so much more than I do. When I’m around people like that, I often sit quiet. I’d rather learn from them than show them what I don’t know about their area.”

Charles Fritz: An Artist with the Corps of Discovery is up through Sept. 11 in the Paxson and Henry Meloy Galleries of the UM PAR/TV Building. A companion book will be published this fall by Farcountry Press.

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