The Autio Dynasty 

Rudy and Lela launched into the art scene nearly 50 years ago and achieved widespread acclaim. Now their children try to carry on the tradition.

The house Lela and Rudy Autio lived in for nearly 50 years looks like a museum of Montana's most revered artists. The living room alone feels like a tribute to masters—and friends—well known in the region. Paintings by Peter Voulkos and Freeman Butts hang on the walls. Two sculptures by Ken Little—one of a deer's head, the other a bull's head, both made out of leather straps and shoes—are fastened to another wall. On one table stands a sculpture by Adrian Arleo. Jay Rummel drawings stack together in a pile. Rudy Autio's own drawings and famous ceramic vessels—painted with his signature nudes and horses—fill every corner of the room. It's a collection that rivals any local gallery.

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Lela and Rudy collected the pieces together, before Rudy died in 2007 at the age of 80. But his work stands out, even in such strong company. Rudy started the ceramics program at the University of Montana in 1957, and art historians credit him with pushing ceramics from functional craft to respected modern art. Over the years, Rudy's work gained world acclaim and consistently fetched the highest prices at Missoula Art Museum (MAM) art auctions. One of his decorative pots remains the event's highest single bid ever—$27,000 in 2008.

While Rudy's reputation soared, Lela staked her own claim in the arts community. Her eye-popping colored plexiglass installations, usually pasted together in abstract patterns, are part of gallery and museum collections across the state. Together, Rudy and Lela created a huge part of the state's artistic foundation.

That history hangs on the walls of the living room as a strong reminder. But among those pieces of art, and throughout the home's hallways and bedrooms, are hints to a second generation of the Autio legacy.

Two of the Autio's four children, Chris and Lisa, have followed in their parents' sizable footsteps. Chris' photography and Lisa's round painted fiberglass pieces have appeared in museums, art galleries and art auctions across the state, including at MAM, the Dana Gallery and the Holter Museum. In some ways, being an Autio has opened doors for the siblings. In others, it's kept them stuck under the wide shadow cast by their famous parents.

But those who pay close attention to the arts scene recognize the stand-alone value of Chris and Lisa's work. Steve Glueckert, MAM's curator, notes how both embraced different mediums and found different motivations than their parents'. It seems that the pressure of a name, like any pressure, can still result in rich, surprising work.

"The spirit of experimentation and the love of what they see in the world, I think they've certainly been influenced by their parents in those ways," Glueckert says. "But I think it's like any of us when somebody asks, 'How are you like your mother or father?' You don't really know, because you're too close to it. And I think that's really the case with both Chris and Lisa. They don't really see how they're like their parents. But they do know that they're artists."


Lisa Autio heard a lecture on NPR last year about life forms deep at the bottom of the sea that survive in especially tough conditions. Those creatures inspired the green and orange aquatic creatures in her decorative plate, "Shimmer," which is currently on display in MAM's Montana Triennial exhibition.

"How were they designed to live in such a barren environment, where they have to come up with all these devices to just make a living?" she asks. "They have so many millions of pounds of pressure on them from above. Life is so hard and yet they survive."

Lisa, 56, knows a thing or two about pressure and durability. For one, she paints vibrantly colored designs on fiberglass plates made from satellite dish molds. For 16 years she's chosen to specifically work on these round, bowl-like shapes, which are sturdier than most other art mediums. In fact, she once propped one of her pieces against her car and, forgetting it was there, backed over it.

"It didn't even hurt it!" recalls her mother, Lela. "We thought, 'God, this is a real selling point!'"

Lisa's perseverance goes beyond just her fiberglass plates. She admires strength in people and the natural world. She admires the ability to push forward and innovate and survive through reinvention. They're traits she learned from her father at an early age.

"Something that I liked about dad is that he kept reinventing himself," she says. "I don't know if that's to do with the fact that he was the son of immigrants, and because immigrants often feel like the canvas is wide open, they reinvent themselves from the old country. I think I get some of that from him."

Lisa remembers from an early age delving into art projects when the family lived in Helena. She'd spend all day cutting and pasting and painting. After the family moved to Missoula, she recalls going to the Quonset hut—the only sign of a ceramics department at UM at the time—and piecing together pot shards in a frame of wet cement. Lisa was 8.

"I'm sure I was with my dad," she says. "He probably said, 'Go outside and find something and put it together.' But I honestly don't remember. He might have said, 'Here, I'll pour you some concrete and you can place these however you want to put them.' But after all these years I just remember how it exciting it was."

Lisa revels in the darker, bleaker aspects of her work. For years, her own paintings, though brightly colored, took on an edgy tone with images of sharply beaked birds, skulls and aggressive angular shapes. She also prefers spare landscapes, and the social commentary of German Expressionism over what she calls the more "vacuous" French Impressionism.

"I really don't like pretty paintings," she says. "I like things that are rough and jarring, or dark and brutish, or a little bit menacing."

Her love for the natural world reflects that same outlook—dark and strong. Magpies are one of her favorite subjects. Despite their penchant for stealing other birds' eggs and their loud squawking, their toughness stands out to her.

"I like success stories where nature fights back," she says. "If you've ever heard them squawking loudly you probably know they're raising Cain with some cat that's on the ground. But they won't give in. They won't give in like a morning dove. A magpie will get down there right above the cat...and scream until he runs away. I admire them. Visually they're fun to paint. And they're real fighter birds. They stand up for their family members."

Lisa works out of her home in the Rattlesnake. Her backyard deck—populated by plants, a bird in a large metal cage and a cat—faces the rolling slopes of Mount Jumbo. Her father's sculptures flank the front porch, which faces Rattlesnake Creek. Her newest plate paintings fill the table and floor of her living room, some in progress, others just hauled back from exhibition.

Lisa went through a rough personal time a few years back, something she's not willing to talk about on the record. But she says for about three years she didn't paint at all. She worked at her job as a librarian in Wisconsin and tried to keep her life afloat without art. But it was a hard thing to do.

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"Art's sort of your center," she says.

She moved back to Montana to be with her family a year before Rudy died, landed a job in the St. Patrick Hospital library, and began painting again. But this time, it was different.

"I would go make lots of drawings of the creek," she says. "Not really the bank, but just what you see straight down into the rocks—the brown and green and black and the darker green. And then you've got the reflections. There's something about that that's just so delicious. I just can't stay away from it."

For Lisa, color is almost the most important aspect to her art because it provides the mood for her work. Although she still loves darker subject matter, she's found her work since she moved back to Missoula to be softer and more abstract. It's her own reinvention.

"No one can really teach you how to paint, you just have to have courage and get out there and do it," she says. "It's like sailing across the ocean and leaving the land behind."


Chris Autio was already a shutterbug at 16. While taking photojournalism at Hellgate High School, his teacher, Wayne Seitz, let him borrow a 35 mm camera for the summer and Chris obsessively took black and white pictures—mostly of the Burlington Northern trains and old machinery. Despite his love of photography, Chris started college in a nursing program for lack of a better option.

"I didn't know what I wanted to do," he says, "but my dad said, 'Follow your heart and go with what you'd really like to do.' So in '83 I started at the photography program down in Bozeman."

In retrospect, Chris seemed destined for photography. He still remembers the first photograph that sparked his interest—a photograph his brother, Arne, took when they were kids of a family standing near a lake. His other brother, Lar, had dabbled in photography, as well, so the Autios built a tiny darkroom in the house. Once Chris threw himself full force into the trade, his parents built an even bigger darkroom as encouragement.

"There was no hesitation among my parents to help any of us four kids pursue any kind of aesthetic: music, stained glass, astronomy," Chris says. "My parents created a way that we could pursue our interests."

Once Chris turned to photography, he never looked back. While getting his degree in Bozeman, he took a railroad trip to Cleveland and, while passing through Indianapolis, he saw the back alleys of poor neighborhoods. Those images sparked his interest in photographing the raw realities of people living on the brink. He found they emitted a certain beauty despite the hard living, and he worked hard to gain their trust.

"I think it's very important that you photograph a group of people that you're interested in and approach them without your camera first," he says. "That way you can elicit more of a real person rather than a person who's being watched."

In Mexico, he did a photo essay on Mexicans gathering fish for their supper. In Seattle, he met up with Sioux Indians living on the street. He hung out with them and smoked cigarettes, even though he doesn't normally smoke.

"They asked me to get a bottle of wine so I went into this market and I got some $13 bottle of wine," he says. "I brought it back and they said, 'Oh, no, no! Not that.' So I came back with some MD 20/20. And that's the kind of wine they wanted. I hung out with them all day, and I've got some really nice shots."

Chris, now 46, lives in a funky bright purple house that has been built around a trailer. In the backyard, his parents helped him build a studio, where he keeps photography lamps, his computer and scores of photographs in progress.

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One of his newest photos is an old farmhouse in black and white, tinted with color. Since the 1990s he's hand colored a lot of his photos, honing his technique so that the color isn't too overbearing. He's also been experimenting with transposing one photograph on another. Many of his nude images combine women and plants. In one, a woman appears wrapped in mother-in-law's tongue.

Like many artists, Chris works commercially to cover his bills. He takes photos of artists' work for them to display in portfolios, and museums and galleries hire him to take photos of their displays. He also works weddings and architecture jobs, and he's traveled to Mexico and Australia to shoot educational videos about art making. All of this, he says, buys him time to do the art he wants to do.

But it's not the time or the travel or the subject matter that seems to put the pressure on Chris. Instead, growing up in a family that has built up high standards when it comes to crafting art is what challenges him.

"You get a sense of expertise and then if you can't measure up to that expertise it's easy for one to feel guilt or inability," he says. "I think that's true in photography because you have to be so well heeled in your use of tools."

On a warm afternoon, Chris clips a large photo of a farmhouse to a clothesline and lets his sprinkler wash over it to remove any chemicals and preserve the image. While in school for photography, Chris says he was struck with how difficult it was to actually go through the process of making a photo, that any small error along the way could ruin it. It was from his dad, however, that he found the drive to learn his craft inside and out.

"Looking back—now that my dad has died—I realized how much importance he put on knowing your tools," he says. "And I still do. I think it's true of any artist. You become familiar with chisels and wood and drawing lines, and, for me, the way light falls on everything."


In both Europe and the United States, there is a history of art dynasties. Hipólito Rafael Chacón, an art history professor at UM, says that in the Middle Ages and through the Renaissance, art was a family affair. Titian, for instance, lived and worked in Venice in the 16th century, and his three children followed in his footsteps. In the United States, the Peales, whose children were named after Renaissance artists like Raphaelle and Rembrandt, constituted one of the most significant artistic families.

"Closer to home, there are the Autios," says Chacón, "but they are not alone in this. Certainly other family that comes to mind are the DeWeeses in Bozeman and the Shaners, another family of art dynasties in the state. So we know what it's like to see this model play out here."

Chacón says that every year Lela—and Rudy before he died—brings boxes of art books and journals to the resource center at UM's art department. The department always goes through the items to take out extraneous material stuck in the pages, and every year Chacón finds evidence of the Autios' life.

"I have found a bunch of kids drawings and some of those were Chris and Lisa's and that generation," he says. "Now we find [Lela and Rudy's] grandkids' drawings in the more recent stuff. What I realized is that this is a very fertile, very fecund creative family life. They have a lively rapport with the visual arts, and that's a pretty wonderful and unusual thing."

Timothy Gordon, a local art appraiser and longtime friend of Lela and Rudy, says that art families hone their craft like any skill that's passed down from generation to generation.

"I think that because they're raised in this environment where art is what they live and breathe, they're light years ahead of the other artist who just decided to go to art school," says Gordon.

Gordon says Lisa and Chris also benefit from the family name when selling their work. Buyers know the Autios, and trust in the investment.

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"People can't buy a Rudy charger anymore," he says, "but then they look at Lisa's work, which is wonderfully colorful and bright and a little bit similar and, consequently, they'll purchase hers in the idea of it being a lineage."

But being part of an art family also comes with challenges. Any advantage gained through a famous name can appear unearned. The family name can also attract more criticism.

"It can open doors but it can also close doors," says Lisa. "There were lots of times I never got anywhere because of my name, and so I think there was an equal amount of disadvantage in some ways. You feel like you really have to be extra vigilant about not letting any crap out there. You have to raise the bar a little higher for yourself. Or at least you feel you do."

Chris also says that in the past it's been difficult for him to create art without feeling inadequate compared to his father's fame.

"It did at first seem like a dilemma," he says, "but my dad was such a lovely man that I don't see it as a dilemma anymore. It's not important to me to measure up to the man, anymore."

Artist dynasties of the past have wrestled with this issue, as well. Growing up in the shadow of a famous artist means the children's work is often overlooked. Chacón says that in the case of Titian, historians for centuries attributed work to him before realizing it was actually by his offspring.

"It's only been in the last century or so that we've been able to tease out the kids' work from the father's work," he says.

Still, Chacón says that growing up in an artistic family means being given the tools to create when the muse strikes. You have access to resources and you're instilled with an open attitude toward the creative process.

"That's the blessing of having parents like that—you get their wisdom and their encouragement," says Chacón. "The curse, of course, is that you get their name. I empathize with Chris and Lisa growing up in the shadow of these wonderfully famous parents. On the other hand, I don't think they would trade their parents for any others."


Lela Autio describes her daughter as "sisu," which is Finnish for strength of will or perseverance.

"Lisa's just got that old Finn way of sticking with it no matter how tough it is," she says. "Every night she comes home from work and she's tired and she has to paint. And that's a hard thing to do."

The Autios have just returned from Helena for Lisa's art opening at the Turman Larison gallery.

"It just looks like a real knock-out show," Lela says. "At these shows you sit up half the night and then you go around the next day and meet everybody and talk your head off and then you come home and you just sit down and sort of sag for about two days. But it's fun."

Lela has the confidence of a woman who has succeeded—in her art and in cultivating a full life. She laughs infectiously and talks openly about Rudy and other artists whom she finds interesting. When asked about her kids' work, she's not exactly the gushing mother who's blinded with bias. She's proud that Lisa's doing good work and is "getting better and better all the time." And she has her favorites when it comes to Chris' photographs.

"The one I truly love is just a wooden pier sticking out in the lake with a boat beside it," she says. "And he did one last year with a woman sitting at a table and she has a plate—maybe some kind of fruit—in front of her. Sometimes he takes old barns and old cars and stuff and those are nice, too, but I always like one that has a story to it."

When asked if she thinks it's hard for Lisa and Chris to make their own way as artists she smiles and says, "I say take the name and run with it. If you've got it, flaunt it. They say, 'I want to be my own person.' Well, I don't know if that's possible. In this state everybody knows Rudy's name and so there's no way you can get away from it."

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She pauses, then adds: "Well, maybe it's just natural for them to feel that way."

In Rudy's studio a few unfinished art pieces still remain. In the backyard, next to a large patch of wild daisies is another space filled with the last of Rudy's work. Lela's done selling them and, instead, each of these 20 or so works has been labeled with the names of their children who will inherit them.


"I had a breakthrough this year," Lisa says. "I decided I just had to work fast. If you're going to make a big mistake and you have to erase, you might as well erase a great big area and not be too timid."

The work both Lisa and Chris have produced over the past year goes on display in several upcoming shows. In late July the Autios, including Rudy, will each have two pieces in a family show at the Holter Museum in Helena. All three of them—Chris, Lisa and Lela—have pieces in the current Montana Triennial show at MAM, which was blind juried by a Seattle curator.

MAM's Steve Glueckert says that he's excited to have the younger Autios involved in the exhibit, and that it's been inspiring to watch their work evolve over the years.

"You know they're taking chances and they're challenging themselves," he says. "I think in some ways artists look at the world a little bit differently and that certainly has been passed on to them. I don't think necessarily I could say that this color of theirs comes from mom and this comes from their dad. I think a lot of people will do that, but what they're doing is different than their parents. I think that's what we want to celebrate."

If nothing else, that spirit of experimentation and curiosity, their ability to jump into art without fear, is one trait Chris and Lisa carry with them from their parents.

"I had no other knowledge of people who weren't in art," says Chris. "My house was filled with art, and it still is. My mom was a teacher of art, my dad taught art and there were artists all around."

Lisa says that she thinks about her dad's influence all the time when she's working. Mostly, she's reminded of how he always told her that when it comes to art, there are no rules.

"I guess it's like growing up in any house where you're exposed to people who are experts in their field," says Lisa. "You see how the creative process actually takes place. It's not this magical talent that comes off your fingertips. It's problem solving, like anything else. I remember maybe half of dad's pieces didn't turn out. They busted, they blew up, they cracked, but you just keep trying. It can be kind of discouraging. But if you have parents who show you the way it becomes not a scary thing."

The Montana Triennial exhibit, featuring the work of Lela, Lisa and Chris Autio, continues at the Missoula Art Museum through September 24. Free.

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